DBC Lepke: A Dread Outta Control
Lloyd Bradley remembers the late founder of London’s Dread Broadcast Corporation
DBC… It’s a sign-sign-sign… Dread Broadcast Corporation… Tune in if yuh rankin’…
When those jingles started blasting out across London pretty much every weekend during the early 1980s, it was always so much more than just a way for the capital to access some fabulous music. When Lepke, AKA Leroy George Anderson, set up the Dread Broadcast Corporation in 1981, with a undersized AM mast in his back garden, he was effectively laying down a cultural marker, the ripples from which were absolutely critical in shaping mainstream British music in the 21st century. So when Leroy passed away in late March of this year, the world didn’t simply lose some bloke who once ran a pirate radio station, albeit a somewhat iconic pirate radio station – we lost a giant of contemporary domestic culture. The equation really is as straightforward as that: no DBC – no dancehall-based black pirates; no dancehall-based black pirates – no unfettered development and distribution of jungle, grime and dubstep; no jungle, grime and dubstep – no Radio 1Xtra; no Radio 1Xtra – no self-defining black music as an accessible part of mainstream UK culture.
In his single-minded approach to DBC, Lepke reinvented the notion of pirate radio in the UK and established a template for black British radio.
Of course, the Leroy that I and the others on the embryonic DBC knew would have been far too modest to assume any credit in this respect, or to have claimed it was part of a master plan. For him it was all about the station – quite literally. In his single-minded approach to DBC, he reinvented the notion of pirate radio in the UK and established a template for black British radio. His proposal was devastatingly simple: run the station like a soundsystem, treat the shows with the same kind of intensity as a blues dance and approach listeners as if they were a dancehall crowd who demand to be entertained. Effects, echoes, dubbing, toasting, jingles… bring it! And although he was always very keen for DBC to get a licence, it would be on our terms rather than the Department of Trade and Industry’s, plus he was shrewd enough to emphasise to us the advantages of being illegal: we could, pretty much, do whatever we liked. In the black music world of pirate radio, where pretending to be Robbie Vincent was more or less regulation, DBC’s “Dread Outta Control” approach spread across the station and was as liberating for all of us as listeners would tell us it was for them. It was in this way that Leroy instinctively laid down the template taken up by the likes of Kool FM, Rinse, Déjà Vu and, more recently, community operations such as Reprazent, all of whom have given props to DBC.
Leroy had an unshakeable confidence in what he was doing, too, which was the key to DBC’s appealing self-definition. He encouraged his selectors to think of the public at large, or at least those we could reach across most of London when we went FM, as being far more robust than the mainstream ever imagined. Give them black music in an unfiltered, this-is-how-we-kick-it type of way, and it won’t put off an across-the-board urban listenership. He was right, and it didn’t – 30 years later, it’s not unusual to come across very respectable-looking, retirement-age white men and women that will enthusiastically tell you who their DBC favourites were.
Coming from a soundsystem background, where everybody cuts their teeth playing weddings, christenings and birthday parties, Leroy understood that here in the capital we weren’t all the same Negro. That there was more than one sort of black person, and thus he had to accommodate more than one sort of black music. While reggae may have been DBC’s focus, through the logo, the slogans and the colour scheme, the station offered several different styles of said genre, complemented by an R&B and ska show, soul ’n’ funk, African music and calypso, all treated with the same respect and seriousness as the station’s bedrock roots reggae. Sometimes it felt like he was the ringmaster in an incredible black music circus, knowing when to chivvy up and when to big up, and, most importantly, when to leave us alone.
Under any other circumstances – especially during the early 1980s, as the dark arts of marketing became ever more prominent – the station’s seeming lack of stylistic focus and apparently unconventional presentation techniques would have been laughed out of the door rather than put on the air. At the helm of the Dread Broadcast Corporation, however, Leroy introduced black British musical culture first to London and then to the world that, mercifully, hadn’t been fed through a filter of uninvested, risk-averse management, with every decision prefaced by a series of marketing meetings. Some 20 years later, the BBC seemed to recognize that Leroy might have had a point, that black people – station management and artists – might be best suited to run a black music station, and launched Radio 1Xtra, in as close an image of a pirate station as was ever going to be possible at the Beeb. In many ways, while Leroy never fulfilled his dream of taking DBC legal, this was about as big a tribute as he could have hoped for.
It was with huge sadness that my wife and I – she was Lady Di to my Dark Star – heard the news of Leroy’s passing. During the couple of years we presented a show on DBC, he was probably the most encouraging, supportive, straight-up nicest station boss you could ever wish for. We were new to radio, and he tolerated our inexperience and probably more-than-occasional ineptitude with good grace and better advice. Although we saw relatively little of Leroy, when we did he always had time for us.
This was the same after we left DBC. We would bump into him sporadically – two or three times a year – and he was always so pleased to see us, and always had time for a chat. There was a real community spirit and basic humanity to Leroy: Dread Broadcast Corporation was designed to bring black folks together, then welcome in everybody else. This was so successful that he became something of a hero around Ladbroke Grove, as witnessed by the phenomenal turnout to the celebration of his life that took place in a Latimer Road social club. People gathered to commemorate not only who he was but what he did, because one led to the other. And without him, so much of what is part of the contemporary British soundtrack wouldn’t exist in its current for-us, by-us form.
Lloyd Bradley is a former DBC selector and the author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital.