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Sound System Culture: Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems

Image courtesy of One Love Books

Following their success with Clarks in Jamaica, One Love Books release their latest book, Sound System Culture, which celebrates the rich musical history of the small market town, Huddersfield. Nestled within the Pennine Hills of West Yorkshire, Huddersfield seems the most unlikely location for Reggae culture, however has been a stronghold of the British Jamaican scene since its arrival in the 1960s. For the first time in print and featuring a wealth of previously unseen archive material, this book documents the subculture’s history from the initial immigration of Jamaicans to the UK after World War II, to the pioneers and early adopters that solidified the sound’s presence in Europe.

Image courtesy of One Love Books

Sound system culture first became popular in the 1950s, in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. It began simply as a way of playing amplified music to outside gatherings. The first sound systems initially consisted of a small gramophone and speakers on a street corner or private land to entertain friends or attract business to commercial establishments.

Image courtesy of One Love Books

The mass immigration of Jamaicans in the 1960s and ‘70s brought the culture of the sound system to the UK. At the time reggae was increasingly popular with the UK's black working-class youth, its message of Rastafari and overcoming injustice struck a chord with those on the receiving end of racism, prejudice and poverty. It was also very popular with white working class youth, as the two groups often lived, went to school or worked together.

Image courtesy of One Love Books

Speaking about the project, developer and historian Mandy Samra says: “If you came to Huddersfield now you would never think it was once home to a thriving sound system scene. I felt it was important to document the stories of the people involved and to capture some of the magic of the past before it was lost forever. Watching elders look through the book now, I see that magic coming back to them and feel happy that those stories have finally been recorded, and that Huddersfield is back on the sound system map.”

Sound System Culture is available from

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Twitter: @OneLoveBooks

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 20

Behind the Lens

I’ve made nearly 400 music videos to date, don’t make ‘em anymore but between the end of the seventies and the end of the nineties I directed video’s for a diverse range of acts including The Jungle Brothers, The Pretenders, Sly and Robbie, Elvis Costello, Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Slits, Big Audio Dynamite, The Pogues, S’Express, Beenie Man, Apache Indian, Yaz, Bob Marley and, of course The Clash. In 1982, fledgling UK reggae band Musical Youth decided to give me a shot at their debut single ‘Pass The Dutchie’. The song title was taken from a Mighty Diamonds’ track called ‘Pass the Kutchie’ as in a herb pipe. Obviously these little Brummie kids couldn’t be seen to be singing about weed. So they decided to find a word that rhymed with kutchie and decided on ‘dutchie’ (a Jamaican cooking pot). Since the lyrics were rendered non-sensical I decided to ignore them and came up with a vague story about them skipping school. But the most important thing was the location of their performance. At the start of the song one of the kids sing “this generation rules the nation with version” the camera pulls back and you see them playing in front of The House of Parliament! Just my way of showing a new face of London. During eighties I worked in Los Angeles for a while and ended up living in Hollywood for six months. The first video I shot there featured an up-and-coming youngster known to you as Ice-T.

Don Letts - Video Shoot, LA, 1982

Next up an American heavy metal band called Ratt. The video for their single ‘Round and Round’ came out when they were on tour supporting Mötley Crüe and  did so well that Mötley Crüe ended up supporting them! Cut to Venice Beach I’m shooting the Gap Bands ‘Party Train’. These guys were so out of it when they arrived all they could do was walk twenty yards along the beach and that was it. I made an asset out of my problem and the video smashed it. But there were changes afoot driven by MTV and soon it was all about the gloss of videos like Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’ which wasn’t really my speed. The last group I made a few videos for was Shaun Ryder’s Black Grape formed three years after Happy Mondays split up. We went to Jamaica to shoot the promo for ‘In the Name of the Father’ and needless to say Jamaica’s never been the same. In the current climate it’s hard to find people with any attitude at all and if you don’t look good and you can’t dance then you are a truly screwed. 

Don Letts - Video set Hawaii, 1984

The corporate politics of pop video making soon got the better of me so I opted out for documentaries. After my first film the admittedly rough and ready ‘Punk Rock Movie’ it was Chris Blackwell who really got me back into a more documentary style. I did several projects for Chris over the years including ‘Legend’ (Bob Marley) and also my first featuring film ‘Dancehall Queen’. Shot entirely in Jamaica it's the story of a humble street vendor who, through the world of dancehall, escapes to make her life better and features performances from Beenie Man and Lady Saw. The film went on to smash the Jamaican box office and although ‘The Harder They Come’ will always be the Jamaican film for my generation, for the new generation its Dancehall Queen…trust me.

Don Letts - Dancehall Queen

Shortly after that I got to direct ‘Planet Rock’ for the BBC. It focused on hip-hop and the effect of black music in the eighties. I returned to New York to film artists like Africa Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Chuck D, De La Soul, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Frankie Knuckles and the Detroit legend Derrick May. The premise of my episode was how black music gave new life to the dying carcass that was rock’n’ roll. No shit! Now The Clash had talked about doing a film over the years but never had the time or the inclination but in 2000 I got the call. You know as much as I’d love to take credit for making ‘Westway to The World’ I think you’d have to be a complete idiot to make a bad film about ‘the only band that mattered’. As it turned out I got a Grammy for it.

My next film “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was a piece I’m particularly proud of, as it was the last word from the one and only Gil Scott-Heron before he passed away in 2011. On the strength of that I got to do ‘Brother From Another Planet’ a documentary on Sun Ra. He is to jazz what Lee Perry is to reggae and broke new ground mixing electronic sounds with jazz, long before Miles Davis did. Funny, I just can’t escape punk rock, ‘cause as far as I am concerned, that is exactly what Sun-Ra was. I followed that with ‘Tales of Dr. Funkenstein’ the story of George Clinton. Once again here was someone that ticked all the required boxes to get me fired up. In 2004, some thirty years after the first stirrings of the UK Punk movement, I was approached to make ‘Punk: Attitude’. It occurred to me that the over-emphasis on the late ’70s punk incarnation undermined a bigger idea. What we’re really talking about here is counter-culture, which has a tradition and a heritage i.e. punk rock didn’t start and end in the late seventies. I wanted to show that punk was not something to look back on, but something to look forward to and if you are brave enough and you have a good idea you can be a part of it.

I directed the final part of a series called ‘Soul Britannia’ for the BBC called in 2007. Starting with the arrival of the Jamaican immigrants in the fifties, it looked at the impact of black music from that time till this and the social and cultural impact that has followed in its wake. It really drove home and touched on many of the themes running through my journey and our part in creating a new British identity. For my episode I roped in people like Jazzie B, Norman Jay, Daddy G (Massive Attack), Rebel MC, Amy Winehouse, Goldie, Roots Manuva, Mica Paris and Rodney P. These artists are all proof that the cultural exchange was very much a two-way street. They have had as much impact on Britain as Britain has on them.

Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 13

Malice in Ganja Land

By January 1978 the Sex Pistols had split up and John decided to go to Jamaica to help Richard Branson set up the Front Line reggae label for Virgin Records. It was also a way for him to escape the media frenzy around the bands demise.  So in February I get a phone call from John asking me if I’d like to go to Jamaica. He’s figures I’m black and a mate so I must know what’s what. Truth is I’d never been to Jamaica in my life, the closest I’d been was seeing The Harder They Come in my local cinema. Never-the-less I turned up at John’s house with my passport, a plastic bag and one pair of underpants. When we checked into the Sheraton Hotel we found out that Branson had booked the whole floor. Over the next two weeks it was like exodus movement of musicians, everybody who was anybody came by to try to get a deal with the exception of Bob Marley (R.I.P), Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh (R.I.P) and Burning Spear. Many an afternoon was spent pool-side hanging out with the likes of Prince Far I (R.I.P), I-Roy (R.I.P), The Gladiators, U-Roy, Big Youth and the Abyssinians to name a few. All the mystical names that John and I had admired for years were now blagging food and drinks from us.

Don Letts John Lydon

Punk had no impact in Jamaica other than the odd article in The Gleaner about a strange English phenomenon. But that didn’t stop anyone being more than appreciative of “the whiteman who sell ’nuff record, gold disc an’ ’ting”. One afternoon we ended up with Lee Perry in his studio where the assembled reggae artists had been hired to do reggae versions of “Anarchy in the UK” and “Holiday in the Sun”. I can remember sitting in the smoke-filled control room listening to the cheesy reggae versions that Scratch’s bunch of hired session men were banging out. Since the project was money-led it wasn’t so much Dread at the Control, more like Bread at the Control. It was on this same trip that I made the most embarrassing comment of my life. John and myself found ourselves around Joni Mitchell’s house in Jamaica –don’t ask! We’re partaking in the local produce, as one does, when I burst out with, “What is this shit we’re listening to? Take it off!” Joni calmly replies, “It’s my new album, actually.” Back-pedaling furiously (coolly disguised by the perennial shades) I foolishly reply, “Well it’s not ‘Carrie’.” Pathetic—but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a better comeback.

Don Letts & Joni Mitchell

Hanging with Joni

John did not want to go back to London with a suntan, so he walked around in Jamaica’s summer heat dressed in heavy black motorbike boots, black hat and heavy black woolen overcoat. He looked like Lee Van Cleef. One day Tappa Zukie took me and John to Rema, the heaviest part of Kingston—they used to call it “Jungle” and it was a no-go area for the police. I was thinking, “What is the big deal, where are all the guns?” This guy said, “yu want see a gun?” and reached into his back pocket and whipped out this massive gun. Suddenly there were loads of guns waving in the air. Me and John were shitting ourselves. Three days later, the guy that had drawn the first gun was dead. As gun crime was so prevalent in Jamaica back then, Prime minister Michael Manley had this place built called Gun Court which was essentially a big fortress; a Stalag-type place. If you were caught with a gun or even a bullet, you were sent to Gun Court for indefinite detention. He had the building painted red, because he thought “red is dread” inspired by the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter where he has the town painted red. Jamaica was a country into Westerns like no other, and consequently there were recording artists called Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Dirty Harry. Jamaicans loved Westerns and Kung Fu—there was even an artist called Bruce Lee! There was a period when the gun thing got so out of hand, the rude boys would shoot at the screens in cinemas when certain movies were showing. The solution? They put up concrete screens.

Don Chapter 13 3

For me that trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life; reggae had got me into the punks and the punks got me closer to the reggae acts. Consequently, I became very friendly with Prince Far I, Tappa Zukie, I-Roy U-Roy and Big Youth. But the whole trip was a bit of an eye-opener for Virgin Records who went to Jamaica thinking that they would be dealing with clean-cut artists like the soul boys from America. Musicians like Prince Far-I and Keith Hudson (R.I.P) could be very scary if you caught them on a bad day and they definitely had a different way of settling business. Now I’d played Prince Far-I’s album ‘Under Heavy Manners’ at the Roxy. His voice sounded like he gargled with bleach, which sounded great on record, but him merely saying, “Good morning,” in a heavy Jamaican dialect to the staff at the record company could really sound intimidating. Prince Far I eventually fell out with Branson and would later release a track on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label called “Virgin” which included the words “Branson is a pickle with no place on my plate”. Talk about culture differences!

Just before we were due to return to the UK we decided to experience a sound-system in the Jamaican countryside. U-Roy took us out with his “Stur-Gav” sound system, a gargantuan mobile disco Jamaican-style, piled onto the back of two massive trucks. The numerous sound boys were hanging onto the equipment for dear life, because they all knew you could ‘drop a bwoy but yu can’t drop a box’. We finally reached our destination after weaving our way through some truly glorious countryside, where John and I decided to burn some herb while the sound system was being strung up. The next thing I remember is John and I being woken up and somebody saying, “We’re ready.” “Ready for what?” I mumbled. “Dance done,” was the reply. John and I had smoked and crashed out where we we’d been sitting, and that was six hours earlier!

Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE