There is a famous photograph of clothes shop owner, video producer and punk cultural lighting rod Don Letts taken at The Roxy in 1977. The occasion was a gig featuring The Clash, X-Ray Spex and the Sex Pistols, but just as importantly Letts is DJ-ing between sets – and he’s playing reggae.
John(ny Rotten)/Lydon’s interview on Radio 1’s Tommy Vance show in July of that year was an affirmation of reggae’s close links to the movement. Here the singer pivoted almost immediately to a preference for playing his favourite records over discussing anything else; as well as slots for Neil Young, Bowie and Lou Reed the firebrand played reggae, lots of reggae, from Peter Tosh to Culture’s Two Sevens Clash. But the selection that changed it all was the dubby/duppy title track from Augustus Pablo’s King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, one that’s sleeper effect would send ripples throughout British music for decades.
Dub began as a producer’s way of cutting b-sides without the artist being present, the original tune usually stripped of it’s essence then swathed in echo and delay while vocals were left to become ghosts. King Tubby was it’s go-to studio alchemist and Augustus Pablo was a peer by the time the duo worked together on a rendering of Jacob Miller’s ‘Baby I Love You So,’ turning it into a cavernously deep sibling with the original reduced to lurking in a melancholic haze.
Lydon’s selecta-esque cameo was one of the 20th century’s most influential. Dub’s space and sparseness was adopted in post punk both directly and indirectly, bringing sound system culture into the mainstream. As it evolved so came Massive Attack, Portishead and a latterly generation of early noughties bedroom producers such as Burial. Turned out Don Letts was doing much more than just providing background noise for kids wearing bin liners.