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Sweet Romance: Don Letts talks Lovers Rock

Don Letts Turtle Bay

BBC 6Music listeners know him for his weekly Culture Clash Radio show. Film buffs know him for his feature films and his two-dozen-plus documentaries, including his Grammy-winning documentary, Westway to the World. Musicians owe a debt to his work with Big Audio Dynamite. Cultural historians say the same for his book, and dance floors around the world move to what he spins. And now, on top of all that, Don Letts has teamed up with Turtle Bay for a series of hour-long podcasts that blend reggae, history and Don’s unique insider insights. The most recent installment of Reggae 45 focuses on Lovers Rock. And that’s the focus of this interview.

RSS: What is Lovers Rock and where did it come from?

Don Letts: It’s a Reggae-based genre that was created in the UK, inspired by Jamaica, and it has nothing to with rock. Really it’s about living here. I’m first-generation British-born black. For our mode of inspiration and for our musical fix, we were always looking to Jamaica. We’re always looking to Jamaica, but we were desperately trying to work out where we fit in in the whole scheme of things. And I guess we wanted to make some kind of contribution. And it’s [Lovers Rock] partially about that, but also about trying to come up with an idea of exactly what’s being black and British meant.

I think the other major thing that really fueled its creation was the fact that around about the early to mid ’70s, the reggae coming out in Jamaica was very militant, very politicized which was very much a reflection of the social and economic climate, political climate. Those political, militant messages seemed to transfer perfectly to the streets of London. The mid ’70s, it was tough, man. We had the riots, the right-wing party, The National Front. Yeah, if you were black in those days, it was pretty rough. Anyway, you’ve got all this militant, politicized music coming up, coming out of Jamaica. But the truth of the matter is, for my generation—first-generation British-born black—we were pretty young. We were in sort of our mid-teens, early 20s. More interested with matters of the heart. We’re starting to fall in love, starting to have relationships. Truth be told, we weren’t fighting all the time. You wanted to make love or whatever. It’s also about that expression of a more emotional side of the black experience in the UK.

A common knock against Lovers Rock it is that it’s overly sweet and sugary.

Oh, absolutely! There’s no getting around that. It’s about romance. It’s about love. Having said that, there’s an element of Lovers Rock that still had some kind of political content, albeit with a small p. Things like a tune called Black Pride, for instance.

I’ll tell you what is most interesting about the Lovers Rock thing, besides the fact that it was based in the UK, is that it was totally led by women. Totally led by women. Not only women, but they were young women. There’s no denying that up until that point and even today, reggae was—and still is—a predominantly male-led genre.

Given the time period, the fact that it was women-led is a political statement.

Absolutely. Politics with a small p. It’s with hindsight that you kind of put all these things together. At the time these women were just trying to express themselves. And it filled a much-needed gap in what was coming out of Jamaica. Not to say that the English came up with romantic love tunes. With the creation of Lovers Rock, you can kind of look back and say, it didn’t come out of a void. Nothing does. The groundwork for Lovers Rock would have been done by people like John Holt, Marcia Griffith and others. England didn’t come up with the idea of love songs. It just put an emphasis on it and kept the bassline.

As I said in my podcast, Lovers Rock was integral to the journey of black British people in this country having some kind of identity of their own. Before that, we were kind of looking to America for kind of musical tips, and political tips, too. The black American experience is very different than that of the UK, so we naturally looked to the land of our parents, Jamaica. We were of Jamaica but we weren’t Jamaican either. We were this weird, new social experiment. We were black. And we were British, which kind of rolls off the tongue now. But trust me, back then it was a very confusing concept. And it took a very long time for it to actually mean something. I don’t think it actually all came together until something like late ’80s with the advent of Soul II Soul. That’s when being black and British actually meant something. It’s a very interesting duality, that mix. It’s I think what gives a lot of the black British artists their identity, the fact that we did grow up with the Beatles or the Stones or Led Zeppelin or Roxy Music or David Bowie.

After its success in England, Lovers Rock went on to influence artists and producers in Jamaica.

Obviously it hearkens back to the more romantic period of Jamaican music. Like I say, I don’t think it’s even a young person’s thing. You know, older people dig it too, hey, anyone can fall in love, no matter what age you are! It struck an obvious chord with Jamaicans. Yeah, they absolutely jumped on it—and almost hijacked the whole thing!

Coming up in the US, my first experience with Lovers Rock was probably Johnny Nash.

Yeah, he’s another one. I think with hindsight we can see there were many artist before the creation of Lovers Rock that are obviously part of the story.

I think everyone who came up in the ’70s owes a relationship or two to Lovers Rock.

Half the reggae community in the UK was probably conceived to a Lovers Rock, my friend!

For many American teens, Lovers Rock was just the name of a Clash song.

I’m glad you mentioned that because you know, in the UK, unlike America, a lot of white working-class kids, looked to Jamaican music for their fix of rebellion. I mean, for instance, Trojan Records celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. The whole Trojan thing had a tremendous impact. It really sowed the seed for the UK’s love affair with Jamaican music. People like The Clash acknowledged Lovers Rock. Later on, even Boy George. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Everything I Own.” There’s a nod to Lovers Rock there. Sade is another obvious example. New reggae artists like Holly Cook. Lovers Rock has informed a lot of popular music these days. And unless you knew it, you wouldn’t get it, sort of thing. You have to know your reggae so you can connect the dots. You know what? Sometimes that’s isn’t necessary, man. As long as it strikes a cord, you know, maybe you should leave the history to the fucking journalist!

As a sax player, I can’t help but to notice the lack of horns in Lovers Rock. Was it a financial decision or did horns just get in the way of that kind of music?

You know something, that’s an interesting question. Kind of. I mean, there’s not a lot of horns in reggae period these days, but not so much in dancehall. In fact, I can’t think of any horns in the dancehall, bashment stuff. Obviously with the dub stuff there’s a shitload. I think horns just come and go as they’re needed. Somebody like Dean Frasier could carry it off. I just guess they weren’t part of the Lovers Rock mix. The thing about Lovers Rock is you’ve got these heavy basslines that definitely had a melody of their own. And then on top of that you had harmonized vocals. There’s a balance of melody and bass.

If Black British people in the ‘70s weren’t listening to reggae, we were listening to American soul. That kind of sweet production coming out of America at that time, whether it be somebody like The Chi-lites or The Stylistics or The Delphonics. Again, because it evoked that emotional, romantic side—because of our age—so I think that kind of informed Lovers Rock to – the sweet, saccharine production.

You’ve been involved in so many things. What’s going on for you right now?

Oh, man. It sounds great, but I’m hustling like everybody else. It’s a creative hustle, but it’s a hustle nevertheless. Basically, I’m still juggling film making, I still have got a radio show on BBC 6Music, which is not a reggae show. Obviously, you know I’m doing these podcasts. I’m still DJ-ing all over the place. It’s funny, people say, “Oh, Don, you do so many things.” But what they don’t realize is, I live in London, man, and it’s a really expensive city. The reason I do a lot of shit is because I have to. But having said that, I appreciate that I get to make a living doing something I enjoy. That’s not be taken lightly. If you can make a buck doing something you enjoy … What does Charlie Sheen say? Oh yeah, “Winning.”

Sirius XM satellite radio (US and Canada) has a reggae channel. Dermot Hussey has a show on there. Jabba has a show. I’d love to see a Don Letts show.

A reggae show? Listen, I’ve got to tell you something. The reason they call me the Rebel Dread is, contrary to popular opinion, I ain’t at home listening to bass-heavy reggae all day long. I got to be honest with you. The world’s a big and beautiful place. I’d like to think I remain open to all that it has to offer. If you really want to know what I’m about, you might want to check my radio show on BBC six music.

So what have you listened to within the last 24 hours that would surprise people?

Fleet Foxes. “Helplessness Blues.”

Gotta admit, I’ve never heard of them.

You’ve never heard of Fleet Foxes? [sigh] Okay. That’s cool. Hey, the world’s a big place. You can’t catch every raindrop! I’ll tell you what. I’ll make it easy.Arcade Fire’s latest album.

Okay, the hardest question. Give us a few songs on a ideal Lovers Rock setlist.

Oh man! Right … I’m in Love with a Dreadlock by Brown Sugar has to be in there. Emotion by 15 16 17. Well, I guess you’d have to include Silly Games by Janet Kay and Louisa Mark’s, Caught You In a Lie. They were the start of the movement, they really kick started the whole thing. Holly Cook, That Very Night as a modern example of Lovers Rock. That came out a few years ago. Now that you’re asking me, I’m thinking of things like John Holt, You Never Find. Okay, one more. Matumbi, After Tonight.

Don’s Reggae 45 podcasts in association Turtle Bay is available on Mixcloud, Spotify, itunes and other quality podcast sites. You can catch his BBC 6Music Culture Clash Radio show on the BBC website. His autobiography, Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers, is available on Amazon of course, but check with your local bookseller first. And if you do order it online, make sure you get it in a language you can read. On a related note, anyone need a copy of Don Letts autobiography in French?

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Described by friends as “way, way too obsessed with ska,” Charles Benoit lives in Rochester, NY, where he writes novels (Young Adult noir) and plays tenor sax in Some Ska Band. Incriminating details and paparazzi-quality photos at charlesbenoit.com.

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