"Starting From Scratch"

Black Music (October 1977)

By Chris May

Some artists approach interviews like Mussolini strutting onto a balcony to deliver a speech - puffed up little bumpkins deigning to do the world a favour. Others, equally boring and repulsive, are cringing and obsequious and usually say nothing worth printing. When you're lucky you come across someone genuinely interested in selling their story. If you're very lucky they even tell the truth.

Then you have Lee Perry. In a class of his own - Scratch The Upsetter, interviewee extraordinaire. Well, not exactly an interviewee - schpieler hits nearer the mark. You proffer a cassette, point him in the direction you want to go . . . and stand back. Immediately he's spritzing like Lenny Bruce on methedrine, words jammed together in the tumble to get out. Unable to sit in one place for more than three minutes straight, he keeps bouncing up and down, stalking round the room - and you're schlepping along behind trying to keep in mike range. All five foot of him exploding with energy, self-confidence and a much used, infectiously irie cackle which instantly destroys any suspicion of egomania some of his more outrageous claims might induce.

Scratch first shattered the heads of British reggae fans back in 68 with "The Upsetter". Since then he's proved himself to be one of Jamaica's most brilliant - and erratic - producers. Of the hundreds of sides he's released there's been a considerable quantity of routine dreck, but there's also been a steady, heady stream of peerless, 24-carat magic. At his best Scratch is arguably Jamaica's most inspired producer, composing and engineering music which dances in the mind like no-one else's. Optimal heavyness combined with spacey agility - Tchaikovsky's Sugar Plum Fairy in dub boots is about as near as you can get to it in words.

The roll-call of artists Scratch has worked with over the years is staggering: Delroy Wilson, Clancy Eccles, Errol Dunkley, Max Romeo, The Wailers, The Heptones, The Diamonds, Junior Byles, U Roy, I Roy, Prince Jazzbo, Dennis Alcapone, Big Youth, Jah Lion, Junior Murvin, Junior Delgado, Zap Pow, Dillinger, Dr Alimantado, and more. The list runs on and on - unknowns Scratch moulded and made famous, established stars brought on to peaks of yet to be surpassed artistry.

And always there's The Upsetters, the studio band who've matched Scratch's writing and production genius high for high since 68, used by him as the name band on some of his greatest hits whilst also providing the rhythm tracks for all his work with other artists. An unfailingly wicked and sprightly outfit through which just about every ace JA session man, from the Barrett brothers to Horsemouth Wallace, has passed though considering its lifespan the lineup has been remarkably stable. For around three years now the group has centred on ten main men: Boris Gardner (bass), Keith Stirling (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Mikey Boo and Sly Dunbar (drums), Chinna Smith and Ernest Ranglin (guitars), Dave Madden (trumpet), Glen DaCauseta (sax) and Vin Gordon (trombone).

Sadly The Upsetters have never toured the UK - the line-up who gigged here in 69 was little more than a grab-bag of available musicians hurriedly thrown together to exploit the chart success of "Return Of Django". But when I spoke to Scratch during his recent visit to London he told me that tentative arrangements were being made to bring the band over next year. If it happens it won't be before time either.

But that's getting ahead of the story... In the beginning there was Clement "Downbeat" Dodd. And Downbeat begat Studio One. Which begat ska. In which Scratch hatched.

Downbeat Picks Up A Little Lee...

Scratch claims to have written his first song (for Delroy Wilson) when he was only fourteen years old, "but to call out name of the tune now a hard thing cause from since time more things just take up the space". That he was a near-foetal prodigy however is indisputable. In '55, at the tender age of 16 [1], Scratch was working for Downbeat's sound system then battling for supremacy with rival outfits run by Duke Reid, King Edward and Prince Buster. The minikin Scratch (then aptly nicknamed "Little") began work as a "go-for" (go for coffee, go for my car) but around 57 became a fulltime scout for the system, responsible for searching out cream sounds.

"Start time we was definitely the smallest of the systems. Duke had some big bad guys operating for him. So my job was to fight down this, go out and find the best sound. We go out and find them and really upset Duke and them others. It come up we start to have top record all the while and sometime we meet other systems in a club, slug it out toe for toe. Soon we a top shape."

Then, as now, the battle between competing systems was fierce as fire, the various operators resorting to all sorts of devious scams in the effort to keep one step ahead of each other. "All of them would go to the States to buy rare R&B records, and then scratch off the labels -- cause you always had a lot of spies from other sounds who come up and try a check the turntable fe see what record you playing. And when he look there you don't want him running give him boss the right record name. Downbeat him often stick on wrong label on records he import from States, to trick them others into going there to search it for themself too. One time we put it about so and so have some real dread sides, fire sides on a white labels, and Duke run to the man fe buy them. Such a hurry, him didn't even play fe check them. And they all old stuff, duds! But that more a joke than a trick you understand. All the man try these things but them never work long."

By the late 50s the systems were no longer relying on imports for their sides. Stocks of heavy, obscure R&B records were becoming exhausted and - partly out of necessity, partly out of creative inevitability - the operators started cutting their own tunes, primal boogies out of which ska developed. "Jamaica had roots thing from long time, but being so close to America we a slumber. Then something come and wake we up and we take these things and make them more powerful. We take control, and start get more powerful than America in soul and song."

It was now that Scratch moved up once again in the Downbeat hierarchy, auditioning artists and co-producing sessions with Downbeat and Jackie Mittoo. "From since 59 coming up 60 me start audition singers in Downbeat's little shop down Orange Street. Any artist me feel good enough me say Downbeat select this one fe session, record him'. And him listen, cause he spot me as a man with talent and he loved to work with people with talent. Him always believe in the people I choose and always give me a free hand. Like Toots come for audition, and I the man force Downbeat take on Toots fe work. We go to the studio and he give 'Six And Seven Books Of Moses' and rip it up!"

"Six And Seven", which Scratch claims to have produced unaided by Downbeat or Jackie Mittoo, was a hit, but of the three systems operators who first started cutting their own sides (Downbeat, Duke and Buster) it was Buster who led the field first off.

"Buster come out the strongest, him control the scene for about a year or two. Carolina', Bad Minded People', all them kind of things. So it's then we stop and look and see it's him alone a wail and me and Downbeat get more tighter now. Downbeat decide him better make something heavy fe himself too! For Buster beating down hard! And this is when me come in on Downbeat side and rescue him, cause me work for Duke and Buster too before. But Downbeat a nicer man, liked more younger men, him saw a talent him not throw it away. What is due to a man him give to him. So most of us younger guys link with him, get a more tight with Downbeat."

"And that's how he moved up now. We young guys would go along and write songs to counteract Buster's sounds, songs like me write for Delroy Wilson: I Shall Never Remove' and Spit In The Sky'. And we a killing off Buster backwards! We're beating him with words and good songs and Downbeat now on top, cause him have all the people with the talent to back him. We come on the line now, strong!"

"Soon anytime a guy start to think about go fe sing, he not thinking about going anywhere else than Downbeat. Downbeat him never had to go out to find artist, them come to him all time. So now him have all the singers with the new feelings and him start to make a different beat, a more sweeter beat than what make everybody else. And every man gwan start try sound like us."

As a singer, Scratch reputedly cut stacks of records for Studio One at this time, but in the discographer's nightmare that is early JA electric music (a scenario not assisted by the collie clouded heads of the artists themselves) it's a well-nigh impossible task to track these fledgling efforts down. Many early JA releases carried no composer or artist credits and the only tunes from the period known for certain to have been performed by Scratch (under the name King Perry) are "Roast Duck", "Trials And Crosses" and "Rub And Squeeze".

...And Gets Bitten

Scratch continued working for Downbeat till about mid 68, but by 67 he had be come to feel hard done by, believing with some justice that the meager pay he was receiving came close to daylight robbery. The parting was acrimonious in the extreme. Scratch expressed his anger with virulent, sarcastic releases like "Run For Cover", "The Upsetter" and "Return Of Django". Now, however, he can afford to feel more philosophical about the period.

"Downbeat a rip me true, and if everyday you beat a donkey one day it will surely kick you. But most of them will rip you. So me no really want to press pon that, that play no part in rile now. But maybe if he treated me generously, I'd still be working with him. Delroy sing a song in a early days which him never understand, cause him sing A King On A Empty Throne'. Dig it? You see what happen? Downbeat might have fault business wise, but for personal deals him a nice man. And you gotta pay to learn, right? Studio One for me was like going to college, an apprenticeship. You born with talent, you have it, but the actual thing have no meat pon it yet! Is stages of life - you go through this one to know it and leave it and you go through all a them fe pick up knowledge on the way. Nothing in you one time, you have to pick it up. Then come up and put it together so the puzzle fit. Just like when Jesus reach his stage, things start to happen."

That Scratch did split from Downbeat however is something we can all give praises for. Charged up by his new independence, he let fly exploding salvos of music which changed the face of the Jamaican scene. Indeed, many people name his "People Funny Boy" as the record which gave birth to the reggae beat. So does Scratch. "Of course it was," he says with characteristic modesty, "cause I am the appointed one!"

But how did the beat come about? "From touring the night. See at them time me used to go out town and stay late, drink one or two little beer, thing like that. And one night me walking past a Pocomania (revivalist) church and hear the people inside a wail. And me catch the vibrations and say boy, let's make a sound fe catch the vibration of them people! Them was in spirit and them tune me spiritually. That's where the thing come from, cause them Poco people getting sweet!"

"And same time of course me want to upset Downbeat, upset him technically. And all the others too. Cause they were doing something the same all the way man, all of them a just go ska-aska-aska . And when the people hear what I man do, them hear a different: beat, a slower beat, a waxy beat, like you stepping in glue. Them hear a different bass, a rebel bass, coming at you like sticking a gun."

The new brew matured in late 69, when Scratch began producing The Wailers for his Upsetter label. It was a meeting of talents which created some of the strongest reggae music ever. It sounds as spellbinding and moving today as they were almost a decade ago, all-time monsters like "More Axe", "Duppy Conqueror", "Downpressor" and "Mr. Brown". [2]

The importance of Scratch's Svengali-like role in the partnership would be hard to overestimate. "Me knew Wailers from Downbeat days of course (in the mid 60s the group had recorded for Studio One), for when them come a see Downbeat, they a come and see me. But me never play an extra part in them days, it was all together: me, Downbeat and Jackie Mittoo. But when Bob drop into my hands him really take on the power of music now. Bob re-birth, it was a different level, a different thing than with Downbeat completely. As Bob a come out of my section was when him roots manners start, because my rhythm fresh, a harder type of thing, and nothing else could carry Wailers more than them kind of beat and that kind of feeling. I the right man to go with their kind of soul. Is there me show them see what to sing, and is there them go from."

One question which continues to abort the print-outs of fact n' info fetishists is just who wrote "More Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror". The original releases named Scratch as composer; later re-issues have credited Marley. It will probably always remain a mystery, for everyone involved tells a thoroughly convincing and totally contradictory story. The most likely answer of course is that the songs were collaborations, but just to add to the confusion I asked Scratch for his version.

"That part now me no wanna discuss. Cause we have work to perform and me and him live too close like a brother. These are minor problem, something between me and him, and I don't think anyone should get involved in that. Is a me and him problem - let we solve it." (So that's cleared up at last.)

Scratch and The Wailers formally parted company in the early 70s. Precisely when is another vexatious question for the archivists. Perhaps Scratch could help? "It was 19... 19... 19 something." (Remember, you read it here first.)

Continue to part two »