David Rodigan: My dear boy, I'm a reggae legend

This fiftysomething Englishman in a blazer and slacks is celebrating 25 years as one of Britain's top DJs. Radio 2? Hardly. David 'Ramjam' Rodigan is Kiss FM's reggae soundmaster and a hero to Jamaican music lovers
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The Independent Culture

For a quarter of a century, he has been top dog in the ganja-scented, bass-heavy atmosphere of Britain's reggae dance-halls, where mighty sound-systems battle until dawn to bring the crowd to a frenzy. But David "Ramjam" Rodigan is the most unlikely king of the sound clash. A trained actor who spent years treading the boards in repertory theatre, he grew up in a military family in rural Oxfordshire, wears a blazer and loafers, and partakes in nothing more intoxicating than "a couple of glasses of red wine with my dinner".

Hardcore reggae fanatics who flock to see him perform in venues from Jamaica to Japan, are often stunned to find that the infamous "sound killer" is a white, middle-aged, middle-class and, as he puts it, "follicularly challenged" Englishman. "I look like an accountant or a dentist," admits the 52-year-old, who this year celebrates his 25th anniversary as a reggae broadcaster.

One Caribbean dance-hall crowd was so wary of a man in blazer and slacks that it assumed he was the new chief of police. Until Rodigan leapt to the record-decks, whipped off his jacket and unleashed a tune by the militant Rastafarian artist Capleton. "It ripped the place apart," he says.

The key to Rodigan's success has been an unsinkable passion for reggae music, which first took a hold on him as a schoolboy when he saw the child sensation Millie singing her British hit "My Boy Lollipop" on the Sixties music TV show Ready Steady Go. From that song developed an obsession with the music of Jamaica that generated an encyclopaedic knowledge of the island's every artist, every song and every rhythm track.

On the top floor of his tastefully furnished suburban London home, Rodigan has created a den that would be the envy of any teenage boy. Thousands of records, arranged in alphabetical order, line the walls. There are computer games and a pool-table. It is from here that he plans his musical attacks on the leading sound-system operators around the world. A row of large trophies is testimony to the effectiveness of his tactics.

But this sound-clash strategy is not based on musical knowledge alone. Rodigan, my dear boy, is a trained actor. He deploys his thespian skills to perform to the crowd, and is not averse to visiting a theatrical outfitters to dress up for a big show. During a victorious clash in America with the mightiest of Jamaican sound-systems, Kilimanjaro, he arrived wearing a turban. He then played the crowd a specially made dub plate, with a pukka-sounding British newsreader warning that Rodigan was on his way to "assassinate" Kilimanjaro, "disguised as a Sikh taxi-driver", a common sight in New York. The crowd went crazy.

For the uninitiated, the sound clash is the musical equivalent of gladiatorial combat. In the biggest contests, the champion players will fly in from around the world to compete. Rodigan, or the great London sound systems of Saxon Studio or Coxsone, will invariably represent the UK. As well as the great Jamaican sounds (such as Kilimanjaro, Bass Odyssey, Black Kat) will come the favourites from America, Canada, and smaller Caribbean islands such as Antigua and Bermuda. The new kids on the block are the Japanese, most notably the Mighty Crown sound system, made up of young men from Yokohama who learned to speak Caribbean patois by living among the Jamaican community in Brooklyn, and have since built a record collection that is almost unrivalled.

The systems compete for the approval of the crowd (indicated by hand signals, flashing cigarette-lighters, or even gunshots) in contests that usually go on until dawn. Sounds are gradually eliminated during a succession of rounds in which they play first for 30 minutes and then for 15. The last two remaining systems then alternately play one record at a time ("tune for tune"), to determine a winner. The secret is to play the most innovative or hard-to-get dubplates (a one-off recording mentioning the name of the sound system in the lyric). Rodigan is one of the few players who have been around long enough to own dubplates by great artists who are no longer alive, such as Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty and Garnet Silk.

But not everyone has been comfortable with a white Englishman championing a musical genre often described as the heartbeat of Jamaica. A sound based on the drums of Africa and lyrically entwined with the experiences of the descendants of those forcibly brought across the Atlantic as bonded labour for British planters.

At the sound clash with Kilimanjaro, the Jamaican sound's DJ, Ricky Trooper (whom Rodigan rates as his toughest opponent) sensed that he was losing and implored the crowd to support a black man. "The crowd turned on him. They actually booed him for it," recalls the Englishman, gratefully. Trooper later apologised for the racial comments but the issue of skin colour is one that Rodigan has inevitably had to confront. When he first performed in public in London after becoming a reggae radio star, his audience could not believe he was white. "I walked on stage and there was this deafening silence," he remembers. "I started speaking but I could see a lot of people holding their hands over their eyes." He says that he was so nervous that he "could hardly cue up the record", but the crowd responded to his playing and made it "a fabulous night".

Rodigan was born in the British Military Hospital in Hanover. His father was a Scot who fought in the Second World War for the fledgling SAS regiment, and his mother was Irish. After a short move to North Africa, of which he has distant memories of jasmine and zouks, Rodigan moved, aged eight, to the Oxfordshire village of Kidlington. "There were river banks and fields to run in. The summer holidays were endless. I loved the countryside," he says.

He was 11 when he bought his first record, "Dance On!" by The Shadows. As we speak, Rodigan hunts down the 1962 seven-inch single on his shelves, puts it on the turntable and salutes it with his arm aloft. "That gets an instant rewind," he declares, as if he were in the midst of a sound clash.

After he saw Millie on television, reggae became his thing. At 15, he was catching the bus to Oxford to see Jimmy Cliff at a teenage club with the unlikely name of Brett's School of Dancing. "Everyone went there," he remembers. "You drank a Coca- Cola, and if you missed your last bus home you were in trouble."

Rodigan had no inclination to become a DJ in an era when dancing had yet to become a solo exercise. "In those days, the DJ was just the guy who played the records. He was on the outside, looking in." His earliest experiences of playing records for others were at lunch breaks in the gym at Gosford Hill School in Kidlington. "It cost sixpence, and you had to take your shoes off," he says. "The whole gymnasium would be packed and half the school would be in there dancing."

But the stage beckoned. He landed a place at the Rose Bruford drama school in Kent, where the highlight was his one-man dramatisation of Yevtushenko's Zima Junction at the Little Theatre in the West End. Then in 1973, Bob Marley and The Wailers came to town. Having watched his heroes give a powerful performance at The Greyhound pub in Fulham, Rodigan was walking home when he passed a smoke-filled doorway. "I thought the shop was on fire, but when it cleared, there was Bob Marley. Standing on the end of a big spliff and leaning on his guitar," he remembers. Urged forward by his girlfriend, Rodigan "gushed" his approval. Marley listened and shook his hand before getting into a car that had arrived at the kerb. "As the car pulled off, he turned and waved to me through the back window," says Rodigan. "I didn't walk home. I flew home."

It would be seven years before they met again. Then, after a conversation at Island Records, Marley agreed to come on Rodigan's radio show, and played, for the first time on the air, "Could You Be Loved".

Rodigan began his reggae broadcasting career in 1978 on Radio London. He had earlier enjoyed a stint with the Sheffield-based repertory company Theatre North, including a production of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II. It was while playing Mortimer in this play that he learned from the esteemed Shakespearean actor Douglas Campbell "how to play to the gods", a technique that has helped him in many a sound clash. He also appeared on television, most notably in Shackleton, a BBC drama about the Antarctic explorer. But Rodigan's most high-profile acting roles were probably his appearance opposite a toucan in a television commercial for Guinness, and being bumped off as a baddie in Dr Who.

He moved to Capital Radio, where his shows were so popular that reggae promoters were afraid to put on events at the same time. His credibility was ensured during a trip to Jamaica, when he went on the island's national radio station and clashed with the champion DJ, Barry "G" Gordon, aka The Boogie Man, record for record, for six hours. "The next day, driving through the villages of Jamaica to the coast, all I could hear were the tapes that people were playing of the show on the radio the night before," he says. "It was like being in an echo chamber!"

Rodigan's fame spread. In another clash with The Boogie Man, the Englishman was amazed to discover that Augustus Pablo, one of the originators of dub music, had travelled for hours from his home in Kingston to give a live performance as Rodigan's secret weapon.

For the past 13 years, Rodigan has worked on Kiss FM, the former pirate station that now broadcasts nationally on digital radio. He says that he plans to stay there. But as traditional reggae starts to show a few grey hairs to match those of its fortysomething followers, the genre is ready to take its place on the easy-listening stations alongside other former ghetto sounds such as jazz and blues. A slot on BBC Radio 2 may yet be Rodigan's.

Married to a Jamaican-born wife Elaine, with whom he has two sons, he continues to play every week in Brixton with his sidekick, Donald "Papa Face" Facey.

Rodigan's enduring appeal is that he only uses his acting background to entertain, and never to try to be someone he's not. "I don't wear the clothing of the Rastaman. I understand the culture totally - I've grown with it for 30-odd years," he says. "But I talk the way I talk, and I dress the way I dress. I'm a diehard reggae fan, and that's it."

'Kiss Presents Rodigan's 25th Anniversary' is out now on EMMR Records, £15.99

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