Like father, like son?
What happens when a boy follows in his famous DJ dad's footsteps? Time Out talks to two generations of the Letts and Jay clans
As a family trade, DJing has a fairly short history. While pop music already has its own industry clans, the relative newness of playing records one after the other to an audience, which was only really popularised in the 1940s, means DJ dynasties are only just emerging.
And nowhere more so than in London. Legendary soundclash DJ David Rodigan's son Jamie runs and spins at new reggae night Mudd Up! at Open the Gate in Dalston (the next is on Saturday June 25). Likewise, his contemporaries, clubbing innovator Norman Jay and punk filmmaker cum DJ Don Letts have passed the DJ baton on to their offspring. Jay's son Russ started DJing at his father's Good Times soundsystem at Carnival and now has a residency at Supperclub in Notting Hill as well as countless other London house spots; while Letts's producer son Jet is part of the capital's hipster post-dubstep scene, as championed by the night he co-runs, Get Me!, and has his remixes regularly dropped at The Boiler Room.
With Father's Day just around the corner, we found out what it was like for the new generation of DJs to grow up with famous parents and their respective perspectives on the family business.
Don Letts, 55, west London
'It's a tough thing for this generation, isn't it? I mean, what do you do if your parents are cool? To rebel against your parents, you're going to have to become a cop or a customs man. Music created a gap between me and my parents. My dad's soundsystem was very different from the ones that people know today. He played after church in the church hall on a Sunday afternoon, so people would be there in their finery and they were more likely to be carrying Bibles than a bag of weed. But between Jet and me, it has closed the generation gap.
'Occasionally we get booked to DJ together. I guess I'm old school and he's new school. That's filled me with an immense sense of pride, because I see the heritage from my father's soundsystem back in the late '50s through to when I DJed at The Roxy in '77 and Jet taking it forward into the twenty-first century with the dubstep movement.
'I've never been to his club night, but he didn't even know that I had two shows on 6Music! I'm proud that he hasn't leant on me for anything. He just did his first professional remix, of a Tawiah track, and the first I heard of it was when Gilles Peterson played it on Radio 1. Jet didn't come to me and ask my opinion on it or anything, which I thought was really cool of him.
'I remember one of the first gigs Jet made me take him to when he was really young was Marilyn Manson! I was just glad that he wasn't defined by his colour, at a time when a lot of young people today are scared to express their individuality. When I grew up, there was no “hip, black culture”. I was the black freak who was into punk rock and when I looked over my shoulders, there weren't brothers to back me up. You've seen the picture of me on the cover of “Black Market Clash”? I'm on my fucking own.
'We have conversations about this, about his lack of engagement with things that I think are wrong, and he says “Well, Dad, it's harder these days.” But that doesn't wash with me. Western kids are a bunch of wimps! The only time young people got off their arses was when you were going to feel it directly in your pocket. The digital age has shrunk the planet and the world is your neighbourhood.
'But, if you've got a great idea and the right attitude, you can be part of this ongoing dynamic heritage that my father, that myself and that Jet are part of. It ain't some exclusive boys' club. It's punk!'
Jet Letts, 26, Ladbroke Grove
'It was only when I started going to my friends' houses whose parents were “normal” that I realised other people don't have music on 24/7 and the Beastie Boys popping round. Once, I was 12 and I was having a tantrum because I wanted to get my ears pierced. My dad said no, but then Liam Gallagher came round and said “Yeah, you should get your ear pierced!” So in the end I got it done. These days, I try not to let people know who my dad is - because you don't know what people are going to presume.
'We're different musically. I heard reggae so much as a child that I don't like much of it any more. But the fact that my dad got into punk meant that when I was a teenager, I got into metal and hip hop - it made me never be scared to get into anything. I jumped on dubstep a lot quicker than he did - now my productions move around from 120 to 140 bpm, so everything from house to dubstep and all things in between, but I couldn't put a genre label on it.
'In some respects, I look upon my dad as more of a brother. DJing brought us closer together, but we play completely opposing stuff, though we might cross slightly with dub. Usually he'll be playing a Gossip remix and I'll be playing a Floating Points track. The way we view music is sometimes different too. He didn't get Tyler the Creator, but I quite liked it. I see the potential for a big character there, and there aren't characters like there used to be. You had to be a showman in my dad's time, opportunities were rarer, but generally, I don't think people are as flamboyant any more.'
Norman Jay, 54, Acton
'My boys have been very careful - Russ more so - that they didn't want to be seen as Norman Jay's son. They want to do their own thing. I protected my family from the media and I hope that means my kids have lived a normal life without the pressures of having a famous parent. So this is the first time we've agreed to do a father-and-son interview.
'I've always treated them like adults, and a lot of fathers and sons don't have that kind of relationship. Russ either used to be dragged around Mothercare, which he hated, or dragged around record shops with me, which he loved. They'd run riot in Blackmarket, and Russ got to know all of my DJing pals.
'Russ keeps his ears to the ground; he's a great A&R and he has turned me on to a couple of things. He gave me a house track which has a Cee Lo Green vocal on it and it's on my new Good Times compilation.
'I think it's much more difficult [for DJs now] because DJ culture is over. It's dead. The very technology they use to enhance what they do is killing their art form. There are more people now able to make music than there are people prepared to pay for it. I move with technology, but I won't become a slave to it.
'The advice I give to Russell and countless other young people now is: keep yourself in the mix, otherwise you'll be mixed out. I've never preached. All I can do is - at least I hope I do - lead by example. I'm hoping I've provided a good enough blueprint for my son, and not just him but anybody.'
Russ Jay, 28, Shepherd's Bush
'Carnival made a huge impression on me when I was younger, in the mid-'80s. When we started Good Times there in '91, we'd build the stage in the back garden, so we were all involved in it. Seeing it explode every year was crazy.
'I also remember going to Kiss FM in the pirate days and its many locations because my dad was looking after me. I got into a pirate station when I was 13, funnily enough in Ladbroke Grove, right in between Supperclub and where Good Times is now [at Carnival]. I don't think learning to DJ was ever a choice, I was just always with my dad and it was innate.
'It's funny how things come full circle. All of the drum 'n' bass tunes that he was sent and he gave to me, 15 years later they're working for his sets. It's strange hearing '[Valley of the Shadows] 31 Seconds' at Carnival and I'm, like, “Yeah, Dad, original Ram Records, that's mine, be careful!”
'I am definitely now a house-orientated DJ with a warm, deep house vibe - my music will always have soulful undertones because that's the music I was brought up on. I really like Hot Natured and Jamie Jones at the moment. Actually, when I was doing a party at Millbank Tower in May, someone came up to me and said “Those first two tunes you played were great, Jamie.” And I'm, like, “I'm not Jamie Jones!” It must be the 'fro.
'My Supperclub party is an opportunity for me to play the kind of stuff I wouldn't normally get the chance to. It starts at 8pm then it becomes a club, so I'm in charge of the music for the whole thing, I suppose like Carnival used to be for my dad in the daytime: he'd start at midday and play any music he wanted to; then, come the evening, he'd bring it up. He inspired me to be relentless in pursuit of what you want to do, even if people question it.'
Don Letts's Culture Clash show is on 6Music every Sunday and Monday, midnight-1am. The next Get Me! is on July 28 (for further listening, see www.soundcloud.com/jet-letts). Norman Jay MBE presents Good Times Thirtieth Anniversary Edition' (Strut) is out on July 19; there will be a launch party in July. Good Times are looking for sponsorship for their legendary Carnival soundsystem. If you can help, get in touch on Twitter via @NormanJayMBE. The next Russ J Experience is at Supperclub on July 23 (for further listening, see www.soundcloud.com/russjay).