David "RamJam" Rodigan: The King of Reggae

He might be 62, but nobody speaks to the Dubstep generation like Britain's long-serving King of Reggae, Mr David "RamJam" Rodigan

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Nothing encapsulates the glorious temporary madness that music can summon up more than one particular YouTube clip dating from 1998. At a soundclash in Birmingham, we see a baldheaded, middle-aged white man play a hardcore reggae record to a hardcore reggae audience and – there is no other way of putting this – lose his shit in the most spectacular fashion.

He bounces, he bawls, his eyes pop out, he adopts the poses of lion, warrior and angry robot. It's "Sir" David "RamJam" Rodigan MBE, Britain's guardian of reggae music these past 30 years, and tonight the music is in control.

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The clip has been shared hundreds of thousands of times and every time you see it you find yourself thinking, "I hope I'm like that when I'm his age. Hell, I wish I was like that now." Some years ago, a man stopped Rodigan in Berwick Street market and told him that his employers used the video to motivate their sales team.

When it surfaced in the late Noughties, this minute and a half of YouTube reinvented Rodigan's career, making the renowned radio and soundclash DJ a hero to the youth of the dubstep and drum'n'bass generations. Their artists now sample his inimitable voice which gives the honeyed tones of early Seventies radio a Jamaican inflection. "Music should make you feel that way," says Rodigan, now 62.

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"I often get tweets from young people saying 'I wish you were my dad.' Some say I wish you were my grandad…"

Now settled in at 1Xtra after lengthy sojourns on Capital Radio and Kiss FM, Rodigan is one of the few broadcasters genuinely deserving of the overused term "national treasure".

This month he marks his decades in the business with a triple CD compilation, Masterpiece, which brings to life his contention that reggae is not just a special-interest genre but fundamental to British music from mod to punk to rave. Masterpiece starts off with The Kinks and The Yardbirds and moves through Desmond Dekker and Freddie McGregor to Amy Winehouse and beyond.

"It's not just my obsession with ska and reggae, it's about songs that touched my life," he explains. "Amy's on there because I can't stand that elitist notion of what is and isn't authentic reggae music. I'm interested in the overall picture, not the purist idea."

Rodigan has been hooked since he heard Millie Small doing "My Boy Lollipop" on Jukebox Jury in 1964. The son of a soldier, born in a British Military hospital in Hanover, Germany, he grew up in the bucolic environs of Kidlington, Oxfordshire.

As a young mod he was drawn to party and dance with the Jamaican community in Cowley and Blackford Leys, and to the unlikely reggae outlet of Russell Acott Records in Oxford: "Tea break, lunch break, afternoon break, I'd go there and listen to the new 7-inches," he says. At house parties and school Arts Club raves he would play "Dancing Mood" by Delroy Wilson or Roland Alphonso's "Phoenix City" but the larger-than-life Rodigan persona was still years away.

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"I was reserved and very shy," he admits. "I just used to put the records on and hope for the best."

He first encountered sound systems in London in the early Seventies – Sir Coxsone Sound, Jah Shaka Sound, Fatman Hi-Fi, the big beasts of the bass underground who built their own mammoth speakers and carried them to events on trucks. "I used to attend and watch in awe as these selectors pulled dub plates and vinyl from their trunks," he recalls. "To hear this music at a volume I'd never imagined before, it was just a joy. It's the only way to hear it outside of your own front room."

When Rodigan came to play at sound systems himself, it was almost by accident. Though he'd originally trained as an actor, in 1978 he'd managed to get a job presenting BBC London's lunchtime reggae show, whereupon promoters started to book him. Nobody expected a white guy to turn up; Rodigan's first London show at the Apollo in Willesden in 1979 was "absolutely nerve-wracking… I must have been the only white guy in there.

When I walked on stage I was met with a deafening silence." He quickly played a jingle from the radio show to confirm his identity, the crowd shut their eyes and were soon won over.

Residences in London's reggae hot zones followed, culminating in 20 years at Gossips on Dean Street. "It was amazing. Without wanting to namedrop, one night we had David Bowie and Mick Jagger on the dance floor with their respective partners. Prince Buster came through. It doesn't get much better. But we stopped when kids started saying, 'Hey, my mum and dad met at this club'…"

In a curious reversal, after the dubstep crowd discovered Rodigan he was booked to play London's dauntingly cool palace of bass music, Fabric. "Not since my first sound system days have I been so anxious about a gig," he recalls.

"I looked into this sea of young people, nobody over 22, almost everyone white. My God, what have I done?" Nervously, he cued up a dubplate. "And the place exploded. I'll never forget it. It made me realise that there is an audience that does want to hear reggae and the stories behind it. I played "007 (A Shanty Town)" and "Israelites" and they knew every single word."

Acts like Major Lazer have brought dancehall to the hipster crowd lately – but surely only the most militant lover of reggae could deny that Jamaican reggae went badly off course in the past couple of decades? All those terrible hip hop knock-offs and monotonous bangers?

"I'm delighted to announce that the times are changing," Rodigan counters. "Right now there's an outcry in Jamaica to get back to what made the music great in the first place, which was musicianship and performance.

Those old Studio One or Channel One records were so good because you had tough producers like Coxsone Dodd telling a singer 'If you don't get it right on this next take, this song will become an instrumental'. You had to work your heart out for hard-edged producers. It was pure Simon Cowell – get it right or get out of the studio."

Rodigan's given his life over to reggae and it's been good to him in return. Has he ever stopped to ask himself why this music appealed to a white guy from middle England? "It's a good question," he says. "Essentially it's about the crazy backbeat that's the wrong way round, that's so exciting and energising. It should be wrong – but it's so right."

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it's published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.

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