For 40-odd years, Don Letts has been the UK’s chief authority on reggae, and with a lifetime of bass culture echoing round his head he’s trying to squeeze it into a new series of podcasts, Reggae 45.
Londoner Letts is a cult and cultural icon who’s been at every fork in the road on reggae’s British journey, as it’s shape-shifted from rudimentary sound systems built by first generation Jamaican immigrants, to the first wave of British groups and skinhead culture, and its influence on punk, hip-hop, rave, dubstep and grime.
Letts is maybe best known as the middleman between reggae and punk in London in the mid-70s. He managed the clothes store Acme Attractions which doubled as a hangout for punk and reggae kids, then got a gig as the DJ at early punk nights in the Roxy.
There were only a handful of punk singles at the time so he started throwing down hardcore dub and reggae and the punk kids were on it right away. Punk and reggae fans were fellow outlaws, and eventually The Clash started covering Junior Murvin; The Slits’ debut was more avant-garde dub than punk, and John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd took dub dread into harrowing corners. And the guy in dreads who looks like he’s squaring up to 100 London riot cops on the cover of Blackmarket Clash? That’s Letts.
Letts documented the Roxy scene with his Super-8 camera and it led to his first film The Punk Rock Movie, the definitive raw footage of the era that’s the backbone of nearly every punk documentary or TV spot since.
Letts has since directed hundreds of music videos, including all The Clash’s early promos, and videos for Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Pretenders, Musical Youth, The Undertones and Big Audio Dynamite – the band he formed with ex-Clash man Mick Jones.
His documentaries include works on Sun Ra, The Jam, Gil Scott-Heron, and Stiff Little Fingers, and his Clash documentary Westway to the World won a Grammy in 2003. His 1997 feature Dancehall Queen has become the most popular Jamaican film of all time, even out-running the iconic Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come.
Aside from his films, it’s easy to tap into Letts’ musical mind with his weekly radio show Culture Clash on BBC 6 Music, and his regular club DJ gigs. The Reggae 45 podcast series is an added bonus for fans, and anyone else who wants a first-hand account of reggae and dub culture, from a man who’s been joining dots in the scene for most of his life.
I had a chat with Don over the phone from his London home (before a spot of gardening, no less), and he touched on everything from his aims for the podcast to his dad’s after-church sound system, having a huff with Bob Marley, his first trip to Jamaica with John Lydon, his love of Stormzy and Father John Misty, and “that dickhead in office in America”.
Reggae has been a big part of your life for over 40 years. What was it like trying to narrow it down into four podcasts?
Well, the secret is to not try and bite off more than you can chew. Obviously in four hours it’s just a slight bit of my life, by no means is it a complete history lesson. I think in my first podcast I say, look if you want that go and buy a book. But it’s a just a slice of my life and inspirations really, it’s nice to be able to pass it on.
Is it almost like a personal history, a bit of a memoir through music?
I dunno, I guess it starts like that because at the start of the podcast I explain my exposure to reggae and the things that turned me on, and the elements that appealed to me. Then I go on to look at various elements… one of the episodes is all about the vocalists and the singers and there’s one about dub, which I particularly love, and in another episode I look at the emergence and development of the Jamaican DJ and the guy on the mic. With all of them together I think basically it’s my personal journey, through my life in reggae.
What were your earliest memories of reggae?
Well my dad [St Leger aka ‘Duke’] had a sound system, it was called Superstonic Sound. It wasn’t an actual ‘sound system’, maybe I’ll send you a picture. It wasn’t like guys smoking weed in basements with one red light bulb. It was more of an austere thing that people from Jamaica did in the late 50s and early 60s when they came to England, and quite often after church or at the local church hall. It was a way of staying in touch with each other and staying in touch with back home. It almost provided a social community service.
I grew up in Brixton and went to a lot of blues dances, shebeens as you’d know them. What’s funny, back in the early 70s there was a shit load of choices. There were shebeens, there were blues dances, there were clubs, and quite often the sound systems would rent out their local town halls. So that’s where I got a lot of reggae, primarily through the sound systems, and that’s the role it’s constantly provided, not only getting music to the people, but also focusing on what the people like and indirectly having an effect on what’s being created.
I mean, sound systems have been the driving force of Jamaican music… it’s an integral part, without a doubt, obviously in cahoots with the people who actually make the music, but the two feed off each other very much.
Rock’n’roll, punk, rave, metal, they’re all seen as youth subcultures, a bit rebellious. It seems to be different with reggae, if you were hanging around at your dad’s sound system. Why do you think reggae is different?
For most people on this planet, music isn’t something that only the kids do, it’s an inherent part of their culture. Mum and dad’s listening to it, your grandparents are listening to it. In the west it’s got this thing that music is something that kids do, but for a lot of people it’s not, it’s part of their fuckin’ lives man, as corny as it sounds. Reggae was just always there, so much so that when I was growing up you kinda took it for granted in a weird way. It was only when white mates started digging it, that I was kinda thinking, ‘Yeah shit, I didn’t realise’.
I’m sure you’ve seen bits of sound system culture being ripped over and over. That spirit seems to have been lifted by nearly every big youth culture, especially in the UK…
Listen, you know what’s funny, in the UK sound systems used to be more prolific – when I went to Carnival in the 70s there were hundreds of them, now there’s like 50. And it seems that people in other places take that ball and run with it because in Europe it’s fucking massive. I went to a gig in Poland, a sound system festival, 200 sound systems and I’d only heard of about two of them, from Poland Croatia, Spain, France, Germany, Italy. When I say massive, there are hundreds of reggae festivals, you could never pull that off in the UK, the UK has about two reggae festivals and to be quite honest they’re quite poorly attended.
The champion sound system for years has been a Japanese one called Mighty Crown. The sound system has become a culture in of itself, all playing Jamaican music of some kind.
Why do you think sound system culture has tailed off a bit in the UK?
I think it’s to do with people’s aspirations… reggae is connected to reality, right? There’s escapist reggae as well, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of reggae that I like makes you think about what you’re doing, and I think a lot of people don’t really wanna go there because they’ll realise it’s the emperor’s new clothes. Hence, the quality of the music in the 21st century – not a lot of opinion, a whole lot of partying.
I don’t know about you but I’m not aware of any new Joe Strummers or Johnny Rottens or Chuck Ds or Gil Scott-Herons. Listen, I’m sounding like an old fart here, I do know obviously that things like that are going on, but that’s not the stuff that’s being pushed to the fore. Those poor bastards who are keeping it real, the door is shut on them. Right now the emperor’s wardrobe is full up.
What about young grime MCs like Stormzy and Skepta, surely that’s connected to reality?
Ah I love them! I saw Stormzy at Glastonbury and I loved the whole punky vibe of it. In fact within grime there is a whole politicised social aspect of it, where it’s musical commentary and I dig that. But I just get tired of people shouting at me – I’m old! I need a bit more melody.
But if you check the whole scope of the Stormzy album, the brother gets really laid back and emotional and very revealing, not just the macho stuff, the boys together stuff. The sound is maturing and growing up and becoming a lot more appealing to me. The initial thing of people shouting at me all day long, I was like, whoooa dude, get in touch with your female side…
Maybe the biggest youth culture to embrace reggae was punk in the 70s. It sounds like reggae and dub was a hit right away when you were DJing at the Roxy…
It’s funny, obviously I was at the centre of that whole punky reggae universe, but nobody talks about all the people that didn’t like it, and there were a fair amount of them, I gotta say.
You mean resistance from both sides, in punk and reggae?
Listen, punk rock music within the reggae circles didn’t mean diddly-squat, what they liked about it was the attitude, and the whole anti-establishment vibe. I always described us as like-minded rebels, but musically reggae didn’t get anything from punk. What reggae got from punk rock was exposure, and that’s kind of all it needed because once it got exposure the brothers did the rest. What punk got out of reggae is kind of obvious – the basslines, the whole musical reportage with the lyrics. Dub played a big part and was very appealing to people like The Clash and The Slits and Public Image. So musically reggae had a big impact on punk but it wasn’t the other way round, musically at least. But that’s cool, that’s alright.
John Lydon was probably the most famous punk reggae fan, and he brought you to Jamaica for the first time along with Richard Branson. What was that trip like?
The most amazing trip of my life. He was looking to escape the paparazzi and the media madness after the Pistols broke up and Richard Branson was funding it, John was to advise him about starting a reggae label called Frontline. Me being John’s mate and black, he asked me to go along, and what then happened was the most amazing two-three weeks of my life.
We were staying at the Sheraton hotel, Richard had booked the whole of the first floor. In a way it was like the jungle drums had beaten across the island: “Rich white man signing up reggae artists.” During the first few weeks there was this exodus to the hotel as every single musician on the island other than Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Peter Tosh would be sitting with me and John by the pool.
I kid you not, there’s I-Roy, U-Roy, Big Youth, Gladiators, Lee Perry… oh, who’s that over there? Oh it’s Gregory Isaacs, The Abyssinians, everybody. And because they were able to get a deal we became friends with these guys, it wasn’t like a handshake and they fucked off. Me and John spent a lot of mornings around U-Roy’s yard having what I describe as a ‘reggae breakfast’, and if you’ve seen my new film out called Two Sevens Clash, it’s got some footage of me and John in Jamaica, that whole punky reggae thing.
You were talking about resistance between people in punk and reggae, I read a funny story about Bob Marley being pissed off with you for hanging out with the punks…
Well he wasn’t so much pissed off, what had happened was, Bob was here in London, and his only contact with punk rock was through the tabloid papers and their portrayal of the whole thing was pretty negative. He was reading that punks are negative, they’re all nihilistic, which is all bollocks, it never was of course, it was about empowerment, freedom and individuality.
I knew Bob before I went to Jamaica, I met him in in 75 and 76 initially, and when he was staying here in 77 I used to see him fairly frequently because – how can we put this diplomatically – I used to sort the brother out.
Basically, I went round wearing these punk rock trousers and he started taking the piss, and I was forced to stand my ground, which I tell you at 19 years old or whatever I was, was no mean feat because this is Bob Marley. But I defended my mates and said, ‘Listen Bob, you’re wrong, they’re like-minded rebels’, and basically left in a huff. And sure enough, a few months later he got a lot more informed about the whole thing and wrote Punky Reggae Party.
Why do you think that punk stereotype still stands today? The safety pins, mohawks, postcards on Carnaby Street, that idea of punk and violence going hand in hand…
Two things – it’s lazy journalism and also sensationalism. I guess the two go hand in hand actually. But in all these movements, the media always focuses on the negative aspects. I recently did a documentary about skinheads, and people have forgotten they were the first multicultural movement in this country.
But when black and white kids are uniting on a dancefloor through a love of music and clothes… not a fucking interesting story. But a story of them beating up an Asian dude, well that’s an interesting story, and that paper goes up and down the country and all of a sudden the people in the sticks think, so that’s what it’s about, right?
The media perpetuates the size of these things. Even globally, you look at what skinhead means in the 21st century, it’s a fucking mess, and a million miles from its roots, and the media has a lot to do with that. Even with any subculture, the media has always been there kinda killing it and that forces the youth to sort of reinvent themselves and reclaim what is almost a birthright. And in a weird way, as much as they kill it, they almost were part of the driving force of that frequent turnover that happened in the last half of the 20th century.
On the other hand does it annoy you when it gets really diluted and it’s too safe, kind of repackaged?
Y’know what, there’s always been shit around. All reggae ain’t good, all punk was never good. Sun Ra once said, ‘Ain’t nothing more beautiful than you gotta have some ugly in it’. Joe Strummer put it more succinctly. Joe said, ‘Look, everything’s alright, you just have to make sure your bullshit detector is finely tuned’.
It’s funny… the nature of things being misinterpreted and reinterpreted and people getting things wrong, even within all that madness, there’s a creative element. I don’t think that people realise half the genius things that happened in rock’n’roll probably happened by mistake. Fuckin’ Jagger and Richards and McCartney trying to sound like Chuck Berry, they couldn’t do it and came up with something else. And I ain’t knocking them, it’s very much a part of the creative process, trying to reinterpret some of that shit, but out of some of that comes new stuff man, I mean nothing comes out of a void.
That seems to be your main ethos, anything goes, your radio show is called Culture Clash, your autobiography is called Culture Clash…
What’s funny is, in my day, being individual was the thing, that’s what I wanted to be, I was out on my own, it was empowering to me. But nowadays people have got back into a herd thing where they want to fit in, which is what I was saying earlier about people’s aspirations. They don’t wanna stand out as the freak. Funny, the ones that do do that are the ones that people admire, your MIAs or your FKA Twigs, or Thundercat, people embracing individuality.
You know who I’m digging at the moment and it’s got nothing to do with any of all this, it’s this brother Father John Misty. Man, that album Pure Comedy knocked me out. I listen to everything. I’ve got a compilation album out now, I’m really happy with it because everybody thinks, ‘It’s just Don Letts, it’s punk and reggae’. I hope the radio show dispels that. I’ve been doing the radio show for 10 years so I’ve put that compilation out to kind of celebrate my 10 years on radio, and let people know that, yeah it’s a big and beautiful world.
There’s a lot of shit going on right now in the world, particularly in the UK, but the world is a big place man, there’s always something interesting going on and I try and focus on that. It’s funny, you just made me realise that’s my kind of creative escapism in a weird way.
You’ve said before that “art was better when shit was more expensive”. Do you still stand by that?
Oooooh, that pissed a lot of people off! what I was just saying is just because you can afford it, don’t mean you can do it, because obviously the idea of putting the means of production in the hands of the people is fundamentally a good idea, but it just turns into a fucking nightmare, that’s all.
I could explain that further but another thing I say quite often is that technology is great, people are shit. It’s true, these things like Facebook and all that stuff that are nonsense in the west, in another part of the world they’re kind of life-saving devices. It’s not the fault of the machines, it’s how we use this stuff. There’s nothing wrong with the machines, it’s just that people are fucked up.
So you’re not on Facebook showing off pictures of your dinner?
I don’t do the dinner thing and I don’t do that thing of people and their kids. Oh my God, don’t people realise even cockroaches think their kids are cute? And what is it with the food?!
Does the current political climate remind you of the late 70s in the UK?
Yeah, but it’s a drag that it’s taken a dickhead in office in America and a lot of shit over here for people to finally get up off their asses and get involved. Cos I tell you, all these things that have people standing up and screaming right now, it hasn’t just started in the last couple of years, it’s been a gradual process that started at the end of the 20th century, the slow erosion of people’s rights.
Take London for instance, everybody knows about Grenfell Tower. I’m angry that it takes things like that to finally wake up. We’ve kinda let it happen, as long as beer is flowing and football’s going. People have had a lot of liberties taken.
Who was it that famously said, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’? We haven’t been fucking vigilant, how else could a dickhead end up ruling the most powerful nation in the world? I’m not really into this whole Trump as a pantomime baddie, but we’re all kinda responsible for this shit, the general decline in principles, whereby these people can even have a say.
Where do you see this ending? Can it get much worse?
Oh it can get worse. If you know anything about history it can definitely get worse. But if you know anything about history it can get better too, but that takes a bit of action. You can’t spend your life partying on the dancefloor, eventually the music stops and you have to face reality. And guess what, there’s probably a good tune for that too…
- Don Letts’ Reggae 45 series is a partnership with the Turtle Bay Caribbean restaurant chain — download at turtlebay.co.uk from July 17.