Don Letts is visiting New Zealand as part of the 2011 WOMAD festival. I thought I’d put something together for those who may not have heard of him!
Ten quick Don Letts facts:
Don Letts (born 10 January 1956) is a British film director and musician.
Don Letts came to notoriety in the late ’70s DJing reggae music to punk crowds at ‘The Roxy’ club in London. Here he would give the punks their first taste of Jamaica, spinning heavy dub and reggae like Prince Far I’s Under Heavy Manners and Tappa Zukie’s MPLA Dub.
Letts was equally famous for his compilation tapes, which he would give to the Clash, The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith.
Letts also started to document the punk rock movement in ‘The Punk Rock Movie’.
Letts was involved in the racial upheaval of the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots. The Clash’s Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were there throwing bricks, and immortalized a photo of Letts against the police lines on their subsequent album cover, Blackmarket Clash.
Letts went to Jamaica with Richard Branson in 1978 with a ’suitcase full of cash’ to sign promising Reggae artists to Virgin Records.
Bob Marley and Lee Perry’s song ‘Punky Reggae Party’ was inspired by hanging out with Don Letts in London.
Letts’ clothing store Acme Attractions was an epicenter of punk in 1970’s London.
Musically, he was a founder member of Basement 5 and Big Audio Dynamite,the latter with The Clash’s Mick Jones, managed the all woman punk group The Slits and collaborated with many post-punk outfits in the 1980s.
In his Film work he has directed videos for Public Image Ltd, Elvis Costello and Bob Marley, made the Grammy Award-winning Clash: Westway To The World.
Don Letts and Bob Marley
“You know in the late 70’s the only white people you would see down at a Jah Shaka dance in Dalston, Hackney or Stoke Newington, would be Johnny Rotten, those guys from Public Image, Joe Strummer, and other guys from The Pistols or The Clash, and these were my friends, people I’d taken with me. Now it’s great to see so many different kinds of people, different nationalities in the dance.”
– Don Letts
Some thoughts from Don..
The evolution of the Notting Hill Carnival traces the evolution of multiculturalism – it’s a cultural barometer. But it’s also in danger of losing its conscience. I want to remind people that it was something born of struggle.
For my parents Carnival was a reminder of home, and somewhere they perhaps wanted to return to.
The black British youth was confused when I was growing up. We’d try to emulate American blacks or our Jamaican brothers, but we were somewhere in between.
Everything I learned about my culture came through reggae. The first time I heard about [political activist] Marcus Garvey was through music, not school.
I met Malcolm McLaren in 1972. He dressed as a teddy boy then. He connected the counter-cultural dots for me – made me aware that I could be part of it, too.
There were two shops on the King’s Road in the 70s that attracted disaffected youth: my shop, Acme Attractions, and Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm’s shop, Sex. Friendships were made by people who were attracted by their differences.
When punk came along, everyone picked up guitars. I wanted to pick something up too, so I picked up a camera and reinvented myself as a film-maker.
The downside of affordable technology is mediocrity. Back in the 70s every three minutes of film cost £20. Now you can get a 90-minute digital tape for a fiver. The price used to weed out people who were just fucking about.
Youth culture in the west is increasingly conservative. Music has become a soundtrack for consumerism. It feels like punk never happened.
Racial problems are more complicated now. I’ve got mates who moan about Polish people stealing their work. I’m like, “You can’t say that. That’s what people said about our parents.”
I gave a lecture last week and the kids in the audience said, “Don, you sound like an angry old man.” I said, “It’s because you kids aren’t bloody angry enough.”
I was never a herd person: I was always a freak. I just refused to be defined by my colour.
More information on the Womad festival can be found here.