The Superstonic Cult of Don Letts

To the ICA last night, for the UK premiere of the Superstonic Sound documentary.

This was billed variously as a film about Don Letts, or perhaps a film about UK bass culture featuring Don Letts and his role in it:

“a documentary, which fuses his life story with that of the history of bass culture in Britain. From Kingston to London, New York to Rio, bass has had a resounding impact on musicians and music lovers alike. It is a meeting point for people from different cultures, backgrounds and races and continues to inspire innovation and change. Following 3 generations of DJ in the Letts family, Superstonic Sound charts the impact of Jamaican bass and how it changed British music and society forever.”

The film is actually an hour long advert for the Letts “brand”. Which is fine if you like Don Letts, I guess. For me the best parts were from Don’s film archive shot in Kingston JA and Brixton in the 1970s. I would have loved to simply watch all that, alongside the footage he apparently has of Prince Far I and others.

Unfortunately last night’s event seemed to suggest that anything involving Don Letts has to end up being about Don Letts more than anything else. Quite a lot of the film is taken up with Don wandering around London with his son reminiscing on his life, or sitting in his studio being interviewed for radio programmes (which seemed a lot more interesting than the film we were watching).

Both Don and his son Jet come across as OK people who have had interesting lives and made worthwhile contributions to culture. The difficulty is that Don is a self-confessed hustler who seems to be perpetually focussed on promoting himself so he can blag the next deal. And fair enough – there are a lot of people like that and it’s not like as a black guy in the seventies he was going to make a good go of being a civil servant or a bank manager.

The problems with this narcissism are twofold.

Firstly it means that the actual “history of bass culture in Britain” doesn’t get told properly.

The film was all too brief about Don’s father playing his soundsystem in a church basement after the Sunday service in the 1950s. Things then move predictably on to punk and the Roxy (skipping over rudeboys and skinheads dancing to ska in the sixties). The eighties are represented by Big Audio Dynamite and Don going to New York to discover hip hop (“black punk rock”). The nineties don’t get a look in, so no rave or jungle or garage. The story skips directly to dubstep, presumably because Don digs it and his son is a producer and club promoter.

My esteemed colleague Jamrock pressed Don on his opinion of Grime during the Q&A and after the show. Basically he’s not into it and didn’t feel that it fitted into the tradition he was talking about because it’s all bling and designer labels and not about chanting down babylon. I think, for me, the way that grime is produced and distributed and functions as an autonomous expression of urban working class culture is political in itself – regardless of lyrical content.

Whilst there are many things I’m not keen on in grime culture, it is undeniable that it’s a lot closer to being “black punk rock” than a lot of the music in the film. It is certainly a lot less palatable than dubstep to many people and has been subject to even more interference from the police than the Sex Pistols and the Clash ever were.

Plus it simply isn’t true that grime is all about bling – it was initially a reaction to the champagne and designer clothes of UK garage.

Furthermore grime reflects the politics of the world it is created in. Which are generally crap. It may be that the economic and social conditions of this decade mean that politics and people’s relationship to it become a bit more interesting, which might mean more interesting subcultures develop. It is a bit wrongheaded to say that dubstep is acceptable in this context, but grime isn’t.

Unfortunately a potentially interesting discussion of these issues was curtailed by the second problem with the cult of Don – that people buy into it. The backwards and forwards between my friend and the star of the show was interrupted by another audience member who wanted to have her say. Which is fair enough, except all she seemed to want to do was big herself up and tell Don how amazing he is.

Many of the other “questions” were of a similar caliber, although there were some interesting tangents where younger audience members raised the issue of generally feeling helpless, having too much information and not having black and white issues to kick out against. Which makes me wonder if the whole event was framed around a nostalgia for the simpler times of the seventies.

Don got his fire back when talking about trying to acquire stock footage of black culture for his documentary films and being charged thousands of pounds for a few seconds of footage of someone like Sun Ra, which Ra’s estate won’t see any of. “Who owns the culture?” is a crucial question to be asking.

But so is “Who decides what’s in the culture and what isn’t?”

There is a film to be made which covers “the history of bass culture in Britain” which shows that  “From Kingston to London, New York to Rio, bass has had a resounding impact on musicians and music lovers alike. It is a meeting point for people from different cultures, backgrounds and races and continues to inspire innovation and change.”

Unfortunately, enjoyable as it was – and raising as many questions as it did, Superstonic Sound is not that film.



  2. Amen to that – it seems obligatory for any British TV programme or film that even touches upon reggae in the UK to feature Don Letts, with his spidery dreads and permafrown. he played a damn good set at the Alibi the other day though.

  3. I guess we really misunderstood, or were missold, the content of the film. I was expecting a documentary about bass featuring Don Letts not a documentary about Don Letts featuring bass. I think bass was mentioned though – at least twice. A documentary about bass underpinning music culture not mentioning Jah Wobble or Jah Shaka is getting no lveo ffrom me!

    John has pretty much nailed all the points that got me worked up yesterday but I still feel he plays this ‘first black born generation’ card but is more of a white middle class dude and less of angry black person, despite his protestations. As for Malcom McClaren being his entry point into Punk I’m not entirely sure that was the authentic, working class voice of Punk and as amazing as the Clash were I hardly think they were urban street rats.

    He wasn’t dismissive of Grime, he wasn’t aware of it. And as for Grime not being political I’m pretty sure a lot of those tracks talk about the futility of 9-5 and the taxation system and their continued ostracisation, Form 696, etc. It’s angry, black, bass heavy, British music and he seemed to be ind denial of it.

    He also talked about the lack of a ‘movement of size, with an associated fashion, like Punk, since Punk’ and apart from a discussion of whether a Malcom McClaren/Vivienne Westwood style of attire is very urban (they didn’t make punk, they commodotised it, my sister lived above Malcom’s shop btw) I like to think that the whole Acid House scene was a music and fashion based reaction to the mediocrity of late eighties pop and door policy clubs.

    It’s not that Don Letts doesn’t have a lot of very interesting stuff to say about stuff, it just get’s lost in him talking about himself.

    The post film teardown in Festival Hall was much more fun than the documentary itself.

    And, yes, Tom, his set was amazing in places and given some of the dubstep he played I’m curious to see if he switches on to Grime. Not overly hopeful tho until someone spits some bars about him! 😀

  4. I dont know anything about grime except that what I heard I didnt like, maybe you need to be British to enjoy it? I do know that John seems dead on the money about Don Letts. There was a time years back when I’d enjoy reading about him, but I soon realized there was not more than a few pages of stuff to be said. When his book came out I read that but figured out pretty quickly it was just a self promo vehicle. I wonder if there is any there there.

  5. Think D.L. did the Sun Ra doc “brother from another planet”? No hint of Letts self promotion there and a good doc too…
    I’m not a fan of Don btw just thought a little balance would be nice.
    I enjoyed the post btw. Missing out jungle is pretty much unbelievable…

  6. On this topic – all you need to do is look at Dons judging of the Redbull music academy soundclash last week. It was clear Channel 1 had won at the end when they did the final crowd reaction between channel one and skream and bengas crew yet Don made the crowd do a crowd reaction (cheers), then a show of hands (twice). It became increasingly clear that channel one had taken the day yet Don kept asking for “another cheer for skream and benga just to be sure” until the crowd actually all just started chanting “channel one, channel one” and he had no other option but to declare channel 1 winners.

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