In an excerpt from his new memoir, UK reggae icon David Rodigan shares the story of his first trip to Jamaica
I have a clear memory of the first time I saw the name King Tubby. It was 1974. I had been down to Lee’s Sound City record shop and bought a song by Larry Marshall called “I Admire You,” which is on a label called Black and White. I turned it over, played the other side and couldn’t believe what I heard. It was a track called “Watergate Rock” and on the label it said ‘King Tubby.’ It was actually the same song as “I Admire You” – an instrumental dub version of it – but with such sound effects that you could hardly recognize it. I ended up playing “Watergate Rock” more than “I Admire You,” even though I love the original song too. That was an Osbourne Ruddock creation and that was what he did – dub.
We drove out in the late afternoon and it quickly became dark. The sun in Jamaica goes down just like that – whoosh! Tubby’s house was a bungalow with a side gate. As you went through into the backyard there was a wooden shed, like a summerhouse, where a number of musicians were gathered.
We were ushered into the studio, past a lathe where someone was working, and through a creaking door. I had arrived in the inner sanctum. There was a voice-recording booth the size of a broom cupboard filled with egg boxes and foam, and that’s where the artists would go to sing.
We were welcomed by King Tubby’s recording engineer, Lloyd ‘Prince Jammy’ James. Prince Jammy was just starting to venture into record production – a year later, at Mo Claridge’s home in London, I would meet up with him and his good friend Ken ‘Fatman’ Gordon, one of the leading figures in the UK sound system world.
As Jammy greeted me in Kingston, he took me into the studio. There was a man standing there, quietly staring. Jammy said, “Tubby, I’d like you to meet David Rodigan. He is a radio DJ from London and he’s supporting our music.”
Tubby gave me a long look. He extended his hand. I asked if I could record an interview with him and he said, “Not now.”
He was very quiet and reserved. The studio was immaculate, the floor shone and there was no smoking allowed whatsoever. Everything was of its place and to its place.
My reason for going to Tubby’s was that I wanted to cut some exclusive recordings, or “dub plates.” So there we were – Tubby, Jammy and me – and Tubby said, “What do you want to cut?” There was a sign on the wall saying how much each plate cost and I asked to hear some music.
He played a song and I listened and then he looked at me for my decision and I said, “It’s OK, I don’t want to cut that.” Then he played another and again I said, “No.” He played a third song and I rejected that too.
I was feeling embarrassed because they were playing me these tracks and I didn’t want to cut them. But it was my money and I wasn’t going to waste it. I was on a budget and carefully counting dollars.
The idea of cutting a dub plate was that you would have something that was unique and that no one else would be able to play. In the formal world of sound recording a dub is a copy, a reference disc. It’s made from acetate – soft wax – and can be cut and then immediately played on a gramophone player. The Jamaican sound systems were the first to realize that this was an opportunity to obtain an advance copy of a record that wasn’t yet in the shops. They could bypass the usual distribution process and be the first to play the tune. A dub plate could be mixed there and then for you in the studio from a four-track recording. You would have both a vocal mix and a dub instrumental mix.
It seems extraordinary to me now but my first day in Jamaica had begun with some bun and cheese and ended up with me clutching these dub plates cut for me by King Tubby himself.
Artists and producers encouraged this process because they saw it as a way to promote a record in advance. Tubby didn’t have his own label at that time but big producers like Bunny Lee and Vivian ‘Yabby You’ Jackson would come to him with tracks they’d made. They would leave the tapes there and encourage Tubby to cut dubs from them for the sound system men.
This was how “dub music” developed, because the buyers were so desperate to have stuff that was unique that engineers in the studios were encouraged to come up with ways of making completely different dub instrumental mixes of these songs – and Tubby became the master of the craft.
After I refused the third song Tubby offered, he smiled slightly at Jammy and took some keys from his pocket. He passed them to a youth and told him to open a special cupboard, which contained a fat reel of four-track tape. They strung it up into the tape machine and pressed play. I heard the now unmistakable opening bars to a reggae classic and the opening lyrics: “I&I go mash down Rome in pieces…”
I looked at Tubby and said,‘I want that cut now.’
I asked, “Who’s this?” and they said, “It’s a young singer called Michael Prophet and he’s been discovered by Yabby You.” I didn’t know the track, “Love and Unity,” and had never heard of the artist. But I cut two songs by him with the dub instrumentals and I got these two precious discs from King Tubby. He put them in printed Tubby’s record sleeves with the logo “King Tubby’s the dub inventor” and the artwork of an eight-pointed star in gold and black. I walked out of his studio as happy as a little boy on Christmas morning.
I had been taking a risk by saying no to the earlier tracks and possibly wounding the great man’s pride. Subsequently I have wondered whether he was testing me out and I like to think I passed an audition and he and Jammy played these other songs to see if I knew what I was doing.
Tubby’s studio was a magnet for artists. We later returned during the daytime and Dave Hendley instantly spotted the great singer Sugar Minott, who was wearing a red weatherman hat, which was then the last word in stylish headwear among Jamaican musicians. It was so cool that the artist Trinity even toasted its attributes in the song “Weatherman Cap,” devoted to the “weatherman cap with the buckle ah di back and di zip upon di top.” Little John, a young boy who would go on to become a leading artist, was also in Tubby’s yard.
It seems extraordinary to me now but my first day in Jamaica had begun with some bun and cheese and ended up with me clutching these dub plates cut for me by King Tubby himself. In between I met the Hookim brothers, Earl Zero and Prince Jammy to name just a few. We headed back to the Green Gables Hotel, which was a home from home for the rest of the trip. It was run by an elderly Jamaican lady who had lived in Putney in London, where I had run my record stall. She spoke with an English accent. It was a quaint place and at night the bar became like a pub where members of the Jamaican Defence Force would come and drink and talk in their uptown Jamaican drawl – a rather rich accent. They were captains and senior ranks, and being surrounded by so many military types was a bit like being back in the sergeant’s mess in Germany with my dad.
The next morning I accepted the offer of a cup of tea from the lady hotel owner. The concoction she brought was so sweet I could barely drink it. I asked her what she had put in it and she went into the kitchen and brought back a tin of Carnation evaporated milk. “If you wanted cow’s milk you should have asked for it,” she told me. That was another Jamaican lesson.
Outside on the streets I did feel vulnerable. An advantage was that we were befriended by the great music producer Bunny Lee, who I remember rolling into the Green Gables one morning after breakfast. Bunny – recognized everywhere by his sailor’s cap – has been responsible for some of the greatest Jamaican recordings ever made. With him around we were safe. But he wasn’t the only music person to seek us out. It soon got out that there was an English record company executive in town – Mo Claridge – and artists started showing up outside the Green Gables with product they wanted him to release. What’s more, Dave Hendley was then the consultant A&R for Trojan Records and he was responsible for signing artists as well.
I even had offers myself. One day I headed down to Skateland at Halfway Tree, the famous reggae venue where so many shows I’d heard about back in London had taken place. I took photographs with Glen Brown, a musician and brilliant eccentric producer, standing outside Skateland next to a sign saying “No Ganja Smoking.” At the Kingston waterfront the singer Freddie McKay gave me a cassette and said,“Why don’t you release my album?” I had become swept up in the whole business and I remember going back to England thinking I would love to release this amazing record. I decided not to because I thought it was important to maintain a neutral position as a broadcaster, with no allegiances to particular artists.
I had no interest in doing the usual things tourists do in Jamaica. Instead I went down to Treasure Isle studios, where Duke Reid built his recording empire, and met Marcia Griffiths – one of the great Jamaican voices and a member of the I-Threes, the famous harmony singers for Bob Marley and The Wailers.
I went there with Errol Thompson, who was a Jamaican radio DJ and Marcia’s partner, and as I climbed the rickety staircase at Treasure Isle, there she was, wearing a long blue dress. I had my picture taken with her on the roof of the studios overlooking the city of Kingston. All the time we were up there I could hear this voice from downstairs: “This one will inform, educate and inspire…” It was Mikey Dread voicing the track “Rootsman Revival,” his cut of the “Stepping out of Babylon” rhythm.
‘Mikey Dread’ Campbell was a radio engineer for the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) in the days when engineers were allowed to play records back to back late at night because the stations wanted non-stop music. The Mikey Dread show was called Dread at the Controls and developed a cult following, with people recording it and selling it on cassette.
The show was successful because Mikey played roots reggae. He would broadcast instrumental dubs that he would mix at King Tubby’s studio and he would put his signature jingles into the mix, using sound effects from specialist BBC albums that he found in the music library at JBC. He made other jingles that featured local Jamaican artists, such as Big Youth. The key thing was that Mikey never spoke during his show but just sequenced records one after another. It revolutionized radio because there hadn’t been anything like it before. You could even buy the cassettes in England.
At that time, Mikey was suspended from work over a dispute and I met his programme controller at JBC and asked him why. He said it would resolve itself. Mikey came over to the Green Gables Hotel and we spent a lot of time talking. We discussed radio broadcasting and what was happening to him at the station. He voiced a couple of jingles for me to use on my show.
Mikey Dread was so popular he seemed unstoppable. The year after our trip, Dave Hendley released an album in the style of his show, called African Anthem. When Mikey came to England to promote it he stayed in my flat in Barnes. On his first Saturday night in London, we climbed into my orange Volkswagen Beetle and I took him around the West End and showed him Buckingham Palace. We went to Columbo’s, the West Indian club in Carnaby Street. The record made his name and he was championed by The Clash, the English punk rock band.
Later in life Mikey became very unpleasant to me and others. He would call me on the phone in the middle of the night to berate me. He made bizarre claims that I owed my career to him and that he had produced my radio show, which he never did. I had an inkling of that dark side to his character when he stayed with me in Barnes and a brick came through my window with a note attached to it addressed to Mikey. It was from an aggrieved girlfriend. Years later a woman approached me at a show in America to say she had thrown that brick. She apologized for breaking my window but felt she’d had no option at the time because she was young and he had treated her so badly.
During that first trip to Jamaica I also visited Harry Johnson’s (aka Harry J’s) studio on Roosevelt Avenue, where I spotted Bunny Wailer getting into his jeep. I approached him with Dave Hendley to ask for a photo and interview. It was too short notice and he told us no, quite curtly, although I interviewed him later in downtown Orange Street. I was impressed with Harry J’s studio, with its big mixing desk.
I met Harry himself and Sylvan Morris, who was the recording engineer at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One before he left to join Harry J.
I went downtown to the famous Randy’s Records in North Parade to buy music. As a white man from Europe I really stood out.
One guy at the counter started hustling me and demanding money.
“Bwoy, yuh come from Inglan, you could give me somet’ing, eh?”
I turned and found myself fronting him in my version of Jamaican patois.
“Give me a break, mon, mi jus’ a record collector…”
He just collapsed in hysterics. He went out and when I came out of the shop sometime later he was still laughing on the boardwalk outside.
The man behind the counter told me that if I’d realized who I was talking to I might have thought twice.
“Bad man y’know? If you knew, you would not say dat. You lucky dat man find it funny.”
Copyright © David Rodigan, 2017, extracted from RODIGAN: MY LIFE IN REGGAE, published by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group on 2nd March 2017.