People in the know will go to extraordinary lengths to hear David Rodigan play music. People such as the American rap star Wyclef Jean, who ordered his entourage aboard their 4x4s and drove through the night from New York to Connecticut, where the London-based Kiss radio broadcaster was performing live.
To those not in the know, such behaviour would be inexplicable. For, in many respects, Rodigan is an unlikely international DJ hero. He enjoys reading The Spectator and acknowledges he has the appearance of an "accountant or a dentist", though his background is in repertory theatre. But put him behind a music system, with his collection of treasured and often exclusive reggae recordings to hand, and there is no one who can entertain quite like him.
That talent will be recognised this evening at London's Grosvenor House hotel, where Rodigan is shortlisted for the best Specialist Music Programme in the Sony Radio Academy Awards, the industry Oscars.
Wyclef would approve. That night in Connecticut, the former star of The Fugees had driven to see Rodigan compete in a "sound clash" with Mighty Crown, then considered the most powerful reggae sound system in the world. Rodigan looked down from the stage to see the rapper in a fake fur coat, alongside his bodyguard "Beast". The Kiss presenter was then handed a specially recorded "dubplate" (an exclusive, one-off record) of "Maria, Maria", the American No 1 hit by Santana (featuring The Product G&B), which Wyclef had produced. The dubplate had been customised to humiliate Rodigan's opponent, Mighty Crown, from Japan.
"Wyclef had driven from Brooklyn in an entourage to deliver this dub plate to me in person," says Rodigan over dinner in London's Notting Hill. "He said 'Go on, do it' so I played the dub and it was one of the biggest crowd reactions I've ever had. That was the death of Mighty Crown."
This sort of respect for Rodigan is not new. When he was establishing his hard-won reputation as a reggae broadcaster in the music's heartland Jamaica, 25 years ago, the notoriously reclusive artist Augustus Pablo trekked across the island to perform his melodica on Rodigan's behalf in a huge and daunting sound clash between the white Englishman and Barry G, then the star presenter of Jamaica radio, before thousands on a beach at Montego Bay.
The day after we meet, Rodigan, 57, is due to fly to perform in Lyon and then in Milan, reflecting the cult status he enjoys across Europe. For all that, the broadcaster, who previously worked for Radio London and Capital radio, sits at the margin of the Kiss schedule. Not that he seems upset by that, perhaps aware that scheduling is less significant to specialist broadcasters thanks to online listen-again options. "I still do take it as a great privilege to be able to broadcast the music I love," he says. "It has been a passion since my teenage years and I hope other people enjoy the songs as much as I do."
He says he is grateful to have a specialist music show in a world where stations brand themselves with carefully chosen playlists. And despite his pedigree, he is careful not to lord it over listeners. "At no time should you be talking down to your audience, this kind of DJ thing of 'I've got this but you haven't.' I can't stand that. There's nothing more infuriating as a listener than feeling that you're being alienated. You've been invited into someone's front room, bedroom or car and you must behave accordingly," he says, demonstrating the good grace you might expect of someone who was once a Shakespearean actor.
Rodigan does not live in the past. He admires and features new Jamaican singers such as Etana and Cherine Anderson as well as multi-instrumentalist artists such as the Jamaican-based dreadlocked Sicilian, Alborosie, the white Bermudan Collie Budz, the Texan band Roots Revealers and the half-Japanese, half-French, Stockholm-raised singer Million Stylez, all of whom, like Rodigan himself, reflect reggae's international appeal.
Three years ago, Rodigan was inducted into the Radio Academy's Hall of Fame, leaving him "speechless" at being grouped with broadcasting heroes such as Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and his mentor at Capital, Roger Scott. When he's on air he sometimes thinks of another hero, Mike Raven, who presented an R&B show on Radio 1, when it started up at the end of the Sixties. "For me in a little village in Oxfordshire, glued to my transistor radio in my bedroom, that was an appointment to listen," recalls Rodigan, enthused as he mimics Raven's clipped style. "I can still remember his voice: 'And that's a very interesting new release on a West Indian label called the Gas label, a track called The Horse by Eric Barnett.' It was a brilliant record, an organ instrumental. I've never heard of Eric Barnett before or since but did I enjoy finding that record down the High Street in Oxford." He still has that vinyl record – "Of course!"
Some time ago, Rodigan wrote to The Spectator to complain that the periodical's distinctive front-page illustrations had been dropped. He received a personal letter back from the editor Matthew d'Ancona, assuring him that the tradition was being restored and thanking him for the musical education he had provided during his time at Capital. People in the know.
Last month Rodigan was in trendy Shoreditch, east London, entertaining a packed young crowd at a night dedicated to Dubstep, a growing London music subgenre. He sent the audience into raptures playing one of his most prized possessions. "I brought my first ever King Tubby dubplate to the show and held it up and said this is only the third time this has ever left my house. It's signed by Tubby, on the original Tubby's label, cut in January 1979 in Tubby's own studio in Dromilly Avenue, Kingston 11," says Rodigan, proudly giving the back story in his inimitable way. "The place went ballistic – apparently it's on YouTube and everything."Reuse content