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From my city to yours: legendary DJ Don Letts on London’s best musical hangouts

The Grammy award-winning musical maestro rose to fame after catalysing a fusion of the reggae and punk genres in 1970s London — and unifying their crowds. Here, he discusses the capital’s world-class music scene, and recommends his top hangouts.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 5 May 2021, 17:35 BST, Updated 25 May 2021, 11:58 BST
In his new autobiography, There and Black Again, legendary DJ Don Letts documents the arc of ...

In his new autobiography, There and Black Again, legendary DJ Don Letts documents the arc of his life, from his childhood as the Brixton-born son of Jamaican parents to his friendships with punk and reggae heavyweights including Joe Strummer and Bob Marley.

Photograph by Don Letts

When the dub-reggae scene collided with the punk in 1970s London, a new subculture was born whose influence has reverberated through the city to this day. And filmmaker and DJ Don Letts is widely credited as one of its pioneering figureheads.

In his own words, bass and reggae are “Jamaica’s greatest gifts to the world”. It’s a gift that Don — a punk fanatic, too — famously brought to London through his regular sets, mashing together the contrasting sounds at the then-eminent Covent Garden nightclub, The Roxy. The venue, an icon of the 1970s punk scene, witnessed the coming together of a marginalised white and Black youth — a celebratory “cultural clash”, as Don describes it — fuelled by a shared passion for music. Don’s sets inspired a new genre of reggae-punk, now a hallmark of the capital’s live music scene, and exemplified by legendary London bands like The Clash and more recently, The King Blues.

In his new autobiography, There and Black Again, Don documents the evolution of his world, from his childhood as a British-born son of Jamaican parents, part of the Windrush generation, to his friendships and partnerships formed in London with punk and reggae heavyweights including Joe Strummer and Bob Marley. Here, he reveals his recommendations for experiencing live performance and musical history in the capital, plus his favourite record stores, restaurants and green spaces to visit.

‘Until we can return to anything like the events of the past — if indeed we ever can — I think we have to look at the opportunities that have presented themselves during this crisis,’ Letts says. ‘We have to embrace the situation as it is, and work out more crowd-friendly gigs.’

Photograph by Dean Chalkley

What does London’s live music scene mean to you, and what elements of it are you missing right now?

I’m missing the collective, synchronised experience, and nothing does that for me better than live music. I’m as old as rock and roll. I was born in Brixton in 1956 — when I was growing up all we had was music and the clothes we wore, so it was tremendously important. I listened to vinyl records or transistor radio and went to live shows. The first band I ever went to see was The Who at the Young Vic on London’s South Bank when I was 14 years old. It changed my life forever, and set me on the path to where I am today.

Which London venues would you like to champion right now?

London’s rising rents have taken a devastating toll on a lot of great venues. One that’s managed to keep its head above water — and I’ve always had a soft spot for — is The 100 Club on Oxford Street. It’s got a tremendous heritage in jazz, rock and roll and reggae and it’s very intimate. There’s something about it — the acts that have played there have seeped into the very walls of the building itself. It’s got serious history — and it’s central. It does have two pillars in front of the stage though, which is irritating.

Aside from that, I love Brixton Jamm and The Prince of Wales, both in Brixton. The Prince of Wales has a balcony which is beautiful in the summer — what I’m favouring now is outdoor space. I tend to play to a more discerning crowd these days; they’re not teenagers. Three feet of space around them is hallowed ground.

Outside of the pandemic, talk us through your perfect day spent in London.

Experiencing London’s cultural clash in its multicultural neighbourhoods. You could do no better than just travelling around London — whether it be through Brixton, Ladbroke Grove, Dalston, Hackney, or Golborne Market. Obviously other cities are multicultural too, but sometimes the reason they interact is because the areas in which they live are geographically small. In London you have a genuine creative crossover, and I think that's why London has the reputation it does. We’re not just physically living in a city together, we're actually interacting with each other and turning each other on.

Also – you can’t go wrong with a sunny Sunday afternoon strolling down South Bank with your romantic other half. It’s even better at twilight. Not bad.

You featured on BBC Two’s Gardeners’ World last year. Which are your favourite green spaces in London, and why?

Somewhat predictably, it’s got to be the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Particularly because even if the weather’s horrible, you can go inside any of its incredible greenhouses — my favourites are the Princess of Wales Conservatory and that fantastic glasshouse, or rather, massive green, glass mansion, the Palm House. To top it all off, it’s got an excellent eatery. It’s the icing on the cake — pun intended.

And Londons culinary scene: which cuisine means the most to you, and where would you recommend someone go to experience that?

As you know, I’m a culture clash guy. I like Italian, Indian, Thai, Malaysian and Japanese especially. But, something that’s popped up on my radar fairly recently is Andi Oliver’s new restaurant, Wadadli Kitchen. It has an excellent range of Afro Caribbean food, particularly Antiguan, because that’s where Andi's from. There are hints of St. Lucian, Cuban and Jamaican cuisine too. The food is packed full of flavour and spice — just the way I like it. Due to the lockdown Andi’s reinvented her business. She’s started doing these excellent meal kit packages which you can make at home. I had one the other day — and I'm still licking my lips now.

In your opinion, whats in store for Londons live music scene, post-pandemic?

Until we can return to anything like the events of the past — if indeed we ever can — I think we have to look at the opportunities that have presented themselves during this crisis. We have to find alternative ways to operate, and make it so that we aren’t rubbing up against one another at gigs — I mean, who wants to be wrapped up next to a sweaty person anyway? We have to embrace the situation as it is, and work out more crowd-friendly gigs.

Don Letts will be giving readings from his new book, There and Black Again, in the UK during spring and summer 2021.

Photograph by Don Letts

Don Letts’ top five musical hangouts in London

1. Notting Hill Carnival

It only happens once a year, but Notting Hill Carnival’s got to be first in line. It’s a cultural clash of sounds, turning on the town. Everything it represents — the coming together of people, the cultural exchange — is a beautiful thing to behold, really. Whether it’s going ahead in 2021 is yet to be announced.

2. Rough Trade East, Brick Lane

My local branch of Rough Trade is the smaller shop in West London where I go on a weekly basis. But Rough Trade East is an excellent spot to hangout if you’re into vinyl or books, or just want to pop in for a cup of coffee. It hosts impromptu performances as well. Big up Rough Trade.

3. O2 Academy, Brixton

With the right band, it’s one hell of a trip. I’m lucky enough to have played at the O2 Academy a few times, including a few sellout nights with my old group Big Audio Dynamite. It’s in Brixton where I grew up, so the venue means a lot me. So many legendary performances have happened there.

4. West Town London, Notting Hill

A hot tip. West Town London is a little shop that opened on Westbourne Grove Mews just before lockdown. It’s not a music shop per se, but it’s inspired by people that have a very serious musical background — let’s put it that way. It's an Aladdin's cave of cultural delights. Gorgeous little place.

5. People’s Sound Record Shop, All Saints Road

If you want an old school reggae shop, People's Sound Record Shop is one of the last few that still sells vinyl. It’s a tiny little hole-in-the-wall place, very much in the tradition of old school reggae shops. One of the last of its kind in London.

Don Letts’ new book, There and Black Again, co-authored by Mal Peachey, is published by Omnibus Press, RRP £20. A selection of book reading events will take place in the UK in spring and summer 2021.

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