Cover Story: Roska is a UK Dance Music Hall-of-Famer, and a Testament to Consistency

The last twelve years have been a wild ride for South London’s Roska. The producer, DJ and label head navigated the changing tides of UK funky – a sound and era that launched his career in the late ‘00s – with what seems like ease. And his role today in the genre’s second coming is perhaps just as vital as it was then.

21 min
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Jul 28, 2020
Jasmine Kent-Smith

Editor’s note: This interview makes reference to UK rapper Wiley. However, the interview took place before Wiley made anti-semitic comments on Twitter, which Beatportal strongly condemns. Roska also denounces these comments, saying, “Watching the Wiley situation unfold on Twitter was a massive let down. We, as black people, have been painted with the same brush for years. Racism towards any community or race can’t be tolerated. Wiley should have known better.”

The year is 2008, and a club-focused, serotonin-boosting new sound has taken over the capital. Dubbed UK funky or UK funky house, it’s a fusion of thumping tribal house, Afrobeats, and soca with loosely soldered links to other largely Black-produced and London-originated sounds, like dubstep, UKG, and grime. There, nestled among the likes of DJ MA1, Donae’o, Princess Nyah, Fuzzy Logik, Apple, Jelly Jams (DJ Zinc and Geeneus), Ill Blu and Supa D, lies Roska (AKA Wayne Goodlitt).

His career could be mused over for a number of reasons. There’s his artistic evolution from funky first-genner to a seasoned scene steward. His label, Roska Kicks & Snares, plus its quick-fire, single-focused younger sibling RKS Dubz, have continued championing the sound in its various resurgent forms — turning on a slew of funky fans-turn-producers while housing Goodlitt’s own output.

Admittedly, UK funky was a fleeting love affair for some. A nostalgic period of time, tunes and Rinse FM raves that were packed up and boxed away, only to be brought out, dusted off, and enjoyed seasonally, much like UKG in the summertime. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Goodlitt tells me over Zoom. “But what about the other nine months of the year when there’s no sun shining? That’s when we need people around to hang around, for those days when it’s tough.”

When we catch up, it’s a warm day in South London. Or that’s how it appears, at least, as a golden hour glare beats down on his computer screen. In conversation, he’s open, honest, and relaxed as he reflects on the positive energy he’s been channelling the past few months. “I’ve just made the most of it as I’m not really one to get down on certain things. I just try to get the best out of every bad situation, and I’ve taken the time out to enjoy it, release loads of music and have fun with it.”

Goodlitt’s sitting at the bottom of his garden in a studio he built seven years ago. Having this kind of space at home has been a saving grace during the Covid-19 lockdown period. It’s meant he’s been able to keep adding gems to his already-enviable back catalogue (when he’s not been home-schooling his two daughters, that is), drop projects like the jazz-inflected EP Internal Sunshine, his single “Colossal” with LR Groove, and his latest, a mixtape of sorts titled 8 Trax, all on RKS.

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In the days after our chat, an open letter, written by artist R.O.S.H. (aka Roshan Chauhan) and titled A Letter to RA [Resident Advisor] and the rest of the UK music press hit the web. Among discussions on systemic racism, classism and coverage disparities within the music media lay an important point on the side-lining of UK funky from the frequently whitewashed, more heavily romanticised UK dance music history books. It’s a disservice that treated the first funky era, its artists and its still prevalent influence – not just as a Black genre, but as a defining moment in UK club music history – as a footnote, as opposed to its own chapter.

I forward the letter over to Goodlitt. “Reading that actually hurts because Roshan isn’t lying,” he responds. “Myself, and many other Black artists, have just learned to brush off this hierarchy and continue working hard just like our ancestors. It’s the fact that we — as in all my Black musician peers — have seen this for years, but fear calling it out and them [the music press] having a reason to not feature us.”

Reflection, the kind that engulfs us after a period of turbulence or trouble, often feels like a bittersweet rainbow only visible after a hazy storm. Of late, eloquent deep-dives like Chauhan’s letter and the calling out of discriminatory or indisputably problematic past actions have led to admissions of short-comings from individuals, labels, agencies, venues, and others. The debate has been prompted primarily by the unjust murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ricochet of events it and the Black Lives Matter movement sparked globally in the weeks since. “For me, [the open letter] brought back scenarios of things I’ve experienced because being Black and working hard…you work twice as hard,” he says.

I mention an excellent Twitter thread by London-based DJ and producer FAUZIA, who discusses the segregation between “bass music” artists and their techno counterparts. I wonder out loud if it’s easier for younger artists — and especially younger Black artists — to speak up now compared to when he was on the up. Goodlitt nods. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “I’m glad that it’s happening now because it’s got to happen to someone for something to change.” When Roska was rising through the ranks, dialogues that probably needed to be had and issues that definitely needed to be addressed were avoided, for fear of a ‘you’re pulling the race card’ rebuttal.

For example, in 2011 Goodlitt recorded a pilot for BBC Radio 1’s In New DJs We Trust. When he got told he didn’t get the show, he was also told, with no such yearning to know, who did get said show. “When you look at what I’d been doing prior to that, I had a debut album out, I had collaborations with key artists who were firing at that time, I’d done Sónar…then you compare me to the other person who they’d literally said to me ‘this person’s got it’ and they’d done one thing,” says Goodlitt. “It was like, if I was white and that person was Black, would he have still got that over me? The answer is no.”

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He’s right. By 2011 he’d released at least seven EPs on labels like Numbers. and Hotflush, as well as his own imprint (launched in 2007), which, by the time the BBC came calling, had dropped roughly 20 releases from the likes of Jamie George, DJ Naughty, and Champion. That’s alongside remixes for the likes Untold, and his signing to Rinse for a string of projects that included his debut album Rinse Presents: Roska, which was released in 2010. His profile was well above average for UK funky.

His connection to Rinse at that time was a big deal itself, with the station’s then-powerhouse status (Goodlitt was a resident for over seven years), amplified by its label and events. The rapid ascension of his career around this time made even more surreal after he quit his job as an O2 store manager (a role he credits for his transferable time management skills) and pursued the whole music thing full-time in 2010.

Prior to this, it had simply been a lifelong interest encouraged from a young age. As part of a Jamaican family, an abundance of reggae, roots and dancehall filtered through the house when he was growing up. Plus, his dad had his own sound system and used to play out frequently, whilst his uncle had a music studio in Peckham, South London. It’s there he would sit, observe and later dive into production.

By this point his interests had diverged into grime and UKG — his go-tos — with some hip-hop and jungle thrown in for good measure. I refer to a supposed interest in Timbaland, something I’d spotted online, and Goodlitt nods in agreement. While not inspired heavily by his work, the idea that the US producer’s drum patterns could be instantly identified, much like early Neptunes material, really resonated with him. It’s the same for London MC and producer Wiley (aka Eskiboy), who pioneered his own grime sub-genre, eski-beat. Well, that and Wiley’s work ethic.

“Throughout his career he’s been consistent,” says Goodlitt. “I remember walking through one shop called Rhythm Division in East London as I used to go there and drop my records off. Wiley had a whole column literally just full of his records and that was his one corner [of the shop]. It was inspiring to see. He’d be working non-stop and all of his peers around him were working, but the level of work that Wiley had was outstanding. You couldn’t miss it. That’s one of the things that I’ve definitely tried to make sure I continue to do in order to have a successful career.”

It’s safe to say his goal has been achieved. Much like Timbaland, Goodlitt’s work is instantly identifiable. And his career, much like Wiley’s, is an example of why consistency is key. His commitment to funky contrasts with many of his late ‘00s peers, who have rushed to pay tribute to its passing over the years. That’s in spite of its pretty healthy pulse. Coincidently, just hours before our first conversation, DJ and podcaster Chuckie Lothian (aka Chuckie Online) uploaded a new funky-focused podcast episode featuring Goodlitt’s peer, Donae’o. It’s title: Death Of A Genre.

“I just wish there was a bit of a merger where the old stuff and the new stuff would get together more as there’s a bit of a disconnect,” says Goodlitt, in response to the podcast. “Someone like Chuckie would say that it’s dead because he only enjoyed listening to the top ten of that era, like your Crazy Cousinz or your Katy B’s or your Donae’o’s. But if you’re not looking and deeping into what’s actually going on now and trying to understand it then you’re being ignorant and not trying to understand what is there.”

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Days after the podcast went live, Goodlitt joined Donae’o on Instagram Live, and offered an apt analogy on the changing of the guard: “If you leave a house unoccupied, squatters are going to come in. People that actually want to live there are going to come and take that place!” The “squatters” in this instance crews and labels like Super Kitchen, Durkle Disco and Club Djembe in Bristol, Scuffed Recordings and More Time in London as well as producers like Bamz, KG and RKS-affiliated DJ Polo, Motu, and Murder He Wrote.

“There are a few bits on Livity Sound that have that sort of vibe in there too,” says Goodlitt. “And you can just hear little pockets of it when you listen to a Hessle track or even drill, which I feel has a little funky vibe to it. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional you can hear it running through a lot of the sounds that are coming through.”

Given all the genre has gone through over the last decade, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that there were times when funky wasn’t working for him. “Over a span of twelve years you’re going to have times where you peak and times when it’s quieter,” he says. “I definitely felt it, especially around the deep house period because I came through playing house and funky, and then it was a lot of funky, then it was house and funky, and then the music I was playing was getting more house as house came in. You do get to that point where you feel like you’re missing out, but you’ve just got to ride out the storm. I feel like a lot of people don’t actually want to because it is a painful ride. But if you continue, you’ll always be remembered and favoured when things do turn around, so it’s up to you what you do with that period of time.”

Focusing on his core fanbase is another key to his success. By making music he knows his fans will enjoy — and he undoubtedly enjoys — he’s staying true to both himself and them. Which makes more sense to him than churning out watered-down bangers for wider, more mainstream audiences (something evidenced at the tail-end of funky’s first wave), or going in a completely new direction. He’d rather build onto existing foundations, adding new influences onto what he knows already works. It’s something he’s done via other aliases, like his darker, tribal-meets-broken-techno focused alias, Bakongo, but also as Roska.

“Last year I started making more dancehall, but it fell right into the spot of what I’ve been doing recently anyway,” he says. “Over the last three years, I’ve been using more of my influences and stuff that I grew up with. Working with Serocee in 2017 for “In My Zone” was good as I was able to incorporate my influences a bit more into what I do. It stretched out what I can do without people going ‘Hang on a minute, you made funky. What are you making that for?’ I don’t want to be in that position, so I’m happy.”

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This happiness may also stem from his overall approach to releasing. He’s not a perfectionist whatsoever, or at least he’s not anymore. These days, if the track is good and he likes it then he’ll release it. The same ‘what will be will be’ mentality he had towards releasing back when it was just an after-work hobby is still very much present. “At the same time,” he adds, “I wasn’t trying to make glossy music. I was just trying to make it as raw as possible and keep that grime element on funky; keep that London vibe going and see how far I could take it. That was always the plan.”

It’s an aim that’s clearly worked for him, and an insight into how a career can look if you retain your guiding ethos. It’s inspirational, especially for the producers Goodlitt has nurtured and uplifted through his label, which is as rewarding to Goodlitt as his own personal trajectory. Murder He Wrote, for example, was someone he “caught at a good time.” Together they set out goals and smaller plans for releases, and before long he was on the festival circuit and playing across the UK and Europe.

“When you get a hungry artist who wants to do more and is inspired by what’s going on, you want to help them out as much as you can and set a stepping stone for them to move forward to the next stage in their career. So that was always my goal, to see other people follow what I was doing as well. Not really any people from the first generation of funky to now benefited from a lot of the things that I did.”

Why does he think that is? The way he sees it, they may not have shared the same belief he had in how far he could take it. “With anything that you do, if you set yourself a ceiling or think you can only achieve a certain amount then that’s all you can achieve,” he says. “Whereas if you leave that ceiling open, you can do anything. That’s what I did. I didn’t set myself a limit in terms of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve, but I knew where I wanted to go with my music and how far I wanted to take it. I feel like I’ve done most of it.”

Undoubtedly, he’s taken it far. As Roska, Goodlitt’s cool, calm consistency has paid off in abundance. Steering a sound like funky through a timespan as long as he has hasn’t been easy. Especially considering how quickly it fell out of mainstream favour, relegated to vivid, formative memories by transitory fans who have since moved on. But maybe that’s what this is all about. Funky, really, is memory-making music. It was back then, and it is still today. Goodlitt’s ‘sometimes funky, sometimes just percussive and fun’ output these days, both personally and via his label signees, is not to be taken as trite reliving of past memories. Rather, a familiar nudge to create new ones.

Jasmine Kent-Smith is a freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter.