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4 March 2022

Don Letts: “Black Lives Matter protests made me question if I’d been tap dancing for the man”

The film director, DJ and musician talks punk, reggae and why the youth of today can’t “out-style my generation”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Don Letts knew what Jamaica sounded like before he knew what it looked like. The film director, DJ and musician was born in London to Jamaican parents in 1956 and grew up listening to reggae. “We had our soundtrack,” he told me over video call. “But there was no visual accompaniment. When I was a child, the only thing you’d ever see of Jamaica was a postcard with some dude riding a donkey on a beach in a straw hat, or somebody limbo dancing.”

This lack of authentic cultural references affected how Letts understood himself. “I’m first-generation British-born black, a child of the Windrush generation,” he said as he spoke from his studio, a shed in the garden of his home in Kensal Rise, north-west London. He wore a khaki sweatshirt, a rasta cap and a gold chain around his neck, and spoke as he does on his BBC Radio 6 Music show Culture Clash Radio – with warmth and charisma. “That ‘British-born black’ rolls off the tongue now, but back then it was confusing. I described myself as being of a lost tribe, neither here nor there.”

All that changed with the release of The Harder They Come, the Jamaican crime film directed by Perry Henzell, which Letts saw upon its release in 1972. “I remember walking out of the cinema having been taken by the power of a film to inform, inspire and entertain,” he said. The film offered, for the first time, a visual representation of the country he was from, and that had influenced so much of his cultural life, but which he had never seen.

It also set Letts in pursuit of what would become his profession. Returning home from the cinema, he wondered whether he could be a filmmaker too. “But in the Seventies, for a young black man, that was a ridiculous idea,” he said. “Film was an old white boys’ network.” Fast-forward five years and, with the explosion of punk rock and its DIY sensibility, Letts saw his opportunity. “My white mates are picking up guitars, man. I wanted to pick up something too. So I picked up a Super 8 camera.”

At the time, Letts ran Acme Attractions, a clothing shop on Kings Road, London that was a hang-out spot for members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, and artists such as Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Bob Marley, who became a good friend. His filmography began with the Clash: he shot the music videos for tracks including “White Riot” and “London Calling”. He would go on to make videos for the British Jamaican group Musical Youth – whose 1982 song “Pass the Dutchie” was a UK number one and sold over five million copies worldwide – the Pretenders, Elvis Costello and Marley, and is renowned for spearheading music-video direction for black artists in the UK.

He now finds himself in front of the camera for the first time. Rebel Dread, which will be released in cinemas on 4 March, tells Letts’s story through evocative archive footage, much of it his own. It details the threat of racism and police violence that he grew up with in Brixton, and tracks his career as a videographer, band manager and musician in the group Big Audio Dynamite. He – alongside his brother Desmond Coy and contemporaries Norman Jay, Jeannette Lee, John Lydon and Mick Jones – appear as talking heads. 

Letts is often credited with marrying London’s punk and reggae scenes in the Seventies through his resident DJ sets at the Roxy in Covent Garden, London. “White people from the suburbs” would come to the nightclub expecting to hear punk, he said, “and in between these raucous, punk-rock guitar live things they’d hear Don Letts playing dub reggae”. During the course of our call he referred to himself in the third person several times, though never with arrogance. He remains aware of, but modest about, his place in the history books.

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It was Trojan Records, the British ska, reggae and dub label launched in 1968 that “sowed the seeds for the UK’s love affair with Jamaican music”, he said. “People of my generation would have been hip to that stuff before Don Letts dropped a record on the deck. The people that I turned on to reggae in 1977 were all the white people that didn’t interact with black people. I’d like to take it on my shoulders, folks, but I never claimed it was all me.”

Still, Letts – in establishing the Roxy’s sound – was at the heart of the culture clash. Thrilling archive footage in Rebel Dread shows the filmmaker and his “rasta brethren” dancing alongside punks who are in heavy eyeliner and bondage wear. Shane MacGowan is there, smoking by the bar. Letts remembers the Pogues frontman asking for “a beer and two spliffs”, which is, he said, “the perfect example of cultural exchange”.

Rebel Dread was finished more than two years ago, its release delayed because of the pandemic. With all that’s happened in the interim, Letts feels as though he has changed since the film was made. Black Lives Matter “made me examine what I’ve been doing for the 66 years I’ve been on this Earth,” he said. “I wanted to know if I’d been tap dancing for the man or doing my bit. I quickly realised, whether it be in the films I made, or music videos or songs, the argument” – an underlying anti-racist message – “has never been far away.

“But Don Letts doesn’t spend his life on a soapbox. There is party music too. I just keep reminding people: you can’t spend your life on the dance floor. Eventually the music’s gonna stop and you have to go out and face reality. And guess what? There are some great tunes for that too.”

[See also: The chaotic life and bruising songs of Mark Lanegan]

The co-existence of London’s punk and rasta movements was “a testament to the power of culture to bring people together”, Letts said. In both subcultures he sees a “celebration of individuality and freedom”, which, he observed, are “themes the tabloids and the politicians are still determined to destroy”. In the 21st century, he added, “the only counter-culture is over-the-counter culture”. The advent of technology has shifted many of these movements online, where they are less visible to outsiders.

Letts, who is a father, also wondered whether the rebelliousness of his generation had made things difficult for the next. “Because of music, old ain’t what it used to be. I certainly haven’t become my parents, which is problematic for young people: how do you rebel against somebody like me? You can’t out-tattoo, out-hairdo, out-style my generation. I’ve got young kids and they’re trying to impress their dad and that’s kinda cool, but… We haven’t left a lot of stones unturned for them.”

He is speaking partly in jest, because he realises, too, that today’s young people have their own difficulties. Recently a friend asked him why teenagers today “look so crap”? “And I said, ‘because it’s more important that they get their heads together than their hair-dos.’ It’s tough. I do empathise. It’s hard to be a rebel when you’re living with your mum.”

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