Play I some music
Roots, rock and reggae on KZFR
The three seconds of dead air that begins Nick “Solid Rock” Ferracone’s show is enough to cause momentary looks of panic on the faces of programmers in KZFR’s adjacent broadcast booth, but as soon as the snare rolls in on a classic ska tune, everyone smiles and loosens up. It’s just a dramatic pause, a quiet bit of tension that serves to set up the show, and while Ferracone is too modest to pretend he planned it that way, he’s not above shrugging it off as just another example of his ragamuffin style—a Jamaican slang term that means scrappy and rough around the edges.
“I don’t come in with a plan, I want there to be a certain amount of energy,” he says, his headphones slapped over one ear, sifting through a plastic toolbox full of scratchy old 45s. “This is live right here—no safety net, this is it.”
Ferracone is one of three all-reggae DJs at Chico’s community-run radio station, KZFR. While other DJs dabble in the genre, he and Chico’s illustrious Sanjay Dev have delved deep into the history of the music, devoting every second of their air-time to the infectious, sometimes bouncy, sometimes moody but always soulful sounds of Jamaica. While reggae tends to be well-played on college and community stations across the country, few amateur DJs can match the depth and knowledge of KZFR’s team. In fact, the reggae shows on KZFR are on par with anything you’ll hear in New York or London—maybe even Kingston.
“I don’t like to brag—I like to be low-key. But believe it or not, there’s people that think I’m pretty good at this,” Ferracone says, noting that his show is widely taped and distributed among hardcore reggae fans.
Ferracone, who got his first taste of reggae as a kid growing up in San Diego and who learned to DJ from former KZFR reggae legend Boomshot, has an affinity for early-era ska. He usually kicks off his set with some older, up-tempo stuff before meandering chronologically into ’70s dub and modern, electronic-based reggae. Most of the songs he plays are on 45 rpm singles (“they play louder,” he says) and vinyl LPs from his own collection of about 3,000 records.
“The whole history of the music is on the seven-inch. That’s why I keep buying them,” he says. “Up until sometime in the ’80s there were something like 50,000 singles put out in Jamaica. It’s insane how prolific they are, just being this tiny little island.”
Ferracone is so hooked on the music that he recently began pressing records—reprints of classic but hard-to find artists from the golden years of reggae—on his own Solid Roots label. Dealing with some of the producers for his reprint and relicensing projects brought it home to him how rough a lot of the artists he plays on his show have had it.
“The people are stuck in this tough situation, and it’s been made tougher by colonialism, yet most of the [Jamaican] guys I’ve met have been very nice, real polite,” he says.
The political and racial aspects of even the tamest reggae songs are impossible to ignore, and Ferracone is obviously aware that he is a mid-’30s, college-educated white guy who promotes music that deals explicitly with racism, poverty, slavery and injustice. Ferracone, a planning consultant by day, says he’s not trying to exploit or mimic the culture, he just wants to show his admiration for it.
“I’m not trying to be a fakin’ Jamaican,” he says. “I like to start with stuff that sets the mood for me—not so much dreadlocks and religion. There’s still politics in it, but it’s mostly about having a good time. Some people call reggae ‘message music’ but I don’t see it that way. I don’t feel all that comfortable playing some of the Rasta music because that’s not how I live—it wouldn’t be right.”
Sanjay Dev, who produces Devastation Sounds—probably the most popular show on KZFR—came to reggae from a different path. Raised in a town outside Kathmandu, Nepal, Dev grew up surrounded by poverty and suffering. Hearing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” as a kid in the 1970s had a profound impact on him.
“It was a song that went right to the suffering,” he says. “It was Third World, from the ghetto. Reggae music is very militant; it’s about fighting for equality, fighting for your rights. But it’s also about love, not just revolutionary love but also romantic love. This was very powerful to me.”
Dev drifted from the music for a few years but got back into it in 1987, when his brother gave him a tape of Marley’s Uprising album. (While Marley has been a huge influence on both Dev and Ferracone, neither plays much of his music, opting instead to spotlight the hundreds of other Reggae artists that for years have languished in Marley’s omnipresent shadow.) Now, Dev, a math teacher at both Butte College and Chico State, has amassed some 6,000 records, from which he selects the choicest cuts for his show every week.
For some, having a radio show and being something of a small-town celebrity might have been enough. But Dev wanted to put the philosophies of reggae into action, to try and make a concrete change in the lives of people who he thought needed it the most. So he did something that would make most record collectors shudder. He sold off some off his most-prized discs and used the money to start a school near his home village in Nepal.
It was his way of using what he loves best to achieve what he wants the most, and it’s affirmed his belief in the powers of music and education to change the world.
“There are so many villages [in Nepal] where kids don’t even know the meaning of education. They’re just out herding cows. If someone would just give a chance to these kids, many would have the same opportunities my family did.”
Dev also relishes the idea that, because some obscure reggae musician from a bygone era went in to a decrepit ghetto studio with nothing but a tune and a dream, a modern kid halfway around the world gets to go to school and learn how to make something out of himself.
That’s what is inspirational about reggae, he says. “It is the music of the ghetto sufferer. Everybody, no matter who you are, has some kind of sufferation, so everybody can relate. The beauty of reggae is that it’s able to bring people of all different ages, races, sexes, cultures—together. When Marley says ‘One Love,’ that’s what he means, bringing everybody together.”