Don Letts, musician and filmmaker, discusses the documentary Rude Boy and the musical relationship between London, Kingston, and Detroit.
Introduction: You are listening to a Detroit Sound Conservancy Production.
Carelton Gholz: My name is Carleton Gholz I’m the Executive Director of Detroit Sound Conservancy here in Detroit I’m here with Don Letts. Don, how would you describe yourself first? Would you describe yourself as a filmmaker first? Or what would you use to describe yourself first?
Don Letts: Well, I usually let other people do that, but I’m known over the Grammy winning, filmmaker, a radio broadcaster, and DJ primarily, but my friends call me the Rebel Dread.
Gholz: The Rebel Dread, the Rebel Dread. And what was the first, since you are here in the city and it is the 60th anniversary of Motown this last they’ve been sort of celebrating it for the last year or so. When would you have first sort of heard Tamla Motown?
Letts: Oh, man. In the sixties for black people Tamla Motown was a global phenomena that kind of offered a better hope and optimism against, I guess, in my country and the guests here as well against the sort of a climate of racial tension. So it was tremendously important for black people because there wasn’t any other thing to uplift our spirit besides the music that was coming up in the Caribbean. So those two things kind of gave you the strength to get through the week.
Gholz: Yeah. And were you in, so people for people who may not know that sort of first-generation black England?
Letts: Yeah. I’m first generation British, born black. It sounds easier to say now, but back in those days it was a good fusing concept. Believe me.
Gholz: Right. And so would you have heard, so what was the, just the sixties, what was the radio landscape at that point when you were younger? Like what was the atmosphere that punk was in other things was reacting?
Letts: Well punk wasn’t reacting against Tamla Motown, we will, I mean, you know, the white working class kids love that stuff and the emerging white youth subcultures embraced it the months, you know, totally into ’em and Tamla Motown.
Gholz: Right. But then there’s BBC Radio.
Letts: No, listen, I mean, they, you know, Tamla Motown, we’re talking about chalk friendly, catchy tunes, it was busting out over all the radio stations. There was no problem with them getting airplay. Reggae on the other hand, you could never hear on the radio. The only way you’d hear reggae is by going to a Sound System.
Gholz: Right. And what is in, when would you have first been a sound system culture? Like when would you, what would have been your first experience with, with that?
Sound System Culture
Letts: Oh, my parents brought sound system culture over in the fifties with a movement called the Windrush generation, which was for people from the Afro Caribbean were asked to come to the UK to help rebuild the country after the second World War. And they brought their hopes, their dreams and their precious record collections.
And it wasn’t long after that they’d to build their own sound systems as a means to kind of come together, get news from back home.
And once again, ease the pain of a hard working week in a country that really was quite hostile back then. I mean, the one older white people were totally threatened by this influx of immigrants with their culture. And what’s interesting about it is, you know, the politicians at the time, particularly a guy called Enoch Powell played on the fears of the older white people. But it was their music, particularly reggae and Motown as well that kind of united black and white kids on the streets and on the dance floor, man. So, you know, between reggae coming from the effort character, from Jamaica and the stuff coming in from America, the Motown stuff, those two things actually served. They had some kind of, what is it? The musical tools for social change, really.
Gholz: When you’re just in one more or less to old question. Now I promise I’ll move more in that. When you say sound system, that fifties moment in fifties feels very, I mean, here, it would have been a radio to just drop the frantic Ernie Durham. And he would have been doing maybe like remote, like radio station remotes. And so I can imagine sort of a very, what we would consider fairly stripped down situation. What do you have a sense of the sort of, cause we think of sound systems now everything’s very digital. For most people.
Letts: Jamaican sound system culture is our whole different thing that really started in the late fifties in Jamaica. The first sound system operator was a guy called Tom ‘The Great’ Sebastien and they would have these giant bass bins. I think the first ones to call me by called House of Joy and tweeters. And you know, it was all about the bass and volume and I mean the whole evolution of sure. Yeah. You can actually feel, and it means that you can actually feel literally, you know, but the thing about Jamaican music is the sound system actually developed as a reaction to what was happening in America because in Jamaica, before sound system culture, my parents generation would have been listening to old school R&B and boogie-woogie.
Now when that changed to rock and roll in the United States, right, Jamaicans weren’t into that.
And that kind of forced them to come up with their own soundtrack that was relevant to their situation. And that was ska, right. But this stuff wasn’t getting played on the radio in Jamaica either. So they came up with these, I mean effectively the kind of mobile discos, but much more than that because you know, that that all culture around them. I mean, you had the guy that was playing the record was who’s called the operator. You’ve got a guy on the mic. It was in funny enough in Jamaica called the DJ. It’s not the guy on the turntable. You know, and you’ve got the whole of the posse of people that will help run and string string up the sound system. And out of that came this kind of bass heavy culture that’s now a global phenomenon.
You know, you can found, find Jamaican style sound systems, which we have to differentiate from any other sound system out there in any of the soul things or from the gay scene or the house scene. It’s a totally different thing that focuses really on Jamaica’s gift to the world, which is bass in it because that’s the other thing that happened is then a Jamaican started to push the bass center stage and the beats, they started to use the mixing desk as an instrument and of itself as demonstrated by the likes of Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby. And the whole phenomenon rap started in Jamaica. Because back in the day, there was only one deck just to keep the vibe going you to get a man on the mind to kind of nice up the place while somebody changed the records.
And that turned into an art form, which is now called rap in the early days when ska, rocksteady, blue beat, reggae was being created because it was a new sound, you know, they haven’t written a lot of their own material.
So a lot of the early stuff would have been versions of either soul tunes they were hearing in America or Tamla, Motown. I mean, people like, I don’t know, Curtis Mayfield was absolutely massive. The Impression attack back in Jamaica and Jamaicans all loved soul. So a lot of that filtered into reggae and although it would sound very different with a bass upfront, Tamla Motown informed a lot of early Jamaican productions. Yeah. Especially the upbeat optimistic vibe, if you listen to ska it makes you want to dance, man. Yeah.
Gholz: There’s a moment in the film where there’s sort of a discussion about too much sweetening going on and those strings and that’s really interesting. Cause obviously Motown. One of the histories in that Motown is the fact that we had the symphony orchestra and we had incredible string players here.
Too much Sweetening
Letts: Well, dig that. I mean, what happened was the music coming out on Jamaica was pretty raw. I mean, talking on bass guitar, keyboards and drums specific bit of percussion, that was it. And like I said, it got no radio airplay whatsoever in the UK. So what Trojan decided to do was cause they would be licensed this, this music from Jamaica and release it in the UK, what they decided to do to get their records airplay and into the mainstream was start to add strings, which was a tip that they really got from the whole soul thing going on in the States and from Motown and, and also the audience in the UK had a propensity for those students. They liked him anyway. So they took a bit of the kind of saccharin sweet vibe from the soul and Motown movement.
Put it over these bass heavy tunes and actually scored a shit load of shock hits. It worked, I mean between 1968 when Trojan started and 1974 unprecedented run a presence in the UK charts. It never happened again, deadly combination, melody and bass.
Gholz: Yeah, absolutely. Coming to the more current moment and acknowledging that I was with a dear friend and a board member last night, we were talking about the bottom line, a big audio dynamite and songs that would have made in the eighties and nineties here on the dance floors at certain spots. So I’d love to spend another hour just talking about that material, but moving forward to this documentary right now. How do you see, I feel like we’ve gone through in the last five to ten years lots of different ways to do documentary. Lots of different ways to sort of depict what’s been in the past.
This documentary does a hybrid of reenactments, interviews, I think really well that sort of almost karaoking artists, karaoking their own songs, but now living. And what do you think? What do you like about the film in that way?
Letts: I thought those recreations were absolutely fantastic and more to the point that absolutely necessary Trojan happened at a time we’re talking 1968. They weren’t no video cameras in Jamaica. The people didn’t even have still cameras. So they had practically no archive material and we’re talking film here. So we couldn’t have a 19 minutes of talking heads and the director did a fantastic job in illustrating classic moments in the creation of the label. And more to the point, if you look at the people he’s cast and the detail he’s bang on, I mean the actual people that are doing the reconstructions actually even, Duke Reed; he looks like f**ing Duke Reed. You know, it’s amazing, I take my hat off to him.
Gholz: A really nice job. What’s your sense of one of. There’s another conference in town right now sponsored by the German government actually about culture and arts programming in the city of Detroit. And there’s lots of conversations about how we can bring our city “back”, in quotes, in terms of the music capital and all.
Call it MidTown
Letts: It’s coming back. What are you talking about? You know, check out people like Third Man, man, they’re doing a great job. Their problem is how are you going to keep it for yourself? Because what’s going to happen is artists that realize how much power they have because what’s going to happen. It’s all going to get trendy. I mean like round here, they’re trying to put a call it Midtown with down the way they’re trying to beat town. What was it, what did it used to be called?
Gholz: Cass Corridor
Letts: You know, they start calling it Midtown and all of a sudden the state agents put the prices up. And the question is how are the creative people going to be able to afford to stay in Detroit because that’s, what’s going to happen. It’s an old, it’s an obvious dynamic. You know, the artists, like I say, they make a place desirable, rich people come in and price them out.
But as far as the vibe that I get from Detroit, it’s already well on its way up and it’s being led by the artists.
Gholz: Right. Let me try a different way of saying it. Cause I agree. I’m one of those artists who couldn’t buy the Cass Corridor, even though that’s the place where I found my misfits, you know, when I was younger. How about this little. Universal Record, Universal Music Company recently it came out that there was a fire maybe eight, nine years ago and they, and they lost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of master tapes and they, they covered it up. We just recently found out how much they had lost. A lot of that stuff was I don’t, we don’t believe that the Motown materials were part of those, but we did lose, you know, Louis Armstrong. We lost all these incredible art, you know, artists who anybody was on Universal for a certain kind of time. You know, what do you see how does the musician and the artist that seems corrupt and broken that whole system. That major label system and the buying up of the record labels, is there a better way? I see, you know, this document, sorry I’m jumping around, but this documentary is sponsored by blockchain technology and all that. So what do you see as healthy, music ecosystem ways, how’s the artist supposed to make? You’re absolutely right. Being displaced, but what’s the…?
Healthy Music Ecosystem
Letts: How are they going to get paid for their ideas, for the turtle and the turtle problem. But the thing is, I think to deny the role of business in the process is kind of naive. I mean, I think it’s all about it’s about balance, man. I believe people should get paid for their ideas. I don’t think an artist should suffer for their art, but by the same token, you kind of have this thing where you need a certain business acumen to monetize what you do. And I think it’s all about, you know, whether you’re into creativity or profit. And I think that’s where it’s all about the profit margins, where it’s putting profit before the idea, no, pushing the idea and if you get paid for it, you know, then you, and hopefully you’ll get paid for it.
You might not make millions, but you’ll make a living as far as I’m concerned. If you can make a living doing something, you enjoy, you’re a winner because most people do shit they hate and get paid nothing, you know, that’s the reality of life. So if you can make a buck doing something, you enjoy, you’re, you’re a winner. If you can get rich out of it, even better. But we got to remove the accountants. You know, I think that’s what it is as well. You ever see that famous thing with Zapper where he’s doing an interview with, he’s talking about what’s wrong with the music business. And he said something like in a, when it was just the old and I’m not being racist here, but I think he said that old Jewish guys just wanting to make money. They left the artist to do their thing. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m going off script here, but it’s interesting analogy. And actually, as I think about it, it goes against what I’m saying, but back in the anyway, forget that, forget all this, but that, you know, the quote he says is when they started to hire the young trendy people, that it all got fucked up.
Gholz: Because they would actually show up. Yeah…
Letts: Yeah. And try and get involved in the creative process, scrap that bit, edit that back section. Okay, cool. But what I can tell the fucking Iggy (Pop) and MC5, all that stuff that was blown my mind back in the day. John Sinclair, dude who I love, you know, to bottom of my heart, man, it’s still a major inspiration. What about all those dudes?
Gholz: Yeah. Well, John…
Letts: I mean, when I first heard about Detroit, that’s how I knew about Detroit besides Motown, you know.
Gholz: When did you know John’s not in great health right now? And the (MC) 5 version of the 5 just toured you, Mr. Kramer’s is, is touring it.
Letts: And Jack White, you know, he’s trying to preserve a lot of stuff that would, you know, people don’t even give a shit about, you know,…
Don Letts: Or could we do in the reason why it’s still a question is because for instance, the music and the schools, you know, a lot of those Tamla Motown artists came out of very solid school system, even though it may have been moments of segregation, whatever, it was still a solid school system. There were still incredible band programs. Now that that’s all done, it’s pretty much gone. So yeah.
Letts: But again, what you lose on the random, up around about your gain on the swing, because nowadays there is affordable technology and things that counteracts the fact that you can’t buy a fucking tube or saxophone or whatever. So I think the affordable technology out there is maybe compensate for the cutbacks in school bands and the rest of it. You know, if you’ve got a good idea, you can get it out there. You know what I mean? Although I’d have to say that just because you can afford it don’t mean you can do it, right?
Gholz: Did you play an instrument as a kid?
As a Kid
Letts: I don’t play an instrument. I can’t, in my famous day I was in big audio dynamite because I couldn’t play an instrument. So my ideas came from somewhere else. That’s why, for instance, we had all the dialogue and sample thing because I have to justify my space in the group. So the first contribution I made was like to be stealing bits of dialogue from movies quickly realized that you don’t get paid for stealing other people’s shit. And then threw myself into the lyric writing. And the first song I ever wrote was Equals MC Squared. Right. You know, and ended up writing money, 60% of the stuff with Mick. So I can’t play anything. I can, I can write like a mot*****er.
Gholz: Right, right. Exactly. I think those are my, you know main questions sort of what is your hope for, you know, now that this sort of culture that’s talked about in the film? I mean, it really is 50 years old, more or less, what do you see that will last from. I mean, obviously the impact has been global, so it’s already gonna..
Letts: I mean just like Tamla soiled the seeds for white people’s love affair with black music, period. Reggae has done the same thing in the UK, for sure. And via the UK, that’s gone global, you know, Jamaica is this tiny little island that spend years under colonization. And now this tiny little island has culturally colonized the whole goddamn planet. Great many places you ain’t going to go, you know, you’re going there. They won’t know about Bob Marley or reggae, you know. Being Jamaicans got a lot of credit on this planet.
Gholz: Yeah. What was the first time you were ever in Detroit?
Letts: Oh man. I guess when I was making a documentary for the BBC called Planet Rock and I came to interview Derek May.
Gholz: There you go. Right? Yeah. So that’s sort of been so like nineties.
Letts: Yeah. I think I made that documentary about 96 if I remember rightly.
Gholz: Okay. So you didn’t come here when Big Audio Dynamite was touring?
Letts: You know something. I can’t remember. I mean, if it was, if it was on the touring circuit, we probably did. Cause we toured like in America you spent your whole life. God damn touring his place so, but I can’t remember. I genuinely can’t remember. I hope somebody else can tell me.
Gholz: So I was in Brixton in 97 and South London in that area. And at that time in the night, in the late nineties, I still had a sense that you could buy 45s on the street in the market’s a little bit like there’s still that kind of fun things still going on. Yeah. How are things going these days?
Letts: I don’t know about here, but in the UK, apparently there’s a massive upsurge in vinyl. The fact to reopen, pressing plant. What I don’t understand is I’ve never, I haven’t heard about any upsurge in people buying turntables. So I’m wondering what the hell they’re doing with this vinyl. You know, it, ain’t no good sitting on a shelf looking hip, you got to play the shit. Right. But essentially I’m not aware of, you know, even still you can go and buy a bunch, you know, you can see a selection of turntables, I guess it’s all done on the net now. Yeah. But Hey, you know, the vinyl, the vinyl generation amount, I’ve got an analog attitude.
And you know, I grew up with music that helped me to be who I am today. You know, when you’re in the media, medium was not the problem. The problem is the fucking content.
And I mean, a lot of the music today for me, it’s about selling you shit. It’s not about lifting, you know, making you a better person. I mean, a lot of music’s become this soundtrack for passive consumerism. You know, I grew up with things like ‘Street Fighting Man’, and you know, Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Get Up, Stand Up’.
Gholz: The Big Audio Dynamite stuff, a lot of that stuff was about that. You know? Well, I mean in The Clash too, but you know, consumer, you know, lost the supermarket or something, you know, consumer culture, but it seems like that.
Letts: Listen, I’ll tell you what it is. My thing is, you know, I don’t want to make people think I’m standing on a soap box or something. And then the music’s great, great to ease your pain and escape sometimes. But the bottom line is you can’t, I’m speaking figuratively heavy. You can’t spend your life on the dance floor and eventually the music’s going to stop and you’re going to have to go out and face reality. And guess what? There’s some great tunes for that too. It’s all about balance. And the balance is a little out of whack now. Cause I don’t find it well in the UK. I can’t speak for American, but in the UK, it’s really hard to find somebody that’s even gotten an opinion, nevermind even a political point of view.
And music ain’t just about escapism.
Gholz: London. Where, where you call home in London these days?
Letts: I’m in West London. I mean, like I tell people, nothing will get, cause I’ve heard of the movie, but I live half a mile down the road, Ladbroke Grove. A lot of musical heritage. Yeah.
Gholz: And how is Ladbroke Grove these days?
Letts: Same thing, artists came then it’s got trendy. Now the artists can’t afford it. It’s low. The rich white people living there. Yeah. I mean every, I actually think that one of the definitions in the city in the future is going to be, it’s too expensive for ordinary people to live in. Do you know what I mean? Cause every major city you go to, they’re getting… man, it’s like impossible for anybody to creative people, particularly because the economy is having a massive impact on creativity because you know, if you spend all your life trying to pay the rent, how are you going to be take chances and be radical and be creative, you know?
Gholz: Or if you’re here or you’re in debt there’s there’s…
Letts: No, in the UK, it, I mean the young people living with their parents until their old people. Yeah, literally. Yeah. And consequently, the artists suffering, you know.
Gholz: Stuart Hall, what he was part of the New Left Review, he was a writer, a black British, I’m just thinking about the kinds of thinkers and writers you were were, or what was, or, or if in that 60, 70s moment, um, was it purely, you were taking your top cues from the music, were there other, what were the other sort of things, you know?
From the Music
Letts: You got to understand when I was growing up, when I was growing up, obviously there wasn’t internet and the digital age, all that nonsense and music was our only form of alternative information and inspiration. And I think people forget that music has that potential man, even Motown, they stopped brothers started to get political. I know that Mr. Barry, didn’t like, what’s going on? You are wrong about that. So obviously, but even the brothers started to get a lot, you know, particularly after the Vietnam War, you know, so, and it is possible to say something and sugar the pill Motown did it brilliantly as did some of the reggae tunes, you know what I mean? You use groove in away, but they’re saying something, you know, get up, stand up, you know? I’ve lost my train of thought. What was the point?
Gholz: Oh, just thinking about things that you were taking. I was thinking about some more political, you were talking, Powell, that’s obviously the right version of that stuff, but what were the, who were the people?
Letts: And even the early days before I started to get a lot of my information from through reggae, I mean, you know, I mean obviously people like (The) Last Poets. You’d have to talk about Gil Scott-Heron. And then although, you know, they were speaking about the black American experience, which is so different to the British one. I mean my great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents would drag kicking and screaming to this country. My actual parents bought a ticket to the UK with a promise of a multicultural dream that didn’t materialize.
So initially for react, some kind of reaction to all of that, we were listening to, you know, Last Poets and Gil Scott because there was no English equivalent until in the mid seventies, we had a poet called Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Gholz: I saw him here at, in the Cass Corridor about 10 years ago,
Letts: Again, tremendously important for black British youth because all of a sudden this was somebody that was all of our generation was speaking about our situation and not things that we couldn’t really relate to in America, you know? And then after funny enough, as far as the oral tradition of radical stuff, then I guess the hip hop then reggae took over really, so that reggae after Trojan kind of… lets say fell from grace for a period of time. That happened because the mood of the Island changed and they needed a soundtrack that reflected that mood. And so the beats got slower, darker. The music becomes more militant and political and pro black. Yeah. And once that started, I was no longer listening to the likes of a lot the Last Poets, Marley or Gil Scott to have done their thing by that, what I’m saying is other people took that ball and they ran with it, you know, right through. And then after that, you’d have to look to somebody like, I don’t know, Chuck D.
Gholz: Yeah. So who do you, so, it’s a cheesy question, but what are you listening to now, then? Where are your ears when you need to be inspired now? I was watching an interview where you, punk isn’t about nostalgia looking back. So what new music are you listening to?
Listening to Now
Letts: Oh man. That’s the horrible question to ask Don Letts because I tell you what I will tell you. I’ve got a radio show that I’ve had for 10 years on the BBC called Culture Clash Radio. And when they asked me to do this BBC gig, they like don’t want you to do a reggae show. Cause my rep(ertoire) is known for kind of moving between reggae and punk. Apparently I’m the man that introduced punk to reggae; partially true. But here’s the thing, besides ten-year-olds who the hell listens to one kind of music, right? So, you know, I’d like to think that I remain open to all the world has to offer. And if it’s got a baseline even better, not a great fan on heavy metal, I ended up, well, the new stuff Led Zeppelin, that’s it for me. But it was in regards to new things, man, I’m all over the shop. ou know what I mean? Right now I’m digging a dude called Bonnie Verb, which coat goes against everything we’re talking about. Yeah. You know,totally digging Bonnie. And then you’ve got this girl in from Australia. Sampa the Great, you know, it’s hard for me cause every one of my things about the radio shows you can’t rely on the tried and tested.
And I think as a broadcaster, you have to embrace the new and try and push things forward. So every one of my shows, a third of the music is brand new.
Gholz: Yeah. I think in America, I mean, you must know this, but in the nineties we had the Telecommunications Act, which basically allowed corporations to swallow up stations. Right. And that kind of culture, we had a radio DJ here, (The) Electrifying Mojo. And he was, you know, John Peel, but you know, bigger. But that culture, we do still have a WDET we have one sort of public radio station that does play a lot of music, but otherwise we are, um, we would, we would love to hear a BB six to BBC six style…
Letts: I mean its available to download in most countries around the world. I mean, my thing about it is it, you know, it’s, for me, I’m just honest and it’s not about me trying to prove that I’m hip or in approves on black. Yeah. I can say, yeah, the world’s a big and beautiful placement. So, you know, you’ve got to be open to that shit.
Gholz: Who would you who, the importance of film, you know, one of the things that Mr. Gordy, when he did leave, you know, one of the reasons that one of his motivations there was a push out as well, that in his mind, I think, but in terms of push forward, you know, he wanted to get into film. He wanted to do Hollywood. He wanted to…
Letts: When they tried didn’t they?
Gholz: Yeah. So what’s it. Is that still relevant to you that in film-music connection, it must be because …
Letts: Absolutely. I mean, my whole life is built around the soul, putting pictures and music together and you know, most people on the planet, that’s the way we take in information and you put the two things together and it can be a beautiful thing or it can be a fucking advert. Right? Know, it’s all about the intention of the people that are creating this stuff. Are you trying to uplift the people, having, you know, raised debate and talk about things or are you trying to push your own ego and sell a pair of jeans? You know…
Gholz: Don, Letts this last question, where are your personal archives? How do you archive yourself?
Letts: Don’t bother if it’s worth keeping somebody out there. We’ll have it. I’d mentioned make the shit, and now other people decide whether it’s worth keeping.
Gholz: Well, how about this way then? How about the culture of the Slips and the Clash and all that
Letts: It’s out there. Isn’t that? So out there in the ether, I’d have to have a bloody big house to keep all of that stuff. And I’m not, I don’t see myself as some kind of…
Gholz: Is there a British library care from your point of view?
Letts: I think….I mean between fan clubs and, you know, man, I just kind of keep moving forward and hope that I create stuff that’s worth preserving. And I think the people decide that, you know, I’m not a great fan of things like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance.
Cause in my mind, the Hall of Fame is in people’s mind. And if the shit’s good, it will be there somewhere.
You know what I mean? Even the people that are a bit obscure that don’t get paid, the real pioneers it’s somebody, somebody will know like DJ Spooky with…
Outro: You are listening to a Detroit Sound Conservancy Production.