Don Letts: my life in food and music

The film director, DJ and musician cooks up a playlist mixing two of his great passions: Jamaican cuisine and reggae music. Don't read on an empty stomach...

The connection for me between food and music is that they’re both enjoyed at their best as a collective experience. I’m in favour of anything in the digital age which brings people together, and I guess music and food are the primary examples of this. I guess sport’s another example, but I’m not into sport so fuck that. Also another thing I’ve realised about music and food is that it’s a good way to assimilate into an alien culture.

My advice to any immigrant coming over to the UK is to bring good music and bring good food, and that will facilitate you settling in to your new home. Let’s face it, there’s only so far the UK can go with pie and mash and fish and chips.

There’s a collective thing about eating. In the 21st century, the digital age has fragmented people as much as it has brought them together I think. With social media, at the table it’s difficult to get people just to look you in the eye these days. Anything that brings us in the same room, where we’re looking each other in the eye, is a great thing. And food’s great for that. Breaking bread with your friends.

My advice to any immigrant coming over to the UK is to bring good music and food. That will facilitate you settling in to your new home

People probably sit down for meals with family and friends less than they ever did, and you can see the results of that all around you – the breakdown of communities and family structure. There’s something beautiful about coming together at the end of the day for a meal and having a collective experience.

Don Letts

Black Uhuru – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

Black Uhuru were one of the finest examples of the harmony trio, which is somewhat of a tradition in Jamaica. With the addition of Sly and Robbie on rhythm section, the album Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – which came out around 81-82, during the whole post-punk thing – was one of my favourite records. So the song Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner seemed somewhat appropriate to start off this list.

Musical Youth – Pass The Dutchie

It’s a bit of a tenuous connection, but I put this in because they’re singing “pass the dutchie”, which is interesting because the original lyric was “pass the cutchie”, which is a pipe you use to smoke weed with. Now obviously little kids from Birmingham couldn’t sing about passing around a pipe, so they changed it to “pass the dutchie”. In Jamaica, a dutchie is a cooking pot. So basically they’re singing about passing a cooking pot to the left hand side, which obviously makes the song ridiculous. But, somewhat relevant to this list. I don’t think anybody globally would have known the difference between dutchie and cutchie – how many white people knew that a dutchie was a cooking pot? I don’t think it would have made a huge difference, really. If it were today The Daily Mail would probably write a story about ‘do you know this song is about passing a weed pipe!’

Lee Scratch Perry – Roast Fish & Corn Bread

This is a song very specifically about food, and if you ever have the opportunity to go to Jamaica and partake in roast fish and corn bread, you’ll understand why Mr Perry was moved to write a song about it. Especially if you’re a Rastaman in Jamaica. Imagine having the fish over an open fire, and eating it with the corn bread or a dumpling. Or another thing you can have with it is bread fruit, which is a big fruit in the shape of melon which when you roast it on the fire, this stuff comes out that’s like bread. The combination of roast fish, dumpling and corn bread in Jamaica, it should be on everybody’s bucket list. While I’m talking about food I might as well talk about Jamaica’s national dish, which is something called ackee and saltfish. Ackee is eaten as a vegetable, but funnily enough it’s actually a fruit. It’s Jamaica’s national dish, it looks very much like scrambled eggs on a plate. If you pick it before it’s properly ripe it’ll kill you stone dead. But I’ve never known that to actually happen. That is my favourite Jamaican dish and I highly recommend it. It should be on everyone’s bucket list too.

Pluto Shervington – Dat

You’ve got to have a laugh with this one. It’s about a Jamaican dilemma: wanting to eat meat – particularly pork. Which funnily enough, while it’s scorned by the Rastas, it’s loved by the rest of the country. The song is basically about going to a market, and he wants to order some pork but he can’t bring himself to say the word out of embarrassment. So instead we get the refrain ‘sell I a pound of dat t’ing there’. It was a bit of a chart hit back in the early 70s if I remember correctly. It’s a very funny situation, because there are a lot of people out there who pretend they don’t eat meat but they do.

Sugar Minott – Buy Off The Bar

I was looking at this list and thinking ‘what we need is a bloody good drink’. Sugar Minott is saying ‘come in and buy up the bar’, he wants to buy everybody a round. He goes through a list of all these favourite Jamaican drinks – Red Stripe’s in there, rum is in there. It’s a good old drinking song.

Toddla T – Rice & Peas

There are a few Jamaican restaurants I go to in London and when I go in there these days, it’s full of white people. It’s interesting to see the impact Jamaican cuisine has had on the English palette, in much the same way as Asian cuisine has. If chicken tikka masala or something is the most popular Asian dish in Britain, I tell you, from what I see on the streets, not far behind it would be jerk chicken, rice and peas. It’s interesting that Toddla T should do a homage to that dish, because it’s very much popular among black and white people. And of course, rice and peas is a staple of all Jamaican dishes. Though I’ve got to tell you now, if you go for ackee and saltfish, go for it with white rice. Otherwise the rice and peas can be too overpowering for the subtleties of the ack. And by the way – the peas aren’t green peas, it’s actually a bean, a black-eyed or a red bean, or something called a gunga bean. It’s not green peas that you have in England.

Bunji Garlin, Kubiyashi & Walshy Fire – Chicken & Dumplin

This was one of the new hot tunes at the carnival this year. One of many in a long line of tributes to what has become the staple dish of actually too many people. You’ve gotta be careful with chicken these days – I do often wonder how they can grown chickens fast enough to feed everybody every day. Something ain’t right there. Beware – go for the organic shit. I think we’ve got to get the kids off of chicken and into the fish. Too many kids are eating that fast food and it ain’t proper chicken. It’ll all end in tears, or disproportionately huge kids. Which some of them already bloody are.

Admiral Bailey – Big Belly Man

This is what will happen if you eat too much of this stuff – you’ll end up a big belly man. What’s funny is that in Jamaica, a big belly is a symbol of pride for some guys. It’s like a status symbol. It doesn’t work in my world, but for some guys it’s a massive status symbol. Emphasis on the word massive.

Burning Spear – Brain Food

There are all kinds of food, and I guess it’s pretty obvious what kind my man Winston Rodney, Burning Spear is talking about in this song. He’s talking about the herb. Make of it what you will – there are all kinds of nourishment and all parts of your body needs feeding. So it’s a song about smoking weed. Which is also appropriate because smoking weed gives you the munchies. There’s a little Jamaican food movie coming together here. I’ve done the soundtrack for a Jamaican foodie movie. What’s that Japanese movie that always makes me hungry, is it Tampopo – the one with all the bloody noodles? This is my Jamaican version of that.

Lorna Bennett – Breakfast In Bed

So you’ve had a good meal, you’ve had a good drink and a good spliff. You’ve gone out and you’ve found yourself a lady. This song is all about the next morning, isn’t it? If it were me making the breakfast, believe it or not it probably would be something like ackee and saltfish with a slice of breadfruit. Or callaloo, which is like spinach, but with a bit more bite to it. Callaloo and saltfish with breadfruit or ackee and saltfish with boiled dumplings. And there’s a juice I love called soursop juice, made of a fruit that I love. In Jamaica you have a solid breakfast, because you’re going to go out and do a hard day’s work. It sounds carb heavy, which it is, but then you go out and do eight hours work. Not recommended if you’re an office worker, but maybe once in a while.

Listen to Don’s Reggae 45 podcasts with Turtle Bay here

Don Letts was talking to Malcolm Jack