He also has been a regular at the Notting Hill Carnival for over 40 years. In 2009, he directed a documentary, “Carnival!,” on the history and politics of the festival.
Asked to name a “typical” Carnival anthem, Mr. Letts at first dismissed the task as impossible. Upon reflection, though, he directed us toward an old friend, the producer Mad Professor, and his 2005 track “Elaine the Osaka Dancer” — “A strange title, I know,” said Mr. Letts — which was written for a performer, Panafricanist, on the Mad Professor’s label. Mad Professor, whose name is Neil Fraser, is himself a well-known name in British music history. He pioneered the emergence of the British dub sound and collaborated with performers like Sade and Massive Attack.
Mr. Letts chose “Elaine” because, as he put it: “At Carnival you can stand on a street corner and hear a float going past with steel pans, along with the sound of a Jamaican sound system right around the corner. This song perfectly captures that sound: the collision of calypso and soca with the bass-heavy rhythms of reggae.”
Mad Professor agreed to license the song, so we asked him to break it down into individual instrumental tracks or “stems,” each of which would then be manipulated by the user of the Instagram effect.
This process proved to be slightly more analog — and painstaking — than anticipated. At one point, when asked for a progress report, Mad Professor relayed that he was “baking the tapes” — which might sound (or did to me, anyway) like a bit of music producer slang. In fact, it’s a literal description of the process in which analog master tapes are restored by exposing them to a high temperature for hours, reducing humidity that can affect the quality of the tapes.
Once the tapes were baked and the stems were procured, our graphics and R. & D. team built the Instagram effect. With the effect, the user can play with the drums, bass, horns and steel pan tracks while seeing commentary from Letts on why each element is crucial to a Carnival song.
It’s not the same thing as dancing to steel pans on a simmering street in London’s Notting Hill in the heat of summer. But in a year when Carnival has been canceled nearly everywhere, we hope it gets you as close to that feeling as possible.