Don Letts talks 50th anniversary of Trojan Records, history of reggae & punk

JORDANNAH ELIZABETH | 11/21/2019, 10:41 a.m.
The new documentary “Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records” chronicles the history of the UK record label that introduced England ...
Don Letts Contributed

The new documentary “Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records” chronicles the history of the UK record label that introduced England and the world to reggae and Jamaican music in the ’60s and ’70s. “Rudeboy,” directed by Nick Davies, is a combination of well-directed reenactments of actors portraying the label’s founders and artists, and interviews with legendary artists Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Neville Staple, Marcia Griffiths, Dandy Livingstone, Lloyd Coxsone, and Pauline Black.

“Very fortunately, it all started because there was chatter that it had been 50 years since Trojan launched. So, it started a conversation about what could be done about it. I thought the most pertinent thing was to make it about the social and political context of the whole thing. It’s kind of remarkable, the impact beyond records,” said director, Nick Davies about the origin of the documentary. The film screened to a sold out audience at the Brooklyn museum earlier this fall and is now available in the U.S. on the breaker.io online platform.

We spoke with one of the commentators, the iconic filmmaker, Don Letts (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gil Scott-Heron,” “Brother From Another Planet: Sun Ra,” “Tales of Dr. Funkenstein: George Clinton”) about the history of reggae music in the UK and Trojan Records, it’s influence on his own work and the genre’s global reach.

AmNews: Why do you think it is important for people to learn the history of Trojan Records?

Don Letts: If you look at the map of the world and you look at Jamaica, it’s this tiny little island that spent hundreds of years under colonization. And if you fast forward to the 21st century, this tiny little island has managed to culturally colonize the whole planet, particularly with its music and its culture. I think the Trojan documentary explains the power of Jamaican culture.

Trojan was launched in the UK, and it was via the UK that reggae launched around the whole world. Americans were a little slow to the party, but when they picked up on it they really got involved. It informed a lot of Black American culture, particularly hip hop. We’re talking about some of the foundations of 21st century Black music. It’s one of the building blocks.

AmNews: How did reggae inform punk music, a genre of music you helped bring to the mainstream?

Letts: It was first rebel music. It was very different and it was music that spoke of social change. When the white guys came up with punk rock, they were looking for a soundtrack that was appropriate to their situation because the popular music in the mid ’70s bore no reflection to the vibe on the streets. Luckily for me, I had a soundtrack, which was reggae, which was always more connected to what was going on in its immediate environment. Reggae had this music reportage quality about it that translated perfectly to the UK.

AmNews: How were you involved in the “Rudeboy” documentary?

Letts: Specifically, Trojan provided the soundtrack to my entrance into subculture because Trojan [music] was adopted by the skinhead movement in this country. When I say skinheads, I’m talking about the fashion version and not the fascist version that would erupt 5 or 6 years later. So, my connection with Trojan is that I was simply a fan of the music, and I guess it ignited, not only my life long love affair with reggae, it also sewed the seed for England’s love affair with Jamaican music. Reggae music, as far as England goes, Trojan started it all.