"Understanding And Overstanding"

New Musical Express (May 27, 1978)

By Neil Spencer

Lee "Scratch" Perry almost certainly has no desire to settle in Africa. After all, the record engineer/producer who, from his innocuous-appearing home in the Washington Gardens suburb of Kingston, is probably the vital chemistry man for the whole of both reggae music and reggae thought that doesn't come out of the mainstream commercial Kingston studios, regards Jamaica itself as a truly god-blessed land.

Before he graduated in 1968 to cutting himself singing the innovative "People Funny Boy", the now 39-year old Piscean learned his craft after having long been a camp follower of Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd's Downbeat Sound System in the late '50s to mid-'60s. Dodd began to cut his own Studio One records and Perry, along with the famous American organist Jackie Mittoo, operated the production side of the label. [1]

After parting from Coxsone in 1965, Perry also worked with Joe Gibbs and Byron Lee. [2] By 1970 he was working with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston - The Wailers - producing singles and two albums, Soul Rebels and Soul Revolution (currently still available on Trojan as African Herbsman and Rasta Revolution), and arguably far finer records than have been put out by any subsequent Wailers line-up.

Like an English neighbourhood butcher or baker might do, the slight, wiry Lee Perry lives next to the shop. Perhaps it's this accessibility to his work - his Black Ark studio is housed in a building in his backyard - that has made him one of the most influential, and arguably most talented producer of reggae ever.

Though rates for his services are something in the region of 20 dollars an hour, Scratch himself has - of course - unlimited studio time. An ardent follower of the Rasta belief that physical fitness ensures clarity of mind, he rises early and first exercises rigorously, then puts in a few hours knob-twiddling before anyone turns up to be recorded.

His studio is only four-track, with the sounds mastered on a Teac tape recorder, but then Scratch can work wonders: he is depicted on a mural just inside the door as "Lee Perry: The Mad Scientist", and it is surely not for nothing that Black Ark is called Black Ark, after the shipping line that was/is intended to return the Rastas to Ethiopia and liberty. [3]

Currently, Scratch is working on the follow-up to his Super Ape LP to be entitled, of course, Return of Super Ape, as well as recording an album with the diminutive, self-effacing melodica and keyboards maestro, Augustus Pablo, recorder of the classic 45, "King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown," among many, many others.

Two more brief visits to 5a Cardiff Crescent later and the journalist arrives at 11:30 one Thursday morning for a formal rap session with Scratch. A smouldering spliff sits in the ashtray. Scratch is wearing a splendid fawn cap, a white T-shirt and maroon swimming trunks, and is standing bare-footed up in the console room, almost imperceptibly shifting and switching knobs as he gives the distinctive Scratch treatment to "some young guys mekkin' a try." The console room is decorated in the Rasta colours of the Ethiopian flag - red and green on the walls with a gold carpet. The word "PEACE" cut in the red and green cloth covering the mixing desk gives an altar-like quality.

On the walls are assorted publicity stills of artists with whom Scratch has worked. One notes that someone has written the word "Judas" across the picture of Max Romeo. There's an Adrian Boot shot of The Clash in Belfast. There are also a selection of Bruce Lee stills from Enter The Dragon, plus an aerosol can of Cooper's Roach Spray. At Black Ark you suddenly feel that the reason so much dreck emerges from UK an US studios is because they're so hermetically sealed. Unlike Scratch's place, they've managed to utterly isolate themselves from all the life-forces going on about them.

Anyway, finishing his work with Quake-In Vibrations, a five-piece group down from the country to lay down their fast ever tracks [4], Scratch pauses to refresh himself with a bottle of Dragon Stout before settling down to give me "a reasoning." Except that it isn't quite as simple as that. Also in the room is JBC morning DJ, John Wakelin - "one of me best bredren" - plus Candy Mackenzie and, along with several unnamed faces, Cedric of The Congos. It is time, Scratch has decided, that he should interview me. He must discover my aim and my purpose.

Certain of the people assembled you see, have been most disturbed by what other writers have written. It goes further than Scratch's just being irritated by their "damn fool questions" about details of his life. Stephen Davis' Reggae Bloodlines, for, example, apparently has a condescending tone about it which those present find highly distasteful.

In particular John Wakelin is disturbed about what he considers its superficial, derogatory treatment of Ras Michael, a man who deserves respect.

"Certain foreign correspondents come here and perpetuate this action and after a while we lock the door," says John.

Scratch turns to him. "Why some of them have to criticise it," he sighs, "is because they don't understand it. To understand it you have to overstand it."

"It ain't a passin' fad," John tells me, "and man have to go into it and see what it is all about."

A lot of printed word myths about Jamaica seem to have been created, I say, in which the country seems to be populated by a race of cartoon characters.

"Because they don't know where to look," nods Scratch, almost to himself. "Because the place to look for this thing is beyond the scene."

"But it's a different premise," John Wakelin's soft voice tells me, "that operates in different parts of the world. Down here people don't always want you to come and write about them."

The DJ is suspicious of the manner in which reggae is treated by the US and British radio networks, about the concept in Europe and the States of The Promotional Interview.

"The point at issue here," he continues, "is that the very elements in reggae music denouncing the very heart of the system on which much of the capitalist world is built is perhaps an integral reason of the radio hold-down. But even the press finds it hard to touch that reason. Because true reggae music is pure protest music..."

With almost religious fervour, but with warmth that is pure passion in his voice, Scratch interrupts. "I and I," he paces the floor waving a finger, "is to warn them that the bomb going to blow up on them that makes it! I and I is here to warn them that if they use it then them dead by it, too.

"So our part is to make sure that reggae music take the message across to the warriors in the war zone whom you can't teach by the telephone. If it gets to him on a gramophone him must hear it."

"And this am the message of reggae music!"

Note: This article is incomplete. If you have the complete article, please get in touch.

[1] Jackie Mittoo was Jamaican, not American.
[2] Lee Perry left Coxsone in 1966, not 1965.
[3] Of course, the shipping line that Marcus Garvey founded was called Black Star Line.
[4] No idea which band Spencer is referring to; Quake-In Vibrations doesn't even sound like any band that recorded at the Ark.