Sunday, May 20, 2007

This Cultural Life: Don Letts

This Cultural Life: Don Letts

The film director and DJ thinks Meryl Streep would be the best person to play him in a movie of his life

Published: 20 May 2007

What was your cultural passion at 14?

Music and movies. Being a first-generation British-born black, reggae is part of my heritage and upbringing. But growing up submerged in white culture has shaped a lot of the person I am today. I used to be a Beatles fanatic and what George Harrison called an Apple scruff - one of the kids who hung outside the offices on Savile Row. Such was my passion that at one point I was the owner of the second-largest collection of Beatles memorabilia in this country. Then punk rock came along and I swapped it all for a big American car.

What are you reading in bed at the moment?

I'm reading Charles Mingus's autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, although I have to say, not in bed. There are two things that happen in my bed, and neither of them is reading. It's very insightful; he is of mixed parentage and although I'm not mixed race, the struggles he was going through during his upbringing are something I can easily identify with.

What book have you been meaning to read since you bought it in a fit of enthusiasm?

If I make the commitment to part with money, the book gets read. Although I guess I should get around to reading that copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran that everyone has on their shelf.

Are you a rereader? Which book have you reread most frequently in your life?

I'm too engrossed in the now to look backwards. If there was one book I'd go back and read it might be a book called The Painted Bird by a gentleman called Jerzy Kosinski.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

I'm very happy to have just acquired the new Björk album. The best of Asian Dub Foundation has just come out and is well worth getting. On my softer side I've just been turned on to a group called Panda Bear, and the album's called Person Pitch. I guess one would describe them as ethereal.

What is your ideal alternative job? And the realistic alternative?

That is really hard to answer as I've been in a band; I make documentaries; I've got my own radio show; I've directed and acted in a couple of films and I'm currently DJ-ing worldwide. When I was young and growing up the two options available to black people were the GPO and working on British Rail, so considering those were my options I'd say the kid ain't done too bad. The realistic alternative would be working in Rough Trade record shop.

Do you have a hole in your cultural life?

Only a financial one. If I had more finances I'd expand my cultural lifestyle. I don't go to the theatre a lot primarily because it seems to be an old language to me. Obviously there is some stuff that is contemporary, but the average thing that runs down the Shaftesbury Avenue is not really my speed.

Do you have a secret cultural passion?

I actively pursue anything I find vaguely interesting. I still want to make a movie set in the city that I love - London - which reflects the duality of my existence and the multicultural mix which I believe really does make this city great. I'm currently working on a script which revolves around the world of pirate radio.

Which cultural item would you most like to steal?

That's probably an occupation that's best left to the British.

Which painting most corresponds with your vision of yourself?

Probably be something by Jean-Michel Basquiat. If not that then The Last Supper - there are 12 people plus the boss that I can identify with in there. Basquiat has got that tribal vibe going on. From that whole movement of street artists he was the one that struck me the most, and he was most bankable. When I saw his stuff I was struck by the artistry - it just spoke to me.

If you could tear down any building in the world, what would it be?

The White House.

Do you like parties?

Less and less. It seems that the older I get, the less I like talking to strangers. I think the friends part of my brain is full up.

Are you yourself cool?

Only an uncool person would answer that.

What is the most fashionable thing you own? And the most uncool?

Liberty and Honour, who are actually my two daughters. They're mixed race, or is that multi-ethnic these days? I don't know, but I've heard that it's very fashionable. The most uncool would be my panda-skin shoes.

Who should play you in the Hollywood version of your life? And who would be your nemesis in the last reel?

Meryl Streep - she's a great character actor, and I'd like to think only somebody great could pull me off. Chris Rock would be my nemesis. He doesn't mince his words. He'd probably pull me down a peg or two and that's a tall order for any man.

Your house is on fire: what is the thing you save first from the flames?

My iPod is always on me so I wouldn't need to save that. I guess it would be my passport. I travel a lot but mainly in a professional capacity. Two weeks ago I was in Tokyo. I'm off to Toronto the week after next and then back to Tokyo.

You die and go to heaven. Who would you most like to meet in the bar? What question would you ask first?

Since I'd be talking to Robert Johnson, I guess I'd be in hell. I'd ask him what we would sound like if we didn't have the blues. If we hadn't been miserable, if we hadn't come over on slave ships, if we'd bought a ticket instead and come over to America on holiday, what would we sound like? All rock'n'roll is supposed to have come out of the blues, which are basically inspired by pain and misery, but if we'd been happy and fulfilled as a race, what would today's music sound like?

Interview by Sophie Morris

'Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers' by Don Letts is available in hardback, £16.99 from SAF Publishing. He's also presenting on BBC 6 Music's Trojan Weekender

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