Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Centuries ago, religious sanctity sometimes appeared to outsiders much like madness. Twentieth-century common sense can usually be counted on to dispel such superstitions, but this one has enjoyed a sudden revival of late from overzealous music critics. The object of their fawning adoration is one Rainford Hugh “Lee” Perry, known in reggae circles simply as “Scratch.”
Though he began his musical career in late-’50s Jamaica, Perry only recently received his due in the American press because of this past summer’s Arkology, a three-disc anthology on Island. Far less publicized was Heartbeat’s Upsetter in Dub, which covers roughly the same late-’70s period, and RAS will soon release the latest in its series of Lee Perry/Mad Professor collaborations, Dub Fire.
So why all the hype?
Lee Perry is simply one of the most important figures in reggae. As producer, engineer, singer, voice coach, and talent scout, Perry has left a permanent imprint on the music. And the production and mixing techniques he developed and perfected still resonate through hiphop and electronica.
Perry’s start in music was not unlike that of other Jamaican artists of his day. Born in the rural northwest parish of Hanover in 1936, he developed a love of music at teen dances, where mobile sound systems played the American swing music of the ’50s.
Perry gravitated to Kingston and landed a job with Downbeat sound system owner Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, a transplanted sugar-cane cutter from the American South who later owned Studio One. Perry began as a “record spotter” for Dodd, scouring American rhythm and blues albums for tracks to play at dances. Perry followed Dodd’s success; when Downbeat grew to encompass more than one sound system, Perry was put in charge of a secondary unit.
The keen musical ear he developed spinning records helped Perry’s own recording career. He began to score ska hits like 1965’s “Chicken Scratch,” from which his nickname was derived. And he started the first of many trends. His songs tackled social injustice (“Give Me Justice”), took pot shots at other producers (“The Upsetter”), and trumpeted his sexual prowess (“Doctor Dick”). A quick look at gangsta rap confirms his lasting influence.
Perry split with Dodd in 1966, accusing his boss of holding him back as a producer. He briefly joined forces with archrival Prince Buster, then Clancy Eccles, then Joe Gibbs. But Perry was never satisfied with these top-flight producers and accused each of bilking him out of money and fame. His growing talent as a producer, though, allowed him such outbursts and kept top artists coming in.
The incubator for Perry’s ideas was the Black Ark studio he built behind his Washington Gardens home in 1973. His studio band, the Upsetters, gave voice to Perry’s wild ideas. Freed from the time and money constraints that came with working in other producers’ studios, Perry rapidly grew more extreme, both in his music and outside it.
First, he decorated the gate to Black Ark with old electric toasters, explaining to inquirers that he himself was a toaster. He hollowed out a portion of Black Ark’s dirt floor to make a duck pond, then situated his drum riser on a plank straddling the pond. He covered every inch of wall space with graffiti, then went back and X’d out all the A’s and E’s. (Arkology’s booklet has great pictures of this.) British bands occasionally showed up hoping to work with Perry. The Clash contracted him to produce a reggae album, but had such difficulty with him that they left Black Ark having recorded just one track.
Musically, however, Scratch was leaving his competition behind. Dub, which arose in the late ’60s, was perfectly suited to Perry’s talents, its inherent psychedelia and embrace of studio trickery practically begging his touch. Producer Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby), who ranks with Perry as one of reggae’s greatest sound shapers, is generally credited with inventing dub as a studio engineer for U-Roy in the late ’60s. At that time, the B-sides of singles were used only to test sound levels. Rather than waste the space, Tubby filled them with versions of the A-side hits, distorting them by alternately shifting the bass and vocal tracks in and out, later adding effects such as echo and delay.
Though Perry didn’t invent dub, he quickly cozied up to the guy who did. He urged King Tubby to open his own Waterhouse studio, then collaborated with him on dub’s earliest masterpiece, Black Board Jungle Dub, which featured versions of the tracks on the Upsetters’ Black Board Jungle.
King Tubby’s minimalist approach dominated their first collaboration, but the two producers quickly developed alternate theories of dub. Tubby worked with space, deconstructing songs and then building them back up one track at a time, suddenly dropping out the bass, for instance, to highlight the vocals. Perry favored the opposite approach, adding more often than dropping such wild effects as babies crying, TV and radio dialogue, animal noises, and whatever else might trip out the mix.
It was during this period that Perry peaked. He’d play the mixing board like an instrument, dancing wildly, spliff in hand, blowing ganja smoke onto the TEAC tape reels. Perry’s Upsetter label enjoyed its biggest hits: Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” Max Romeo’s “War in a Babylon,” and Perry’s own “Roast Fish and Cornbread.” But his most striking contributions are the dubs of many of these songs, best represented on Heartbeat’s Upsetter in Dub.
Perry’s dubs were unparalleled. He had only four tracks to work withtoday’s dub artists have as many as 48yet he squeezed so much onto them that they measure up against any current artist’s work. According to Arkology’s liner notes, Perry has his own cryptic take on this:
“It was only four tracks written on the machine, but I was picking up 20 from the extraterrestrial squad,” he says. “I am the dub shepherd.”
Whatever his secrets, Perry’s bizarre personal life ultimately pushed him over the edge. Several of his singers blame a surfeit of pot and rum, which he’d been consuming in larger and larger quantities. In 1979, Black Ark burned to the ground, most believe by Perry’s own hand. The true reason will probably never be known, but the speculation is endless: Perry was reportedly seen walking backward throughout Kingston, pounding a hammer on the ground, for two whole days before the fire. Some say Perry unwisely ignored thugs who demanded protection money; others believe he burned it so a meddlesome German tourist would leave him alone. Take your pick.
Perry all but disappeared until the late ’80s, when he moved to Zurich, married a local woman in a Hare Krishna ceremony, and fathered two children. His recording career was rejuvenated in ’89, largely through the efforts of Mad Professor, who brought Perry to his Ariwa studio in London to record the excellent Mystic Warrior and Mystic Warrior Dub.
Scratch has all but retired from producing, though he still records, mainly with Mad Professor. The two have collaborated on an erratic series of RAS projects; the next release, Dub Fire, is due out sometime in the coming weeks. But while Lee Perry has become ever more elusive in the past decade, these three new releases each highlight his geniusand his problemsto varying degrees.
Island’s three-CD Arkology is the most sprawling of the packages. But though it features 52 songs, it covers only 1975-79. Here’s where reviewers have it all screwed up: Island would have you believe that this brief stretch of Perry’s career is all that’s relevantthe label’s public relations campaign rivaled World War II propaganda films for the degree of zeal with which they made this claim. Most critics bought it. Island put into practice a trickle-down theory that would make Reagan proud. The label offered Arkology only to “national publications or nationally known free-lance writers,” an Island rep explained. Then the flacks trumpeted Perry’s distant influence on electronica, hiphop, and rock to the point that you’d think he’d been sitting around for the last 30 years just waiting for the Dust Brothers and friends to arrive and pay homage. Magazines from Spin to Details to Rolling Stone all came out with rave reviews that read like press releases. Smaller publications, anxious not to be outdone, jumped on the Perry bandwagon and fawned some more.
The Island-backed reviews were so focused on Perry’s late-’70s work that you can hardly blame the young woman I overheard comment, as she flipped through Perry discs at Flying Saucer, that it was “too bad Scratch Perry is dead.”
Arkology only goes back as far as ’75 because that’s the year Perry signed a big-time distribution deal with Island founder Chris Blackwellthe same man he likes to refer to as “a vampire sucking the blood of the sufferer,” a tribute oddly absent from the liner notes. Island lost interest in Perry shortly after Black Ark burned; hence Arkology’s narrow focus.
That said, the collection is an able representation of Perry’s work during that span, some of it genius, some of it crap. I’ll buy that Perry was at the height of his producing skills during this period. When you bear in mind that he literally pulled singers like Max Romeo and Junior Murvin off the street, recorded their voices, and turned the songs into hits (bear in mind that singers didn’t have bands then and that the producer supplied backing tracks), his talent is all the more impressive.
“Police and Thieves” is a timeless example of Perry’s ability to match music to a singer’s voice. The four dub versions that follow demonstrate just how far he could tweak a song by adding effects or simply toasting over the track, as Jah Lion does on “Soldier and Police War.” Devon Irons’ “Vampire” was one of Black Ark’s earliest hits, and Perry’s decision to offset the singer’s voice with a menacing bass line paved the way for the heavy roots reggae of the late ’70s. Romeo’s “War in a Babylon” became a smash after receiving the Perry treatmentenough to prompt Bob Marley to lift its bass line for “Three Little Birds.” Perry peaked as a dub artist as well on the wicked “Vibrate On,” an Augustus Pablo/Upsetters number.
But tunes like Murvin’s “Closer Together” and George Faith’s “To Be a Lover” are throwaways. Errol Walker’s “John Public” is equally poor, and the inclusion of a dub version is pointless. In fact, those unfamiliar with dub probably won’t appreciate multiple versions of the same song and will find tedious the five versions of “Police and Thieves.”
Arkology is an interesting collection; it even shines at times. But the only thing consistent about it is Island’s marketing blitz, and that’s no way to remember a legend.
Heartbeat’s Upsetter in Dub is a far more convincing argument for Perry’s genius. It wisely picks a single element of his workduband sticks to it. Most of the album’s 15 tracks were recorded and dubbed in ’76 or ’77 as B-sides to Jamaican singles. The fact that these originally appeared as versions opposite singles gives them a credibility that Perry’s current workcreating dub from scratch rather than dubbing an actual songjust doesn’t have.
Upsetter is Perry at his best. Tracks like “Ketch a Dub” and “Dub in Time” are so bass-heavy they’re sinister. Perry will focus on a particular guitar lick or simple high hat for a stretch, then drop all but the plodding bass line; it’s like getting the rug pulled out from under your feet. On “Noah Sugar Pan,” Perry massages your dome with heavy Mutron Phasers (which he invented) and sends tiny vocal snippets reverberating through your head.
Heartbeat has put together a much more coherent package than Island. How Island missed tracks like “Bionic Rat” and “Sipple” is anyone’s guess, but dub versions of both find their way onto Upsetter. Heartbeat even beats Island on the larger anthology’s best tracks: The previously unreleased “Babylon Thief Dub” is a hypnotic, reedy melodica version of “Police and Thieves” that trumps all the Arkology versions of the tune. If there’s a better collection of Perry’s dub during this period, I haven’t heard it.
Which bring us to the present day, something Lee Perry has generally been a few steps ahead of. Mad Professor, who is responsible for the best of Perry’s work since 1989, built his studio by hand, but that’s not the only thing he has in common with Perry. The two share a love of wild dub effects (Mad Professor used snippets of an impassioned Louis Farrakhan “Million Man March” speech on his recent “Black Liberation Dub”) and a similar everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic.
Dub Fire is in fact not dub at all but mainly a series of cover tunes that Scratch sings to varying effect. While he leaves the limited dub work to Mad Professor, his ear for music remains exquisite. Perry covers a couple of Wailers songs, including “Satisfy My Soul,” which he produced in the early ’70s, but none so popular as to seem gauche. He gives his take on Junior Byles’ “A Place Called Africa,” adding Rastafarian chants to lend the tune a shamanistic feel. The title track is a version of his own “Soul Fire,” and Perry remakes “People Funny Boy,” thought to be a slight of his old boss Dodd. There’s a jumbled take on the Meditations’ classic “Woman Is Like a Shadow” as well. Unlike on other Perry/Professor collaborations, Mad Professor’s touch is invisible. Perhaps he can sense the futility of working on what amounts to a mediocre cover album.
The fact that Dub Fire is nothing new says a lot about Perry’s motivation: It’s utterly lacking. His incessant chattering on most of the album makes you wonder if his famed mystical “madness” isn’t really the more common kind. Perry’s bizarre chants about bowel movements on this and recent albums are a particularly unpleasant indication that perhaps it is.
While Upsetter in Duband to a lesser extent Arkologyshowcases the unique talent Perry once was, it’s fitting that Mad Professor is accompanying Scratch on what will probably be one of his last tours. Perry is passing the baton, in a sense, to Mad Professor, whose own live work shows flashes of Perrylike brilliance. But if the two hit their stride in concert, it may very well be some of the best dub heard in the two decades since Black Ark succumbed to Perry’s flame.CP
Perry and Mad Professor play the 9:30 Club
Tuesday, Oct. 28.