Marley and me: The roots of David Rodigan

Britain’s ‘voice of reggae’ is as passionate, and relevant, as ever

Appearances have rarely been more deceiving than in the case of David Rodigan. The veteran DJ is known as the UK’s leading authority on reggae music, and has been spicing up British radio with Caribbean flavours for more than 35 years. And yet, a funky hat and Lee Scratch Perry T-shirt aside, this equable, bespectacled Englishman looks more like a provincial geography teacher than a man capable of rocking crowds from London to Jamaica with a fistful of dubplates.

But then Rodigan has a way of flying in the face of expectation: now 62, in an industry where youth is king, he is enjoying an unlikely career peak. In the past two years, he has made his debut at Glastonbury; won the World Clash Reset in New York – a DJ sound clash akin to a reggae World Cup; received an MBE for services to broadcasting; and launched a hugely successful touring club night, Ram Jam. “I can’t believe it’s all happening,” he says incredulously. 

Meanwhile, his currency as a radio DJ is as high as ever: in 2012, he resigned from Kiss FM after 22 years, in protest at being consigned to a midnight slot in the schedules, only to find himself snapped up for a primetime, Sunday evening show on the BBC’s youth-oriented, urban music station 1Xtra.

What’s his secret? “I suppose it’s my passion for music and sharing it with like-minded souls,” he offers. But it’s not just what he does, it’s the way that he does it. Just search for “David Rodigan sound clash” on YouTube. There are dozens of clips of him onstage at these reggae sound-system contests. Sometimes the only white man to be seen, he bounces around, puffing his chest, grinding his hips like Mr Boombastic and singing along, then ordering his DJ to rewind records. (He used to play the records himself, but now he confines himself to the role of “hype” man to concentrate on showmanship). On paper this might make him sound like a drunk uncle at a wedding – but such is Rodigan’s affinity with Caribbean culture, it’s actually a joy to watch. 

Rodigan first fell in love with Caribbean music as a 13-year-old boy living in Oxford, when he watched Jamaican schoolgirl Millie Small sing “My Boy Lollipop” on Top of the Pops. Soon after, he got a Saturday job and put his wages into building up a collection of vinyl imports. Despite DJ-ing from an early age at school dances, however, acting was his first career choice and, after a stint at drama school, he spent his early twenties trying to make it on stage and screen: his most notable role, he recalls, was in Doctor Who playing a sort of futuristic caveman for which he had a “special set of teeth made in Harley Street”.    

He made the move to broadcasting in 1978 when an actor friend persuaded him to audition for Radio London, who were looking for a new presenter for their Sunday afternoon show, Reggae Time. That he is neither black nor West Indian has long ceased to be an issue in reggae circles – but it was an issue at that audition, he says. “The [white] producer of the show said to me, ‘Mr Rodigan, I’m afraid you’re the wrong colour.’ I said, ‘That’s fair enough’.” But a month later he got the job anyway – after the producer played several of the audition tapes to West Indian record producers, “and they said, ‘You should use this Rodigan bloke, whoever he is’.”

Why did they pick him? “I think they could hear I had the passion for this music. But I never attempted to be Jamaican. Some people go the whole nine yards with their dress and speech and everything, but I’m just a passionate collector.” Has he ever had to struggle for acceptance? “Once I was on the radio it gave me an advantage. My show was the biggest in the West Indian community.” Many listeners assumed he was black. At his first DJ gig in west London he took to the stage to “deafening silence” – when he began to speak, he noticed people closing their eyes to concentrate on the sound of his voice, and eventually a wave of recognition swept around the room.

Rodigan moved to Capital Radio in 1980, where he was able to bring reggae to a large mainstream audience; and, in doing so, won the respect of the genre’s biggest names. Bob Marley agreed to be a guest on his show, after they met outside a pub on the King’s Road; Marley had been “on the end of a big spliff” that generated so much smoke Rodigan thought a shop had caught fire. From those early days, he also recalls the eccentric Lee “Scratch” Perry popping around to his flat in Barnes, and doodling all over his own album cover in biro, and fellow dub-reggae pioneer King Tubby cutting him his first ever dubplate – an exclusive reworking of a famous reggae song that serves as ammunition in a DJ sound clash. “He was a great friend,” says Rodigan, adding, to conversation-stopping effect, “until he was murdered”. (He was shot outside his Kingston home in 1989, and the case has never been solved.) 

What makes Rodigan still relevant in 2014 is his undiminished appetite for unearthing new sounds and talent – both on the radio and on his new mix-compilation for the Ministry of Sound’s Masterpiece series; a three CD boxset of the music that has inspired him over the decades, the third CD is sprinkled with cutting-edge reggae. He raves about the new reggae revival in Jamaica, led by young singers like Chronixx and Jah 9 and bands like Raging Fyah. He also has high hopes for emerging British talent such as Cate Ferris and Liam Bailey. 

Rodigan seems immune to cynicism – and he believes the future is bright. “My wife is a black Jamaican; when we first started dating 35 years ago mixed couples were not a common sight,” he says. “That is no longer the case and that speaks volumes. You can hear the change in music too: everything used to be very separated – now it’s not unusual to hear a drum and bass record followed by a dubstep record, a rocksteady record and then a Bob Marley record. We’re seeing more fusion than ever before.”

Even when addressing the subject of profound social change, Rodigan ends up talking about music. He can’t stop himself. Nor would we want him to.

‘Masterpiece: Created by David Rodigan’ is out now on Ministry of Sound

Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

books
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Bell in the new BBC series Posh People: Inside Tatler

Review: Posh journalists just can't get enough of each other

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital