Don Letts emerged as a creative force in the late ‘70s in music, film, fashion and all manner of sub-cultures. He comes to the WAM Conference with much in the way of experience and knowledge, but is modest when asked about what he’s likely to pass on at a keynote event such as this.
“I’m not coming over to pass anything on,” he clarifies down the ‘line from London. “It’s more like a conversation, really. Hopefully we’re enlightening each other through an exchange of culture.
“I’m all about the culture clash, and seeing what the world has to offer. Comparing ideas is more like it, as opposed to passing things on, which I don’t know if I’m equipped to do, funnily enough. I’m glad that some of my work possibly resonates with other people and has some meaning. That feels important, yeah. It’s about a cultural exchange; I’m a great believer in culture as a tool to unite people. It’s a tool for social change, really.”
Letts’ career from very early on was nothing if not diverse. His creative contributions evolved not so much from being a musician, or any one kind of artist, but as more a pathfinder through cultures.
“Coming from the whole soundsystem culture thing the whole bassline of Jamaica is very much who I am,” he says, “but then in the late ‘70s I was fortunate enough to meet up with the punk rockers. And if it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. They hipped me to the whole DIY thing which I thought was punk’s greatest gift. It was with their inspiration that I picked up a movie camera and reinvented myself as ‘Don Letts The Filmmaker’. It’s a great example of culture bringing people together.
“The first thing that opened my eyes to an alternative world wasn’t punk rock, funnily enough It was seeing a band called The Who in 1971 when I was 14 years-old. It blew my mind and showed me another way. I think that’s what started me on this alternative journey, let’s put it that way. It stopped me from becoming a bus driver, or something. I just saw that there was another way and I went for it. I’d like to think I’ve been there ever since.”
A Eureka moment, perhaps?
“Absolutely. Seeing The Who at 14 years-old? Absolutely. Then I saw Bob Marley at The Lyceum in 1975, mind-blowing. I saw The Sex Pistols – mind-blowing. I saw The Clash… and it just went on from there, man. It never stopped.”
As a young man Letts was able to connect with Bob Marley and soak in the inspiration of a cultural icon, (as he would later do with Joe Strummer). It was similar to that of the experience of the photographer, Dennis Morris, who toured with The Wailers to Europe as a young British-West Indian teen and began a whole career in photography (later documenting punk culture, too) as a result.
“Let’s just say I used to ‘take care’ of Bob,” Letts laughs, “when he was here in London. What I got from Bob was the inspiration for his music. He was inspiring me before I ever met the dude. When I first heard his album, Katchafire, it was again, mind-blowing. You’ve got to understand, these messages coming from Jamaica, which were quite politicised, struck a chord obviously with my generation – a generation of British-born blacks growing up here in the early ‘70s. It was kinda tough.”
From running the ACME Attractions clothing store, his “gateway to punk rock” Letts ended up DJ-ing at punk gigs and, without any punk vinyl to spin at the time, played dub reggae tracks. In the process he turned the punks onto dub, creating a seriously dynamic musical marriage. It was a free-thinking that evolved when he formed Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones when the latter left The Clash.
“Clothes, style and music combined are a working-class thing and a black thing,” he notes. “They were the only means at our disposal to express ourselves. To find our identity. To find our tribe.”
In his film work Letts has documented many kinds of music and cultures. He’s constantly learning and sharing what he sees, hears and feels. Long may it continue.
“It’s about shit that turns me on,” he says, modestly. “Hopefully it turns on other people too. I make a living out of stuff I enjoy, and that’s a blessing.”
Don Letts’ keynote conversation with RTRFM’s Danae Gibson is on Friday, November 2, at the State Theatre Centre (details at wamfest.com.au). He’ll also appear at the Rude Boy Moon Stomp on Saturday, November 3, at The Sewing Room. Full details via www.facebook.com/events/1889675398004471/