"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. [1] 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 his madness.

"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, they're smart."

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 him.

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."

Notes:
[1] 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.