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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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Page 2 of 3

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."

About The Author

Joshua Green

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