WKDU DJs Rookie and Roger Culture bring the Caribbean to Philadelphia.
Three o'clock, Saturday. "It's prime time, it's showtime, when Roger and Rookie are playing," reggae MC Legend belts, and Rookie spins the hook--a custom-crafted theme sampling Flying Robbie's "Murder She Wrote" that announces the commencement of the Rookie and Roger Culture's Reggae Dancehall Explosion.
"Good afternoon, Philadelphia. We are the R&R crew, bringing you the best of Caribbean music and news until 6 p.m. This one is for the ladies--you my babies, don't say no maybes, ladies--because we all know it's all about the ladies--yeah," Rookie says into a microphone dangling above WKDU's operating board. He slides a red button so as not to distract listeners with the basic human function of breathing.
"And ladies, today is Roger Culture's birthday, so call him up to wish him a very happy birthday."
A push of the button, a flick of the wrist and the music is on. A deep, slow beat; a high voice singing, "I'm crushed, you left me with a broken heart" pumps from the basement of Drexel University's student center into the air above Philadelphia, where radios tuned to 91.7-FM find the waves that transistors and sprockets transform into music.
The phone rings. Rookie answers: "Roger, someone calls to wish you a happy birthday." It is the first of many.
For eight years, Rookie and Roger Culture have spun records for West Indian communities--across West Philadelphia, Mt. Airy,Germantown, Delaware County and New Jersey--hungry for sounds from home. For eight years, they've hauled boxes of 45s into the small independent, student-run radio station and gathered in the sticker-stuccoed studio to have a bit of fun, partake in a bit of entertainment and try and teach people a thing or two about music.
"The other day, I told my barber that this might be my last year doing this and he said no," Rookie Forrester says. His hair is short and tight. He works at Arthur Anderson consulting firm; during the week, he says, he is a very different person. Both he and Roger Culture moved to Philadelphia from Jamaica about 13 years ago.
"We bring listeners a total reggae experience. We keep people in touch with what's going on in the Caribbean, whether it's music or news. And I know it is something that people look forward to," says Roger Culture, who also spins reggae Sunday nights on 103.9-FM. "Every Sunday, the West Indian community and people who love the music tune into 'KDU, because we don't get to hear a lot of this music on the street."
But something happened during their eight-year routine. What began as a show nestled between vintage-reggae DJ Hopeton Brown's Friday-night session and an all-day Saturday reggae rotation has evolved into something utterly its own. When that hook spins--that catchy, dancehallesque "Mama's in the backyard drinking beer with the cousins" hook announcing the commencement of the show--'KDU's studio becomes ground zero for an 800-watt good time fueled by dancehall, reggae and soca--a hyper-fast Calypso spun by DJ Ross.
Once it caught on, people as far away as Canada and England, desperate for American exposure, began sending Rookie and Roger Culture records. Jamaican musicians began driving from the Bronx to perform for the "Philadelphia massive." And Bounty Killer lets everybody know via a prerecorded announcement that when he is in Philadelphia, he tunes into the Reggae Dancehall Explosion on WKDU. Meanwhile, slouching promoters in baggy pants silently slide through the studio, thump fists and leave fliers.
Mark Ice, a reggae artist with cornrows and a long face, stops by to perform an unreleased single that Rookie and Roger Culture have made familiar to the weekly listener. His clothes are big, his pendants chunky, his demeanor humble--thankful as he is for an opportunity to perform in this little studio.
Rocking back and forth in his chair, hands in the air, he launches into the microphone: "I can't fight this feeling any-mooooore." Hopscotching between a Jamaican patois and a softer lilt, he jokes, laughs and acknowledges that it is, was and always will be all about the ladies. Rookie spins his album, the phone rings and you can almost hear the girls on the other end.
"Hi, Mark Ice. I really like your song."
"Is Mark Ice there?"
"You tell that young man to keep at it. He can sing."
Four o'clock. Time for the news. Nadine Midgley reads Caribbean current events that won't make the KYW News desk: general elections in Trinidad and Tobago; illegal electricity connections in Kingston; Shaggy's hit single "It Wasn't Me" being played 15 times a day in Jamaica.
As of July, according to the CIA, 2,652,689 people lived in Jamaica. To sell 3,000 albums in a land devoid of ubiquitous charge cards and neon record stores is a feat. The marketing machine that forces pop stars into the collective consciousness of baby-sitting, allowance-gripping teenagers here is not in place in Jamaica. So artists look northward for exposure. They look to disc jockeys who still spin records they believe in.
"Jamaica is a small country. Twenty-thousand records Yellowman once sold, and that was the most in a long, long time. That's an overwhelming amount. People here would say 'only 20,000.' But that's a super, super amount in Jamaica," Rookie says.
Before Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" made the Q102 rotation, the R&R show made it standard fare. Forgetting the arguments about what is pop, what is reggae, what is R&B, the community wanted to hear its native son, and Rookie and Roger Culture obliged. But now that the song has gone mainstream, they probably won't play it anymore, in keeping with WKDU's noncommercial format.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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