A one-man cultural and creative hub who transcends video, fashion, music, writing and broadcasting, Don Letts has been at the forefront of radical music scenes since the mid 70s, when he most notably collapsed two high-energy scenes into each other by playing the rawest reggae sounds to hyped-up white punks in London. His voice has always had a rich and unique sound. When you hear Letts speak in a documentary or on the radio, you know it’s him.

Letts has been involved in the cultural heritage of this isle far more than you might realise. This could be because he was often on the other side of the lens, whether in music video or documentary production. More recently, as a radio broadcaster he is sheltered from the public gaze because not everyone ventures to match a face to a voice when they hear it broadcasted. His drive and passion appear unwavering as he ventures towards his sixth decade, exploring and driving forward black and alternative cultures.

Letts was born in London to Jamaican parents and that heritage has never left him, as his dreads, laid-back nature and bass-heavy selection testify. Those sounds will be heard reverberating up and down Abbeydale Road on 24 November as he conducts a reggae takeover at Picture House Social, alongside Trojan Explosion and the Reggae Take Over DJs. We spoke to Don to find out more about his past and what we can expect at Picture House Social.

You’re a DJ, author, commentator, musician and director, among other things. Which out of those creative pursuits is the most rewarding and why?

You missed out radio broadcaster! To be honest, I’ve always seen each thing as part of a creative whole. For me, as with most people, sound and vision are inextricably linked. I just like to make the most out of that combination. I’m happy doing either, as long as it’s got a kicking soundtrack.

Your influence on the punk scene, and notably The Clash, is well documented. What was the reaction of punks when you first turned up to play dub reggae tracks? It seems quite a punk thing to do. Did it feel it at the time?

When I started DJing at The Roxy back in 1977, it was so early in the scene that there were no UK punk records to play. So this allowed me to play what I liked, which was bass-heavy dub reggae, and luckily for me the punks liked it too. The punks loved the bass lines, with their anti-establishment vibe – and they didn’t mind the weed either.

What was your motivation for getting into DJing, especially playing to what may have been a hostile environment? Was it to hear music you loved on a loud system, to share the music with other people, or something else?

It happened by accident. I had no plans to become a DJ. The Roxy gig happened because the owner saw the reaction I was getting to the music I was playing in Acme Attractions, the shop I was running on the Kings Road, Chelsea.

When music was often very tribal by nature, what did people think as you successfully bridged connections between such movements?  

I never considered what people thought back then and I still don’t.

You flourished in creative collaborations, all of which without the aid of the internet or mobile phones. In a world of social media and the internet, do you think any of these grassroots movements and collaborations could have developed like they did?  

A lot of the grassroots movements and subcultures of the past happened because of how little we had, not how much we had. I think the internet is cool, but it has removed some of the pain and struggle which I think are an important part of the creative process.

The digital age has got rid of the mistakes, but mistakes are how many of the most exciting developments in music were created.

Do you think we’ve lost much of that rebellion and counterculture, even though we seem to be living in similar times of unrest and injustice?

We are just distracted by the aforementioned social media and internet, but I think that when reality bites due to the economic pressure, the people will wake up.

Do we need more artists to be doing more to relate these issues, like certain grime MCs, bands like Sleaford Mods, and Kate Tempest? 

Yes, but just as importantly we need more people listening to these kinds of artists.

Your show on 6Music is a very natural melting pot of the sounds you’ve championed as a DJ, artist and film producer. How hard is it for you to select what to play, given the huge vault of tracks you can dip back into?

If dipping back was all my show was about it’d be easy. However, I don’t believe you can just rely on the tried and tested. That’d be plain lazy. As a BBC Radio 6Music broadcaster, I also feel duty-bound to embrace the new and that is the hardest part of putting Culture Clash Radio together. This is especially because, in my ten years on the station, I’ve never played a tune I don’t like.

With so many options and opportunities for discovering new and old music now, where and who do you look to find things that will excite you?

I figure if I’m supposed to hear it, it’ll reach me somehow, but as I’m old school, a weekly visit to my local record shop, Rough Trade, is essential.

To do everything you have over the last 40 years requires an incredible appetite and passion for discovering new things, and you’re clearly still very passionate. What excites you in 2017?

Appetite and passion are only part of the story. I live in London guv’, so paying the bills is a great motivator. Apart from that, it is the fruits and possibilities of this city’s multicultural mix that still get me outta bed in the morning.

You’re playing Picture House Social in Sheffield on 24 November. What kind of selections are we likely to hear?

It is going to be an old and new-school bass-heavy reggae set, designed to move the crowd and reflect the heritage and influence of Jamaican music, and the island’s gift to the world: bass.

What is the track that never leaves your record box?

Dawn Penn’s ‘No No No’.

Don Letts plays at Reggae Take Over at Picture House Social on Friday 24 November, with Trojan Explosion and Reggae Take Over DJs.

donletts.com
reggaetakeover.com

Andy Tattersall