Donn Letts | 01 June 2018 | The Junction | Plymouth
ABOVE : Don Letts at The Junction Plymouth 01st June 2018
Like the drops, fades, crossovers and track order in his DJ sets, Don Letts timing is something else. Whether it is catching a full test performance by 'The Who' as a 14 year old, meeting Bob Marley after sneaking into his hotel with the entourage in 1976, or deciding to make 'The Punk Rock Movie' in 1977, documenting the exploding Punk Scene around him while DJ'ing at the Roxy, Don knows something about the importance of striking while the iron is hot. That is much more than merely being in the right place at the right time...
ABOVE : Don Letts 'The Rebel Dread' in nice threads in Plymouth
From Running the London clothing store Acme Attractions back in the 1970s, to being the familiar face of music documentaries and his 'Culture Clash' show today, Don's influence and his love of Reggae from his parents homeland Jamaica has been pivotal in helping shape British music. Not just in his obvious life long association with the Clash and John Lydon from the Pistols, with the obvious reggae and dub influences that have ran through their careers, but in everything from rude boy and skinhead culture, to Drum and Bass and Dubstep, dance music being absorbed and accepted across this country.
BELOW : Don Letts brings his 2018 DJ Set to The Junction in Plymouth
With Big Audio Dynamite, Don interspersed the sounds of New York's Breaking crews with his and Mick Jones songwriting and the idea of what people now call urban, can be found in what became hip-hop, a beatbox for the world that can again be traced back to Jamaica. This is a continuum from Kool Herc to the sampling culture and turntabilism that fuelled the productions of the second summer of love and rave culture in the UK, where we all became musical post modernists and spread our nets much further than the local manor.
ABOVE : Don Letts pioneer and polymath at The Junction in Plymouth
In the nineties you could hear it in local pirate radio stations and Mike Skinner from The Streets, now it is there in YouTube grime performances and on mainstream TV adverts, you can see it in dance crews all over this country, the D.I.Y ethic that started in the dance hall and has had it's expression in everything from Punk to techno is now everywhere. Don has been a big part of that in the UK since the start.
ABOVE : James Storm Otieno of The Datura Roots Collective at The Junction Plymouth
'The Rebel Dread' legendary film maker, DJ, and all round polymath came to Plymouth's Junction on June 1 2018, where many were expecting a recreation of the Roxy sets from the Seventies, Don though, is not interested in nostalgia for it's own sake or merely repeating himself. He is a genuine lover of the great diaspora of music, as apparent from his grooving to the the excellent electro ska rock steady swing support band Datura Roots Collective and Chris Wheelie's full on DJ set to Don's own brilliant Radio 6 radio show in which his finger is on much more than just the steel pulse.
ABOVE : Chris Wheelie rocks 'The Junction' live music venue in Plymouth.
Tonight's set like Don's career, ran the gamut, from great dub and reggae versions of funk, rock, pop and soul classics, to punk, dubstep and even techno originals. His selection displayed dub reggae's amazing ability to take what is already a classic example of a genre, and not just reinvent it, but wield the deconstructing edit as an aid to clarity, revealing new insights, as though these were the originals and the Nirvana, Adel, Stevie Wonder and Prince songs they represented were the remixes.
ABOVE : Don Letts. Musician, Film-Maker, DJ live in Plymouth June 01 2018
His taste is immaculate and it matters not if it is the crowd filling in the gaps as he drops out Toots and the Maytals '54-46 What's my number?' or if he is giving the PA's Subs a workout with a banging Dubstep monster his programming and selection are beautifully executed. I asked him about his work
ABOVE : Don Letts 2018 UK DJ Tour in Plymouth
Community seems to be a common theme for you. Whether you are talking about the Punk family, or Skinhead culture, or the Notting Hill Festival etc.
“In the digital world it's more important than ever to get like minded people together for a collective experience. The digital age as much as it's supposed to facilitate communication, it's kind of dissipated it as well, because everyone is at the end of a screen. It's really important that people get together, in a collective space and look each other in the eyes,because that is how shit really happens. A bit of human chemistry. Don't get me wrong the digital stuff is cool, but you have got to have a mix. Balance the organic with the technological.
ABOVE : Don Letts Long exposure in camera shot live at The Junction in Plymouth
You are in quite a unique position as a bit of a pioneer in straddling scenes and being very happy doing your work with your feet in many camps.
I am old is what you are basically saying. I am old but I have good taste.
Do you think that some of that sense of identity and family is lost today where the boundaries between scenes are more blurred?
Well all the stuff that inspired me and helped me to be who I am today, were created in more innocent times. We didn't have ,social media, we didn't have all this digital setting, the internet and stuff. All we had was music....and clothes. That's why you had all those different subcultural movements in the last half of the twentieth century. When 2000 happened that flat-lined. You know what I mean? Maybe that's a good thing because in the 21st century for young people it's fucking tough, and probably better that they get their heads together,before their hairdoos. I sympathise because it is hard out there.
ABOVE : Don Letts Reggae Punk Pioneer at Plymouth Gig during the 2018 UK Tour
Should kids live a little instead of going straight into further Ed? After all, You were just 16 when you decided to be a film-maker after watching the harder they come, and just five years later you made that a reality with 'The Punk Rock Movie'. Do you think that learning everything on the job helped retain your unique style and that actually University ,Art College or any of the creative education schemes available now might have prevented you doing the work you did as part of those scenes you have documented. Would a degree have made you an outsider?
They were times when you could kind of operate within the cracks, everything is locked down now, and young people can't afford to do that. They can barely afford to pay the rent, and that is why a lot of them are still living with their parents until they are thirty, and art is so shit in the 21st century. Because when you are spending all the hours God gives you trying to live, where is the space to be creative, never mind have a life. It's tough.
ABOVE : Don Letts The Junction Plymouth
The comodification of culture?
It's that and just capitalism and fucking commercialism. I really feel for young people, I don't know how they can afford to be rebels. It's hard to be a rebel when your mum is doing your washing.
What is Next for Don Letts?
Listen I am like everybody else, to be quite honest I am hussling. It's a creative hussle and it seems glamorous from the outside but ultimately, I am hussling like everybody else. That is why I do so many things, I have got the radio show and I DJ, because the film thing doesn't happen often enough for me to survive. In the 21st century for a lot of creative people it's a case of diversity. You have to be able to juggle a few balls.
I am not so much up my own arse that I cannot appreciate that if you can just make a living, doing something you enjoy, you are on a winner. Rich all the better, but if you can just live doing something you enjoy, because most people do shit they hate for fuck all money.
ABOVE : Don Letts DJ Set in Plymouth at Live Music Venue The Junction
I have always looked at you as being a bit of polymath, but that has become the norm, a common thing for many creative people nowadays
Yes you've got to do that, but you have got to be master of something. You don't want to be a jack of all trades and a master of nothing. It's fucking rough out there man, and I don't see how it's going to get any better. I am glad I am 62, I am as old as Rock and Roll.
Have you really made 400 music videos?
That is about right, it's something between 350 and 400.
Wow! Ha! I don't really know what to say about that..amazing..nuts
Some of them are shit...not a lot of them but some of them
I thought you set tonight was incredibly brave. It was fantastic that in some ways it really split the room.
Some people wanted more of the old school dub stuff and others really loved what you were playing
I can't stay in the past. I can't do that. Some people would be happy if all I played was Trojan and Old School.
I mean your set has answered this, but I wanted to make sure I asked..Has Reggae and Dub managed to stay relevant with all the British descendants of it in the second wave of Ska, (Two-Tone) Trip Hop, Jungle, Drum and Bass, Grime etc capturing the minds and feet of successive British teenagers?
Listen, the bottom line is this about Reggae. It's actually become part of the fabric of popular music. You might not recognise it but someone like Lily Allen for instance, that album was all reggaefied, ska and rock steady samples she used, and the whole idea of pushing the bass centre stage, using the mixing desk as an instrument, the whole dubby spacey thing, DJ's and rapping, that all came from Jamaica. It's kind of intertwined with popular music, so a lot of young people wouldn't even realise it goes back to Jamaica.
ABOVE : Long Exposure in camera photograph of Dub DJ Don Letts playing live in the UK
I think that a big theme in your work is the use of montage , found/field material in a visual and audio sense so sampling and your style of cutting has found it's way into your visual work. The Dub aesthetic?
Yes I can see that I definitely have a dubby approach. Although you can't just rely on sampling other people's shit, ultimately you have got to bring something to the mix
Yes of course. I used to create the stage visuals for a psychedelic /punk/techno crossover band called The Black Buddha Band ( the greatest band in the world) ha! We used to stack TV's on the stage and sync all kinds of found footage from gaming subculture, TV, Cinema, Obscure regional TV, Direct action Videos, footage of the band etc
When did you do that?
That was the mid to late nineties
B.A.D did shows like that in the 1980's. With the screens and the footage. We were big on that.
To me it made sense because it mirrored the samples and eclectic influences that were very much a part of the sound from the Black Buddha Band, it seemed to connect and it allowed people to superimpose their own narrative or meaning
For us it was about using elements of the media to create a more cinematic sound, of course Big Audio Dynamite were serious about sampling that was very much part of our identity, but ultimately you can't rely on stealing people's shit. The thing about B.A.D , and I know this for a fact, was you could take the samples out and you would still have a song. There is a fine line between that thing where you build on a sample and if you take it out..you know
Even in B.A.D I came to realise that our very being, and nothing but the result of stuff that we have sampled in our lives and filtered, and some we have kept and some we have got rid of, nothing comes out of a void. Nothing comes out of nothing, our very being, we are taught stuff and we retain some and we kind of re-interpret it. We are the creation of sampling life, it is how we grow. Music sampling takes that very literally, but it is actually how we become who we are.
I can remember being outraged the first time I heard techno used on an advert, and then I realised that the person who made it might have been at a rave 20 + years ago and that was their frame of reference
The underground always becomes the overground and then people have to rebel and kind of reclaim it and make it the underground, and that's how the thing moves along
ABOVE : Punk and Reggae fans at The Junction in Plymouth
ABOVE : Lee Hall of The Datura Roots Collective live at The Junction in Plymouth
You can check out Don Letts 'The Rebel Dread' website here
And Don Letts' 'Culture Clash Radio' here
More pictures from the support acts and Donn Letts to come later on facebook here
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