Considered a veteran of the local dub and reggae scene, DJ Robert Rankin’ has been educating crowds about tunes, riddims, and basslines for over 30 years, whether it’s on the airwaves of various radio stations like KFJC or KKUP, or from behind the decks of venues as big as festivals or as small as basements. No matter the outlet, he remains consistent and strives to keep the spirit of reggae alive by playing modern forward thinking reggae tunes while also showcasing the historical importance classic tracks. We chatted with Rob Rankin’ about playing rebellious radio stations, what changes he’s seen in the dub scene, and what it’s like to be an influence on dub DJs. He performs with longtime DJ partner Spliff Skankin’ this Friday, [6/10] for Dub Mission at Elbo Room.
[jump] Give us a short history of how you got into DJing.
I joined KFJC 89.7 FM in the South Bay. At that time in the early ‘80s the station provided a steady groove of punk rock, hip-hop and of course reggae and ska which was my favorite. It was very inspired rebellious college radio station for sure. I have always been a person who listens carefully to the lyrics of songs and the messages of reggae music connected with me, plus it also helped that they were delivered with a very bass heavy soundtrack. At KFJC I met DJ Spliff Skankin’ who was DJing reggae music at the station. We began spinning records at local reggae shows before the shows and during the breaks. There started a 30-year plus DJ partnership as Massive Sound International that led us to play records at countless reggae concerts, club nights and reggae festivals in Northern California.
What attracted or attracts you to the reggae, dancehall, dub genres?
At first the heavy bass lines punctuated by steep one drop drums got my attention. I've always been a fan of bass-heavy music of all genres. The lyrics of freedom, culture and fighting oppression made the combination complete. I was collecting Jamaican reggae 45 records at the time. Roots reggae ‘45s have the dub instrumental versions on the B-sides and that led to being a fan of dub reggae being made by Jamaican studio engineers like King Tubby and Scientist. Those weighty dub sides were being used by Jamaican artists (DJs) to rap over so there began my love of dancehall. It's all connected vocal side to dub side to DJ dancehall side.
How have you seen the dub scene change in your musical career?
The computer has changed the dub reggae scene. The laptop as the main DJ device has allowed a selector to have access to many different and complete parts of their record collection. Many selectors have been collecting all their lives and now have a chance to bring big crates of their libraries with them to their gigs. Back in the days of carrying vinyl was limiting, now it's endless.
As far as music production goes the computer has made great productions available to so many who don't have access to the big studios. Modern sampling, looping and vast libraries of classic digital reggae sounds have made some great reggae tunes today that still retain the old school feel.
How has your DJ setup evolved?
I try to keep it pretty simple and classic. I use my Mac with Serato and always prefer to use the old school Technics 1200's instead of CDJ's. Of course I still play vinyl and really enjoy running the 45s at various DJ nights like Skylarking in SF and King of Kings in Oakland.
What would you like to see the younger generation do to keep this style of music thriving?
Do some research on the tunes and riddims they are playing. Realize that many of the songs and riddims they are spinning were created in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Due to the common practice of “re doing” (relicking) and reviving old songs and riddims in reggae, many of them were created at classic Kingston recording studios like Studio 1,Treasure Isle, Channel One, Black Ark etc. Incorporating some of these old school tunes in the mix or just having the knowledge of their origin can make a better mix.
You also do a weekly radio show called “Solid Foundation.” Tell us a little about how that came to be?
Later in the ‘80s I moved the radio show over to KKUP 91.5fm also here in the South Bay. The show was now on at night as opposed to my previous daytime show on KFJC. I took over from the previous DJ's who had been doing it since the late ‘70s. It felt great to keep the tradition going and Friday nights 6pm to 9pm has been my home now for many years. I really enjoy the opportunity to play some brand new modern roots, dub, digital and dancehall tunes. I really try to focus on new tunes you would hear in Jamaica, London and any of the big reggae centers around the world.
What's the main difference in connecting with the audience when you're spinning on a radio show versus live?
Going back to what I said about the practice of reviving old songs and riddims. The radio show allows me to go off on a tangent and play some of the old songs that the new ones are based on. Letting the audience see the connection and some context from the old to the new. The radio also allows me to talk and expand a little on the history and culture of a song.
As a veteran DJ, what would you say has been your favorite atmosphere to DJ in?
DJing at reggae festivals has been a great joy and one of my favorite places to spin tunes. Outdoors, large crowds and big stacks of speakers blasting out the bass. Definitely a great time. Reggae on the River and Sierra Nevada World Music Fest are a few of my faves.
Also some of the more local spots like Dub Mission, Skylarking and Kings of Kings where you can really spin any style reggae from old to new. That’s always a fun time as well.
Many Bay Area dub DJs say you're an influence on them, particularly DJ Sep of Dub Mission. How does it feel to hear that?
Very humbling and thankful for fellow DJs to say that. We really respect our Bay Area reggae DJ family and the hard work they put in as well. Spliff Skankin' and I have been DJing for many years now as Massive Sound International. We are always trying to be forward-thinking in our reggae selections with a mind on the rich history from where it came.
What gems can we catch you dropping at Dub Mission this Friday?
Lately I've been enjoying spinning some of the UK revival/relicks of the ‘80s digital style reggae from artists like Mr Williamz, Parly B and Mungos Hi Fi as well as some new Jamaican Modern Roots from Chronixx, Jesse Royal and Hempress Sativa.