"I Am The Dub
Organiser And Not The Dub Miser"
Mixmag (March 1997)
By Ian McCann
Lee "Scratch" Perry is a real musical legend. The man who invented
dub, worked with Studio One's Coxsone Dodd, King Tubby, Bob Marley, The Clash,
On U Sound and created the bedrock of all modern dance music. But by the mid-70s
Perry was overworked, hassled by bad boys and strung out on weed he did not know
was laced with cocaine.  Under pressure, Perry burnt down his Black Ark studio,
refused to return to the mixing desk, and seemed to go completely bonkers. But,
as he sneakily reveals here for the first time, maybe there is some method in
"I am the first and last copy, the only perfect copy. If you don't copy
me, you don't have anyone else to copy, so why should I be mad at you when you
copy me? Copy I. See how much copy you can make of I. Catch me if you can."
Well, he's certainly original. Dressed all in purple, head crowned by a selection
of religious images surrounding pink and straw coloured hair, candles lit three
to a glass representing Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, a huge suitcase shrine full
of mirrors and pictures and junk spread out to his left, Lee Perry, living legend,
is back in London. Furthermore, Lee Perry is back at Mango Records' offices,
part of Island Records. This is strange, because Lee Perry is King Of Denouncements
and Island has always topped his list.
But Lee Perry is pitching to be the next James Bond: "never say never again" could
be his motto. Island are putting out a three CD set of his old material, Arkology,
in April. Are they forgiven, Lee?
"Yes, otherwise I wouldn't be here."
This forgiveness is licensed by pragmatism. Despite having pushed reggae, and
therefore, inadvertently, dance music, further forward than anyone else, being
legendary does not pay the bills. If Island can help keep the wolf from his door,
so be it. So even though he's slagged off Island, his old music, and all the
singers he's worked with, he's since mellowed his viewpoint.
"I am an artist and I have the right to criticize myself more than anyone
else," he explains in his gruff, brittle bark. "If I don't criticize
myself, how will I know what the people need? They need these tracks to cure
their brains so I agreed to release them again. When they get crazy on the cocaine
vibration and need to hear music, they know where to come. So for the sake of
peace, I am co-operating with this release. And I need some money! I can't block
this music from coming out because I know my fans want it. I could say this tape
was stolen from me and demand this and that but I would be penalizing the people
who choose this music."
Plenty of people have chosen this music. His records haven't been played in Jamaica
since the '70s but elsewhere this flake's status has snowballed with each year
of inactivity or arguable artistic under-achievement John Peel once described
Perry as having "ears from another planet", and it's taken years for
this world to tune into his frequency. Unlikely as it may seem, Perry could lay
claim to the invention of much of the music we know and love today.
Take hip-hop for example. Who first put together several different records to
create one seamless whole, and then talked over them? Lee Perry, with the still
hilarious "Cow Thief Skank", released in 1973. It even bit a chunk
from The Staple Singers' soul tune "This Old Town". But that was nothing
new: he had "borrowed" another soul record for "Station Underground
News", which sampled the Chi-Lites "(For God's Sake) Give More Power
To The People". The fact that there was no such thing as a sampler in 1972
didn't bother him in the slightest.
The feisty, bearded boffin's restless imagination was central to the innovation
of dub, which in turn influenced techno, trip-hop and drum & bass. Later,
constructing a phased, multi-layered sound of his mid-70s Black Ark studio, he
was producing a precursor of the atmospheric, silken caverns that Goldie and
Alex Reece have since made their own. Transglobal Underground would happily nod
towards his trance-like "Congoman". Perry enjoys his legacy to dance
music. "They're wonderful!" he grins. "They imitate the righteous,
Rainford Hugh Perry was born in Jamaica around 60 years ago. His mum dubbed him
Lee, the first of many nicknames. The next one was "Little", self-explanatory
when you meet him. In the mid-50s he started hanging around the sound systems
of Kingston, settling with Sir Coxsone Downbeat, the set owned by Clement Dodd,
who went on to establish the legendary Studio One label. Starting as a gofer,
Perry graduated to auditioning acts, writing songs and yelping his own ska records,
one of which, "Chicken Scratch", have him his most lasting moniker. "After
then, people call me Scratch," he says. "I didn't like it, I didn't
want to be a chicken. But then I found out that it could be the lion's scratch." He
does a fair impression of the king of the jungle mauling some lesser beast. "From
then on, I don't mind the name."
Perry quit Studio One in 1966 and soon joined Joe Gibbs' Amalgamated Records,
for whom, in 1967, he recorded "The Upsetter", a rocksteady attack
on Dodd. Henceforth, he was also The Upsetter. There followed Upsetter Records
and the inevitable blitz on Gibbs with "People Funny Boy" in 1968.
In 1969 he toured Britain in the wake of a top 10 hit with "Return Of Django".
That same year he began producing Bob Marley and The Wailers, releasing two classic
albums with them.
Fashioning superb roots records for Junior Byles, Leo Graham, U Roy and many
more, Perry opened his own studio in 1974. Naming it the Black Ark, he saw it
as the route to his and the roots sufferers' musical salvation. It was one of
the cradles of dub music, along with King Tubby's studio, Randy's and Channel
One. Perry collaborated with King Tubby on the astonishing Blackboard Jungle
Dub and also produced the single "Dub Organiser" on which Dillinger
claimed "King Tubby a no miser, he is the dub organiser." Perry disagrees.
"I am the mixer and the dub creator and the dub master. The dub organiser
and not the dub miser. I am alive and the miser is not alive. Tubby was the miser
because he say he was the dub organiser, but I am the real dub organiser. They
want to fight against fate and say they create when they did not create."
Perry views the fact that he's still around today, while former allies like Marley,
King Tubby and Peter Tosh are not, as indicative of his righteousness.
Licensing his albums to Island Records from 1976, Perry unleashed a string of
smooth-sounding but still deeply rootsy reggae classics: Max Romeo's War
Ina Babylon, Jah Lion's Columbia Colly, The Heptones' Party
Time, Junior Murvin's Police And Thieves, and George Faith's To
Be A Lover. Despite being deeply embittered by the music business, which
he feels has not amply rewarded his genius, Perry still has a good word for some
of those acts.
Of George Faith, previously known as Earl George, he says: "He had a real
sweet voice like a woman. But he had no faith, so I called him George Faith to
give him faith."
Of famous 70s reggae singer Max Romeo and Bob Marley, he attests: "Me and
Maxie was close together, like a medium. When he hear the spirit say a word,
he would tell it to me and I would put the other part to it. Me and Bob would
work together like a medium and a master. A word come to him, and the master
would know what do with it."
He made innovations galore at his tiny four track studio; one was the use of
the Conn Rhythm Box drum machine, also being experimented with by Parliament
at the time (Scratch has plenty in common with that other mad inventor, George
Clinton). "The drum machine don't make a mistake like the musician," says
the little powerhouse. "If you want to be a good drummer, copy the electric
machine then maybe you can see Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Better to use a machine than
use a human who is unclean. I'd take a drum machine and beat the drummer until
he plays like one!"
By the mid-70s Perry would start work at dawn in the Black Ark, and finish late
seven days a week, fuelled by rum and ganja - colly weed. "I made a record
called Columbia Colly because all this colly was coming out of Columbia.
Everyone thought it was so pure because it was so strong. We didn't know Columbia
was putting cocaine in it." He spits out "cocaine" like a curse.
Such a lifestyle took its toll. He had rows with Island Records. A projected
album with Bob Marley became just a couple of singles. The wonderful LP with
the Congos, Heart Of The Congos, was never released by Island. His own Roast
Fish Collie Weed And Corn Bread also failed to hit their catalogue, which angered
Perry watched his dream studio slowly turn into a nightmare. The Black Ark became
a magnet for hangers-on and rudies looking for some easy dough. There was a German
fan who just wouldn't go away. Everyone wanted a piece of Lee Perry. "At
first the Black Ark was like a balm yard, a healing house," he recalls. "They
would come to me and get their brain healed free, and get inspired. They leave
their old brain behind in the Ark and get a new brain. The only thing to do was
burn down the Ark and burn up the old brain."
In 1979 Perry torched his studio. If it was a breakdown, it was a spectacular
one. He has been reluctant to work his magic and the console ever since. "Mixer
helps you to mix up the people into you. The only way to get them off you is
to tear them off you, free yourself, which I did, to avoid me smelling a stench
I did not wish to smell. Because of things that was giving me trouble and making
my life unhappy and making me bored and causing me problems. Me have to deal
with them, because me no army, and an army was depending 'pon me."
The army of?
"Rastafari. The army was becoming too rough and me wand become independent.
Because before I was travelling with Jesus as my shield. But when I mix with
Rastafari army I found I had to be the captain all the time. So I leave the army."
It was a scorched earth policy and he has lived by it ever since. It keeps people
off his back; they say he is crazy and don't expect anything from him. Take this
outburst about his own craziness; there's a point to it: "That's self defense.
I am a very hard man, don't think I'm soft. I only play soft. Inside of me is
terrible cruel. I might smile, but if I don't smile you would just see a skeleton
and you wouldn't be sitting here. I am the first phantom and the last phantom.
I am a king and a queen, an emperor and an empress. I am all in one. A man and
a woman. Where is my pussy? On my head."
Let's have a look at this cerebral sex organ...
"It's invisible. I can't show you my invisible pussy. It must remain a secret.
I didn't ask to see your pussy, did I?"
I apologize for my rudeness.
"No hard feelings," he laughs generously. "You have to ask god,
'Dear Lord, please can I have my unseen eye to see the invisible pussy on Lee "Scratch" Perry's
head?' But the Lord will say 'no'. Because if you can see the invisible pussy
then people will want to fuck your head."
And too many people have already tried to do that?
"I'm telling you. You can say that again. The dreads have tried to fuck
my head. I can't allow it."
Even today there are people willing Scratch to return to Jamaica and "save" reggae,
as if it was drowning. It won't happen. "If somebody with sense and money
says 'let's rebuild the Black Ark,' and made sure we were not disturbed by undesirables
for money, and I wasn't hunted by gunmen and troubled by politicians, I would
go to Jamaica and rebuild the Ark, no problem. But not without certain protection.
But it's a very hard thing to look back upon your past life and be pulled backward
into it. It's not easy for you to say yes. It's like you're being pulled back
to be nailed to a cross."
Lee Perry still gets a certain satisfaction from knowing his old work echoes
everywhere from Jimi Somerville to adoring fans the Beastie Boys. People still
clamour to touch the hem of his garment. That stands as testament to his greatness:
if you don't copy him, you don't have anyone else to copy.
"Am I supposed to be proud of that?" he demands.
That's up to Lee Perry.
"Okay, I'm proud of it," he smiles. "Of course I am."
 Before anybody starts entertaining conspiracy theories, later in
the interview, while discussing the Jah Lion album Columbia Colly,
Perry alludes to the idea that collie coming to Jamaica from Columbia
was being secretly laced with cocaine.