Don Letts : the rebel dread (english version)

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Your meeting with the punks has been decisive. DJ-ing, in 1976-1977, at the Roxy, the first venue dedicated to punk rock, and seeing the bands on stage, you embraced their philosophy, took a camera and became a film director. Has this peculiar state of mind, that is to say, « express yourself, get involved, Do It Yourself » guided you all your life? Is it still important to you? Do you think that the punk ethics is still relevant nowadays?

I wouldn’t be who I am today if it was for punk attitude! It’s d.i.y ethos still serves me on a daily basis. I’m still turning my problems into assets and I still believe a good idea attempted it better than a bad idea perfected. It seems to me a punk attitude is even more relevant in todays cultural climate – especially if your young.

You played reggae and dub records between the bands at the Roxy, and in your shop Acme Attractions. The jamaican sound has become the soundtrack of all the punk scene. You have been very influential for people like Joe Strummer or John Lydon and it has led to the creation of a new music : Punky Reggae with The Clash, The Slits, or PIL later on. But I asked myself a question : Caribbean music was not a discovery for English people. Immigrants have brought it since the end of the Second World War. The original skinheads of 1969 had a passion for reggae and ska. So why, in 1977-78, has it led to a cultural mixture of that kind, and not before ? Was it because, as a young black man born in England, you shared the same values, the same social background as these young white people?

By the mid-seventies you had a generation of black kids that had been born or had grown up in the UK me included. So by this time you also had a generation of white kids that had grown up with us as next door neighbours so to speak. Unlike the movements before that were fascinated by music from a distant land these white kids had grown up with it as almost second language at a time when they were coming of age. The result of this speaks for itself.

Do you remember the records you played at the time, what bands, what songs?

There was lots of dub from the likes of  Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby and Keith Hudson. As well the mighty three d.j’s: Big Youth, I-roy and U-Roy. The punks also liked Dr.Alimantado, Burning Spear, Prince Fari and of course Culture. Check out my ‘Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown’ CD compilation it features tracks I actually played in the Roxy.

Your parents have emigrated from Jamaica in 1955. Their desire was to be integrated into english society. You wanted to be creative without denying your roots. In your autobiography, Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers, you explain that there was a lack of black models for people like you. Your encounter with the Black Panther Party, and later with Bob Marley and the rasta culture, and your first trip to Jamaica with John Lydon, have been important to build yourself as a person. What do you think about the models proposed to the younger generation of black people today?

Well there’s certainly a lot more than in my day. Growing up in the UK in the sixties and seventies the only black role models seemed to be American and the black experience in the States was very different to that of the UK. It’s been a long hard road but in the 21st century we’ve final gone beyond just sports and music to represent across the spectrum academically, politically and creatively.

Nevertheless, it seems that you have taken only the best of the two cultures to evolve and be careful to remain yourself as an individual. Am I right?

Hey it’s works for me that’s not to say there not other ways to get there! I’ve never taken anything on face value – you have to put yourself in the mix and apply a degree of self-interpretation.

And what about the models proposed to the girls now? You managed The Slits. I like this band so much. Like Siouxsie or Poly Styrene, these women just did what they wanted to do. They were so positive models to me. Is it true there was no place for chauvinism among the punk scene?

There wasn’t any chauvinism from the other punk bands but The Slits certainly faced a lot of old school ‘cock rock’ opposition. But that only made them stronger and their determination inspired women up and down the country.

Tell me about the famous picture where you are facing the police on the cover of the Clash album Black Market.

What that picture doesn’t show is the thousands of ‘brothers’ behind me armed with bricks and bottles about to kick off. I happened to be right in the middle of that and the police line in front of me so I thought it best I get out of the way. Unbeknown to me this manoveure was captured by a photographer and the rest is history.

You have suffered from racism. When you were young, you were harassed by the police. I have been stunned to read that people at MTV refused to interview you because you were black. Do you think that the situation has improved now?

It’a better for some and worse for others. Many of the problems I faced still exist, there just aimed at the new immigrants regardless of colour.

Even if they are very different, I love your films The Punk Rock Movie and Westway to the World, the raw energy of punk bands in 1978 and the solid reflection about the trail of The Clash, in 2000. What makes a good documentary? The empathy of the director with his subject? The total immersion into a scene? The right distance? For instance, you explained that you couln’t have interwieved The Clash yourself for Westway because you were too close to them.

There’s no short answer to that question as each film comes with it’s own particular needs. For example as you rightly point out I didn’t actually ask The Clash the questions for ‘Westway’  (the only documentary where I’ve done that by the way) because they would have given me ‘half’ answers due to our familiarity. But I guess if I had to give an answer it would be passion.

When you began your career, you were an almost unknown director filming almost unknown artists. You are very famous now. Does it change something?

I don’t know about famous  but my name / work gets me through doors and people take my calls!

Nowadays, everybody can film any gig with a phone. We are flooded under so many images. What do you think about that?

Just because you can afford it don’t mean you can do it – the down side of affordable technology is mediocrity – at the end of the day it’s all about the idea.

You have worked for a lot of artists, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Slits, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Franz Ferdinand, Michael Jackson, Bob Gruen…How do you chose the musicians and the subjects you work on?

For me it’s all about wether whoever is doing something that’s worth passing on beyond just entertainment.

Have you been influenced by directors and do you think you have influenced other directors ?

My only education in film is through watching movies.  I grew up on the likes of Powell and Pressburger, Serge Leone, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Perry Henzell, Nic Roeg and Martin Scorcese to name just a few. Have I influenced other directors….y’know I’ve never thought about it….I’d like to think so.

Do the artists have changed? What do you think about the young generation? Do they have the same aspirations?

Well in the West the young seem to be going through a very conservative phase but luckily I get to travel and see that there are many young people in other places that still believe in music as a tool for social change.

You have made around 400 video clips, your first one was Public Image, for PIL. How do you consider the evolution of this media? I find that there are very creative films nowadays, made with a very good DIY attitude, compared to the films made during the 80’s that cost a lot of money? Do you agree with me?

Sure the low-budget videos are always going to be more inventive but truth be told I don’t really watch music video these days unless one of my kids tell me to check something out.

You are not only a director. You are still DJ-ing, you have a radio broadcast on the BBC, you have sung in famous bands such as Big Audio Dynamite. What do you prefer to do? Be under the spotlight, behind your camera, direct actors for fiction movies as for Dancehall Queen?

You forgotten author and actor….just kidding. Y’know I actually see it as all part of the same thing, each one complimenting the other.  Beside I get bored easily so it suits me to move between different mediums.

In 2012, you have made movies about subcultures, explaining the different youth movements in Britain. Your conclusion, if I am right, is that only punk and hip hop subcultures have been able to go beyond music, have had echoes on society in general, and that each subculture entirely depends on the social and political context. What are the subcultures of 2010’s saying about our society?

In my ‘Subculture’ films I suggest that the British style driven youth movements of the late 20th century are over and most would agree. But that’s not to say subculture is over, it’s just hard to be ‘sub’ anything in the 21st century because of the internet. Besides things are so tough these days it’s probably better to get you head together rather than your hair-do.

In your movie Punk : Attitude, in 2005, you explain that punk is a state of mind, that it can be embodied by anybody who wants to say something, who wants to be free, and responsible, and that it can be found not only in music, but everywhere. Who is punk today?

Certainly not in the charts..but I do see it’s affect across the art’s generally (particularly in animation). But the arts is not the only place you can have a punk attitude. I believe you can be a punk doctor, a  punk teacher even a punk politician…it’s how you do what you do. Also for all the ups and downs of the internet it still has amazing punk potential.

In The Punk Rock Movie, you have filmed the very original movement, before it degenerated with ridiculous mohicans and safety pins. You have filmed bands which have left no trace without your images, as The Slits, for instance. Were you aware of that while doing it? Did you want to leave a testimony?

Truth be told when I shot the ‘Punk Rock Movie’ I was just trying to get my shit together. I had no idea of making into a documentary until I read in a music paper that I was supposedly ‘making a film’. I thought that’s a good idea and that’s how The Punk Rock Movie came into being.

I have watched again The Punk Rock Movie very recently. At a moment, we see Joe Strummer and Ari Up sat side by side on the bus during the White Riot tour. They are young, beautiful, they are laughing. I suddenly realised that they are dead, and I was so upset. What legacy have they left?

The examples they set as human beings and the art they left remain inspirational to many young people because todays culture is not producing the likes of Ari-Up and Joe Strummer.

Are you involved in Strummerville?

I guess you could say that – as well as d.j’ing at various events for them I also made a documentary called ‘Strummerville’ a few years back.

What are you working on at the moment?

Like many creative people I survive by juggling different things so I’m still d.j’ing at home and abroad, still broadcasting « Culture Clash Radio’ on BBC 6Music and still trying to get my next film project off the ground. It’s a creative hustle – but a hustle never-the-less.

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