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Learning From Scratch 

The history of reggae, dub, soul, and "meggae," as told by Lee "Scratch" Perry

Wednesday, Nov 19 1997
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It's 3:30 a.m. in Paris, and Lee "Scratch" Perry is living up to his reputation as one of reggae's most colorful, and least stable, characters. "My real name is Death Before Dishonor," he announces over the phone in a gruff, wizened voice. "There is nothing I cannot do. That's the name of my sword -- Excalibur. Also, I have a genie lamp as well, and genie rings. I believe in genie. And my genie is ganja, collie weed, marijuana, lamb's bread, sensimillia."

Obviously, Perry and his genie have spent a lot of quality time together over the years. But to discount Perry's efforts as a singer, producer, engineer, and talent scout because of his obsession with Jamaica's favorite export, or for any of his abundant idiosyncrasies, would be as screwy as one of Perry's own rants. It's quite possible that he's raving, barking mad, but as folks like Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Van Gogh have demonstrated, lunacy is not always an impediment to artistic greatness. That's true in Perry's case, at least. Island Jamaica/Chronicles recently issued Arkology, a generous box set of Perry's mid-'70s productions that makes a strong argument in favor of declaring him one of reggae's true innovators -- and yet it surveys only a small portion of his remarkable oeuvre.

Perry's tendency to answer in sweeping, often confusing parables can test the patience of even the most sympathetic journalist, but it's also part of his charm. Perry frequently rhymes his response or suddenly breaks into song or laughter. But even when he's thundering Old Testament-style threats and pronouncements, there's always a thread, however cryptic, that can be traced back to his story, and to the music that's made him a legend.

He was born Rainford Hugh Perry in the northwestern Jamaican parish of Hanover in 1936. By the time he reached his teens, he had developed a love for the music played at the blues dances that were in vogue during the '50s. Around this time, he moved to Kingston, the hub of the island's music scene, and landed a job as a record spotter with Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, owner and operator of the Downbeat sound system and later the man behind Studio One, where many of reggae's finest sounds -- the Wailers, Burning Spear, and the Skatalites -- were conceived. In this position, Perry was charged with scouring stores for American rhythm-and-blues albums to spin at Downbeat dances. But his real ambition was to become a vocalist. "Tried to sing with Dodd, but he didn't like my style of singing," he recalls. "He think it wasn't good enough. He never really paid me much mind."

Perhaps not, but Perry launched a successful career in Jamaican music anyhow. As Dodd's Downbeat enterprise grew to encompass more than one rig, Scratch was given his own mobile sound system to operate. His ability to identify the next smash (or, as he puts it, "me knowin' what would drop") paid off when he started singing chart-toppers of his own. One ska hit from that era -- 1965's "Chicken Scratch" -- provided his most enduring nickname.

Perry broke with Dodd, unamicably, in 1966. It was the first of his many volatile breakups with producers and artists. "I was with him long time, 'nuff time," he says about the split. "Now I'm going to do my own thing my own way. I wanted to do something different from what Coxsone was doing. He was makin' rock steady and ska -- and I didn't want to make rock steady and ska. I wanted to make soul-rock-disco-pop-techno. Everything all in one." He also felt that Dodd didn't want him to become a producer in his own right.

In the years that followed, Scratch teamed with Joe Gibbs, Clancy Eccles, and Prince Buster, a one-time rival from the days when Perry took musical potshots from his mobile DJ unit. Each of these collaborations ended badly, with Scratch angry over a lack of money and recognition, but because of his burgeoning talents, top artists still kept showing up at his door. Bob Marley was one of them.

Marley and his group, the Wailers, enjoyed numerous ska successes during the mid-'60s, including the Dodd-produced Studio One smashes "Simmer Down" and "Love and Affection." But because the players received few of the royalty payments they were due, they broke up in 1966, with Marley moving to the States and taking a job at a Chrysler factory in Delaware. A few months later, Marley returned to his homeland and reunited with the Wailers, but they soon became disenchanted with Dodd, their former producer, and turned to Perry for help.

Perry shared the Wailers' frustration with Jamaica's political and musical climate, as well as their sense that Rastafarianism provided the best hope for black Jamaicans. He was also committed to helping the group reclaim its rightful position atop Jamaican playlists.

His visionary plan: Perry mated the Wailers with his studio band, the Upsetters, and completely revamped their sound. The Wailers' traditional ska/rock-steady harmonizing was ditched in favor of lead vocals by Marley and backup crooning by Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Perry did away with horns -- which he viewed as outdated and too celebra-tory in the context of the Wailers' rectitude -- and accentuated the songs' refrains, underlining Marley's staunch Rastafarian lyrics.

The results of this tinkering were spectacular and extraordinarily influential; on the Perry-produced records (Soul Rebels and African Herbsman, released years before the albums that would make Marley an international star) the music slowed down, brandishing more ominous beats and a thematic focus on dreadlocked revolution. Immediately thereafter, other Jamaican reggae artists followed suit. But despite Perry's role in transforming the Wailers from a stagnant ska combo into a group poised on the cusp of stardom, Marley and company did what so many of Perry's proteges have done over the years. They left -- and Perry's still sore on the subject. In his opinion, much of the notoriety the Wailers achieved after moving to Chris Blackwell's Island firm was built on the backs of his productions, but he never received credit for his contributions. "I make the reggae party," he maintains. "Not even Bob Marley was there when I was writing 'Funky Reggae Party.' And I see my name not even on it, much less people know I am the writer, creator of the rhythm." But, he adds, "too much ragamuffin and too much dread was in the party. So I crumble the reggae party and I start a dub revolution party."

Dub, an instrumental outgrowth of reggae, was not invented by Perry; if anyone conjured up the style, in which the bass and vocal tracks of a reggae tune are broken apart and radically modified, it was producer King Tubby. But Scratch, who encouraged Tubby to open the Waterhouse studio, where dub began to evolve, can't quite bring himself to agree. "King Tubby was learning from Lee 'Scratch' Perry the Upsetter," he states. "But there is none that can upset the Upsetter, for the Upsetter upsets better ... yeah."

Although Perry and Tubby joined forces on one of dub's earliest triumphs, 1973's Black Board Jungle Dub, they generally favored drastically different approaches: Tubby preferred carefully crafted spatial and sonic deconstruction, whereas Scratch was drawn to phasers, reverb, samples, and all things bizarre. For a time, Perry was so determined to explore the outer reaches of dub that he refused to work with anything so mundane as a singer.

Black Ark, a studio Perry built in the yard of his Kingston-area house, became Scratch's dub fountainhead. When he speaks of the site, his words become murky and mystical. "I mix in my brain, for my brain is perfect," he stresses. "My brain is on the road of perfection ... I am Jacqueline and the son of Lord Thunderblock, Black Ark studio. I am the only original. I do not copy. I only imitate God. I don't imitate bad. Neither would I imitate Bob, nor would I rob. I scorn robbers and kill them with thunder. When Lee 'Scratch' Perry shit, his enemies die. And when he speak, they die" -- he suddenly emits a loud quacking noise -- "just like that."

As far as anyone can tell, no actual deaths took place at Black Ark between 1975 and 1979, but plenty of reggae stereotypes perished. As can be heard on Arkology, Perry seemed to invent new ways of merging dub and popular reggae every time he entered the studio. He literally pulled singers off the streets, and his knack for matching them up with head-spinning backing tracks was unparalleled.

His quirks were, too. He decorated Black Ark's gate with electric toasters because, he then told the inquisitive, "I am a toaster." Shortly thereafter, he hollowed out a portion of the studio's dirt floor to make a duck pond, upon which he laid a plank to support a drum riser. In addition, he covered every inch of wall space with cryptic graffiti that he later altered by painting X's over all the A's and E's. So erratic was his behavior that even some of his admirers couldn't deal. Members of the Clash hired Perry to produce a reggae album for them, but his apparent dementia caused them to reconsider. They left after completing only one number ("Complete Control," released as a single in 1977).

Max Romeo and Junior Murvin were luckier; Romeo's "War Ina Babylon" and Murvin's timeless "Police and Thieves" became blockbusters on Perry's Upsetter label, as did Scratch's own "Roast Fish and Cornbread" and "Bionic Rat." But the producer's 1979 hit "City Too Hot" proved prophetic when the Black Ark burned to the ground.

Perry was arrested on suspicion of arson, but was released three days later because of a shortage of evidence. Ever since, reggae aficionados have debated the question of his guilt or innocence in the matter. Some speculate that the conflagration started after Perry unwisely ignored hustlers who demanded that he pay protection money. Others claim that he committed the act in order to stave off the unwanted advances of a German tourist. Others point to Perry's eccentricities; his excessive use of pot and rum was well known, and he was reportedly seen walking backward and striking the ground with a hammer for two full days before the blaze. But when asked about the incident today, Perry offers another explanation.

"I burned it down because I built a dread studio, and I am not a dread," he says. "I build a dread creation and promise a dread situation. Then I remember that I am not a dread. So why did I build a dread creation? I was trapping myself."

Put another way, Perry was beginning to resent being cast in the shadows of artists he put on the map in the first place.

"I thought I was buildin' up the Lee 'Scratch' Perry studio," he allows. "But it wasn't the Lee 'Scratch' Perry studio. It was the Bob Marley studio and the dreads' studio, and the Congos', the Meditations', Max Romeo's studio. I was creating a dread thing that was too dreadful for me. And I didn't remember that I was a soul man. I thought I was dread. So after I remove it, I remember that I am a soul man."

For a while, Perry all but disappeared from the reggae scene. Bizarrely, he resurfaced in Zurich, Switzerland and married a minor royal in a Hare Krishna ceremony. Before long, he set up a studio that he calls "my extraterrestrial laboratory" -- a term he seems to mean literally. "In Jamaica, I was depending on the blacks and make Black Ark," he offers. "They takes all the tapes of everything. But before they get the Ark, I burn down the Ark, and then I'm not depending on the blacks anymore -- I'm depending on the extraterrestrials."

Also assisting Perry is Mad Professor, a contemporary dub genius in his own right. The two have helped each other on a series of projects for the RAS/Ariwa imprint, including the upcoming disc Dub Fire. Predictably, Perry's description of the latter is curious but intriguing. "It's something real heavy," he asserts. "It's like a megaton. It's heavier than reggae; it's called 'meggae.' It take and make reggae look like it's small. Put that reggae into reincarnation -- so reggae pray and clear the rain, for I am coming with the meggae. Dub 'President of Fire' Perry with Mad Professor and the Robotic -- heavier than lead."

In the meantime, Perry is looking forward to his return to San Francisco where last year's rare show at the Maritime Hall left a decidedly positive impression on him. "I am the real Peter Pan, and they are all my jungle fans," he says of that crowd. "So I know the plans and I give them my song, and my song is heard from the east to the west, from the north to the south, from the North Pole to the South Pole. As Father Christmas I come with their presents and say 'You are on my side, welcome to heaven!' "

What on earth is Perry talking about? Even he might not know -- but he knows who he is. "It is I," he exclaims, "in the name of one love, Jah Rastafari -- his one and only son, Lee 'Scratch' Perry: the upsetting, blazing ball of fire.

About The Author

Joshua Green

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