Former Skid Row Resident Letta Makes One of the Year's Best Albums
Photo by Purple Tony
"This weather is perfect,” Letta says, greeting me at the gate of his Silver Lake apartment building. After a withering Indian summer, today’s the first ambush of fall: concrete skies and a slight breeze. But Southern California can’t cool enough to capture the deep freeze of Letta’s Testimony, the best L.A. beat album of the year.
The Tucson native born Anthony Nicoletta just got back from his first trip overseas, where the U.K. instrumental grime world welcomed him with open arms. With its video game chaos, rain samples and metropolitan doom, Testimony, released on London’s Coyote Records, is spiritually aligned with the climate and emotional carnage of British producers Burial and Mr. Mitch.
It’s strange to consider such a bleak record coming from psychedelically sunny L.A., until you understand Letta’s backstory — a cross between Requiem for a Dream and The Basketball Diaries but with a happier ending.
From roughly age 14 until a few years ago, Letta was a junkie who paid for his lifestyle by pushing the product. There are too many unglamorous stories: overdoses watched, failed attempts to quit, the brutal methadone addiction that replaced the heroin cravings.
“I should’ve just kicked dope in the beginning — it would’ve been so much easier,” Letta says in his apartment, which is occupied by his cat, Breakfast, and a homemade studio of analog synths and 808 drum machines.
Even though it’s only 70 degrees, he’s dressed as if it’s colder: Adidas beanie and sweatpants, shell tops. Too many tattoos to count.
“Word to any junkie, don’t be a pussy, kick the dope straight up. Even if it takes two weeks — it’ll never take longer than that. Then you’re normal.”
He’s split the last decade among L.A.’s Skid Row, Long Beach, Seattle, Tucson and his uncle’s farm near the Mexican border — where he finally broke the addiction. Even during the worst times, he never stopped making music, DJing for Gonjasufi and producing the Gameboy punk-rap duo Crimekillz.
But only after getting clean did he fully process the emotional disarray of his life.
“I didn’t leave my house for a year after that. After years of being numb, it felt like I’d lived through a movie,” Letta says. “Suddenly, I was 12 again … completely vulnerable. I had nothing to protect me from this world. It freaked me out.”
Writing Testimony was therapy — each song a specific vessel for memory and mourning. It sounds like shooting up under a half-broken neon light.
“I was in a really sad, dark place, even though I was sober,” Letta says. “I’d see images of growing up … rain and fog in Portland … sitting with this girl on a hill on an island, my grandma’s backyard over the bay in Bellingham … things I thought I’d never see again. They seemed so far away.”
Between the completion of the record and its release earlier this month, Letta repaired the damage with his family members, most of whom he’s been estranged from for more than a decade.
He created the record in isolation, so its reception has been something of a shock to him. U.K. dance-music publications have given unanimous raves. His struggle of the last decade and a half has been validated.
“I just wanted to make my mom, dad and grandparents proud. It’s not like I’m some big star, but having my grandma write me and call me, and my dad reading all this stuff, it’s amazing. They’ve all literally said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ That was a milestone.
“I was never in it for the money,” Letta adds. “The fact that people care about my music is everything. It’s really strange when you actually achieve your dreams.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.
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