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Earl Gateshead
Earl Gateshead

After-dark inquiry: Earl Gateshead

The famed reggae selector Earl Gateshead comes to NYC.

Earl Gateshead, a revered figure in his native England, has been one of London’s top reggae DJs for over three decades; he’s led the famed Trojan Sound System (the official sound system of the seminal Trojan Records label) for the past two of them. Rather remarkably, he’s never selected in NYC—but that will change on Friday, June 29, when he plays alongside Subatomic Sound System, Scratch Famous and live act Top Shotta at Drom.

We’re not going to delve into your entire history, because I think it would take a book to tell your full story.…
It would take a long time, yeah!

But I did want to know about how you got into the selecting business. Legend has it that it happened by accident, because you were promoting punk bands and realized you needed someone to play music between their sets. True?
That actually is true. It was in 1978, and back then, deejaying wasn’t in the least bit cool. It was a different world back then. I actually couldn’t find anyone else to do it! So I did it and discovered that I liked it. I found it easy to express myself through it. But I didn’t even call myself a DJ back then; I was just a guy who played records.

And you were playing reggae from the start?
Yeah, I really liked reggae, so that was naturally what I played. I didn’t just play reggae, though; I played a bit of jazz and soul, too. It was at the New Queens Head in Brixton.

I think a lot of people aren’t aware of the symbiotic relationship that punk and reggae had back then.
They’re both rebel music, aren’t they? The whole point of them is to be a rebel, to be against, to acknowledge the reality that you are oppressed. Even though we live in the rich West, we are oppressed in a way; we are exploited. The people who are in charge of our destinies don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. They only have their own best interests at heart. They have an agenda, and we’re in rebellion against that agenda.

That’s probably as true now as it was then.
Oh, it’s more true now! We thought we were oppressed then, but my God, the world has changed. They’re sneakier now. People don’t even realize it’s happening. It’s a bit sad, really.

Was Margaret Thatcher in power when you started?
It was a little before Thatcher. But Thatcher really turned me into a rebel! [Laughs] I wouldn’t have a job; I wouldn’t deal with business people at all. After Thatcher came into power, I was really outside the world, and I didn’t want anything to do with the world. Her world, I mean—we had our own world.

Other than its rebellious nature, do you remember what else drew you to reggae?
It’s very inclusive music. It represents the common man; it tells stories that represent ordinary people and ordinary people’s lives. I can remember looking at rock gods back then, and you were supposed to think, Oh, you’re much better than me. You’re supposed to stare at him while he does his rock-god thing. Reggae is the reverse of that. A reggae performer is just talking to the audience; it’s almost like he’s just someone who’s stepped out of the audience. Do you know that one Toots [and the Maytals] song, “54-46 (That’s My Number)”? That was his number when he was in jail. And he goes on to say, “Right now, someone else has that number.” That’s really deep. That’s not a rock-star lyric.

You’re heavily immersed in sound-system culture. How did you first get involved with that scene?
I heard my first sound system in 1981, and that was just it. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen or heard. I fell completely in love. I went home and built one in my living room, with big, huge speakers, completely ignorant of any kind of acoustic design or anything. But I learned. Crossovers were very important, I quickly learned. Crossovers are actually sound systems’ contribution to modern sound design. Anyway, sound systems kind of reinforce the oneness of listener and performer; everyone is sort of this one big thing. It’s similar to the feeling you’re supposed to get from electronic music, where it’s all about the dance floor.

It seems like electronic music is moving away from that a bit now, with everyone just staring at the superstar DJ up on the stage.
Well, they’re trying to move away from it. They want to make money! [Laughs] But the reality of it is that the DJ is just part of the crowd; the real thing, the spirit, is within the crowd. He’s just part of it.

How did you first get involved with Trojan Records and that mighty Trojan Sound System?
I had been putting on shows; I brought in a lot of really top people—Big Youth, Bobby Digital, lots of people—and did really well with them. This was around 1990. But I was really thinking that I wanted a sound system again, and me and my partner, Daddy Ad, put one together called Roots and Reality. The Trojan guys knew all about us, and at some point, they asked us if we’d do shows as Trojan. I wasn’t really keen at first; I was thinking, Nah, I’m not Trojan, I’m Roots and Reality, and we’re the best thing in the world! As you can tell, I never really had a plan. But the more I thought about it, I really liked the idea. When you’re with a sound system, you represent something, and Trojan represents real quality in reggae. And it’s a timeless quality; the Trojan catalog has really lasted. They’ve never made any slack or negative reggae. I felt like I was in tune with them.

Did you know you were going to be with them for so long?
Not at all. They asked us to do one or two things, but it just sort of snowballed. And here we are, 20 years later!

Are you still doing the Rootical parties in London?
I’m not in London a lot nowadays, but when I am, I’m still doing them. Rootical is about deep roots, and there aren’t many parties like that in London; they’re usually more dancehall or new roots. We do them at [Shoreditch club] East Village, which has very good sound. It’s good enough to play top-class reggae, stuff that combines great vocals, great messages, great production, great songs…all the things that great roots has got. It’s quite specialist—we play mainly from the golden age of reggae, which is around ’77 to ’81. But we will play some newer stuff as well and even stuff that’s a bit on the dancehall side. But that’s just to break the set up; what we’re really trying to do is just play the best reggae ever made. The crowd really knows the music, which makes it a challenge as a DJ. You’ve got to be good; you’ve got to be hot. You certainly just can’t go through the motions.

Is your fellow reggae lifer David Rodigan still doing Rootical?
Yeah, when he can. He has it even worse than me with the touring and traveling, so he can only do a few a year. He’s a cool guy.

Neither one of you seems like the shy kind of DJs who hide behind the turntables when they’re playing.
Oh, no, neither of us is like that at all. I like to connect. I’m out there, reaching out to people and baring myself, in the hope that people lose their inhibitions. If you open up, people can open up themselves. I always want it to be a special thing. To tell you the real truth, I think that when people get together to listen to reggae, it really is a special thing. We’re all rebels, and we’re all people who see the reality of the world. If you weren’t like that, you wouldn’t even be there. And when you all get together, it’s a really special thing. And that’s why I deejay.

It’s hard to believe that this upcoming Drom date is your first time playing in New York.
It’s my first time deejaying in the States! I don’t know why, really.… I think I’ve just never been asked! I’m curious to see if that real roots-rebel feeling, that feeling of defiant optimism, comes up over there. I have to say I have a slight amount of trepidation.

I’m guessing that back at the New Queens Head, you would never have believed it if somebody told you that you’d still be putting records on turntables over 30 years later.
No way. Like I said, there’s never been a plan. I just kind of kept going, really. I really never had much of a career strategy, I have to admit.

It seems to have worked out for you pretty well, though.
It has. I’m very happy. But I’ve always just done this because I liked it, and that was it.
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