The coffee shop on the corner of Carrollton and Oak Street, in Uptown New Orleans, is a century old, tall and white, with towering ceilings that bear the faded symbols of its days long ago as the neighborhood bank. It is mid-morning when the locals begin to file in, in droves, snaking their way to the long, narrow counter, as they have been doing for years, decades, even. On one Saturday in November 2005, however, as the surrounding city was still staggering from Hurricane Katrina and everything seemed upside-down—businesses shut down, homes empty, knee-high grass where the streetcar used to run—the still-brewing coffee wasn’t the only welcome constant in the customers’ lives. Up on the overlooking balcony loft, Shepard Samuels, a round 57-year-old man with frizzy sideburns and long stringy brown hair parted down the middle, stood at a turntable, and spoke into a microphone, his deep, trembling, Southern voice familiar to listeners across the city, from the Ninth Ward to the Garden District to Metairie. The crew of college kids scurrying around him with technical equipment was broadcasting his words, as they slowly and deliberately trickled out, live on FM radio.
“Good morning, New Orleans. After a few months’ hiatus, WTUL is back. We couldn’t stay away any longer. We’re broadcasting out of Rue de la Course, it’s true, but baby, we are back. I’m your host, Shepard Samuels, and I’ve been preparing one helluva show for y’all, so enough silence, let’s get on to the music.” As the record spun, soothing three-part harmonic Jamaican reggae filled the air.
Shepard Samuels has been spinning reggae records over the New Orleans airwaves since 1972—making his the longest-running reggae radio show in the country. He has interviewed Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, and, as he says, “all the greats.” Each week, more than 10,000 people tune in to his show—some in other parts of the country, as well as some in the UK, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Jamaica who stream it live on the Internet.
Samuels begins preparing for his show days in advance, poring over hundreds of records, trying to get the order and variety just right, nervous that he might be missing a key component in his two hours on air.
“It’s amazing to watch Shepard Samuels do his show because he is so methodical, so precise,” said Patrick Townsend, 22, the general manager of WTUL. “It is perfectly balanced, and the lead-ins and fade-outs are seamless. Clearly, a lot of thought goes into it. Dude’s awesome.”
As the oldest member of the mostly college-age WTUL airstaff, Samuels is baffled by the scores of DJs who come into the studio with their entire show ready to go on an iPod playlist. Baffled and a little peeved, because that makes DJing too easy, like it’s cheating.
He has never downloaded a song—not even legally. Not because he can’t figure out the technology—he spends hours on YouTube listening to new artists—but because morally, he hates digital music. As an entertainment copyright attorney, he has seen the digitization of music ruin artists and record companies. To him, music should be something tangible, physical, omnipresent.
His modest shotgun Uptown home, where he lives alone, is testament to that philosophy. It is overflowing with physical music everywhere you look. “Cluttered” would be an understatement. In the living room, stacks of CDs four feet tall stand against the wall, and hundreds of cassettes are piled against the corner. Books and magazines about music, and endless amounts of records take up nearly every square inch of surface space.
Leaning back in his dark purple armchair, flanked on both sides by CD towers, Samuels recalls the first access to music he ever had: the transistor radio his dad bought him when he was 10.
“It was just magical to me. I’d listen in my bed to the most amazing things. I remember hearing zydeco for the first time, I simply didn’t understand what it was about. I’d hear a tune over the radio and I’d say, ‘What the hell was that? I have to get my hands on that record,’ and I’d want to learn everything possible about the artist. I’d be fascinated to read the albums. I’d look at the producers and all the names, thinking, ‘What does a producer do? What does a sound engineer do?’ You can try to connect the dots, you know, like why does something sound so great? Who worked on it? You read, oh this was recorded in Allen Toussaint’s studio, you know it’s going to be good.”
He takes a deep breath and sighs heavily.
“You know, we’ve lost something in this Internet age. We’ve definitely lost something. Holding the physical music in your hand—I mean yeah, you can sometimes find it on the Internet. It is an amazing advantage now that you can look up anything. But you have to look it up rather than have it staring you in the face.”
Looking at my 21-year-old face, he mumbles, “I hope that makes sense.”
Samuels is anxious, because to him, there is not enough music. It gnaws at him, makes him wake up in the morning with a knot in his stomach. It is an unlikely problem that he has nowadays—considering infinite amounts of music are available at anyone’s fingertips—but one that he has had before, when he was just starting out as a DJ.
Back in the ’70s, the issue was access. Growing up in New Orleans, he listened to zydeco, jazz, funk and rock, but was never exposed to reggae. He actually read about reggae before ever hearing it, in the British Music Maker magazine, which he used to clip articles from, along with Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone, and whatever other music articles he could find. He still has the clippings stowed away in his office. After hearing the soundtrack to the ’72 Jamaican film The Harder They Come, he traveled to Jamaica and bought as many reggae records as he could afford. Samuels would write handwritten letters to record producers, identifying himself and pleading for an EP.
He worked hard for his music, but when he got it, it was the most rewarding and fulfilling feeling to share it with the world. He still takes great pains to read aloud every artist, song, and album he plays on air, whereas many DJs just direct listeners to the WTUL Twitter feed that updates each song played instantly. He remembers fondly hearing his voice coming out of cars driving by because people had taped his show, as it was the only place to get reggae.
Back then, the lack of music was beyond his control. But the music industry blew up huge, and in the ’80s and ’90s he had no problem finding whatever artist he wanted. Now, however, as record companies die out, Samuels’ rejection of downloading keeps him from acquiring new music.
When I point out to him the (seemingly obvious) fact that almost every DJ at WTUL downloads music illegally off of music blogs and file-sharing websites, Shepard’s eyes widen and his face reddens.
“People who download illegal music should be in jail. And if WTUL DJs are broadcasting stolen music, then we should lose our license. That is killing the artists we claim to love. How are they gonna eat? How are they gonna live? That’s just murder on them.”
Aside from the disappearance of music as he knows it, Samuels fears the internet for another reason.
“One thing that concerns me deeply is that—and I do really worry about this—young people today may be losing the art of interacting with each other. I really worry about that. At WTUL, there’s much less talk between the DJs than there used to be. We used to try to get to know each other. Now, too many times, somebody will come in, do a show, and I’ll never see them again. I find that depressing. The ties that bind us, I fear, may not be as strong as they used to be. I’m sure that is even more true in government, and business. That increasing alienation of people, that feeling alone, I think it has implications far beyond what we can anticipate now.”
Samuels’ “Reggae Roots and Branches” is on the air Monday nights from 8-10 p.m. Listen online at wtulneworleans.com