Wearing a custom made diamond-patterned three-piece suit, oversized black rimmed glasses and speaking in an authoritative British accent, 66-year-old David Rodigan MBE is, to say the least, an anomaly in the gritty, competitive world of reggae sound system clashes. The art of the sound clash, where sound system selectors (DJs) use reggae hits and/or altered versions of popular songs (called dub plates or specials) to defeat rival sounds, predates Jamaica’s recording industry — in fact, the need for exclusive music to ensure triumph was a catalyst in the industry’s development.
For the introductory round on the third annual sound clash aboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, which sailed from Florida to Jamaica on Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas in Nov. 2017, Rodigan didn’t reach into his collection of exclusive specials by Jamaican icons including Prince Buster, Tenor Saw or Super Cat; instead he chose The Anvil Chorus from Giuseppe Verde’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore. Portraying an orchestral conductor, Rodigan earned a rousing response from the audience of approximately 1,800. “I am older than anyone on this stage,” Rodigan told the crowd, referencing his rivals (Canada’s King Turbo, Jamaica’s Tony Matterhorn and reigning Jamrock Cruise Clash champs, Japan’s Mighty Crown). “But there’s a saying in Jamaica that the older the moon, the brighter it shines.” Rodigan then dropped a version Cocoa Tea’s “18 and Over,” with the singer’s warning to an underage girl to go home to her mother serving as a threat to the younger selectors; the rambunctious crowd roared their approval, many waving British flags amidst the blaring horns and whistles.
Rodigan followed that with a salute to Harry Belafonte — “the first recording artist to sell 1 million albums. The year was 1956, the album was Calypso and the song ‘Jamaica Farewell’ is appropriate because today the Jamrock cruise set sail from Jamaica.” The audience cheered, sang along and Rodigan reveled in the presentation, which ran almost two minutes — nearly four times as long as the typical dub plate or song snippet played in a clashing round.
Rodigan didn’t win the Jamrock sound clash; in fact, he was the first to be eliminated, but 40 years into his extraordinary career as a radio broadcaster (currently heard on BBC 1Xtra), club DJ, and sound clash luminary, victories aren’t as important as his longstanding contributions to the clashing art form. Rodigan’s comprehensive introductions to each record, unique selections, prerecorded comedic skits (including a fake news bulletin announcing the demise of his Jamrock rivals in the upcoming film Murder on the High Seas) and refusal to curse at or insult his clashing opponents (a courtesy that isn’t always reciprocated) has earned him a highly respected status in the reggae arena and the affectionate moniker Gentleman Rudeboy.
“When you sign up for a repertory company as a young actor there is a saying ‘play as cast’ and last night I was playing as cast, a character cameo, doing what I do, as I do it,” Rodigan — a trained actor who has appeared on numerous British TV shows — told Billboard the day following the Jamrock clash. “Clearly Mighty Crown (who secured their third consecutive Jamrock victory) played the starring role; they are an incredibly inventive four man team, they’ve got customized dubs I couldn’t possibly match and I admire them because they are quite unique in their interpretation of clash culture as non-Jamaicans.”
Likewise, David Rodigan has put his distinctive, indelible stamp on the reggae landscape, as he documents in his autobiography Rodigan: My Life In Reggae, co-written with British journalist Ian Burrell. Originally published in the UK (Constable) in March 2017, with a paperback edition due in early 2018, Rodigan’s book is a briskly paced recollection of his journey from aspiring actor to one of reggae’s most famous DJs. The recipient of countless awards throughout the decades, in 2012 Rodigan was bestowed by Prince Charles the prestigious Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), the UK’s fifth highest award, for services in broadcasting.
“David Rodigan is someone you hear about in Jamaica from the time you are a kid, he had the legendary clashes in the 1980s with (veteran broadcaster) Barry G (Barry Gordon, on Jamaica’s JBC radio) and he’s very knowledgeable about our music’s history, something that I always enjoy speaking to him about,” comments Damian “Junior Gong” Marley, who founded and produces the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise (named after his Grammy-winning Welcome to Jamrock album) with his manager Dan Dalton. Complementing the cruise’s five nights of reggae concerts by top tier acts, Damian introduced sound clashing to the schedule in 2015 and it’s evolved into arguably Jamrock’s most anticipated event. “David’s name carries weight in the sound system arena, he is entertaining and he brought a balance to Mighty Crown who are a fascinating story, coming from Japan, embracing reggae and speaking with Jamaican accents,” Damian continued. “David has a similar story, as a white gentleman from England engulfed in Jamaican culture.”
“People have heard about Rodigan or watched him on YouTube clips but not everybody onboard has seen him before so we were fortunate to have him with us this year,” adds Dan Dalton. “Forty-two countries converged on the cruise, all for their love of reggae and Rodigan is a great representative of the different cultures that have connective relationships to the music. He presents records in a way that I don’t see many selectors doing; he gives importance to the music.”
David “Ram Jam” Rodigan was born on June 24, 1951, on a military base in Hanover, Germany to Scotch-Irish parents and raised in the North African nation of Libya; when he was eight, the family relocated to Oxfordshire in southeast England. Rodigan’s fascination with Jamaican music began a few years later when he heard teenaged Jamaican singer Millie Small’s ska hit “My Boy Lollipop”, which went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, the first major hit for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records (via the Fontana imprint). He was given the nickname “Ram Jam” for his love of the rock steady instrumental by the late Jamaican keyboardist Jackie Mittoo.
As he pursued his acting career, Rodigan retained his passion for reggae, collecting records, working at reggae record shops and attending sound system dances. Rodigan’s obsession prompted his girlfriend to write a letter to the BBC on his behalf in 1978, which resulted in an audition for the job of presenter on BBC Radio London’s Sunday afternoon reggae program. He was eventually hired, first co-hosting with three others then alternating duties with Tony Williams. Rodigan moved to Capital Radio in September 1979, hosting the popular Saturday night Roots Rockers show for 11 years, which brought him even further accolades. In 1990 he moved to Kiss FM, a dance music station where he spent 22 years presenting various programs including Rodigan’s Reggae; he resigned in 2012 due to the increasing marginalization of his reggae program within the station’s schedule.
“Rodigan has been a part of my life since I was a teenager, I would tape all of his shows and then buy the records he played,” reminisces Layde English, a New York based syndicated broadcaster and booking agent for veteran Jamaican singer Johnny Osbourne, born in London to Jamaican parents. “Rodigan’s appeal was that he did his research and you could feel his genuine love for the music. UK sound systems came before him but they played reggae underground, Rodigan’s platforms took the music over ground and without him reggae never would have become so popular in England among so many different ethnicities.”
Despite his immense popularity and his uncompromising efforts in promoting Jamaican music, Rodigan has had his detractors. He writes about “being the subject of spite in pamphlets and online radio broadcasts,” including a flyer from The Black Music Protection Squad which depicted Rodigan with a noose around his neck accompanied by the words “wanted for the rape of Black music.” Death threats followed and the police were called; Rodigan’s Black listenership was outraged. Further contentions have arisen with the success of his My Life In Reggae book. Jamaica born, England based veteran Lloydie Coxsone, founder of Sir Coxsone Outernational Sound System, posted a tirade on YouTube calling Rodigan “David Rob ‘n Gone” and an “exploiter of the music.” “When me see dem big up white boy like David Rodigan over Jamaicans who go through a whole heap of hardships to buss Jamaican music in this country, these things are very hurtful,” Coxsone said.
The furor stemmed from a promotional interview on a national news show in England, where the presenter referred to Rodigan as the godfather of reggae, a title Rodigan did not refute. “I was embarrassed but it was live TV, what was I going to do, stop the presenter and ask her to say it again?” Rodigan told Billboard. Rodigan, who has done numerous radio specials lauding Coxsone and other UK sound system pioneers, initially remained silent, then responded to Coxsone’s video with a few sentences on social media; otherwise, he has never commented on the episode until this interview, which, he avows, will be the last time. “I was horrified, deeply upset, offended, it’s racist, vitriolic, bitter, and resentful; I couldn’t believe what I heard; it was like a horror movie. I wondered why is he saying these lies? I decided not to respond for some considerable time because what do you say to something like that, if people don’t know after 40 years what I have done? Then it became apparent that I needed to make a statement so I asked him to prove the lies he had told. I am still waiting for the proof of his unfounded accusations.”
Garfield “Chin” Bourne, one half of Irish and Chin, promoters of sound system events since 1997 including The World Clash (won by Rodigan in 2012) and managers of Mighty Crown, has worked extensively with Rodigan; at Rodigan’s request, he moderated Rodigan’s Q&A/book signing session on the Jamrock cruise. “No one had a right to attack David the way Coxsone did but he felt David should have said ‘I am not the godfather, others came way before me.’ Should David have done that? However you view that situation, it doesn’t take away from David’s contributions. I am not saying being white hasn’t helped David but as easily as you recognize he’s a white man, it’s just as easy to recognize that he’s extremely talented and is always well prepared,” says Chin, who was born in the U.S. to Jamaican parents. “David has done something no one has, even the legendary Jamaican radio presenter Barry Gordon can’t do what David does in the dancehall space and Mighty Crown, Stone Love and other big names in dancehall can’t do what David does on radio.”
David Rodigan will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a broadcaster in 2018 with a special event: Rodigan meets the Outlook Orchestra to be held on March 2, Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre. The event sold out in less than two hours, the demand for tickets crashing the venue’s website. The 25-piece Outlook Orchestra, led by Tommy Evans, will perform symphonic arrangements of Jamaican standards featuring several unannounced guest artists. Rodigan will introduce songs and tell stories related to the music, something he has excelled at for 40 years — in sound clashes, on the radio and now in the pages of his autobiography. “Tommy Evans is doing the arrangements for ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall classics, and drum and bass, so the program will sweep the last 50 years,” Rodigan shares. “The Royal Festival Hall wants to do a second night but my feeling is we sold out one night let’s just leave it at that. I am over the moon about it; I may have to wear that (black and white) suit again.”