The Story of Music on Two Islands – Jamaica, Britain, Ska, Reggae and Punk – “Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records”
The film Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records is a tremendous slice into the history of reggae, which means it is a music history lesson of at least two islands: Jamaica and Britain. Directed by Nicolas Jack Davies, the film explores the label’s iconic catalogue. I had a chance to chat with Don Letts, one of the featured historians in the film. I mentioned to Letts that the first time I saw him was decades ago when he was performing with Big Audio Dynamite during their week long residency at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Buddy Mick Jones had split The Clash, and B.A.D. was storming around the globe from strength to strength on the basis of their top ten hit “E=Mc2”.
Letts is an ideal spokesman for the film. He first picked up a camera after seeing The Harder They Come. In the mid 1970s his friends were forming DIY bands, they picked up guitars and he still had a movie camera in his hand. “There was no visual accompaniment to punk rock or the DIY ethic.” As The Sex Pistols, The Clash and many others nabbed record deals, Letts was the logical choice to shoot their videos. “I had good taste, I only shot the best,” chuffed Letts. He went on to shoot perhaps 400 music videos, along with several excellent films and in 2003 he won a Grammy for his Clash documentary Westway To The World. “As things took off, making music videos became more difficult with all the choreographers, and I moved to filming documentaries,” observed Letts. Before we dove into our discussion about Trojan, we inevitably riffed about The Clash. “Their output was nonstop and the touring burnt themselves out. They could have benefitted from time off,” Letts lamented. The fortieth anniversary of the pivotal London Calling album is approaching, and Letts is working on a documentary. I probed further, and he promises a more visual approach than what has been done before. “I am good with all the talking, but I want to make it more relevant for the young folks and take out a lot of the trainspotting stuff.” Letts told me he discovered the iconic Trojan label inadvertently, when a toaster’s vocal presence at a club brought the iconic label into focus. Combining archive footage, interview and clever dramatic interludes Rudeboy chronicles the story of Trojan Records as part of the cultural revolution that unfolded on the dancefloors of late ‘60s and early ‘70s Britain. Featuring legendary artists Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Neville Staple, Marcia Griffiths, Toots Hibbert, Dandy Livingstone, Lloyd Coxsone and Pauline Black the film shows how that period of immigration from Jamaica transformed popular culture. The film is structured with chapters, providing a history lesson of the migration of people and music from one island to another. The opening chapters describe how Jamaicans brought ska to Britain.
Faced with racism in their new home, the music “gave the new arrivals a lift each day.”
Trojan Records was launched in 1968 by London-based, Jamaican expats Lee Gopthal and Chris Blackwell. Initially formed as a UK outlet for sound system pioneer Duke Reid’s releases, the label went on to bring the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Desmond Dekker, The Pioneers, Bob Marley, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff to a mainstream audience. The filmed recreations do a fine job of evoking the aesthetics of the era; the producers must have gathered all available cars from the ‘60s for the street scenes. Intercut with newsreel clips, the voiceovers from many firsthand participants make for a solid sense of legitimacy. By chapter four we find ourselves back in Jamaica during the hot and violent summer of 1966, the beginning of the rudeboy scene. Marcia Griffiths describes the look, essentially an old school gangsta. Some gunshot recreations evoke the edgy scene. The observant song “Rudy A Message to You,” was a tuneful message for the rudeboys to essentially chill – ‘think of your future.’ Trojan Records is soon born, and the label follows the transition from ska to reggae, once Toots Hibbert invents the word and arguably the genre. Much like folks debate the first rock and roll record, folks do the same with reggae.
Letts is convinced Toots is responsible for launching the genre we know as reggae.
Chapter six takes us there. The prejudice in Britain extended to the BBC’s refusal to play reggae, but pirate radio dove in to fill the gap. The racial lines were crossed when white skinheads embraced the music, the antithesis of the long haired rockers and greasers. Derrick Morgan’s “Moon Hop” leveraged the biggest news of summer 1969, and it exploded as an anthem with the skinheads. The compilation Tighten Up series of albums provided great value and further broadened reggae’s appeal. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry couldn’t play a note, but he was an ace at the studio controls.
Eventually racial divides are loosened, and Pauline Black of The Selecter provides some great personal history. Desmond Dekker further spread the sound; “The Israelites” sold an astounding million copies. In the film Letts articulates how he was part of the first generation of British born blacks “of Jamaica but not from Jamaica.” By chapter ten the cultural shift occurred in 1971, from the immigrant community to the broader public. “Double Barrel” goes to number one, the first reggae song to do so, and Trojan becomes the Motown of reggae. For both labels, the addition of string arrangements caused controversy among purists, but success followed. Nonetheless, Trojan’s financial success was far from certain. No one said stop, releases became too numerous and by the mid ‘70s Trojan faded from the scene, supplanted by a more politicized sound led by the likes of Bob Marley. As a DJ Letts single-handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae, even influencing Bob Marley (whom Letts knew well) to write “Punky Reggae Party.” Letts told me that Trojan stood for good times, with upbeat music. That was supplanted by the roots reggae stylings of Big Youth and Burning Spear “and Trojan could not pivot,” Letts explained. “But Trojan sowed the seeds.”
“The only black record company in England went down in 1975” reads the telling caption about Trojan.
But Trojan no doubt was the most important label for island music. Trojan’s melding of black and white audiences pushed into the spawn of punk, with bands like The Clash picking up the flag and the Two Tone movement soon cementing the existence of black and white musicians on stage together. Letts drew a line for me, pointing out that the Two Tone movement was the child of “Punky Reggae Party.” “In a conservative culture that feels like punk never happened, the time is right for the return of the rudeboy,”concludes Letts. In keeping with the groundbreaking nature of Trojan, the documentary is being released via a blockchain-powered distribution application.