My name is Earl! Iconic reggae selector Earl Gateshead comes to town
Over the past decade ska, roots, dub and dancehall collective Trojan Sound System have become an institution in British sound system culture. Earl Gateshead, the DJ who’s been bringing reggae to the masses since 1979, leads this merry band of selectors and vocalists.
We spoke to him before his appearance at Drop Dead, Ibis Al Barsha, on Friday December 6…
When did music first click for you? At family parties – my uncle John would play the piano and everyone would gather together and sing. We used to love singing. Then I remember listening to Radio Luxembourg in bed with my brother – early rock ‘n’ roll records. Later, on our newly bought radiogram – the first type of record player – I loved to play my mum and dad’s Irish and Scottish folk records. My older sister had the first three Rolling Stones LPs and they were huge for me – I didn’t realise, then, that all the songs were covers of American R&B. I suspect if I’d had access to real R&B music I’d have loved it. It was still very difficult to get or even hear real music in the 1960s. No Spotify. I didn’t hear reggae until my teens and then, like so many people, it was Bob Marley.
How relevant is reggae music today? Reggae is on an upward trajectory. For a long time it was secret music. Very few people had access to the best reggae music. This is still true, really. But the reggae culture of spirituality, that rebellious, outsider perspective, is becoming increasingly attractive in a world where many people feel misinformed and manipulated by others. The only difference with the past is, once it was a Jamaican thing, now it’s a worldwide thing.
You play festivals around the world now. How different is the reggae scene compared to your early residency at London’s Dive Bar? It’s massively different now. Club life is mainstream now. When I started we were on the fringes, ignored entirely by the media – and by what were, at the time, considered ‘cool’ people. We just did sound system things and reggae club nights because we wanted to, because it excited us. There was never any consideration that it might be a career.
Were you surprised to be asked to play parties like Fabric, We Love and Secretsundaze – UK club nights not known for reggae? I’ve always tried to reach out and play reggae to people who might never have heard it before. I’ve been extremely lucky that people like Judy, who books DJs at Fabric, Mark Broadbent from We Love and the secretsundaze chaps, Giles Smith and James Priestley, have had faith in me as a DJ, and have wanted to bring the best kind of reggae to their crowds. It’s always worked too. I played Fabric for the first time ten or so years ago. Judy told me to play my best records. I did, thinking they wouldn’t like it and it might all be a bit embarrassing. I was thinking: would they actually boo me? But they loved it. Fabric has a top music crowd. At We Love, too, people were stunned to hear a proper reggae set on the terrace at [Ibiza club] Space. I could see their mouths drop open as they walked into the room and they felt those unmistakable reggae vibes in the air.
What was your highlight of 2013? The opening ceremony at Outlook Festival in Croatia was a massive night for me. It was in the Roman Amphitheatre at Pula and I played proper rebel reggae. We really felt we were doing something. Bringing bass culture into the mainstream. It was a fair sized crowd – 6,000 – but it felt really intimate. The vibe that night was so warm and friendly, really special. The Wailers followed me on and I was full of emotion as they played.
Casa Latina, Ibis Al Barsha, Barsha, Dubai. Tel: (056) 6920196. 10pm-3am, Dhs95. Taxi: Ibis Al Barsha.