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Shoot fast, talk straight and don’t hit the bystanders.

“A man can do all things if he will.” This core ideal embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism – a movement casting ‘man’ as a being limitless in his capacity for development, whether it’s knowledge, social and physical accomplishments, or the arts.

“I’ve not thought about anything in my life,” says Don Letts, deftly dismantling my finely-tuned premise with a laugh. “I’ve never had a plan. All I’ve ever done is move towards the things which turn me on, aren’t too hard and I can make a living from. I’m open to what life has to offer. It’s all about taste. And luckily, I’ve got some!” Growing up in ’60s Brixton with hard-working parents, he successfully turned his attentions towards filmmaking, music, broadcasting, writing and even a spot of band management. The thread linking every venture together during this life (he’s vociferously dismissive of the word ‘career’) has been an all-consuming love for music.

Now his exploits are the subject of a new documentary film, which is heading to cinemas and streaming services on Fri 4 March. Offering a glimpse of a cultural revolution which lies tantalisingly out of reach for the blanket documentation afforded by social media and camera phones, Rebel Dread takes us from the early days of punk up to Letts’s reluctant installation as a bass-loving tastemaker. Featuring a stellar cast of talking heads, including The Clash’s Mick Jones, celebrity chef Andi Oliver and an unexpectedly engaged appearance from John Lydon, it’s a brutally honest work, giving as much attention to his personal failings as the numerous professional triumphs.

It seems Letts is still having some trouble rationalising the veneration. He’s charming, no-nonsense and effortlessly quotable, but arguably a little bemused by this focus on his exploits. “When they came to me, I said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m an interesting dinner guest, but I don’t know about a film…’” Understandably, he’s immensely flattered so many of the people making an impact on his life were happy to participate. He had no aspirations for the project when signing up –  in fact he even had a few reservations.

There’s an adamance that you need to justify any space that you occupy. The film was delayed because of the pandemic and his autobiography There and Black Again was released last year. Inadvertently, things have overlapped a little. He admits that by drawing attention to himself he might not be fulfilling his own brief. “I’m not good at talking about what I’ve done, I like to talk about what I’m doing. So, it’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m flattered that anyone gives a shit.” And a lot has happened since the process started. “The world has woken up. Although, I’ve been conscious my whole life. The person I see in the trailer and on the posters… I don’t recognise him. It’s weird and I don’t like having the spotlight on me.” His logic is that if you produce anything of value, others will discuss it for you. Working on the book and film might have led to a realisation his almost hyperactive creativity could stem from a reluctance to deal with himself.

Directed by William E Badgley, Rebel Dread spans a life of forming bonds through music. It unwaveringly looks at his childhood in South London, an environment haunted by racism, police harassment and violence. A segment when he talks about a demonstrable shift in attitudes following Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is particularly startling. The young Letts would find his voice through music, whether it was the boisterous pop of The Beatles, the boisterous theatrics of The Who or the bass-laden dub reggae emerging from Jamaica. This passion would lead to him DJing at The Roxy, one of the first venues in Britain to play music from an exciting new musical force: punk.

Those nights would see him and his Rasta mates head down to the Covent Garden venue to party with a bunch of kids with ripped-up shirts and safety pins through their noses. Although it might have seemed like a clash of communities, both groups were young, disaffected and looking for a good time. It was so early in the movement’s lifespan that there weren’t many records by punk bands to play, so sets heavily featured dub and reggae. That simple choice kickstarted a strong resonance still shared by the two genres

.

This might have been a pivotal moment for ideals and music, but there wasn’t a realisation that what they were getting up to was in any way extraordinary. “It was just young people trying to express themselves. All this weight and gravitas has come after the fact. The Roxy was a shithole, which was open for three months. It is only with hindsight that we can look back and say there was a cultural exchange going on.”  This might have been a bunch of teenagers who were just trying to get through the day, pay the rent, get laid and have a good time, but they established a shared attitude and spirit. They encouraged each other by understanding and celebrating their differences. Punk lives on, not as some form of misty-eyed nostalgia but as a DIY ethos where ideas and motivation are everything.

When he wasn’t DJing, Letts would be conspicuously filming on his Super-8 camera, an archive which now provides much of Rebel Dread’s contemporary footage. It was around this time that he struck up a friendship with a young and energetic band called The Clash. This would see him filming several promos for them, including the iconic London’s Calling and Rock the Casbah videos. When guitarist Mick Jones found himself separating from the band, he and Letts embarked on an entirely new, but distinctly familiar musical project.

The first time Letts drifted into my personal cultural experience was during his time as ‘the cool one’ in Big Audio Dynamite. He, Jones, keyboard player Dan Donovan, bassist Leo Williams and drummer Greg Roberts exploited the futuristic promises of technology to build a bridge between numerous subcultures. They still stand as perhaps one of the most undervalued bands in British music, providing a sample-heavy barrage of cinematic guitar hooks, funky bass and hip-hop aesthetics. “I was interviewing Damon Albarn and he told me that BAD was a huge part of what he did. I’d never really joined the dots between us and Gorillaz. We were more cred than bread. I think those who are supposed to know, know.” Sampling was very much in its infancy, and BAD used it to pull together dialogue from spaghetti westerns and cult British movies to paint a vivid collage of earnest cultural reference points.

Like nearly all his work, Letts says it’s about passing on knowledge and experience. Nothing comes out of a void. He was turned onto the stuff which came before him, then his passion compelled him to sample and reinterpret those influences. “Until people start talking about cultural appropriation… Woah!” He throws his hands up in bemusement. “What are you talking about? We just need to decide for ourselves if it’s cultural appropriation, exploitation or inspiration. It’s really simple.”

He still finds it difficult to stand still. There are always more projects to develop and more music to explore. A few weeks ago he celebrated his 66th birthday. “Your brain’s saying ‘Ahh! You’re still 25’, and your body is saying ‘don’t be so stupid’. But I’m still above the ground with a foot in the door!” He lives in London and has two teenage girls, so he doesn’t really have the option of sitting back and taking it easy, though it occasionally baffles him when other people talk about retiring or income streams. There’s an understanding he’s lucky to still be doing what he does. “I’m not moaning. And I’m not that much up my arse to ignore what people do to survive on a daily basis. Perhaps I’m just freaking out that I’m getting older. It’s all this growing up stuff. Sometimes you’ve just got to embrace it.”

With a successful slot on BBC 6 Music, instantly recognisable pop videos like Musical Youth’s Pass the Dutchie, The Pretenders’ Back on the Chain Gang and Bob Marley & The Wailers’ One Love, along with books, films and an almost unassailable position as the font of all musical knowledge, I suggest it might be a good time to pause and think about his legacy. “Nonsense. I’ve got an Oyster Card… I’ve realised my only discernible talent is that I seem to have good taste. What I do seems to resonate with people… Not necessarily millions, but it gets me through the day and it earns me a crust.”

His recent contribution to the artist-curated compilation series, Late Night Tales, has seen him gravitate back towards music making. It featured dub-tinged reinterpretations of classic tracks, including Love Will Tear Us apart, Ain’t No Sunshine and White Rabbit. It was working with electronica and worldbeat artist Gaudi on a rebuilding of BAD’s classic E=MC2 that fired up Letts’s imagination. One thing has led to another, and now he’s preparing to release his first solo album later this year.

Joining the pair is super-producer Youth, the former Killing Joke bassist similarly being comfortable sitting between a wide range of musical styles. All three grew up with pop and bass-heavy music, and this aesthetic is central to the new Out Of Sync project. He says he’s genuinely pleased with the undertaking, but the record industry’s relentless need for promotion means this cultural endeavour might need to bow before commercial demands. “I’m beginning to dread this whole treadmill I’m being encouraged to get on. But the Dread stands firm!” Over the last 18 months, the collaboration has encouraged Letts to look at himself and his contributions in a whole new way. “I can’t stand toe to toe with somebody with a guitar. I always felt weak. What Youth made me understand is that what I play is ideas, not instruments. In the equation of making music, my input is invaluable, because there’s a lot of people who are technically brilliant, but their ideas are shit.”

When asked if we’ve lost the type of bands like The Clash, who were overtly political and sought to encourage change through music, Letts says we need to be careful with generalisations. “If you’re wearing £200 sneakers and a carrying a £1000 phone, you’re probably not tuned into the wavelength of the people who made all that stuff and are screaming about it every day.” There’s an abundance of protest music out there, but if you don’t need it, you’re unlikely to move in its orbit. The platforms have changed. Angry and motivated music isn’t dead, it’s still there. Because it’s a necessity.

Don Letts has never been one to be defined by his colour or what herd he follows. “There weren’t a lot of people in Brixton singing Anarchy In The UK or wearing bondage trousers. All the brothers thought I was mad.” It’s not so much that he’s spent his time bringing people together, but more his constant encouragement to reject strict tribalism. As a 21st century renaissance man, perhaps his kaleidoscopic view of British culture is empowered by being a bit of an outsider. It’s easier to view something objectively if you’re not wholeheartedly involved with it. You can only truly grow or transform when you step outside your comfort zone.

So, does he still consider himself as an outsider? “Come on, mate, get real, I’ve been on the BBC for 15 years,” he says with a chuckle. “I guess ‘outside’ is a state of mind. Because the truth of the matter is yes, I do. Even with the fact I’m all over the place.” Punk was the product of outcasts. Like-minded people always seem to gravitate towards each other. Which is why places like The Roxy will always be important. They provide an ‘inside’ for outsiders. A space where you can discover connections, think freely and be inspired.

Bringing people together may just be a default of what he does. Letts swears he’s not on some noble mission to unite the people. “I’ve just done shit that I like, and it seems to resonate with people. I know a good bassline when I hear it. And if a white guy plays a wicked guitar line, I’m going to put my hand up and say that’s wicked as well. Out of this honesty comes a new creativity.”

Rebel Dread comes to UK cinemas, Bohemia Euphoria and other streaming platforms, on Fri 4 March 2022.

www.rebeldread.com

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