Count meets Don
Don Letts, the critically acclaimed British film director who is famously known for his work as videographer for The Clash, directing several of their music videos as well as working with Musical Youth, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders and Elvis Costello. Deeply inspired by his parent’s homeland, Jamaica and particularly with Bob Marley he became one of the most prominent reggae DJ’s of his era. With Don appearing in June we asked Trojan Records DJ and Purple Turtle resident Count Skylarkin to chew the fat with Don – where they had a chat about all things Reggae and how he single handedly turned a whole generation of punk rockers into reggae fans.
COUNT: You are synonymous with West London, from Kensington Market to Carnival, but you grew up in the South. Whereabouts did you grow up and what are your memories of that?
DON: I grew up in South London and was there from my early teens. It was a harmonious mix, a multi-cultural mix of young people who just got on. There was no politics, and everybody was in the same ship together and we all just got on with it and turned each other on with different cultures, it was good times.
COUNT: I believe your dad ran a sound system, did DJing feel like a bit of rite of passage?
DON: Just to be clear, my father was part of the Windrush generation, he came over in the 50’s and everybody bought their hopes and their dreams and also their precious record collections. One of the ways that the Jamaican community would get together back then, would be through listening to music, and my dad had his own little personal sound system. But it wasn’t like the sound systems that we have today, where people are playing in a basement, with one light bulb and everyone is burning a spliff. It would be after church on a Sunday afternoon, within the church hall and it was a way for the community to come together and ease the pain after a hard-working week.
I actually had no dream of becoming a DJ! It all happened by accident when I got offered to play a gig at the first ever punk rock venue in the UK, it was called the Roxy and just before that I was running a shop in the Kings Road in Chelsea – ‘Acme Attractions’ and I would always play Reggae in the shop and the guy that opened the Roxy came in, and because of the great reaction to the music I was playing; he asked me if I would like to have a go… and I thought- why not? What is weird is that it was so early in the punk scene, that there were not any punk records to play and I would play what I liked, which was reggae and the punks loved it!
COUNT: I’ve always been fascinated by your trip to Jamaica with John Lydon and Richard Branson to sign artists for Virgin in the late 70s. It must have been a pretty-surreal experience? You must be proud at some of Virgin Frontline label’s subsequent output?
DON: I think this was one of the most memorable journeys of my life. This was the first ever time that I had been to Jamaica and that was fun in-itself . Howvever, to go there with John Lydon, who was Public Enemy no.1 in the UK at the time made it even better. It was a couple of really-unlikely lads turning up to Jamaica for the first time and furthermore we were with Richard Branson! At that time [Richard was] running a record label called Virgin. A rumour started going around the island that there was a rich white man signing Reggae artists. What happened, was every single artist that me and John was into, records that we were playing in the UK… they all turned up! Practically anybody who was anybody turned up to try and get some of Richard’ money!
COUNT: Fast-forward to the early noughties, and I think your Dread Meets Punk Rockers compilation is a seminal document. Do you see it as something of a milestone in your journey as a DJ?
DON: That was just a side of what I was doing at the time at the Roxy in the late seventies – 1977 to be precise and that was a collection of the songs that I was playing to the people back then. It’s an example of the classic bass line and the subject matter that was going on. People really liked John Lydon and The Clash.
COUNT: Someone who was around at the inception of punk, hip hop and (to some degree) reggae (as far as the UK has been concerned), how do you think more recent scenes like jungle, dubstep, grime etc compare?
DON: I don’t think it’s a question of comparing. You have to recognise that there is continuity there. A lot of ideas that started in Jamaica have now become part of the fabric of all the genres that you mentioned, you can trace them all back to the sound system culture and definitely back to bass culture and bass is one of the biggest gifts to the world.
COUNT: What current artists are you digging?
DON: I always try and reflect the legacy and history of Jamaican music. I am playing old school; new school and I am playing everything in between. I don’t know whether many people know this but I am on a radio show – Culture Clash Radio and that’s a whole different thing and that’s really about what I like but when I play out that is all Reggae based and to understand Reggaes influence, it has a pretty wide range these days and you mentioned some of the genres – Jungle, Dubstep and Grime, Ska etc, is all part of my set. My set is all about moving and grooving, using music to turn people on.
COUNT: Finally, everyone probably asks you about your time with Bob Marley, but what’s your favourite Wailers tune and why?
In today’s current climate- I would say, ‘Get up, Stand up!’ Because we all certainly need a bit of that right now!
We have the musical legend performing at the Purple Turtle on the 8th May for all day Reggae extravaganza- within the renowned courtyard of the Purple Turtle. Hosting a multitude of DJ’s and a state-of-the-art sound system. The event will start at 2pm until 8pm, Don taking to the stage at around 3pm