As a Grammy-award winning filmmaker, musician and DJ, Don Letts is well placed to observe the shifting sands of youth subculture, and the societal forces that guide them. Now aged 62, or “as old as rock & roll” as he puts it himself, Don has seen a lot of cultural trends come and go and has been a key influencer during many of them.
Don ran the hugely influential London clothing store Acme Attractions in the 70s, where musicians like Bob Marley, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry and Chrissie Hynde came for the clothes and stayed for the dub reggae soundtrack. Don later managed The Slits, co-founded Big Audio Dynamite, collaborated with members of Trouble Funk, directed music videos for over 300 artists including The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Undertones, Bob Marley and Beenie Man and made documentaries about Gil Scott-Heron, The Jam and Sun Ra to name but a few.
Along with his autobiography “Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers” released in 2007 Don was also the subject of the documentary film “Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread” in 2010. He has also been hosting his “Culture Clash Radio” show on BBC 6 Music for almost 10 years.
On the eve of Don’s “Bass Forward” event in London’s Somerset House, I spoke to this tireless elder statesman of bass about the Windrush generation, the Trojan sound, digital youth, and the importance of optimism.
Don Letts: I guess that Trojan Records soundtracked my becoming a teenager and was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the Jamaican music typified by their catalog, which was reggae. Trojan was launched in 1968, the same year as Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, but while many politicians were playing on the fears of elderly white people in the UK, it was Trojan that soundtracked a unification of black and white youth in the playgrounds, on the streets, and on the dancefloor. So, it was actually acting as a tool of social change, albeit at a kind of a grassroots level, but from roots comes shoots!
Lunny: After your teenage years did the Trojan sound influence your own musical career?
Letts: Trojan sowed the seeds for the UK’s love affair with reggae, with Jamaican music, and actually pre-empted the whole “punky reggae” movement of the late 70s. It also inspired the Two-Tone explosion of the 80s. So, it become part of the fabric of popular music in the UK because so many of us had grown up with it.
Lunny: Do you see any parallels to the Two-Tone movement happening today? Is there a need for something of this nature, or are we living in a different society?
Letts: That’s a very interesting question because, during the last half of the 20th Century, England threw up a constant of nostalgia-driven subcultures from the late 50s right up to the millennium, and then it all sort of flatlined, that style-driven thing. In the last half of the 20th century, we had skinheads, punk rockers, soul boys, new romantics, teddy boys… The list goes on, but it ended when the millennium happened, and I have a feeling that it’s something to do with the digital age and the Internet.
Lunny: What do you mean?
Letts: Well, what’s interesting about all those subcultural movements is what they were formed in more innocent times, they happened because the mainstream wasn’t satisfying the needs of people like myself. So, you went out and found other like-minded people, and that’s how these subcultural movements began. Now with the digital age and the internet, it’s removed the pain, the struggle and the naivete. Now you can download things at the click of a button, you don’t have to go and find a like-minded mate who is listening to the same music as you. This has had a devastating impact on the evolution of British youth subcultures, which the English were so good at! Maybe that stuff has had its time. These days I guess it’s more important to get your head together than your hairdo. It’s tough out there for young people. It’s become economically prohibitive to be creative, it’s hard to be a rebel if you’re living with your Mum ’til you’re 40 .
Lunny: That brings us on to the overall sociological impact of music. You’ve spoken about the youth migrating to digital tribes, and the age of the internet. Do you think that music itself has the same impact as it did in the 70s and 80s?
Letts: No, I don’t think so, no. I don’t think music is as important as it was back then, simply because when I was growing up, in the 60s and 70s, we didn’t have a million different ways to express ourselves, find like-minded people, identify with our tribe. The only way we could do that back then was through the music we listened to, and the clothes we wore. It’s a British thing that’s very much a class thing as well. For the working classes we couldn’t compete by the car we drove or the house we bought, but we could find some kind of identity and status through the music we listened to and the clothes we wore. All of these subcultural movements that were so prevalent in the last half of the 20th century were totally driven by style and fashion. Back in the 21st-century kids these days can’t even afford to think about that stuff, I feel for them, I really do. That’s not to say that subculture’s dead, it’s just changed into something else that probably doesn’t look as good. Computer screens are great, but they’re not sexy. A playlist on a computer screen is not quite the same as flicking through somebody’s record collection.
Lunny: You are a child of the Windrush generation, which has been a lot in the news recently. What was the cultural impact of Windrush?
Letts: The Windrush generation came to rebuild the UK after the Second World War, and lots has been made out of that, and the fact that the government was trying to kick ’em out recently. But no one ever really talks about the fact that it was their culture that really helped them to integrate into society over here and make this make this place that much better. While the old white folks were being scared of the immigrants, the young kids’ imaginations were totally captivated by the music and the style of the immigrants, particularly the Jamaicans, and that’s how we became friends at street level. Trojan was a tool for social change, a difficult thing for music to claim, but it did that. Without a doubt, it did that.
Lunny: Alongside your Trojan takeover, what other projects are you involved in at the moment?
Letts: I’m presenting an event at Somerset House this weekend called “Bass Forward” about the impact of bass culture and bass music in the UK. When the idea was conceived, it was just purely a celebration of culture. Since then, the Windrush scandal happened. I had to choose the line-up for the evening’s event. We are all children of Windrush, and three out of the five artists performing (Norman Jay, Jazzie B and Wiley) have been either awarded a CBE or an MBE. Now, that ain’t for record sales, that’s a direct acknowledgment of their cultural contribution to this country. So, it’s ironic that on the one hand they are trying to throw our parents out, and on the other hand, they’re giving us MBEs and CBEs!
Letts: The establishment has acknowledged culture’s contribution to making this country better, and changing the identity of what it means to be British, to be quite frank. Before my parents came to this country many people here looked like Andy Kapp and his wife and would be dancing to “Knees Up Mother Brown”, but the Windrush generation brought some flavor, and we brought some sunshine, man. And the country desperately needed it, especially after the Second World War, believe me! So, it wasn’t just cheap labor that my parents bought, they bought culture, and that made this place better and helped us to assimilate.
Lunny: We talked about the isolation of the digital tribes, and the difficulty of expressing yourself as a young person in 2018. What gives you hope?
Letts: Well ultimately, I am an optimist. I get to travel the world a bit, and I see that a lot of people still believe in the power of music to change their lives and to be a tool for social change. Certainly, in the 21st century, a lot of music has become almost a soundtrack for passive consumerism, but it still has the power to keep people emotionally engaged and politically engaged with the planet, and with each other. That is the other side of the purpose of music, it ain’t all just about entertainment. I often tell people that you can’t spend your life on the dancefloor escaping, eventually the music will stop, and you’ll have to face reality. Guess what… there’s a couple of good tunes for that as well. So, I am optimistic. I would say that maybe The West has had its time and perhaps we need to look in other places, possibly to the amateur and the naïve; for everyone else, it’s kind of “reading the same book” if you know what I mean. In the West, we are somewhat distracted by social media, but in many parts of the world social media is actually a life-saving device. Look at the Arab Spring for instance, if it wasn’t for social media those people wouldn’t have been able to organize and let the rest of the world know what was going on. So, social media and technology are not the problem. Technology is great, but people can be… terrible. When the industrial age arrived, everyone threw their arms up, when recorded music came along everyone threw their arms up; this stuff (new technology) will work itself out. It’ll just take a bit of time, and it’s got to be a little bit messy until then, but I have faith. Like I say, I’m an optimist.
Lunny: What does the 50th anniversary of Trojan, founded in 1968, tell us about ourselves in 2018?
Letts: To me, the Trojan anniversary is about the power of culture, and the part it plays in bringing people together. Ultimately, it’s about how understanding and celebrating our differences makes us closer, not by trying to be the same.
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Originally published in Forbes.