“Like I tell people, it’s about taste. Lucky I got some,” says Don Letts, laughing. The filmmaker, DJ, musician and pop-cultural frontiersman is on the phone to talk about the most important records in his collection, in an era in which algorithms have quietly usurped real-life humans as tastemakers.
In such a world, designed at a remove by Silicon Valley, in which convenience models our behaviour from behind a digital curtain, the idea of taste, of a human being curating something, feels not only a little old-school, but almost transgressive. And thus it is incumbent on people such as Letts, and indeed everyone reading here, that we don’t let forget that the algorithms are one thing – convenient, available 24/7, in our pockets – but there is something special when one person alerts another to their next musical epiphany. Such cultural exchanges bind us together.
“It is more important than ever,” says Letts. “Because, god, there’s a lot of shit out there!”
In the 70s, Don Letts was the man about London town, working in Acme Attractions on Kings Road, hanging out with Bob Marley, cutting video promos for the Clash. Weaned on psychedelic music as a kid, with reggae soundtracking adolescence, Letts found purpose and permission in punk’s DIY ethos. Why not just pick up the camera and put his ideas down on film? That’s how he got started with the Clash, going on to shoot video for the Pretenders, Musical Youth, the Undertones and more.
Letts would go on to form Big Audio Dynamite with the Clash’s former guitarist Mick Jones. Drawing from punk rock, reggae, hip-hop, all kinds of styles, BAD were the archetypical culture clash band – with Don Letts the archetypal culture clash figure.
Letts is talking to us today because he makes an appearance in Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records, the new film from Nicolas Jack Davies. Rudeboy combines archive footage, interviews and drama to stitch together an intimate profile of one of Britain’s most influential, successful and culturally important record labels, uniting Jamaica and Britain in a shared cultural experience.
Trojan’s Tighten Up compilation series showcased the power of tasteful curation in changing not only our record collections but the world we live in today. As Letts says, it changed him. The likes of Dave and Ansel Collins, Tony Tribe, the Upsetters and others reverberating through sound systems on council estates and on the streets, bringing the sound of Jamaica to Britain.
It was only fitting that Letts dropped the needle on a Trojan album for his pick…
1. Trojan Records – Tighten Up Vol. 2 (1969)
“We got here via Trojan, so let’s talk about their finest compilation, Tighten Up Vol. 2. They came up with the idea of compilation albums that really were all killer, no filler creations, with tracks that were market-tested by the Afro-Caribbean community, and, it has to be said, the emerging skinhead scene. And I’ve got to clarify here: we’re talking about the fashion version – not the fascist version – which actually was the UK’s first multicultural movement.
“Trojan were curating the best of Jamaican music. Every discerning black teenager and white working class kid, everybody had fucking Tighten Up Vol. 2, man! It has shit like Long Shot Kick De Bucket and Return Of Django, Fire Corner… The cover was this risqué type of thing that I guess was aimed at the teenage male market, but the thing about that record was that the girls loved it, too.
“It is a brilliant example of what Trojan did for reggae and this country. It changed me and this country. I loved it so much, and so did my white counterparts, that my band Big Audio Dynamite, which featured Mick Jones of the Clash, called one of our albums Tighten Up Vol.88 in tribute to that great series.”
2. The Clash – London Calling (1980)
“It’s obviously seminal. They call it a punk record but really it redefined what punk could be. Everyone had started off with the fast and furious guitar thing, and that was a way of ringing out the old and ringing in the new, but some people stuck with that. The Clash realised that punk rock offered you a creative ladder and kept climbing where some people stayed on the first rung.
“London Calling was bringing in all these different influences from around the world, from reggae to a bit of RnB. There’s rock on there. There’s a jazz influence.
“I did three videos for the album, so yeah, it changed my life in that way, because it established me as a director proper – the first video I ever directed was London Calling, which was a massive hit, and then I did a live one for Clampdown and Train In Vain.
“But never mind me doing the videos, this album signposted the possibilities of punk rock, whereas a lot of the other stuff turned into this fucking horrible four-letter word. Sometimes if you give yourself a label that is all you can be. I guess some people were happy to just keep repeating themselves but, nah, the Clash were boldly going where no punk rocker had gone before!”
3. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)
“The first album I remember spending money on. I was 15 years old. It is a godly piece of work. It was a unified concept album; all the songs segued into each other and they were dealing with real shit. It was social commentary. A lot of them were told from the point of view of Marvin Gaye’s brother, who was a Vietnam War veteran. It tapped into the environment, the injustice.
“What is interesting about it is, you put the record on now, and all the things that he is talking about are just as relevant now, if not more relevant, and they come across in such a way that – oh, man! – if this record doesn’t touch you, you are dead. You are completely dead.
“If this record does not touch you on some level, y’know, you’re dead. Spiritually, emotionally, yeah, you’re fucking dead. Don Letts said that! [Laughs] It is the finest record ever made, so inspiring. By the end, the way the album is constructed, you feel uplifted. If you ain’t got this record, your record collection ain’t complete. Mind you, I’d say that about everything in my top 10.”
4. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
“How do I explain this record? God! I don’t like talking about music. I fucking hate it actually. For me, it is an instinctive, intuitive thing… Again, you’d have to be dead for this not to strike you on some level because it is one of these albums that’s built up of these exquisite layers, harmonies and sound effects, and weird instrumentation.
"There are emotional songs, love songs, but how do you explain the power of Pet Sounds? All I can say is that, when putting this record on, if music is your thing, I don’t think you’ll be able to take it off.
“It is a very complete body of work. A lot of my records from back in the day, pre-CDs, when you couldn’t skip a track, were complete bodies of work. They don’t get no better than this.
"I’m glad you mentioned the Beatles, because I can’t believe I haven’t stuck Sgt Pepper’s in here. Big love to Sgt Pepper’s. I was a massive Beatles fan and had the second-largest Beatles collection in the UK at one point.”
5. The Wailers – Catch A Fire (1973)
“I’ve got to get this in here, fucking hell. This was recorded when it was the Wailers. It wasn’t Bob Marley and the Wailers. It wasn’t a one-man show. His fellow Wailers – Bunny Livingston, Peter Tosh – also gave this record a very distinctive style, as did Chris Blackwell’s suggestions to bring in session men, people from Muscle Shoals. Some of the best session men of all time, Wayne Perkins.
“Blackwell had this idea to help the record reach a white audience by putting in some of these rock touches and things like that, and funnily enough, a lot of hardcore, purist reggae people hated it.
“I knew Bob and Bob was no fool. He did not put anything on a record that he didn’t love. Bob was continuously open minded. He didn’t live in a bubble. He was open to what the world was offering. I mean, why else would he do a version of fucking What’s New Pussycat? [Laughs] They’re training people to not live in a bubble.
“Again, it is a very socially relevant record. I think another important thing to understand is, I am first generation British-born black, a child of Windrush, and I desperately needed the messages and information that this record was giving me at the time. England in the 70s? Pretty racist. Common knowledge. And we were starved of information that would inform and inspire and empower us. It was people like Bob Marley and the Wailers who did that for us.
“And Chris Blackwell, besides giving it these rock touches, he promoted it like a rock record. He gave it equity with the records that were out at that time. The record cover was like a Zippo lighter! [Laughs] Big up Blackwell for that. I guess it was the record that did launch Marley, no two ways about it.”
6. Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks
“The record that kick-started the UK punk rock movement. We’re talking late ‘70s, ’77, popular music at the time did not relate to what was happening on the street at all. Luckily for me I had my soundtrack to my day which was reggae. My white mates? Not so bloody lucky. Big denims, all that prog rock shit. ELO and such… I believe every generation needs its own soundtrack, so my white mates created their own soundtrack, of the people, for the people, by the people – punk rock.
"The Sex Pistols were really a cultural ground zero with that record, man. The Clash almost wouldn’t have existed without the Sex Pistols. Joe Strummer saw them open for the 101ers. He saw the light and realised that this was the way to go, to forget what had gone in the past, let’s create our own shit, about us, for us…
“It is a tremendously powerful record. It was a rallying cry. It was a call to arms. And also that punk rock thing, I’ve got to give it props. That whole DIY ethic is what inspired me to pick up the movie camera and become a filmmaker. It wasn’t just about the music; it was about an attitude and a spirit that had nothing to do with mohawks and safety pins, man. It was about individuality and freedom.”
7. De La Soul – 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)
“If you know what Big Audio Dynamite was about – the original looping, sampling and dialogue shit – then we hear this hip-hop equivalent, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, named after a Johnny Cash tune, which immediately told you that these brothers were coming from somewhere else. Hip-hop had got into this gold-chain braggadocios shit, and not very emotional, not very melodic, and then, from out of nowhere come this trio, De La Soul, sampling stuff like the Turtles, and Hendrix…
“What was interesting about it was that they embraced, not their feminine side, but this more emotional side. It wasn’t this braggadocious thing, because I was getting fed up with guys shouting at me all day long. It was guys being honest with their emotions, and they were being honest about what they really liked, that was the other thing. You look at the samples; they’ve got 60s stuff in there.
“People wrote them off. The Daisy Age? Hippy-hop. But they weren’t really hippies. They were influenced by their parents’ music, but they took things out of that and did their own thing with it. It really started off a softer, more melodic emotional side to hip-hop. Stormzy did the same thing for grime, man, just being more in touch with himself, his emotions, being more honest.”
8. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002)
“How would you describe this? Psychedelic-tinged rock? I don’t like describing music. Again, it’s trying to put labels on it. All I know is I heard this record and the first thing that struck me was that it was a complete body of work, which was a rare thing as we got to the millennium, led by this wizard called Wayne Coyne. Yeah, I guess it tapped into that hippy element of me growing up on psychedelic records, which I totally buzzed off.
“What I loved about Wayne was the lyrics, typified by that song Do You Realize??, uplifting and devastating at the same time. I have seen the Lips play about eight times, man, saw them under a full moon at Glastonbury, and he’s brilliant. Everyone, if you’re going to go see one gig in your lives, you’ve got to see the Flaming Lips – it is such a fucking trip. I can’t recommend them enough. In fact, that’s maybe why I picked the album, because, besides being a great record, they are a complete trip. Their live shows are life-changing events.”
9. Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
“The antithesis of De La Soul but it’s not that braggadocious stuff. It was Chuck using music as a tool for social change. That’s what that was about. It was hip-hop at its [socially conscious] best, no two ways about it. Tracks like Rebel Without A Pause, Night Of The Living Baseheads, oh, and Bring The Noise.
“When all this stuff was going about girls and cars, they were bringing it back on track. Public Enemy and KRS-One were keeping these records culturally and politically relevant and reminding people that music can be a tool for social change and not just for selling sneakers. Nobody did that better than Public Enemy. It was musically revolutionary stuff.”
10. Prince – Sign O’ The Times (1987)
“I need something that ties all of this together. I’m all about culture clash… Prince, Sign O’ The Times, I am a massive Prince fan. I mean, he is so obviously a musical genius – stating the obvious. He is a musical genius! If I wanted to bring everybody together, you couldn’t get anyone better than Prince. He’s got funk in there. He’s got rock in there. He’s got soul. And, again, he blends them and does his own thing. Emotions are in there. Statements are in there.
“It has this whole spiritual side to it, it’s got the party side and the emotional side. Genius! Both Prince and me for picking it! [Laughs] It’s funny, I say the true sign of genius is inconsistency, and I think in his later years he didn’t get it all right, but when he did, fucking hell did he get it all right!
“If I had to recommend one Prince album to anybody, that encapsulated everything that was great about him, it would be Sign O’ The Times. He was continuously reinventing himself, exploring – what a trip. Frighteningly talented, unbelievable.”