Young, Gifted & Black: Don Letts Explains How Trojan Records Soundtracked The Children Of Windrush

Words: James Keith

This year, the iconic reggae label Trojan Records celebrates its 50th anniversary via a series of live music events, compilations (This Is Trojan Ska, This Is Trojan Reggae, This Is Trojan Rock Steady, This Is Trojan Boss Reggae, This Is Trojan Roots, This Is Trojan Dub, and finally Ska & Reggae Classics, and a six-CD 50th Anniversary Box Set), a documentary called Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records, and a book by Laurence Cane-Honeysett called The Story Of Trojan Records.

Since its birth in 1968, Trojan Records has become the definitive outlet for reggae, ska, rock steady, dub, roots reggae, and the rest. It was also a huge cultural movement that brought together the Windrush Generation and their children with the white working classes, inspiring the skinhead movement, two-tone, and a whole slew of cultural touchstones. 50 years is a lot to dissect, especially if you weren’t there at the time. So to help us make sense of it all, and give us a firsthand account of what really happened, we spoke with punk and reggae icon Don Letts. But where do you start with a music industry titan of his stature? You could, of course, skim through Wikipedia’s criminally brief entry for him—though even that all-too-scant summary of his contributions to music is impressive enough—but Letts is so much more than the sum of his achievements.

As we dive into the label’s long and densely-packed history, Letts takes us back to day one. Trojan Records’ history begins in 1968 with founders Lee Gopthal and Chris Blackwell in a tiny office in Neasden, West London. “They were more than familiar with the wants and needs of the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK so they were able to capitalise on that,” he explained. So how did Trojan get the dominance and become that go-to place for both artists and fans? Well, one of their main successes came from licensing Jamaican music from producers like Harry Johnson, Leslie Kong and soundsystem pioneer Duke Reid. The latter, Letts relishes in telling me, “was an ex-policeman who carried a gun and would think nothing of letting off a few shots if the mood or the music took him.”

Another ingenious move they made was to spearhead the concept of label compilations. “They were one of the first to create these budget compilations,” he points out. “The full albums were a big investment for a kid, so they came up with the idea of these budget compilation albums and theirs was the Tighten Up series.” But it was more than that. Trojan saw a cultural and social shift on the horizon and they grabbed it with both hands, to enormous success.

“What happened with Trojan,” he says, “is that they had a rapid succession of hits between around ‘68 and ‘75. That kind of chart success has never really been repeated again. Bob & Marcia’s “Young, Gifted And Black”, for example, was a tremendously important tune at the time. I’m first generation, British-born, black which rolls off the tongue now but was a really confusing concept back then. We were looking for clues as to our identity and what we were about. When “Young, Gifted And Black” came out, I guess it had the same vibe for black Americans as James Brown singing “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud”. It became an anthem for my generation. I’m a child of the Windrush Generation and I think that’s important to point out. Trojan was actually launched the same year that Enoch Powell made his Rivers Of Blood speech. So while he’s playing on the fears of the old white people, it was the music of Trojan that provided the soundtrack that united black and white kids in the playgrounds, on the streets and on the dancefloor. It was really important stuff.”

Letts tells me what really changed everything was when the young white kids started to buy the music. “Let’s face it,” he says, “there’s a tradition of young, white teenagers gravitating towards black music for their rebellion. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that music was reggae. The big difference with this is that the generations before that—the Mods and all the rest of it—they’d have been digging R&B from America or Motown and it was somewhat removed from their day-to-day experience. It was exotic. By the time Trojan broke, these white kids were getting off on music that didn’t seem alien or exotic—it felt like a second language to them, and they fell in love with it. That’s the big difference. Trojan came along at a time just after the whole Windrush thing, where the actual racial mix of the country had radically changed. It was the soundtrack to the Windrush Generation and their children. I mean, the Beatles hadn’t grown up with black people living round the corner. The only black people they would’ve seen would’ve been on TV. But by the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, we were going to school together, we were hanging out in the playground together, we were going to clubs together.”

So how did Don Letts become the label’s standardbearer? Well, besides being an accomplished filmmaker, music video director, musician, DJ, commentator and curator, Letts also played a pivotal role in the label’s history. His relationship with the label grew, as he tells me, from an early moment in his childhood when his father introduced him to the label.

“The first record I ever heard from the Trojan catalogue was an album my father brought home called Fire Corner by King Stitt,” he says. “I was 12 years old in 1968, when Trojan was launched. At that age, you don’t really care about record labels, producers and things like that, but I was totally captivated by the sound. This guy, King Stitt, was one of the first deejays—and when I say ‘deejays’, in Jamaica the deejay is the guy on the microphone not the turntable—he was the first rapper, if you like, that I’d ever heard.”

But his musical history isn’t tied solely to reggae. In fact, Letts’ history is as closely tied to the punk scene of the 1970s and ‘80s as it is the sounds pumping out of Jamaica. Acme Attractions, a clothes shop he ran in London in the mid ‘70s, was a favourite of the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Clash (both of whom would feature in his iconic debut film The Punk Rock Movie).

Okay, so now we have three strands that need tying together—punk rock, Trojan Records, and Don Letts. What unites these three elements is that it was principally Letts and his storied DJ sets that were responsible for introducing the punk scene to reggae. If you want to follow a logical thread, you could argue that Letts was responsible for the post-punk scene (much of it heavily inspired by dub reggae, especially John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd.) and the skinhead movement (the good kind, which took inspiration from the Kingstonian rudeboys, not the white supremacists—more on that later).

“When ‘Double Barrel’ [by Dave and Ansell Collins] hit No. 1 in 1971… it’s hard to explain. Until Trojan came along, we felt like second-class citizens. All my white mates were totally digging this stuff from Jamaica. They adopted it as their rebel music as typified by the skinheads. It’s important to point out that the skinheads back then were the fashion version, and not the fascist version that came later in the ‘70s. The first skinhead movement was the first multicultural movement in the UK. It was a coming together of Jamaican rudeboys and the white working class who invariably were the younger brothers of Mods and couldn’t afford the Mod clothes. It’s important to remember the old saying ‘boots and braces don’t make a racist’—that happened later.”

Though the “fashion” skinheads and the “fascist” skinheads looked almost identical (apart from the colour of the boot laces, so the story goes), it’s still a huge cultural leap to go from being enamored with black music to far-right extremism. So how did the skinhead movement end up being appropriated by the far-right?

“As much as the skinheads were into music and style,” Letts explains, “I can’t deny that my young white mates didn’t mind a ruck. I think with the rise of the National Front, they saw the skinheads as almost like a ready-made army. What they did was directly target these kids. They went to the football grounds, they even went to youth clubs and directly tried to recruit some of them. With any mass group of people you’re going to have a few dickheads. Of course, what then happens is those dickheads get all the media attention. All of a sudden, what was a beautiful meeting of people through culture starts being replaced in headlines by racist skinheads. They spread that idea across the UK, that went across to Europe via football and football hooliganism. When the whole skinhead movement started, it was a really beautiful coming together of black and white kids through music and fashion. For a lot of people around the world, it still is that. Skinheads haven’t gone away—they’re all over the fucking place! It’s funny, because the skinheads in the 21st century, to identify themselves as different from the racist ones, they call themselves Trojan Skins.”

A recurring theme in my conversation with Letts is the parallel between the social and political atmosphere of the 1970s and the present day. Back then, we were in economic turmoil and just about to join the EU; far-right rhetoric was on the rise (“Trojan was actually launched the same year that Enoch Powell made his Rivers Of Blood speech,” he points out); and black music was being co-opted by white kids as their “rebel music”, as he points out above; and seeds of division were being planted up and down across the country. The similarities are staggering.

“That’s how we ended up in Brexit,” he tells me, “playing on the fears of the older white people. It’s an important lesson to realise that although a lot of these cultural bonds were formed in the inner cities, that by no means reflects the attitudes of the whole country. In the 21st century, it’s sad to say there are a lot of places in the UK that might as well be the 1950s.” But it doesn’t have to be depressing. There is still a reason to be optimistic for the future.

“Culture can play as an antidote to all this racism and paranoia and fear,” he adds. “It worked back then and I think it can work again. We’re talking about music as a tool for social change, to bring people together and help us to become closer by understanding our differences and not trying to all be the bloody same. Music, believe it or not, can still do that. As much as people try to turn it into something for passive consumerism, music still has the potential to change people’s lives. I travel all over the world and see it happen all the time.”

Posted on July 23, 2018