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...
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