Don Letts Talks Israelites, Trojan and the Roots of Reggae

Big Audio Dynamite and Reggae 45's Don Letts brings blue beat to rock steady.

“Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed,” sang Desmond Dekker backed by The Aces, and the world sang along to the rock steady sounds of the Rude Boys of Jamaica. Nobody knew the words but we sang along. I was six when my parents bought this single and I thought the words were about some guy craving breakfast only to have a clever mountain cat beat him to it, not one word of it even in the lyric sheet. I sang along anyway because the happy way the guitars played off the bass felt like skipping through dry spots on puddles. The song was universal. It hit the charts. Fifty years later, the track still highlights the social, political and spiritual changes brought about by rasta vibrations.

Don Letts has been bringing reggae to the world to since 2017 when he celebrated what would have been Bob Marley’s 73rd birthday for Turtle Bay’s “Reggae 45.” On June 22nd, Letts celebrated fifty years of the small Jamaican record label that started it all. Trojan Records is also being celebrated in the documentary film Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records, which highlights how Jamaican music paved the way for multiculturalism.

The imprint reggae, ska and rocksteady label was founded in 1968 on the strength of their repertory players, Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Tony Tribe, and Dekker, who died on May 25, 2006. Dekker wrote “Israelites” with Leslie Kong. The song was recorded and released in 1968 by Desmond Dekker & the Aces, which included Dekker’s long time singing companion and business partner Leon Delroy Williams. “Israelites” was the first reggae songs to hit number one in the U.K. It also hit number one in the Netherlands, Jamaica, South Africa, Canada, Sweden and West Germany. The song hit number 9 in America. Dekker reached number 14 on the charts with his rude boy song, “007 (Shanty Town)” in 1967.

The song has the simple chord progression of Bb Eb F Db, with the guitars on the offbeat and the bass strolling upwards in octuplets, with happy triplet accents and percussive quadruplets keeping everything upbeat. Jamaica transitioned to independence in 1962. Duke Reid’s legendary Trojan sound system provided the soundtrack for the rude boy. Rude boys, or rudis, strutted off the 1960s streets of Kingston, Jamaica. They came from the poor part of the city but dressed sharp, wearing suits, thin ties, and pork pie hats. They got a reputation for violence mainly because they took gigs crashing dance clubs in a depressed economy.

Jamaican Rastafari were considered a cult in the sixties and Dekker’s song had a strong social undercurrent. Young Rastas didn’t get paid enough to both feed and clothe their families. They found themselves “slaving for bread” with torn-up shirts and “trousers is gone,” who often drifted into outlaw status “like Bonnie and Clyde.” Dekker said he wrote the song after hearing a couple arguing about money while he was walking through a park. He had it finished in his head by the time he got home.

The name of the song probably comes from the Rastafari movement’s association with the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which was founded by Vernon Carrington, aka the Prophet Gad, in 1968. The Africa-centered Rastafari religion has its roots in the 1930s coronation of Haile Selassie I as King of Ethiopia but goes back to 18th century Ethiopianism, which grew out of slavery. Marcus Garvey foretold Selassie’s deified status when he told his followers to “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.”

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For Rastas, who read scripture daily, Selassie is a God who will return all who were displaced because of colonization or the slave trade to Babylon. Bob Marley provides a bareknuckle emotional history lesson in his acoustic rendered folk classic “Redemption Song.” Rastas also celebrate their use of marijuana in spiritual practices. It is the supreme herb which has healing properties and promotes feelings of love and peace, freeing the disciple to discover the presence of the Holy Spirit, or I and I, within.

Trojan artist Dekker was the first star of the underground scene. Dekker had two more U.K. Top Ten hits to close out the sixties, “It Mek” and his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” Dekker recorded on the Pyramid record label whose catalogue was acquired by Cactus Records in 1975. Dave and Ansel Collins’s “Double Barrel” gave the Trojan label its first number 1. From 1969 to 1973 Trojan grew to be the most important Jamaican label in the world. The label overextended itself and folded in 1975.

The documentary Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records, directed by Nicolas Jack Davies, chronicles the rise and lasting impact of the legendary reggae, ska and rock steady label, and its influence on music and the cultural movement. The story is told by Lee “Scratch” Perry, Toots Hibbert, Ken Boothe, Neville Staple, Marcia Griffiths, Dave Barker, Dandy Livingstone, Lloyd Coxsone, Pauline Black, Derrick Morgan.

Donovan “Don” Letts tells the stories and spins the platters for his Reggae 45 podcast. He directed the feature documentaries The Punk Rock Movie (1977) and The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) and music videos for Musical Youth, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders and Elvis Costello. The Grammy award-winning Director, DJ, and musician Letts came to music after selling “electric-blue zoot suits and jukeboxes, and pumping dub reggae” into his London clothing store Acme Attractions, befriending Bob Marley after sneaking into his hotel.

Marley, who wrote such songs as “I Shot the Sheriff,” which was covered by Eric Clapton, as well as the hits “Stir It Up,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” “One Love,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Could You Be Loved,” “Buffalo Soldier,” Jammin’, “Redemption Song,” “Exodus” and “Save My Soul,” died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36. He, more than any artist, popularized reggae, which grew out of the ska and rock steady beats of Jamaica.

Marley began performing with The Wailers, the band that also produced Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, in 1963. Marley was raised as a Catholic, but became infused with Rastafari vibrations in the 1960s. More than just a musical force, Marley was a potent voice in politics, even taking a bullet for it in December 1976.

Letts’ DJ skills at Acme pulled in bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith and Deborah Harry. Letts also spun for The Roxy nightclub in London, mixing dub and reggae records into the early punk scene. He pooled together his DJ money and rep to film his first feature, The Punk Rock Movie, in 1978. He also managed the punk band The Slits. Letts recorded his EP Steel Leg v the Electric Dread, with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Steel Leg in 1978. When Mick Jones was fired from The Clash, he and Letts founded Big Audio Dynamite in 1984. In 1990 Letts formed Screaming Target. As of  April 2009, Letts is presenting a weekly show on BBC Radio 6 Music. Letts spoke with Den of Geek about Trojan Records, reggae, rock steady, ska and Blue Beat, and how he keeps the music vital with his podcast.

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Den of Geek: Firstly, we hear your next series of the Reggae 45 podcast is back in action, what’s in store for the next few episodes?

Don Letts: Well I’ve just delivered my tribute to Trojan Records by way of celebrating their 50th anniversary – rather hoping that keeps you busy for a while – next stop Lovers Rock.

For our readers that are new to these genres of music – what is the difference between ska, rock steady and reggae music?

You missed Blue Beat! Ska was created in the wake of Jamaica’s independence and morphed into reggae by the late sixties via rocksteady and blue beat. 

Tell us about how reggae music first captured your interest and what was the first song that made an impression on you?

At a time when being black and British was a very confusing concept, reggae provided clues to my identity and insights into my Jamaican heritage wrapped in a heavy bass line.

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U.K. reggae culture has been hugely popular over the decades. How did it feel to live in England as part of that whole wave and see the genre you championed blanket the cities and clubs?

It’s really a testament to the power of culture to unite the people by using music as a tool for social change. It’s been a good ride!

How did your involvement in the punk scene come about? Did you see similarities between the two musical styles and the fan base?

We were like-minded rebels that came together through a mutual love of Jamaican music. Well, that’s how I become friends with the likes of The Clash, The Slits and Johnny Rotten, as he was known back then. There was no similarity between the genres initially. The similarity was in the attitude.

Bob Marley, and many of the Jamaican musicians, were more than musicians, they were a political force. Marley himself was shot over it. Do you think reggae music still has the power to be the voice for a cause?

There are plenty of reggae musicians out there that recognize the potential of music to change people’s lives. Chronixx and Protoje spring to mind. You know you can’t spend your life on the dance floor. Eventually the music’ll stop and you’ll have to face reality, and guess what? There’s a tune for that too!

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The Beatles normalized eastern music by not only using sitars and tablas but writing in the time signatures and semitones of the region. What was the pinnacle moment for introducing reggae to the mainstream?

The arrival of Bob Marley pretty much sealed the deal but the output of Trojan Records in the late sixties/early seventies also played a massive part. Then there was Eric Clapton’s version of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” which made many do a double take on what reggae was about.

Tell me about some of your favorite artists in the early days?

Easy. The Wailers, U Roy, Prince Fari, Tapper Zukie, King Tubby, I Roy, Big Youth, Keith Hudson, Burning Spear, Lee Scratch Perry, Black Uhuru, I could go on but…

When the scene was emerging in the U.K., there were tons of nights popping up and supporting the sound and this is where the key players obviously hung out. Did you see lots of professional relationships come off the back of this?

We weren’t looking for professional relationships, we we’re looking for the bassline!

You did the show on Trojan Records a few weeks ago and they are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, for those that don’t know the label, how has it been influential?

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As I mentioned before, Trojan sowed the seeds of the U.K.’s love affair with reggae with an unprecedented string of hits in the early seventies, and they provided the soundtrack for the children of the Windrush Generation which includes myself. 

Are you working on any new musically or cinematically yourself?

I’m hustling like everyone else. It’s a creative hustle but a hustle nevertheless. I’m just glad I enjoy what I do.

You can hear Reggae 45 on Mixcloud, or iTunes.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.