How to assess the influence of Don Letts – previously known as the ambassador of dub reggae, associate of the Clash, film maker and DJ – on roots music in a career spanning four decades?
Originating from Brixton, Letts started out in the London fashion and music business before making a name for himself as a DJ in the late 1970s. His role as a DJ at the Roxy in London around 1977 was pivotal in bringing together two strands of British music of the time: the predominantly white new punk music (itself drawing from existing American influences, including Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and, earlier still, the Velvet Underground) and the predominantly black reggae tradition (drawing directly from its Jamaican origins) which was expanding rapidly into studio experimentation with remixing and dub. The two musical elements came together in venues like those in which Letts promoted and celebrated the sound to an ever-expanding audience. He associated closely with the Clash, and the influence of the differing musical traditions upon them is clearly heard in their direct use of reggae-based rhythms alongside a standard rock instrumentation. A track like their White Man in Hammersmith Palais pretty much sums it all up.
This period of Don Letts’ career was also a time of politicisation of the music, in several senses. There was a political aspect ‘out there’ in the drawing together of black and white traditions and audiences generally (and more specifically in events such as Rock Against Racism), just at the time when politics in Britain were increasingly polarised and Thatcherism was about to rear its head. But there was also an important political element ‘within’, as the music itself adopted more explicit political themes. Colonial exploitation, white alienation and black discrimination all came together in an angry but essentially creative musical movement. Reggae turned from its covers of pop songs to become, increasingly, ‘rebel music’.
Alongside his role in the music of the time, Letts also began to put down on film some of the key sights and sounds of the era, leading to his continuing role in filmmaking and visual arts. During his career so far he has made several hundred videos of live performances, and has moved on from early DIY efforts to make two full-blown films: The Punk Rock Movie and, more recently, Dancehall Queen.
As the 1970s came to a close, Don Letts remained close not only to the Clash but also to the Sex Pistols and other punk bands and it is not surprising that the musical paths of the various people involved would cross several more times. In 1984, Mick Jones (of the Clash) put together the first incarnation of Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) in a lineup which included Don Letts. Not primarily a musician, Letts contributed mixing, DJ-ing, keyboards and ‘effects’ to the expanding sound of BAD and he continued to take further the close relationship between the rock and reggae traditions. His membership of BAD was to prove significant, as the band continued to extend the use of sampling and rhythm in ways that were –at the time – unprecedented. Perhaps most important of all, BAD succeeded in blurring the distinction between a live band playing and a DJ performing in a club: an ambiguous territory where Don Letts would feel entirely comfortable.
BAD, under the influence of Jones, continued to develop further in the direction of what would henceforth become dance music, but in the 1990s Letts departed to form Screaming Target (with former BAD members Leo Williams and Greg Roberts) and since that time he has continued to be a central figure in the invention and reinvention of sounds for new generations of enthusiasts.
Alongside films, sound systems and DJ-ing, Letts has taken a particular lead in re-presenting collections of vintage music, particularly in the dub reggae tradition. His compilation entitled ‘Social Classics Volume 2: Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown’ (Heavenly Records/EMI, 2001) was the second collection of ‘social’ tracks from this label. (The first volume, released earlier in the same year, was a collection of punk, reggae and house tracks put together by DJ Stuart Patterson). Letts’ collection, billed as the ‘soundtrack to London’s legendary Roxy Club’ featured a wealth of classic reggae tracks. These included Augustus Pablo’s King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown: many people’s introduction to dub (and one of the few cases where the dub version is better known than the original vocal track, Jacob Miller’s Baby I Love You So). The collection also includes Tappa Zukie’s MPLA, continuing the political theme, together with the familiar sounds of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, a UK top 30 hit in 1980. A particular standout is Fisherman by the Congos, a track which is as good a yardstick as any of the enduring appeal of reggae music.
Letts was also responsible for a further selection of key reggae tracks entitled Don Letts Presents the Mighty Trojan Sound (Trojan Records, 2003) which consists of 43 tracks of classic reggae music ranging from little known (if intriguing) songs like Queen of the World by Lloyd and Claudette to reggae standards such as 54-46 Was My Number by the Maytals. The collection also includes a second CD of largely instrumental tracks presented as a ‘dub cartel session’, again with a mix of well-known tracks such as Return of Django by the Upsetters (a UK hit single in 1969) and lesser-known recordings, includinga rather alarming account of the Theme from Shaft by the Chosen Few, complete with period wah-wah guitar.
Today, Letts is involved in a range of activities. He operates the Dub Cartel sound system with Dan Donovan (a former BAD colleague), no doubt with rather more sophisticated hardware than he had available in his days with a single deck in the Roxy in 1977. He also mixes and re-mixes dub tracks from the vaults, continues to make films and, of course, fronts the re-release of key reggae, dub and, now, hip-hop tracks from the past.
This brings us to current developments. Released in August 2004, volume 3 of ‘social classics’ (Heavenly Records/EMI) is a further collection assembled by Letts, this time moving on from the reggae period. Entitled Dread Meets B-Boys Downtown, the compilation comprises a selection of 16 tracks, accurately summarised in the album’s subtitle The Hip Hop Sound of New York 1981-1982. As might be anticipated, there are several names in common from this period and the earlier punk sounds, including the Clash with their Outside Broadcast and also Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals (a UK top 10 single in 1982). There are several names that might well be expected from this time, in particular Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, plus some that may be a little more surprising such as Kraftwerk with Metal on Metal. Perhaps the common theme underlying this latest compilation is Letts’ work on a film documentary of the Clash in New York in the early 1980s: this collection is essentially the sound of that place and time assembled in one album when, as Letts puts it, “a new sound from the Bronx was about to rock the planet”. The album follows logically from the previous social classics and from the peak era of dub reggae. It provides a context for understanding what went before and what was to come next.
Letts seems to be surprisingly unassuming about his influence. He does not claim to be a musician. As he says himself on the sleeve notes for Social Classics volume 2, recalling his time with BAD: “I ‘played’ keyboards live with stickers on the keys so that I could work out what to play”. His role has always been – and is now – to disseminate and interpret the music of his time, especially music with its roots in the current lives and concerns of the people concerned. His collections serve as a valuable guide to the time and place, a lens through which to view the music of each period he chooses to highlight. This latest collection leaves you wondering where his attentions will fall next.