Imagine you had a resume that included being a DJ, a filmmaker, and cofounder of the band Big Audio Dynamite, that would be impressive. Yet, that resume exists for a man named Don Letts, and it often flies under the radar.
When punk music was defining itself in the late 1970s, Don Letts was a DJ at London punk club the Roxy. It was during this time he would start shooting his first film on Super-8, The Punk Rock Movie, featuring the Clash, Sex Pistols, Generation X, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Slits, and many more prominent bands of the scene.
Punk rock has a man behind the curtain, and his name is Don Letts.
Growing up in London in the 1970s as a black man of Jamaican ancestry, Letts was heavily inspired by reggae music. While DJing at the Roxy, punk was still growing. So, he would mix reggae and dub music into his sets, exposing an entire generation of punks to reggae music. This inspired bands like the Clash to start experimenting with other genres like reggae into their sound.
While a DJ at the Roxy, Letts also ran a local store called Acme Attractions and managed the Slits. A true jack of all trades in the UK punk world. As the Slits’ manager, he was able to get them to open for the Clash during the White Riot tour.
Letts realized artist management wasn’t for him (especially for a band as wild as The Slits) but he was able to get more footage for The Punk Rock Movie.
For someone who can’t play instruments, Letts has been so important to the history of music. Besides being a key link to the mixture of punk and reggae, filming these legendary bands on tour (like the Clash), he also formed Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones after Jones was fired from the Clash in 1983. Letts’ skills as a filmmaker and DJ helped create the band’s sound, using a lot of samples and effects while blending punk, hip-hop, dance, and reggae music.
Letts also shot music videos for numerous bands, including the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Psychedelic Furs, and Big Audio Dynamite.
After his time with Big Audio Dynamite, Letts continued his work as a DJ and filmmaker. He stayed connected to the Clash, and in 2000 he released the documentary The Clash: Westway to the World, which won him a Grammy Award in 2003.
Whether it was filming the Clash on stage, directing their music videos, or creating a new band with Mick Jones, Don Letts is a big reason the Clash was who they were.
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