Hackney people: Don Letts

The legendary punk-reggae DJ on the musical roots of today's multicultural society

"I WAS young when Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech,” says Don Letts, DJ, musician, filmmaker, broadcaster and legendary godfather of the punk reggae movement of the late 1970s.

Now 59, the man (pictured above) who befriended Bob Marley after sneaking into his hotel; went to Jamaica with Sex Pistols punk pioneer Johnny ‘Rotten’; and founded the band Big Audio Dynamite, is remembering the London of his early youth, in the years following the Conservative right-winger’s infamous anti-immigration speech in 1968.

“Black people weren’t allowed into West End clubs,” says Letts. “The streets were dread back then because the cops might pick you up. It forced us into ghettoised areas, anywhere were there was a black community, where we could ease our pain with music after grafting all week.” 

For Letts, that solace was found in the first club to open in Hackney, and one of the first venues to play black music in Britain, The Four Aces on Dalston Lane (pictured below). 

“That club, and another called Phebes on Amhurst Road, were regular haunts of mine in the 70s,” says Letts. “They played heavyweight reggae sounds. We had nothing like it in South London at the time, no dedicated reggae clubs.”

The Four Aces opened in 1967. Some of the most influential black musicians of the era went on to perform there, including Bob Marley, Ben E King, Desmond Dekker (both pictured below), and The Upsetters. 

Around the same time, a former gambling den and hangout of notorious gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, called The Regency, was reopened as Phebes. The Stoke Newington club introduced light reggae styles in the upstairs lounge and bass-heavy sounds in the basement. Jah Shaka, the legendary sound system operator and producer, had a Friday night residency there throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Afro-Caribbeans began to flock to these two clubs from all over London, as did second-generation immigrants like Letts. “They became places of inspiration and liberation,” says Letts. “The optimism of ska had given way to a more militant and politicised sound. It was the rebel music of the time, a tool for social change. There was talk of roots and culture in those clubs.”

Into this electric environment Letts introduced his friends, including young musicians Johnny Rotten, The Clash’s Joe Strummer, and Arianna from The Slits. 

“I’d take them to these Hackney clubs and they would be the only white people there. Consequently, they got a lot of respect. They were like-minded rebels, and people recognised them as kindred spirits. You can hear the huge influence those places had on them just by listening to their music,” says Letts.

Adding: “Those times were the start of the whole punky/reggae thing that I’m usually blamed for. But you know what, I’m really proud of it. Those are the roots of today’s multicultural Britain, in a way. Politics didn’t make that happen, nor did school or religion. Music made it happen.”

At the same time, Letts was running a shop called Acme Attractions on the King’s Road, Chelsea, selling clothes to emerging punks. Stars like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry all passed through. He was also playing dub and reggae records between the punk acts performing at the West End nightclub, The Roxy. His DJ sets there earned him the reputation of introducing the entire punk scene to reggae.

Today, living in West London, Letts has a weekly radio show on BBC 6 Music. He says: “Hackney is no longer my stomping ground, but I do get to DJ here and it’s a trip – it’s geared up for people who are young, free and single.”

The audience at Hackney’s reggae parties has changed, he says: “A lot of white people come to hear me DJ now. The young black people are so eager to find their own soundtrack that they don’t stop and look back.”

Adding: “I’m happy to be a cultural gatekeeper for the old school reggae vibe. I still believe in music as a tool for change, not just a soundtrack for consumerism. There’s a lineage and heritage that I like to think I’m a part of, and I want to pass that on.”

Catch Don in action on 27 March when he's DJ-ing at 'Raise It Up' at The Victoria in Dalston. Plus there's free rum ...