Don Letts Interview: Punky Reggae Parlez

Marko Kutlesa catches up with one of UK music's most knowledgeable and inspiring voices.

Mike Warburton

Last updated: 9th Jun 2016.
Originally published: 8th Jun 2016

Don Letts's career started in the 70s when he took the music he would play at his day job in hip London fashion boutique Acme Attractions into a nightclub setting. Inspired by his parents, Letts was a devoted fan of reggae music in all its forms and became the DJ at London's first dedicated punk club, in a period so early in that movement that there were hardly any punk records to play.

Letts ended up turning vast swathes of the punk scene onto reggae sounds including future members of The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Pretenders. He befriended Bob Marley on a visit to London and maintained relationships with members of the punk scene that would serve him well as his career turned towards film making.

After a short tenure as manager of reggae punk band The Slits and, inspired in particular by seeing “The Harder They Come”, a Jamaican movie starring and sound-tracked by Jimmy Cliff, he made his first film “The Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

Also in 1978 he started his musical career, recording an EP with Public Image Limited members Jah Wobble and Keith Levene. He would later form Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones from The Clash. His twin music and film careers would enable him to record videos for the likes of The Clash, Public Image Limited, Public Enemy, Musical Youth, The Jungle Brothers, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Aswad, Black Uhuru, The Pogues, Eddy Grant, Sly and Robbie and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

He has made many documentaries and his subjects have included Sun Ra, The Jam, Franz Ferdinand, George Clinton, Gil Scott-Heron, Stiff Little Fingers, Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn and The Clash. His Westway To The World film on The Clash, one of several he has made about the group and its members, won a Grammy in 2003. In 1997 he directed the feature film Dancehall Queen which went on to become the longest running and most popular Jamaican film of all time.

As an authority on Jamaican music and punk, Don has a busy schedule as a DJ, appearing at clubs and festivals and since 2009 has presented a weekly show on BBC Radio 6 Music which shows a more diverse selection of his tastes. We caught up with Don to ask him about all the different areas of his career prior to his gig at the Positive Vibration Festival Of Reggae in Liverpool.

Hi Don! How are you? You told me via email you were working on some new filming. What was that?

I'm well. I've finished that now, it was a documentary on skinheads. It's for BBC4. It starts from its roots and brings it up to the mess it is today. It's got such a bad name now I think people forget that it actually started off as a multicultural movement. It was the very first multi racial movement in the UK, preceding punk. People forget about that, because it's been hijacked by the right wing.

You successfully introduced Jamaican reggae music to London's punk scene. Through your links to Jamaica and its musicians have you ever been able to similarly introduce any British music or culture there?

That's an interesting question. I couldn't claim to have done. No, I don't think so. When the punk thing was happening they were aware of it, they were more captivated by the public outcry. They were attracted to the fact these punks were like-minded rebels. I think that attracted them more than the music.

It's interesting you mention it because people always go on about what punk got out of reggae. It's obvious. But it's not so obvious what reggae got out of punk. What it got, of course, was exposure. That's all it really needed. Once it got the exposure, reggae did the rest. Where we are now in the 21st century is that it's a part of popular music, although the uninitiated might not know that.

Has there ever been as good a combination of reggae and punk music as that made by Public Image Limited's first line up and The Slits?

Well, I like what The Clash did. Ruts DC were good. But I think what's more interesting is the sonic lessons that were created in Jamaica that became a part of all popular music. The emphasis on the bassline, the idea of the space in dub, rapping, which came from MCing or toasting in Jamaica. So, a lot of these things have informed popular music without it actually sounding like reggae. 

As a champion of serious dub and Jamaican reggae from the late 70s how did you feel about the emergence of the Two Tone sound in the early 80s?

It was brilliant! By that time skinhead was getting a little bit messy and they had a big skinhead following. They put the focus back on what it originally was, music and style. Not only that, the lyrics were about something.

They had a language that maybe they'd picked up from the punks, so they were able to come up with anthemic tunes like “Ghost Town” which really tapped into the cultural landscape of the time. Two Tone was great. Also, revamping some of those old reggae tunes made a lot of money for some of those old boys out in Jamaica. That was great. It was good to see some of that given back. 

The current debate over membership of the EU has brought many issues of nationality and nationalism to the fore. Is it possible to feel entirely proud of being British?

I'm proud of what I am, my definition of British. But my definition and yours might be totally different.

From my perspective, the influx of different cultures, especially the Afro Caribbean ones has changed the idea of what it means to be British. I do think that by embracing the multi cultural mix Britain will become richer and can become great again. All of the things I'm interested in have come from this multi cultural mix. 

An easy one now. What's your favourite era of Jamaican music and who are your favourite artists from that period?

That is fairly easy. The 70s. Favourite artists? Predictably Lee Perry, King Tubby, Keith Hudson, Big Youth, Tappa Zukie, The Congos, I could go on and on. I'd definitely go for that period, but the list of artists goes on and on.

I particularly like the ones signed by Richard Branson for his Front Line label. I actually went along with Johnny Rotten to Jamaica went Richard started that label, which he'd started to try and emulate what Chris Blackwell had done with Island Records. He managed to sign a lot of great artists and put out a lot of great albums. Between Island and Virgin they got the cream of the crop.

What contribution do you think British reggae has made to the music?

Interesting question. For a long time British reggae was in the shadows of Jamaica. That wasn't helped by much of the audience thinking that if you weren't from Jamaica you couldn't make proper reggae. Groups like Aswad, Steel Pulse, Misty In Roots, Reggae Regulars, Capital Letters soon laid that to rest.

The advent of Lovers Rock was a purely British invention that got taken back to Jamaica and revamped again.

Have your ethics as a follower of Rastafari ever come into conflict with your pursuits as an artist?

I'm first generation British born black. Kind of rolls off the tongue now, but as a youth that was a very confusing concept. When Rastafari came into my life in the early 70s it helped me be who I am today really. It kinda taught me that I wasn't the lame cousin of my white counterparts and that I had something to bring to the party, so to speak, myself.

It was through the lessons of both Rastafari and the Civil Rights Movement that I was able to become who I am today. It was about black identity and black pride. I was no longer looking at white concepts of acceptance.

You've got to imagine being that little black kid at school and all you're taught about are famous white guys, the ultimate one being Jesus Christ, this white guy with blue eyes and blond hair and if that's the symbol of perfection, it's something that I can never achieve. So Rastafari really taught us to look to ourselves for inspiration and not look elsewhere. So, no.

Having said that, in the 21st century I no longer identify myself as anything other than Don Letts. Labels are weird. You give yourself a label and sometimes that's all you can be. 

Which film makers and documentary makers do you most admire? 

So many of them are not consistent, but obviously there's lots of stuff out there that strikes a chord. I'm kinda old school, I like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Brian de Palma, Powell and Pressburger.

Perry Henzell was a major inspiration, in fact it was watching 'The Harder They Come' that made me want to become a film maker. Nicolas Roeg too. These are all very old school. More up to date I like The Coen Brothers, Tarantino.

Documentary makers? I'd have to think hard about that. Lots of them out there, but not a lot who are consistent.

Not Werner Herzog?

Herzog? I used to go to late night cinema in the 70s, that's where I got my film education and Werner Herzog and Fassbinder were essential viewing. Although I have to say a lot of it went right over my head.

I remember seeing Alejandro Jodorowsky's films at that time too and they made a big impression on me. 'El Topo', which was a weird existential western, I remember going to see that several times in the mid 70s because of this healthy late night film circuit. That's where you got your alternative education when it came to cinema. 'Tin Drum' was another favourite, Bunuel too.

Which of your own films are you most proud of?

'Dancehall Queen'. In Jamaica, if you ask anyone who's young what their favourite film is, they'll probably say that. But that's only because 'The Harder The Come' is so old. It is still number one, but to even be mentioned in the same sentence as that film is a big honour for me. Dancehall Queen was a massive success in Jamaica and has a cult following around the world to this day, so I'm very proud of that.

Documentaries? 'Westway to The World' would have to be up there, but I think 'Punk: Attitude' is one of my favourites, simply because it viewed punk as an attitude and not a mohawk and it put it into the context of an ongoing dynamic. I got tired of people relegating punk as being an anomaly that happened in the late 70s, which it never was.

Because punk, although it has a lineage and a heritage, is an ongoing thing. If you understand that, it's very liberating. That helped me become who I am. Punk is something to look forward to, it's not something to look back on. It's the birthright of all young people, if they're brave enough and if they've got a good idea. I learned that a long time ago and it still works for me today.

I've got to say, because it's driving me mad all this 40 years, looking back when, to me, it's something we should be looking forward to... the birth of reggae was a punk rock moment. The birth of hip hop was a punk rock moment, as far as I'm concerned.

How these things panned out years later is something else, but even punk rock itself became pretty ridiculous after about two years, it has to be said. Punk rock was a ladder that you were supposed to keep climbing, you weren't supposed to get stuck on the first rung. 

You mentioned “Dancehall Queen”. That's gone on to become one of the longest running films in Jamaican history. When you were making it were you trying to show this culture to a global audience? 

No. When I was making that film the first people whose blessing I wanted were the people of Jamaica. Because after The Harder... several films had been made, but invariably they'd fly Americans or English people in to play Jamaicans. You'd end up with this mish mash of dialogue that really didn't reflect the place. 

When people make Japanese or Italian films they don't fly people in to play Japanese or Italians, so, it was weird that they kept doing that after. Luckily for me Chris Blackwell, who was behind Dancehall Queen, agreed with me in insisting that this should be an authentic Jamaican film. It had to strike a chord with the people of Jamaica first before it could connect with anybody else.  

After doing your radio show for so many years, do you ever feel restricted in what you can play as a club or festival DJ given the freedom the radio allows you?

Not at all. Because the truth of it is that what I do on the radio wouldn't work in a club or a festival setting. It's too eclectic. I really enjoy my radio show because it really allows me to be all I can be, not reggae Don Letts or punk Don Letts and I'm not defined by my colour. It's very liberating, Culture Clash Radio, probably one of the most honest things I've ever done. 

When I DJ out and about it's all about the history and the legacy of Jamaican music. It focuses on Jamaica's gift to the world which is bass culture, going back to what we were saying at the beginning. If you understand the range of bass culture, that's quite a wide net, do you know what I mean?

It's not like I'm just playing ska, blubeat and dub, I play hip hop mixes, mash up mixes because the things that have been created in Jamaica have been embraced around the world and interpreted in many different ways. Invariably a lot of the stuff I play nowadays doesn't even come from Jamaica, but there's no denying its roots. When I DJ out it's all about the bass.

From DJ at a punk club to being a Grammy award winning whose work has been shown at renowned galleries across the world. Do you now feel part of the establishment?

Do I now feel part of the establishment? Not really, no, because I'm sat here broke, on my arse. Although I have some kind of persona out there, like many people I'm hustling. It's a creative hustle, but it's a hustle nevertheless.

People say, you make films, you DJ, you've got a radio show, but I do all those things because I have to. It's not that I don't enjoy them. If you can survive doing something you enjoy you're onto a winner. If you can get rich at it even better. Unfortunately that's not the case with me.

But, do I feel part of the establishment? I don't know man. The establishment is what I say it is, not what they tell me it is. Like many of my peers I'm not looking for any kind of blessing from society.

Now that you've finished your documentary on skinheads what's next on the horizon for Don Letts?

You know this 40 years of punk thing that's been driving me nuts? It made me look back and I've got a lot of archive footage from back in those days and it occurred to me that the only story that probably hasn't already been told is the story of the punky reggae party. Just as I've got a lot of Super 8 of a lot of the major punk players, the Pistols, The Clash and the rest of it, I've also got an equal amount of reggae stuff that I shot in those days; Big Youth, Tappa Zukie, Prince Far-i.

There's footage of me and John Lydon in Jamaica when Richard Branson was doing Front Line. So my next project is a film called Two Seven's Clash and it's an archive project using material that I shot back in the day. It will look at the myth and the reality of the punky reggae party. I believe it's the only untold story left in punk. 

Don Letts will speak as part of a Q&A Panel and also DJ at the Positive Vibrations Festival in Liverpool Saturday 11th June, bag Positive Vibration tickets via the box below.

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