If you are a music producer, mixer, label owner, songwriter, or electronic music maker, you owe a debt to Lee "Scratch" Perry. He was, and continues to be, a spiritual guide and compass for true artistic expression. He is a dub pioneer, the first to turn Rasta culture and beliefs into a popular music art form, first user of samples, and a living work of art. You can thank him for Bob Marley, as well as so many Jamaican artists that followed. At his Black Ark Studio in Jamaica, (a studio that he says he was divined to build and subsequently burned down because of evil spirits; the idea being that if he didn't destroy it, it would destroy him) Lee Perry was experimenting with these sounds and ideas. In 1973 Lee released Blackboard Jungle Dub, the first album consisting entirely of dub mixes. It is still considered to be a benchmark of the genre.
Lee's 1976 album Super Ape, under the name The Upsetters, is the quintessential dub record. The songs are great, the mix earthy, gritty, mystical, and trippy. Horns, flutes, melodica, echoes, big bass, and floating on top of it all is Lee Perry. Listening with a critical ear to the technical aspects of Super Ape's mix reveals flaws in all their glory. Horns are too far away, hooks are buried in mud, and balances are out of whack. But none of that matters. Listening to dub records from this era is a time machine look into the available technology, which was pushed creatively far beyond its intended use. In the same way The Beatles pushed recording technology to new ends, so did the pioneers of dub music in Jamaica. Spring reverbs, tape echoes, and the mixing console as an instrument via pans, mutes, and volume rides – it all became an art unto itself. Mixing was no longer simply about setting balances, EQs, and committing a mix to a fixed format. It was a performance; a reinterpretation of a song. It was dangerous, and it was inspiring.
When I saw that Lee was making his way to Seattle to perform a new version of this classic recording, called Super Ape Returns to Conquer (a collaboration with Subatomic Sound System), I was all over it. It then occurred to me that perhaps he'd be interested in doing an interview for Tape Op. The night of the show I went to soundcheck, shot some video and pics, and chatted with Emch from Subatomic. My interview with Lee was to happen the following day at my studio. After confirming with Emch, he mentioned that it would be a good idea to try and talk to Lee that evening "just in case." Well, as it turned out, a contingency plan was a good idea. By that point in the evening there had been prolific amounts of ganja smoked by the man, and plenty of backstage distractions. There were fanboys, hangers-on, a large Rambo-style hunting knife, and a bit of semi-coherent conversation. At one point he changed into a cloak, adorned his cap with battery-powered Christmas lights, and with large spliff in hand gave a riffing sound-system MC-ish performance of "Cloak & Dagger." As we set up for the interview, Lee sat in a chair and I was left to sit on the floor in front of him. Between us was a large platter of fruit, with burning incense sticks planted in several bananas. Lee had no interest in answering any question directly, instead offering a roundabout rhyme, poem, or references to Jesus and ganja, as well as some topics not fit for print.
When you first started making dub records, what made you want to use echoes and reverbs? The music's so transportive, and it's different than roots reggae, which tends to be sort of dry.
Echoes make thing sound different. You can repeat yourself in echo. If you want to say one word, and you want it three times, you put it in three-times repeats. I program; I command my word to be on top. And I command myself to be The Upsetter. And I command my song to be The Upsetter. And I command myself to be on top.
It is transportive. It takes you to another place.
In space. In orbit in the galaxy. I program myself in the galaxy.
Echo and echo ameco. I am peco. Gecko. Why do you want to send your tupecko?
How old are you now?
Eight million, trillion, centzillion years.
Why do you keep doing this?
Because I'm the beginning and the end.
How did you come to work with Emch?
How he came to work with me, I don't know. It just happened.
But collaborations have been important for you.
We were drinking rum, someone was drinking wine, someone was smoking cigarettes. Someone was smoking ganja. Illness is a curse. I wish nothing to be ill. No Illuminati for I; I kill Illuminati, and kill the Luminati. I have no use for them. Really jumpy, like the lady butterfly.
Man, I could talk to you all night. Pure magic.
Yes, pure magic. I fill the earth with magic.
Did you really burn down the Black Ark? I thought it was your studio.
But to what evil it was. A vampire; a bloodsucker. It filled me with fucking dread.
You made the Super Ape album in 1976, and now you have Super Ape Returns to Conquer.
Super Ape is the world. Super Ape is the universe. Super Ape is God.
Are you the Super Ape?
I'm the creator. If I tell you who I am, I would expose the secret. I am a secret. Right? I am a secret from the Black Sea. The Black Sea, you find me in the Black Sea. You find me in the Red Sea. As if I'm in the Dead Sea. Who am I?
I've heard you say you're a fish.
You're right, I am. Good.
What's the purpose of the mirrors on your shoes?
You can see yourself in a mirror. That's the first mirror. I made a second mirror. You can look in the water and see your shadow. I had a vision of red, black, or white.
I love your music. You change lives.
Maybe that's why you love me.
From your first record to the last, it's one big circle.
The music is perfect. I'm sure the music is perfect. I am a mystic. I am a fish. I am a chicken.
Can I take a picture of your hands?
If you wish. [See this issue's front cover.]
They do the work.
When you're ready, say you're ready. Are you ready? The music don't make mistake, the music don't eat beef steak, the music don't eat fish steak, the music don't make mistake, the music don't cry, and the music don't lie, because the music is immortal, and the music refuse to die, and the music refuse to cry, and the music refuse to lie, because the music is not a mortal being. Music refuse to be a human being. Music will never be a human being because the music is the great supreme.
I left feeling blessed to have interacted with Lee, but was also a bit mystified by what had just happened. It became obvious quite quickly that my list of thoughtful questions were no longer relevant. So much of what Lee "Scratch" Perry does is improvise. He reads the room, feels the spirit, and accepts divine intervention. I spent years studying and playing jazz and improvising; I just didn't realize that these skills would be expected of me in an interview one day. This was like stepping on stage with John Coltrane, or into the ring with Muhammad Ali. All I could think was, "Pay attention and listen." After a day to reflect on how I failed to get much of an interview out of Lee, I had a brief call with Emch to discuss a better path forward. He suggested we talk about the elements. After brief hellos and a tour of my studio space, which he was very interested in, I put Lee in a big gold chair for our interview. After my first question he asked for tape head cleaner (alcohol) and proceeded to light his shoes on fire.
How did you make this Lee "Scratch" Perry record, Super Ape Returns to Conquer? Was it from existing tracks you remixed or reimagined, or did you try to recreate the original record?
Emch: Scratch gave us the blueprint, but we were reproducing his production in a way that isn't a copy. He always talks about not wanting to be a copy. We did something new with it that represents his energy and how he's feeling now. I feel like what we tried to do with.... Returns to Conquer was create something based on his own history, and then pull in elements of the things that have evolved from what he created, like making the bass subbier and wobbly. What we hear in dubstep, as well as other music that has grown out of what he's done. I feel like if he made the record 40 years ago, it's still 40 years ahead of its time anyways. Now we're making it to hopefully be 40 years ahead of today.
At Black Ark you only had eight channels to work with on the board.
We had four, at first.
Lee, when you originally mixed and produced Super Ape, was it on four tracks or eight tracks?
Well, to the surprise of the world, it was one thing I had in mind. You call it the world, and the globe, and the universe, and the creator, but we have one name for the world. It's Super Ape. Only one world, Super Ape. One globe, Super Ape. One universe, Super Ape. One magic, Super Ape. Super Ape is shit, as most of the people complain about when they interview with me. Shit is Super Ape, and not many people like shit. Many people eat shit. I wanted to accept that this night people eat shit. It's playback, replay, feedback. Record it. You play it back and listen it. You video it, and replay it, and play it back. That's hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting the invisible. Shit. Nobody love to smell shit. Shit is the power and the glory. Shit. Shit is the power and the glory. Shit. You can sound like Bob Marley. [plugs nose and mimics Bob Marley singing] Vanity is not a blessing, but the power of temptation, yes? You keep it, if you have to. But my shit is precious shit. In my interview with most people, we talk about shit.
Talk about rock stone.
It turns me on.
What about it?
It gives me the energy of the earth stone; it's rock stone. The earth love people, and people like rock stone.
When you were first starting to do dub remixes of records, that was not a traditional path. That was not what people were doing. What made you want to use echoes and reverbs, as well as deconstruct the music down to its core?
My shadow. My shadow. It inspires me to do everything. My shadow looks at me and says, "What color do I have?" If it sees black, I've got black. And God is black. And don't be flying in the room. Don't be flying on the moon. God. Don't fly on the moon too long.
Emch: Shoot them down. Gotta shoot them down.
Shoot them down.
Emch: I heard Lee say that a lot. People getting caught up, especially singers, in the vanity of things; the whole rock star side of things.
The name I have for them is reggae duppies.
Emch: That's ghosts; like evil spirits. But dub never was intended to be pop music. It was like a spiritual music.
Soul music, pop music, rock music. Dub is. God made me supreme. Supreme. Superman. Supreme superman over duppies.
Yeah. I've heard you talk about killing vampires.
A vampire is a duppy...
Emch: He wrote the song "Duppy Conqueror" for Bob Marley because he told Bob he had a duppy haunting him and it was the reason he couldn't rise up and be successful. He wrote that song and Bob sang it as a spiritual cleansing to chase them away.
Duppies. Duppies. They want to get rich. They want a ring to get rich. I'll give them a debt met to life. I said no. I said maybe. May-be. But no! No! No! You will die. Nah man, got killed and die. And they said, "No more! No! More! Kill them dead." They said, "Neh. Don't try you die!" And ooh; God belched.
That's the end of the story?
That's it. When God belched, he pooped too.
Emch, after having hung out with Lee, if you were going to explain dub to somebody who'd never listened to it, what are the essential elements of dub; other than Lee, of course?
Emch: Yeah, "Scratch" is the essential element. The X-factor.
If you need another me, you can ask Harbor Shark. The Harbor Shark lives around here. Maybe you could be the Harbor Shark.
So, Lee, why do you trust this guy with carrying on part of the tradition you created?
You hide all the money in the bank. Let me give you some money and give you a tip; but you're going to have to earn the place, the Harbor Shark.
Emch: You want to cut a track called "Harbor Shark" right now? Could be a big hit.
Next time you come back I'll be ready and we can do that. I'd love to.
Harbor Shark Records Present: Lee "Scratch" Perry, the King Fish, on the Harbor Shark label.
You've talked about being a fish, and about Neptune.
I'm a fish, originally. But I didn't want to go in, so I applied Harbor Shark.
Emch: King Neptune is his father.
How do you work that in, your life in the water? How does that sound in your music?
Life in the water give me seven times the power. It's a hidden light that tells me what I have to say. I feel a bird, right? And a cat's coming to kill my special bird. My bird was a white bird and the cat was black and it got jealous. It killed my white bird. What do we do? We kill the cat! The cat killed my bird, and I killed the cat too. I got lost. I love cat and cat loved me; but killed my bird. He's jealous. The cat is black magic. Want to eat all the birds. Want all the magic.
What you give is what you get, I suppose.
Maybe the cat was Bob Marley. He was a male witch. He killed my bird and I said, "You won't get away. Sooner or later, I'll catch up with you." I catch up on black magic and I deal with black magic. I catch up with the black cat, black magic, and I decide I get even with the black cat. That's just fun. Black Magic. Jay-Z teacher.
Jay-Z and Beyonce teacher. Aleister Crowley. Ill, very ill inside. So they want to be Illuminati. Ill doom and naughty. Illumi good. Illumi-gorgeous. Illumi-copycats. Illumi-rat and Illumi-ratbat. That's a vampire. An Illumiratbat.
Emch, how do you take Lee's guidance and integrate it?
Emch: I think it's his full philosophy. We don't really talk about music. A lot of times I do interviews and we don't talk about music. This is how "Scratch" sees the world, and I think you've got to get on that wavelength. It's osmosis. You just understand that worldview, and then you create accordingly. That's what "Scratch" does. He listened to the sounds of nature and the sounds of God. That's why his music has spirituality in it. In making music with him, to do it well, I think it's not that we're copying what he did; rather we're aligning it with his vision of trying to create music that represents God, spirituality, and nature. In doing that, we're aligned with him and can get along with him. Otherwise he'd be done with us. He'd suffer if we're not paying attention.
That's a very good point.
If you have a pen, a black pen, I'll write my name. Your bodyguard is your music. If you're in trouble, you'll remember something. Stress is a joke. Stress also is a duppy. Stress. Stress is a duppy. You can't survive without something to support it. Stress duppy.
You've had a long career. You're still here. You're still influencing a new generation of musicians and the music will live on.
You are very protected. You are on the water. If you want to be a Harbor Shark, you can be the Harbor Shark.
This place feels good because of the water. That's why we surf.
You can spread it next. We do not fear the Harbor Shark. The Harbor Shark gives me protection. If you have a pen, I'll write that.
Emch: He put on an art show with me a couple of years ago in Brooklyn. He's done a couple of paintings. It's very interesting to me to see his creative process; doing something other than music. It's the same. He's creative all the time, just nonstop. Other peoples' minds are on other stuff. He loves that superglue. Apparently [Jean-Michel] Basquiat saw pictures of the Black Ark, and that was a big inspiration for him and his art back in the '70s. His art had a lot of writing, as well as drawing, in it. He said he'd seen "Scratch's" studio and all the words incorporated into it.
I'm very old, you know that? We have super children out of the sea, out of the water. Water is the life-giver, so anything water gives only fire can destroy. With water, there's a combination.
How long have you been away from Jamaica?
Well, it doesn't matter, because there is something inside the Jamaican people. You can't be a hypocrite and tell the people you love them. That's true. You stay away from them for a while. They want to be used. Not them alone. Africans see it too, and most white people see it too. People want to be used too much. That's why I'm staying away from Jamaica.
Emch: A lot of people are jealous of his success. That whole thing with the Black Ark, there were so many people hanging around saying, "Make me the next Bob Marley!" They're trying to take away energy; energy vampires wanting him to do things for them.
Lee, you are very giving. I watched you with your fans last night. You took the time to talk with people, take pictures, and sign things.
Emch: I think that's the thing he's saying. You can give to people who are going to give back to you, but if you give to people who aren't going to give back and just take, they're going to take advantage of that, and they'll drain your energy and blood.
It's fun. That's why I believe in God; he was a fish and then he made us to look like man. What else can I say?
Emch: What does that mean for me? I was a wolf, and I still look like a wolf? Didn't complete the change. I got stuck here.
What happened, Emch? You played the Super Ape so much your turned into the Super Ape? Talking fish, singing fish, walking fish, computer fish. It is crazy. It will be out of this world.
Super Ape Returns to Conquer is not the first record you've done together. How did the collaboration with Lee come about?
Emch: Just over time. I'm a student of Lee, like many people. Studying him and trying to support his vision. I first did some dubstep remixes for him ten years ago with a band he was working with. They liked it; it was something different. I know Lee gets bored very easily, so I pushed him to do something different with the live versions as well as the remixes. What happened eventually turned into what we have now. Lee doesn't like to go back and do old stuff a lot. He doesn't want to talk about the past.
If there's a market for it, no problem.
Emch: Even when Lee sings the lyrics to his songs, he said to me, "Never do it the same way twice. It wouldn't be honest. It'd be copying the way you felt in the past." It's always got to be some level of improvisation or something new. I think trying to make the music for the new album was a process of playing it [the original Super Ape] live so many times that you make something new out of it. So much music used to be that way, especially jazz. The history of music was playing music based on other music. Lee loves a lot of the '70s Motown. A lot of reggae songs would start out with taking elements and creating something new. I feel like they were combining elements of that American R&B music with more African elements – like jazz and European instruments – and they created their own thing from the foundation of this music that was a part of their history.
What does water represent in your music?
That's water. [points to the flames on his shoes] Spirit.
What does that represent in the music to you?
Without water, you are no life. Water create life. Without a fire, you are cold. You have water and iron, water and fire. Iron, that would be in your blood. I am banana man; I love banana. I believe in banana. The banana is in the music. The banana come by ganja. Ganja is the king. Fire is the king. I clean my throat so that I may speak. Do you have any wine?
You've talked about the heartbeat of dub music being the drums and the bass.
Yeah. The heartbeat is the drum and the bass is the brain. The bass is the brain. The bass come up with "poom poom." Poom poom. Without poom poom, you can't have any children because the bass is saying "poom poom." The most poo poo. You know poo poo? Well, for you to poo poo, you need a hole to poo poo. And for you to go into a poo poo, you need a ti ti. So you play a cymbal. Ti ti ti ti ti ti, and then poom poom. Ti ti ti ti, bash. Poom poom. Ti ti ti ti pash poom poom poom poom poom. [repeats several times] That poom poom make babies. The poom poom is perfect and good for a generation to create.
How about echoes?
Bacteria. Not good. The music is nature. The music, is nature, nature. It's all about sex. What kind of sex you deal with? You have holy sex, you have righteous sex, you have ungodly sex, you have good fuck, bad fuck, good luck, bad luck. Whatever kind of fuck you choose. The people who interview me and complain to me, people who have no sense. People who see the truth and complain about the truth; I am no use to them. If you're not in the root, you won't find out the roots. You have to be a root to find the roots. Dancing turns on anybody; to make people feel good. The music is magic.
Do you and Emch have plans to do more in the future?
The future! The future is a Super Ape. The future. The future is Super Ape. You are the first person to give you advice. The thing about Super Ape; Super Ape comes from another earth. Magic. Around the world magic. Men couldn't stand up to the Super Ape, so it took invisible forces to hold it up there. Even some Americans went to the moon. They didn't end up going to the moon because we have a doom, a holy doom. Holy doom. Everybody fights against the holy doom that turns them into maggots. Turn into maggot fly to torment them and turn into maggots to eat them. This is the holy doom. And the children doom. Then all the hypocrites to the doom, to eat their flesh and eat their bones and turn them into the dust of ashes. [singing] You follow I? Going to the sky, follow I; and don't you lie, follow I. Go into the sky to fly like a butterfly.