"Starting From Scratch" (Part 2)

Black Music (October 1977)

By Chris May

One Step Forward...

With The Wailers gone, Scratch began to concentrate on other artists, notably Dennis Alcapone, U Roy, The Upsetters and (most gloriously) the young Junior Byles. With Byles Scratch made some of his best ever records: "Beat Down Babylon", "Africa", "Joshua's Desire", "Pharoah Hiding", "Festival Da Da", "Thanks We Get" and, the almightiest, "Curley Locks" (all but the last written by Scratch). During this period, roughly '72-74, Scratch was building his Black Ark studio, bit by bit as the money came in. Meantime he continued recording, mainly at Randy's, Dynamic and Channel One (mixing down at King Tubby's). The Ark was completed in late '74 and shortly after Scratch severed his connection with Trojan (who'd been releasing most of his product in the UK) and, after a brief period in limbo moved over to Island.

"Island the best deal I ever had man! It's loose, working man to man. We a do it with words and words are the greatest contract. You can tell me the truth with words, face to face, and I believe you. And when you feel me a squeeze you, you say 'watch out man you squeeze me' and it done. We don't have to fight and shout out and chain down one another like slave, 'cause slavery days over.

"Most of them other companies here I work for a blood claat! Should a sink years ago, should a gone a longtime to blood claat! Too much wicked, too much rumpus and thief. Them are the Babylonians, some of them black men who a ride you to death! Those names are destructive, those names shall vanish, shall perish, shall fall, and, all who go with them say the Lord God Jah Rastafari."

Could Scratch be more specific in his accusations? Yes he could. And was, for close on thirty minutes. But British libel laws dictate that we'll have to wait for a suitable opportunity to bootleg the tirade anonymously.

... Two Steps Backwards

What can be safely stated however is that since he started working with Island Scratch has become probably the best known JA producer in Britain, certainly amongst white listeners. Last summer Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves" (which Scratch also co-wrote) sold in unprecedented quantities to black and white alike. And the same year The Upsetters' chef-d'oeuvre Super Ape album - an eerie, menacing set of croaking lizard tracks - took dub music far into previously uncharted territory. Possibly the biggest crossover hit to date, the record, though positively reeking of roots, failed to make much of an impression back in Jamaica. Why, I asked?

"'Cause most Jamaican ears lazy to good music! Simple as that. Should have been a hit at home and me feel particularly sad about it. Them a check it but aren't ready for that type of music yet. Understand? Them people pick up on the rough type of music. Anytime you start to do power music and it sound good, a same as the man outside in the world, them call it foreign. If you match fe foreigners' own, them turn them back on it and them hate you. 'Cause they say you too creative, you too newly polished, and them don't support you. So it seems like your music going on in the gutter, but it still alive, it can't dead."

"But I already told the problem we face with the Jamaican buying public­, one step forward two steps backward (the standout track on Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon album). Once you start to build on the music and make it sound a little better, them don't want listen to it anymore. Them want all the time that rock-boof-bam business."

"If Jamaica love it, thanks. If they don't love it, thanks. 'Cause if people can't hear it in this time, then the next generation will pick it up. So that don't stop me in my intention, nothing gonna stop me giving the people what them need­, which is good music. Can't stick on the same boof-boom-boof-boom all the while. That not the way you build a house­. You stay at one stage all time and it a look ugly. You must have doors to match window, window to match door, that when a man will pass it will look beauti­ful. Polish it and shine it and make it look nice and bright in the eyes of the nation. So the whole world will see it shining and say 'there's Mount Zion, black Africa do that, black man.' It's easy to give the public what they want but still sometime they can want too much. Best way is to give the public what they need."

How did Scratch actually go about creating Super Ape in the studio? Not surprisingly, he baulked at letting any technical secrets out. "Gadgetry classified information man. Ask me another! But is not I who create Super Ape, you know. It is God work and him mystical. Jah create it and just use I as a tool. When I working in the Ark sometime I feel a certain power, like me in a different world. So me not discouraged. Jah make me go on trying for ever a long time."

Even if progressive reggae gets as hard a time in JA as Scratch believes, the situation in the UK, as we all know, is infinitely worse. Any reggae gets a hard time. I told Scratch of BM's petition to the BBC for more reggae airtime and he waxed ecstatic, urging everyone to support the campaign. "The man who try to sabotage the music here has no sense at all­, for this music is going to come on and him perish. Him must dead, but the music shall live. Is the fascination of evil throws good things into the shade. And the world will not desire a corrupter of simple hearts. Check it." So there you have your orders. Officially.

All Producers Are Thieves...

Scratch's recent activities will be well known to most readers, so I wound up our rap by asking him to talk about .the most contentious area of the JA music scene. The mountain of distrust which still exists between artist and producer.

"Well in early days most of the producers them thief the artist, is true. And from ever since the image build up that all the producers are thiefs. It never stop, however fair you treat the artist him will still think you thief him. Some producer are bad, some good - it take all kinds to build up a world. But them producer who deal fair the artist still can't see it, 'cause him see the producer over there a thief him friend and him feel so the other producer a still go a same so.

"It is an abomination from long time, like the bible say 'the parents suck the sour grapes and set the children's teeth on edge'. It's that me a try to show you - it bring on from further back see? The prophecy say how them will a bawl and a bark all the producer a thief the artist. So the artist have it down in his mind till now. Can't get rid of that."

Does the fact that more and more JA reggae is being released in the UK perhaps feed this suspicion? "Yeah. 'Cause there is a lot of producer a pirating the artists here. A whole heap of the artists them tune a sell in this country and them know nothing about it, the producer not tell anything about it. A whole lot of rip­ off go on all over the world. Is police and thieves mash it up. Police and thieves make all the trouble. Men say when it is not the police who give trouble is the thief, and when it not the thief is the police. And the same man who a bawling this them a sit down doing nothing! Next thing you hear him run up and down shouting 'fire up (shooting) in the street!' So the police kill a man, but the citizen not do nothing. Just sit back and moan. So what cause fire up now?"

Scratch himself has not been immune to accusations of rip-offs, but he denies it. "Never. Not since I knew my own mind. Me have a conscience and me really believe in it. But people wouldn't believe so. Others thief them, so they think me thief them too."

Did he think that his somewhat tyrannical studio manner, brooking little talkback from his artists, encouraged some of them to soothe their damaged egos by slagging him off as a thief? "Perhaps. But most of the artist that come work with me respect that. Is only if the artist play the game right with me that a power connection can be. And the only way them can play the game right is if them listen. 'Cause if them don't listen them don't learn and we don't burn! Like Max Romeo, him listen to what I say otherwise he couldn't a got a good album like War Ina Babylon . 'Cause him have two songs him write on that album and me write all the rest of them. I lay all the tracks and then tell him to sing it, how to voice it. Any artist that can make it with me, that's the only way him can make it. When them listen to me."

Well, Scratch's assessment of his own importance may not be amongst the most humble you've heard, but the track record bears him out.

But Some Thief More Than Others...

Ever since "Run For Cover" Scratch has had a penchant for slamming critics and enemies with an appropriate song. Back in '73 he responded, characteristically, to accusations of rip-offs by recording "Labbrish" (gossip) with fellow producer Bunny Lee. Over a subdued backing track, the two groan, in mock serious fashion, about the producer's unenviable (and allegedly unfair) image with Scratch's demonic cackle greeting every new downer that Bunny relates.

Unearthing a copy of this one-of-a-kind curiosity is no easy task these days, so here's a taste: [3]

Scratch: Wha happen, Pharoah? Give I a cigarette now.
Bunny: Well, Brother Moses, the heart is willing but the packet is weak. The power man and the rod man (taxmen) them raise everything. I can't afford it.
Scratch: Whaaa?
(Music starts)
Scratch: Hail, Pharoah!
Bunny: Love, Brother Moses!
Scratch: Man, what a gwan?
Bunny: The heat is on.
Scratch: You can say that again. Then how business go?
Bunny: Can't be worse, Brother Moses. I good fe bankrupt any moment now.
Scratch: Wha? Then you can't get a loan?
Bunny: Any bank you check now, all you can hear is the bank manager a moan and the teller them a groan, 'cause them a get hold up.
Scratch: Wha?
Bunny: Yes, a true sir!
Scratch: Man, it look like them a killing us softly.
Bunny: Yessir, me can't connect that at all.
Scratch: Everyday you return a bounce cheque.
Bunny: That a so. Man it dread, can't get nothing fe eat. We a suffer.
Scratch: So a judgement on the land, dread?
Bunny: Yes, a Revelation time! (laughter)
Scratch: Then how you feed them pickney (kids) ina yard?
Bunny: Only God can tell you that, brother Moses. I don't even know how it is I eat myself. Can't get no dunny (money) sir.
Scratch: Yes, it kind of funny.
Bunny: Yeah, revelation time upon the land.
Scratch: So a long time I no see I-spar (my friend) Jah Rupie (Rupie Edwards). Wha happen to him?
Bunny: I hear him gone to the hills, and the pressure is on.
Scratch: Wha happen to brother Clancy (Eccles)?
Bunny: Power give him a beating.
Scratch: Eh?
Bunny: A little joke about brother Clancy... When the other party was in power him did drive, but since the other party's now in power, him a walk. (Eccles was involved with politics at this time)
Scratch: The rod a beat him?
Bunny: Yes, brother Clancy get a beating. Right now him a mascot.
Scratch: Power in session? Can't connect.
Bunny: Yessir. Then a him friend Niney (The Observer) him stop wear suit and necktie too, him go on like idiot too.
Scratch: I think it because him a pay the twelve and a half cent royalty. And the poor artists!
Bunny: Yeah the poor artists...

A great piece of kitsch, made all the funnier by the moaning, zombie-like delivery Bunny and Scratch affect. Worth taking some trouble to find.

Catch Up On Scratch

Any recommended playlist of Scratch productions will inevitably verge on the captious - so huge and varied has his output been. I thought it'd be a good idea to mix some of my favourites in with the man's own preferences.

"No. Me no meddle in that, me not a partial man. The whoooole of them songs sound good to me! Like eggs around me. I'm proud of producing all of them (pauses and slaps hand on table). Except raas chat The Good The Bad And The Upsetters album (cut in 1969 by the pick-up band touring the UK). Me hardly work pon it at all. I was never so disappointed. A thief me thief me thief me. Still feel so ashamed. You tell the people that."

So no help forthcoming from the horse's mouth. But you won't go wrong with any of the following selections, rather you're likely to go ape. Scoring the earlier deleted sides will involve some searching of specialist shops but you'll find it's well worth the leather and the lather, and hell - what better way to spend an afternoon. (So that's where he gets to -- Ed.)

[1] Actually, Scratch would have been 19 in 1955.
[2] "More Axe" is an alternate take of "Small Axe"; while not as well-known as "Small Axe", it was released as an Upsetter UK single in 1971.
[3] May's transciption of "Labbrish" wasn't entirely accurate; I made a few corrections here and there.