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Don Letts - Culture Clash

“There weren’t that many black punks around during the late seventies. I used to dream of being a DJ like Don Letts. I loved the way that he integrated reggae into the punk scene" - Daddy G, Massive Attack

Over the next few weeks we're honoured to have writer, musician, director and social commentator Don Letts acting as a Guest Blogger on the site. Contributing extracts from his book 'Culture Clash', Don will tell his story first-hand.

Don Letts Intro

Don Letts

Culture Clash summarises a man whose life has found him continually balanced between two poles: the predominantly white world of art/fashion and film-making in the UK on one side, and the black sensibility of Jamaican reggae, hip-hop and black politics on the other. Few artists have so successfully managed to unite these disparate elements as has Don Letts. Referring to himself as a first-generation British born black, it is this upbringing that has given him his unique viewpoint. Just picture the sight of a dreadlocked black man DJ-ing in a club full of thrashing white punks, playing dub reggae and rolling spliffs for punters. But Letts is quick to point out "the assimilation of Jamaican culture within the ranks of white youth had actually begun years earlier through their discovery of Ska and Blue Beat.  Letts was the reggae expert to the major players on the punk scene and was instrumental in introducing dub reggae to suburban kids via the Roxy Club and the fashion shop he managed called Acme Attractions in the mid to late seventies. For their part, the punks taught Letts an important lesson in DIY. As Letts puts it, “what I learned from the punks—besides the fact that we became closer by understanding our differences, and not by trying to be the same—was to make my problems my assets, and that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected. Punk wasn’t just a soundtrack or a uniform that you’d wear for a day it's a frame of mind, an attitude that informs how you do what you do."

Following his departure from the Clash, Mick Jones asked Letts to join his new band, Big Audio Dynamite. B.A.D  combined reggae bass-lines from Jamaica, hip-hop beats from New York and a very British rock n’roll guitar sound courtesy of Mr. Jones. Over nearly four decades Letts’ work has spanned black and white, film and music and when not behind a camera he can still be found DJ’ing his dub-reggae soundtrack nationally and internationally. He currently hosts his on show on BBC 6 Music called unsurprisingly 'Culture Clash Radio' show. In this first extract, Don sets the scene by introducing us to his childhood as a British-born Jamaican in London.

 Funky London Childhood

My earliest memories go back to Brixton where I lived with my parents and my brothers Norman, Desmond and Derrick. I was born in London on the 10th January 1956 the same year Elvis Presley entered the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel” and Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ was showing at the cinema. My parents had to become Anglicised to get by. It is what that generation tried to do and as first-generation British born blacks we saw that it was not really working out for them. My father worked for London Transport driving a Route-master bus, progressing to being a chauffeur for the New Zealand High Commissioner in later years. My mother was a dressmaker. Now in my parents’ eyes, certain things were just not done. For instance you could not speak disrespectfully - like saying ‘no’ in the wrong tone, or giving them bad ‘looks’, and you definitely couldn’t ‘kiss’ your teeth.

St Letts

My Father, St. Ledger Letts

Any of these transgressions were dealt with swiftly. My mother would hit us with anything that was within easy reach. I still bear a scar on my hand from a bread knife! My mother’s expertise lay in a swift and deadly execution of punishment—how just, was another matter. My father added mental as well as physical punishment to his armory. If we committed an offence the torture would be signposted with; “Wait till your dad gets home”. Depending on what time of day it was, this could really mess with your head—not to mention your underpants. But I must make it clear that the memories of my upbringing are not that of abuse or anything of the kind in fact quite the contrary. My parent’s generation made many sacrifices during their life so that we could have a better one. 

Valerie Letts

My Mother, Valerie Letts

For bigger crimes, like those spawned by the long summer holidays, either a switch from a tree which grew in the next-door neighbours’ garden, or dad’s belt swung into action. Norman, as the youngest, got it worse ’cause we were older and could lie more convincingly. When we broke the bed by using it as a trampoline—although I was the fattest, and Desmond was bigger than both of us—of course it was little Norman that got blamed. When Desmond broke the kitchen window, we three swore blind that a stone thrown by the ‘Greeks’ some ten houses away had caused the damage. My mother was like Mike Tyson in a skirt when she was angry—ask the ‘Greeks’. For example, I remember that I was on the receiving end of grief from some skinheads and had to make a tactical retreat home. My mother heard them shouting “nigger” this, and “wog” that in the street and stepped boldly outside, trusty bread knife in hand. The gang did the right thing.

Don Letts Child

A Young Don at the Wheel

The long summer holidays were an ideal time for the committing of childhood misdemeanors; not that us boys needed much excuse. For example, the time we decided to get rid of the tree that supplied the branches to which our young skin was so familiar come punishment time. Inches into the trunk with a tiny hacksaw we realised that the tree would be missed if we managed to hack it down. “OK, let’s make some tree poison,” we conspired. A brew of ingredients was picked from the kitchen (which, as all young boys know, is really a science laboratory). Bleach, soap powder, vinegar—anything we could get our hands on - were mixed to a very precise recipe in a large bucket. But just before we poured it onto the tree’s roots we realised that if the tree died, questions would be asked, licks would be delivered, tears would roll. So we swiftly aborted the plan and disposed of the poison by throwing it over the wall into next-door’s garden, and in the process over a bed of sunflowers. After dinner we heard the wailing of Miss Harris, the gentle old granny-type who was our next-door neighbour. The whole Letts tribe ran into the garden to see what was up. She looked like her world had collapsed and in a way it had. The once towering sunflowers no longer reached for the sky but lay flat against the soil: dead. We, like everyone else, threw our hands up in utter disbelief. After all, we believed our poison was made specifically for trees, not sunflowers. The episode proved to be a double-disaster for us boys, as the sunflowers supplied the bumblebees around which we used to tie a length of thread and then fly like little kites. When we got bored with that, we’d let them go, only to watch them fly off into the overhead telephone cables where they flew around and around in decreasing circles to eventually die trapped by the pieces of thread.

Father And Son

              Letts the Father, Letts the son

Two other incidents from my early childhood were to leave a deep impact on me. One for more obvious reasons than the other. During yet another school summer holiday Desmond, Norman and myself decided to play Batman. Now if there was ever a really stupid thing to do Norman was usually first in line as the youngest. But on this occasion it was somehow decided that I would be the one to jump out of our third story bedroom window. Unfortunately Fatman couldn’t hold on to the rope that was too thin in the first place. I must have hit the ground at 60 m.p.h with severe rope burns to both hands. The other was the time me, Norman and ‘Cherry Nose’ (a neighbourhood friend) went swimming at the local open-air pool. An innocent enough idea, except none of us could swim. We’re daring each other to see who can jump in the pool the furthest and make it back to the edge. Must have been that extra weight! Once again it’s me that’s watching my life flash before me as I’m flailing around out of my depth and drowning, quite literally. The next thing I remember is having my chest pumped by a white guy on the edge of the pool. How I survived those summer holidays I’ll never know.

To find out how you could be part of a unique Don Letts documentary celebrating 60 Years of Subculture, click HERE

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