By Michael Lara
“We got to take the power back…We got to take the power back. No more lies…No more lies!” 1992’s RATM’s feverishly-driven debut vaulted Zach, Tom, Tim and Brad into rock ‘n roll history and, in personally seeing them open for a newly-formed PORNO FOR PYROS at Lake Castaic Dam near L.A. that year, demonstrated their intense passion for truth in their message powerfully delivered then and ever since.
One of those is Don Letts. He elaborated on this theme during our interview and he explained his deep multi-cultural music and historical influences while at METAMORPHOSE 2010 in Japan.
In its 10th year of inception, this all night festival, situated near Tokyo in Shizuoka, also featured Scotland’s MOGWAI, America’s GRANDMASTER FLASH and DERRICK MAY, England’s DARREN EMERSON and 65 DAYS OF STATIC, JAPAN’s EYE and countless others committed to inspire and deliver a sane reminder that you need to live in full, no matter if it’s an uncertain 21st century for most.
This is something that can definitely be wholly understood from the hefty history behind the eyes, ears, mind, body and soul of Don Letts.
With his deep ongoing collaboration with the unfurling London scenes and beyond shared with the likes of THE CURE, SEX PISTOLS, SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, THE CLASH and others as a deejay, filmmaker, colleague and mate as well as morphing into a core founding member alongside MICK JONES post-CLASH for BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE, here is a man that has always had a plethora to share.
Unsurprisingly, this day was no different despite the wee hours of the night when our interview commenced, near 3 AM, in his touring van. Amidst sets from DERRICK MAY and legend GRANDMASTER FLASH, his robust and passionate thoughts and attitude on his 2010 documentary STRUMMERVILLE and the state of this world of ours sent a clean message that everyday it’s our time, our responsibility to act in full to take our power back.
THIRSTY: For you, what is the bottom line? I’ve listened to you my whole life.
Don Letts: Obviously a man of taste.
THIRSTY: Mick Jones, STRUMMERVILLE and everything else.
Don Letts: The bottom line would be, um, I guess, using music as a tool for social change and spreading some bass around the place and trying to make the world a better place than I found it.
THIRSTY: So what did you find when you first found it?
Don Letts: I grew up on music that helped me to make me who I am today. I mean, back in my time, I grew up when music helped people change their minds, not their sneakers. I mean, today, it seems like a lot of music, not all…A lot of music has become a soundtrack for consumerism, which kind of bothers me because as I’ve said, I’m a product of reggae music and punk rock. That’s made me who I am today. And I still believe in music. Music has the potential to do that as opposed to being a tool for consumerism.
THIRSTY: So why is it the potential?
Don Letts: Well, the tradition of music where I come from…You got to understand, from my culture, a black culture, music isn’t something kids do. It’s part of our heritage. It’s a way we pass on our history. It’s the way we communicate. It’s the way we express and, um, raise our concerns, whether they be local or global. So, that’s the potential it has.
In the 21st century, you might wonder about that because for me, right now, it feels like punk rock never happened. I mean, there is a lot of shit going on in the world now that back in my day would’ve caused a reaction and it did. That reaction was punk rock.
In Jamaica, the birth of Jamaican reggae music, that was a punk rock moment. Hip-hop, the birth of hip-hop in the early 80’s in New York, similar social economic political climate. Again, informed that music. Again, all the great music is informed by the time it was made.
THIRSTY: So why do think people have become flaccid?
Don Letts: Now that’s a good question. Don Letts doesn’t know the answer to that. Why has music become relegated to um, I don’t know, as I say, a soundtrack for commercials to selling cars or something: Maybe one of the possible reasons is that young people have other ways to express themselves.
I guess the Internet has come into the mix. And it’s no longer the only tool available to them to get their ideas out there. I mean, from my perspective, it’s still the best tool for it breaks down language barriers.
THIRSTY: Looking at the different tools, what do you think are the tools that allow people to really let themselves’ be free and be honest?
Don Letts: Well, I guess communications is the best one and what is. Like I said before, the Internet has come into play and I think…A young person has an idea and the motivation, you can now get your idea out there without the middle man, you know, the begging bowl, asking them to help your idea out there. So the tools are there. So maybe the fault is with the people. You know, it’s often said, you kind of get the culture you deserve.
THIRSTY: What is the begging bowl then?
Don Letts: The begging bowl, you know, is like when you want a project made. If I want to make a film, I have to go out and raise the money. You understand?
In the old days, if you wanted to make a record, you had to get signed by a record company and go through that whole process. Now, with the whole D.I.Y. ethic, that was really started with punk rock, um…You could cut out all those middlemen and get your ideas out there direct to the people if you got a good idea. Unfortunately about the Internet is that there’s a lot of information, but not a lot of truth.
THIRSTY: So why do you think the intellectual has subsided?
Don Letts: I’ve got four kids - a 16-year old and a 22-year old and um…They…I’d say to them, “Why aren’t you more proactive?” They say that they feel useless. They feel like there’s so much going on, it’s overwhelming and that they cannot actually achieve anything. I don’t believe that, you know. I still…I’m old school. You know, I still believe that people have power and I’m not talking about Molotov cocktails or going out and fucking anybody up. I mean, there are other things at our disposal. You know, one simple thing might be the vote. I mean, people die to give us that shit, but young people take that tool for granted.
Obviously, somebody like Obama realized the potential of that and here we have a black American president. Other things at our disposal I guess are, maybe, um, say consumer power-the man feels that shit: You don’t spend money on their shit. They feel that and react. So there’s ways out there…There’s ways at our disposal to affect change, but for that, you have to get off your arse and do something. You have to get proactive.
One of the biggest problems we have in the 21st century now is complacency. We have all the information.We know all what the problem is, but information without action is useless. In Rastafari, we have an expression. Gaijin (foreigners) talk about understanding and understanding is ok, but if you don’t react on that information, it’s useless. When you understand something, it means you understand the problem and you use that information to actually do something. So people need to get proactive and involved.
THIRSTY: So it’s a fall out?
Don Letts: Like I said, another thing about the 21st century that is probably problematic is that portable technology. I mean, just because you can afford it, don’t mean you can do it. And the downside of affordable technology is mediocrity. I mean, back in my day, you know, if you wanted to start a group, you had to save a 100 pounds to play guitar, another 100 pounds to buy your amp. That process alone weeded out the people that were just fucking around. You know, you had to go through some pain, some struggle, you had to have some passion, but by the time you overcome all those hurdles, you were ready to come out with guns blazing.
Now, you can buy a laptop, and in 2 weeks time you think you can be a musician and you think you can be a graphic artist. It ain’t that simple. The downside of technology is mediocrity. Actually, I’d go further than that and say something quite radical: Maybe art was better when shit was expensive because it weeded out people who were selling ego and makeup.
THIRSTY: So for you, going from deejaying to filmmaking and everything else…
Don Letts: Yeah.
THIRSTY: Just like my friend Steve Severin of SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES.
Don Letts: Yeah, I know Steve.
THIRSTY: And you know he is a low-key guy.
Don Letts: Yeah, I know.
THIRSTY: So what was it that got you into filmmaking? What ensnared you?
Don Letts: Okay, okay. I can do that. I remember as a young man seeing a movie called THE HARDER THEY COME (1972), which is Jamaica’s most famous movie. And I remember seeing that in the UK as a young man growing up and I’m what they call a first generation British-born black - a term that rolls off the tongue now, but back in my day, a really confusing concept. We really didn’t know where we fit in in England you know. We weren’t Jamaican. We weren’t black American. We weren’t English. We were this new hybrid. And it took us time to work out, you know, who we were you know - to figure out our identity. But like I said, we had reggae music. We knew what we kind of sounded like, but we never knew what we looked like until two things happened: The movie THE HARDER THEY COME and the advent of BOB MARLEY.
Seeing the movie THE HARDER THEY COME showed me the power of cinema to not only entertain, but to inform and inspire and, um, it made me realize that maybe that’s how I wanted to express myself. Visually, but I couldn’t really see a way forward because back in the mid 70’s, getting into the film business was like an old boy network. You know what I mean? Not anybody could do it. Then punk rock came along.
And punk rock said, “Hey, the whole D.I.Y. thing.” And when people like JOE STRUMMER and the PISTOLS are picking up guitars, I wanted to pick up something too, but the stage was kind of already full up. So instead I picked up a Super 8 camera and reinvented myself with the inspiration of punk as a filmmaker. I started filming the punk rock scene, then went on to make, um, a bunch of music videos. I made all THE CLASH videos for instance and, in fact, in my time, probably have made 300 to 400 hundred music videos. I don’t do them anymore because the bands that I made videos for had something to say - there was some other agenda other than taking your money and making you stupid. And I find that ingredient in a lot of modern music difficult to find.
Well, let me be very clear about this: I’m not talking about all music. I’m talking about the shit you see in the Billboard, Top 100 or MTV.
Don Letts: But luckily, I get to travel around the world and I realize…For instance, you come to Japan. People are into music because of trends. People buy music because they believe in the power of music. And luckily around the rest of the globe, there’s still people for whom music is part of that process of expression and like I say, it’s a tool for social change still.
You know, through the whole punk-reggae party, which they tell me I am responsible for, I’ve seen the power of culture to bring people together. School didn’t do that. Government didn’t do that. Religion didn’t do that. Music did that. And I’m a living testament to that shit works and can still work. And you know we need to reclaim music back for the people and take it back from the businessman.
It hurts me every time when I see a great rock track being used to sell a fucking Cadillac. In the UK now, we got JOHN LENNON in an advert selling cars. The working class hero selling fucking cars?!? And that pisses me off.
THIRSTY: Yeah, well, DERRICK MAY wasn’t happy that GRANDMASTER FLASH played NIRVANA in his set.
Don Letts: Oh, I disagree with DERRICK there. I totally dig that. I emceed a thing in London called the RED BULL Music Academy. And there was this drum n’ bass deejay in London, really famous, GOLDIE, and in the middle of his set, funnily enough, he dropped “Smells Like Teenage Spirit.” It was fucking great!
Because, you know, I’m a black man, but I don’t need to be defined by my color. Just because I am a black means I have to play black music. And back at The Roxy, I dropped some NEW YORK DOLLS. I dropped some IGGY & THE STOOGES. I dropped some MC5. I dropped some PATTIE SMITH.
You know, I think, we got to try to open people’s minds with music, not close it down. And you know, the reason that BOB MARLEY’s music was so great back in the day is that he listened to CURTIS MAYFIELD. He listened to JOHN COLTRANE. He listened to THE BEATLES for Christ’s sake. And that’s why his music is so good.
Nowadays, a lot of young people, they get into this, “I only listen to hip-hop…I only listen to reggae…” That’s for 12-year olds. The world is a big and beautiful place that offers a lot of things and we should embrace all of these things. For instance, THE CLASH’s first album-hard core punk rock. A couple of chords and fast guitars. When they grew as musicians, again, they embraced the music the world had to offer. And you listen to the difference between the first album and LONDON CALLING and you see growth. You see people embracing the world and the music of the world and so I think it’s good that we show people that there are other things out there. So GRANDMASTER FLASH dropping that in the middle of his set, fucking great! I bet it went down a storm.
THIRSTY: It did.
Don Letts: There you go!
THIRSTY: And what I’m going to ask you is what makes growth for you?
Don Letts: What makes growth? That’s a hard question. Maybe the belief that you can contribute something to this planet and if you can’t change the planet, which is a pretty fucking hard thing to do since most people can’t change their fucking minds, maybe you could start with the guy next door. And that’s what happened with the punk reggae party, you know. When I was communicating with the white guys who lived down the street from me. You know what I mean?
Don Letts: So, you know, the evolution of mankind is painfully slow and maybe we have to work towards things that we won’t actually see manifest in our lifetime.
THIRSTY: Why is it painfully slow?
Don Letts: I mean, why are you asking me that? Look at mankind: Do we learn? How much have we actually fucking learned?
THIRSTY: Not much.
Don Letts: Exactly! So you know the answer to that question. But listen - if the evolution of mankind wasn’t painfully slow, we’d all be angels now. We’d all be gods you know.
THIRSTY: Okay then, what is or who is your best teacher?
Don Letts: Whoa! Whoa! You asked me a good question man: Life. That’s the only answer I can give you and what I see around me. I’ve watched the news everyday every single day of my life and when I’m away now, my machine is out there recording and I look at the cards that most people are dealt on this planet on a daily basis. And I realize that I am in a privileged position that should not be abused. And I try to use that position and I know I’ve said this before, and it sounds kind of corny, sounds kind of naïve, but I try to use my position to try to make the world a better place - pass on the energy given to me through punk rock and the tradition and heritage of music from people who believe in music and the potential of music to affect change.
I’d like to think that I’m part of that lineage. And young people can be part of that lineage too. You know, it’s interesting that a lot of young people look back at punk rock and go, “Wasn’t that interesting back in the 70’s and I’ve missed it.” But no…that was part of an ongoing dynamic. The attitude of punk existed before THE SEX PISTOLS you know. It was there with WOODY GUTHRIE. It was there with BOB DYLAN. It was there with BOB MARLEY. In fact, the idea predates music itself.
What I am trying to do is pass on that energy. You know, the punk spirit is like the Force in STAR WARS man - you can’t stop it, but sometimes you got to look a bit harder. You got to look in new places. For instance, my tip for the future is this: All of the great ideas from the future will come from the amateur and naïve because everybody else is reading the same book.
THIRSTY: Okay then, so who is Yoda and who is Darth Vader in music?
Don Letts: Ha-ha-ha!!! Yoda has many children in music with many names. Darth Vader-man, he’s the one who’s always around us and will always be. And the struggle continues (big broad smile).
Just like my dear mate Joe and all others living passionately as helpline operators, they sagely remind us all to savor the good and bad, the triumphs and struggles and not wallow.
Likewise, the 10th anniversary celebration of METAMORPHOSE richly gave all plenty to taste, savor and swallow and is a must for all the living in Japan come each September.
Slated for September 3rd in 2011 and again at Cycle Sports Center in Shizuoka, not far from Tokyo, definitely put this on your calendar. The testament of its relevance is that this event has grown from a mere 3,000 attendees in its 2000 debut to a grand conglomeration of souls reaching 25,000 this year: That’s sustainable growth and reassurance that you and many others are not dead yet.
Simply put, all help to collectively add to the dynamic collaborative soup of humanity and vitality.
V.A. METAMORPHOSE 2010 OFFICIAL COMPILATION METAMORPHOSE 2010
1 Mogwai - New Paths To Helicon
2 The Album Leaf - Dalling From The Sun
3 65daysofstatic - Crash Tactics
4 X-102 - Titan
5 Dubfire - Roadkill
6 Loosefingers (Larry Heard) - 303 Indigenous
7 Darren Emerson & Jamie McHugh - Gracelands
8 Grandmaster Flash - Swagger feat.Red Cafe, Snoop Dogg & Lynda Carter
9 Calm - Earth Song
10 七尾旅人×- Rollin' Rollin'