Levi goes back to his roots in Reggae

It’s 10 years since a beaming Levi Roots charmed his way to a £50,000 investment on Dragons’ Den with the help of a guitar, some Reggae Reggae Sauce and an infectious tune.

When he arrived to take part in the BBC2 programme, the 59-year-old was worried about paying for his taxi journey home.

A decade on and his biggest concern is maintaining a hectic schedule.

Aside from the ubiquitous condiment and its copious accompaniments (pasties, drinks, crisps), he presents his own Radio 2 show, lectures at schools, colleges and universities, and 18 months ago opened the first Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse restaurant in Stratford, east London.

And now he’s releasing a compilation album featuring his favourite reggae musicians.

Personal branding is key to the businessman’s success. Sitting in a booth in his restaurant, which he dubs a ‘rasta-raunt’, Roots leans forward wearing a wide smile.

A day earlier, he was cooking for Usain Bolt at a celebration of the Jamaican sprinter’s record-breaking career.

Roots credits these opportunities, and his personal popularity, to the decision to introduce music to his Dragons’ pitch.

“It caught their attention and I think I would have come a cropper if I didn’t have the guitar,” he says in a soft Patois accent.

“It’s why people liked me and it’s the reason why people are still investing £1.49 in Reggae Reggae sauce, because of the fun moment when I combined music and food.”

He adds: “If I’d gone in without the guitar, I wouldn’t be here speaking to you or I’d be speaking to you as one of the biggest losers of the Dragons’ Den, who made everyone laugh and was the butt of the jokes.”

Born Keith Valentine Graham in Jamaica in 1958, Roots’ love for music was inspired by the booming sound system culture.

After leaving the Caribbean Island aged 11 to live with his parents in Brixton, south London, he joined the Coxsone Sound System. Years of writing songs and touring dance halls followed and in 1997 he was nominated for the Mobo Award for Best Reggae Artist.

But it was the sauce he first began selling at Notting Hill Carnival which brought Roots his big success.

Yet, despite the busy lifestyle the Dragons’ Den appearance has afforded, he has not forgotten about the music.

“Cooking and music are the same to me, they are my life,” he says.z“

Two years ago he released a solo record and is now celebrating his relationship with reggae with a compilation album featuring some of his favourite artists.

The record, Levi Roots Reggae Reggae Hits, features fellow Londoner and a former musical rival in Maxi Priest who was part of the Saxon Sound System movement.

“It was a big rivalry,” laughs Roots. “I’ve grown in a slightly different skew to him but we’re still there.

“Choosing his track wasn’t rocket science at all. He inspired me and we both came from the ghetto from an area where people normally don’t go on to be a Maxi Priest or a Levi Roots.”

Spreading that message of hope is important to Roots and it is why he spends so much of his time visiting schools, bidding to divert youngsters away the troubles he encountered himself as a teenager. (Roots spent six months in Pentonville as a 15-year-old).

He credits his emergence from the “bad boy life” to Bob Marley – who he once played football with in Battersea Park.

Marley’s music features on the album and it was the famed singer who first introduced Roots to the Rastafarian lifestyle.

“The integrity of what a rastaman means literally saved me,” he explains. “It’s helped me be the Levi Roots that you see now, not the gritty kind of guy that got in trouble in Brixton.”

Next year will see Roots turn 60 but he has no intention of slowing down as he looks to turn his hand to acting and opening more Smokehouse outlets.

“My dream is to roll out this place and have rasta-raunts around the country. I’d also love to go into films, I’ve always loved acting, I’ve not done it yet but I’m always trying to excel myself.

“Ever since I was a kid getting into trouble in Brixton I felt I could do better,” he says, continuing: “Still now, I tell myself I can always do better than what I’m already doing.”

With such glowing confidence and charm, you would be a fool to doubt Roots his ambitions.

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