He’s spent the last 10 years presenting BBC Radio 6 Music’s Culture Clash radio show and over the past four decades, has become known as one of the nation’s most discerning vinyl collectors. Long Live Vinyl meets the legendary Don Letts.
Don Letts is a charismatic orator, intertwining pointed critiques of modern life with pragmatic truisms on the ‘culturally thin’ opening years of the 21st century. For this writer, one afternoon in his presence comes close to eclipsing three years of studying for my PhD in Cultural Studies. Take me to school any day, Mr Letts.
Stepping into his home studio is like visiting a carefully curated collection of great British music moments from the last four decades. From his record plaques commemorating the sales of classic albums by Big Audio Dynamite and Black Grape, to the low-key framed picture of Letts sharing a private moment with Bob Marley, it is impossible to not be awed by the breadth and depth of his personal (and continued) contributions to pop culture.
As the conversation rolls from Marx to Marvin Gaye and everything in between, Letts takes us on an eloquent journey, his life-long devotion to music the thread that binds it all together. His weekly BBC Radio 6 Music show, Culture Clash, showcases his personal new picks of the week, as well as featuring a ‘Crucial Vinyl’ segment, where he highlights a cherished piece from his own record collection.
2017 marked 10 years that Letts has been on BBC Radio 6. He wanted to commemorate the anniversary with a new LP, Don Letts Presents Culture Clash Radio, a sampling of his favourite cuts from the entire music spectrum. “I’ve done a few compilations over the years…They’ve always been genre-based, predominantly reggae. Someone said: ‘I want you to do another one’.
I thought about it; I didn’t want to do another genre compilation. Everyone thinks ‘Don Letts is reggae, or Don Letts is punk rock,’ but that’s not the sum total of me, any more than it is of anybody. The only people I know that listen to one kind of music are 10-year-olds. It was liberating in that I can be who I am, I can be me. I was particularly pleased with [the selection] because they were things that struck a chord with me in my formative years. There were things that people would never expect me to like. Things like the Bobby Goldsboro track, Summer (The First Time). People are like: ‘What the fuck is that, Don?’ and I’m like: ‘Hey. I’m not going to lie, that spoke to me.’ You’ll probably throw up when you hear it”.
We arrived expecting Letts to have thousands of albums in his collection. “I’m one of those guys that had records all around his walls,” he says. “I actually got rid of a lot of it when punk rock happened, stupidly. When post-punk happened, I frantically tried to get it all back, as we felt we could then be honest about what we really liked.”
However, in the early 1990s, Letts was struck by a tragedy too horrific for many vinyl lovers to even contemplate. “I lost most of my record collection in a fire,” he confides. “For about 10 to 15 years, when I would tell someone that, I’d get a shiver down my spine and get all depressed. It took me 25 years to get over it. It was like losing a member of the family. After that, I tried to start buying shit back, but it gets expensive. So now, it ain’t about volume, it’s about quality.”
Voyage of discovery
It would be easy for Letts to revel in nostalgia, as he has been so closely involved with some of the biggest icons in popular culture. Yet he remains dedicated and enthusiastic about finding new music. “With the radio show… I could easily sit there and dip backwards and deal with just the tried and tested. But [with the show], I’m duty bound to embrace the new.
It’s kept me on my toes; every week, a quarter of the show is brand-new music. To find that every week, it’s a bit of a task. To find 10 new tracks that I like and say: ‘Here, listen to this,’ is hard. But in all the madness, I do find moments of godlike genius that maybe no one else will ever hear – I get to play that on my show. It’s worth those 200 records I’ve dumped to hear that one little thing. So much beautiful stuff slips underneath the radar and no one even knew it existed. Looking for new music is a big bonus. That’s the one thing that keeps me young, if anything does; music really is the elixir of life. When you get stuck in your soundtrack, you get old.”
Discussion turns to why vinyl matters now more than ever. “Vinyl is the building block and foundation of it all. The first 10 years of the 21st century, it was like everyone was in a creative, cultural coma. The nostalgia thing started because at the start of the millennium, people were scared to move forward, so they started looking backwards. I think things are beginning to change now; the economic, social, political landscape has forced things to change. Which is the way it normally works. Ultimately, I’m an optimist, I don’t want to sound like: ‘Oh, things were better in my day.’ The best day is the one you are living in. But I wouldn’t swap my musical and cultural journey for anything. I got the best of it. Being a product of the vinyl generation, you got to put it in the context of the time. It was very innocent.
“I’ve written sleeve notes where I tried to analyse why music was so important. The bottom line is that it was all we had, and it was affordable. It was alternative education through music. As much as it can entertain, it can also be a tool for social and personal growth. There’s no doubt in my mind about that; music made me. It certainly influenced me.
“I’ve seen through various journeys that I’ve had how music can facilitate change. For example, when I DJ’d at the Roxy, the whole punky reggae party came through our respective cultures, and then other creativity came out of that. There weren’t all these different ways you could access information and get inspiration. Invariably, music through vinyl records was the most affordable way you could access this gateway to new schools of thought, places, universes.
“There’s a ‘trend’ aspect to vinyl; but because the 21st century is so culturally thin, I think young people are beginning to appreciate the gravitas and depth of vinyl. They’re cultural touchstones, totems; that’s got a lot to do with it.
“I’ve got a 25-year-old son. The other day he was listening to Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul. He said to me that he recognised that music was better in my time.”
Listen in the moment
“I thought that was so sad,” Letts continues. “I’ve always said that every generation needs its own soundtrack. That’s one other reason why vinyl is going to survive: because it has been so culturally thin for 17 years. If the culture wasn’t in this state, he wouldn’t be digging back 45, 50 years.
“Because when I was 16, 19, 20, I wasn’t digging back 40 or 50 years. I wasn’t interested. Maybe 10 years before; but I was so captivated, inspired and informed by what was around me I had no time to go back 40, 50 years – and I didn’t want to.
“I think it was Karl Marx in Capital who wrote about putting the means of production in the hands of the people. Translate that to where we are now in the 21st century, with all of the cheap technology. Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean you can do it. You need a good idea. I think the downside to all this affordable technology is mediocrity, which is celebrated in the 21st century.
“I’d argue that art was better when shit cost more. Because it weeded out the people that were just fucking about. I know that’s a horrible thing to say. I grew up making Super 8 film. Every three minutes of film cost me, with processing, about 15 or 16 pounds. Best training I had. It made me think about what I did.
“When Joe Strummer wanted to get a guitar, he had to beg, steal, cheat and borrow to get a guitar. Then he had to do all that again to get an amp. The ease of things now has removed the pain and the passion. The problem isn’t with the technology, it’s how it’s used. All this stuff is great; it’s how we apply it.
“When you’re young, life is very black and white: it’s this and that. But as you get older, you appreciate the shades of grey. It’s a drag – you can talk yourself out of doing anything. I kind of like that blind rage of youth, but I don’t wish to be young again. I don’t miss that blind rage, because I’m an angry old man [laughs].”