Outerviews: Ashley Heath
"Jesus Is A Soul Man" (The Face, April 1997)
Since The Beastie Boys chose to theme the 1995 edition of their Grand Royal magazine around the life and work of Lee Perry, the groundswell of appreciation for this previously cult artist has been staggering. The racks in your local megastore might now be groaning under the weight of Perry reissues - many of them highly dubious in quality and origin - but you try and find a copy of his 1978 classic "Roast Fish, Collie Weed And Corn
Bread". They arrive in the shops and sell out just as quick.
While there is undeniably a roots reggae revival taking place in Britain, with record companies such as Blood And Fire unearthing and polishing up dance floor monsters from the Jamaican vaults, the appreciation of Lee Perry by a new, younger audience is not automatically linked to this very nineties trend. During the 35 years Perry has worked within - yet very much apart from - the music business, he has acted as singer, A&R man, songwriter, label boss, remixer, poet, mentor and, most crucially, record producer. Perry's music has straddled ska, rocksteady, dub, ambient soul, lovers rock and throwaway pop, while there is a strong case to be made that he personally pioneered the reggae beat of the seventies. That all said, in interview Perry stresses that his music should be called either "soul music" or "earth music" rather than reggae. Though it's now acknowledged just how important Scratch was to the international impact and legacy of Bob Marley (he both co-wrote with Marley and reshaped the Wailers' sound), Perry is today extremely critical of both Marley and the dreadlocked reggae rastas he inspired. In short: Lee "Scratch", "Super Ape", "The Upsetter", "Pipecock Jackxon" Perry is certainly not a one-dimensional reggae legend and is therefore revered in the nineties as being rather more than just a great reggae artist.
As Grand Royal colourfully paid tribute: "The magnitude of his eccentricity dwarfs that of his peers. He's like James Brown, George Clinton, Mr T, Biz Markie, Ramellzee, Flavor Flav, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Prince, Jack La Lane, Hunter Thompson and Matt Dike all rolled into one."
But is he mad? The eternal question that surrounds Perry's notoriously eccentric behaviour does get a more and more positive response as he gets older. Yes, he has consumed frightening quantities of alcohol and marijuana (as well as other drugs) in his time; yes, he famously "lost it" at the close of the seventies, trashing and burning the legendary Black Ark studio; and, yes, on hearing a rumour that the Queen Mother wore a colostomy bag he was moved to release a song called "The Queen Can't Shit" - but does any of this make him a madman?
Much like George Clinton, Miles Davis and Prince, there is no doubt that Lee Perry plays up to his public reputation. If interviewers let him act mad, if they giggle as he launches into a sudden display of ridiculous, improvised kung fu moves, then Perry is happy to size you up from behind the silliness. As "The Upsetter" made clear in 1967, if "you take people for fool", then he will avenge you. But there is a sharp, satirical message at the core of much of the tomfoolery, and if you ask him to repeat an answer in plain English he will usually comply.
Despite once branding the owner of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, "a vampire" ("I saw him drink the blood of a freshly killed chicken"), Perry agreed to receive a handful of journalists at Island's London offices in January in order to promote a new boxed set documenting his mid-seventies output from the Black Ark. To undertake these talks, Perry chose to customise a plush Island conference room by erecting a shrine in one comer of the room built around a suitcase he'd filled with a bizarre collection of trinkets, talismans and toys (a poster of Jesus, a collection of garish hats, a portable karaoke machine). As his Swiss wife Mirreille sat nearby, flicking through the pages of various women's magazines while supplying her husband with a constant supply of both grass and hash, Perry received his guests dressed in a colourful waistcoat decorated with cheap "Chartbusters" compilation CDs. Why the shiny, new "Chartbusters" fashion move? "Because they are the hit songs. And Lee Perry only want the hits close to him." Of course.
Tell me, Scratch, what's the reason you've brought all this stuff along with you?
It represents life. Bible, microphone and candle. I am an alien from the other world, from outta space. I don't have no land, no estate, no property, no house. Not on this earth. I live in space -- I'm only a visitor here. Some people are only here to collect property. I am here with my suitcase to collect only the good brains. To make good children with good brains.
Your children: can anyone be one of them, or are you talking specifically about your genetic sons and daughters?
Not everyone can be my children. But some of them, yes. Some have bad brains that are corrupted. Then they go to bed with women and make more babies with bad brains. The holy child only come from holy women and from the holy brain. I am not here to judge your brain -- what your brain will do on this planet earth will manifest itself. Your brain is your slave, but everything is in there written like in a computer. You have to look to see if what you are doing on earth is the right thing or the wrong thing. Really look with your brain and if it looks like success then you could be on the right track.
Horace Andy [the Jamaican singer and Massive Attack collaborator] says that far from being mad, you're the smartest man to have left Jamaica. Is that the truth?
That is truth that he speaks. Horace Andy speaks the truth and that is why he has a good voice -- a super voice. If he did not speak the truth then he could not have that good voice.
So what do you say to the people who claim you're mad?
I have done nothing on this earth that is mad. What I have done has manifested itself in great music. I do not make mad music.
Tell me why you prefer the music you've made to be called "soul" rather then "reggae"?
It is not reggae. Reggae was raggamuffins and hooligans and gun men and junglists. Reggae is cocaine-ists. Yes, I put name to it -- right here in England I write the words "Punky Reggae Party," then I take it to Bob Marley in Miami and he add voice. But then I find out what reggae means and I start to say that there is something funny about ell this. And you know what "reggae" means? It means to take away other people's things. Reggae is a bad dog who wants to kill others.
So when was this bad dog set free?
The bad dog music first started when I came to London in the year of "The Upsetter" LP; the time that "Django" hit the charts and all the kids going crazy [Perry's skinhead anthem "Return Of Django" went top five in Britain in 1969]. From then things happen, a lot of things happen. Bob Marley come along and want me to let him into my house. Now Bob Marley is the leader of the bad dog pack. Yes, "the reggae king" is the leader of the bad dogs, believe me.
You've referred to Bob Marley as the "coward lion", haven't you?
Yes. I loved his voice, but the music I was creating was a holy music. Marley was not. If you misuse the righteous music it will come back and get you. It will bring destruction to the nation where you have used that music to sin with. The dread fuck up.
But you remained friends with Marley right up until his death?
Definitely, because I am the creator -- the creator of both good and evil forces. Negative and positive poles both have to be there in all creation. But you have to know the positive side and not go to the other side.
The dark side?
Exactly. And anyone who is using reggae is using the tool of the bad dog
Is this dark side all about money corrupting people? You're renowned yourself as a fairly astute businessman when it comes to your back catalogue...
Money can be used for both good and bad things. I can do the business through other people, but I don't want to control the business. Businessmen always want to live through robbing other people. Always. Bob Marley use money and use it bad, otherwise he would be alive now.
But he had cancer, Scratch.
I know that. But people out there need the good music to heal them, to heal their brains. I am not here to make music for money. No way. But if I stop healing the people's brains then I will be responsible for that. I don't want to be with those people who make the reggae, because the bad dog would chew me up. That is the truth.
Do you feel you're the only one in Jamaican music to have stayed true?
In Jamaica, in the music business, no one stay true, not even Coxsone the Downbeat [founder of Studio One and Perry's first employer]. Him not working for God. Anyone who scorn ganja scorns Jah Rastafari. Through the ganja comes the message of Jah. Coxsone tell anyone smoking ganja to leave the studio, but ganja is the tree of life. Anything ganja speak will come to life in words, sounds and the power of music.
You recorded incredible music for at least 15 years. Is too much attention focused on your maverick productions at the Black Ark studio?
People have nothing else to look to now apart from the Ark, because the Ark is Africa, and Africa was there at the beginning of all creation. European people, stupid people, take from Africa and Africa becomes poor. So now we seek the Ark for shelter.
I hear you returned to Jamaica and to the Black Ark last year. What did you find?
I fly from planet to planet. I have no property. I go there to save some brains, to take my angels and to create some human beings.
Tell me what music of yours you like best, Scratch?
All the records I have made come from soul. I am a soul man right from the beginning. Jesus is a soul man. (Sings) "Jesus is a soul man, he got music for the young and the old..." So I follow Jesus and I must redeem my soul. When I was in Jamaica I was super baby and now I am super boy. When I decide that I am to be president, I will be Superman.
How do you feel about the way you've become such a hero to a younger generation, to musicians like The Beastie Boys?
No, Superman is the hero. Flying around like the eagle. Can see the words through magazines and newspapers. Can read right through them, you know. But in the beginning there was the invisible one. Then invisible one got bored and said, "Let's make some more herol"
Superheroes aside, The Beastie Boys believe you are the greatest studio producer in the history of popular music.
Of course! The Beastie Boy brain is speaking the truth. Who tells them that truth? Nobody -- it is their ears who hear it and their brains who tell them.
So what modern music do you enjoy and respect?
I want to hear the real thing, not music mixed with drugs. Cocaine is the problem. I don't like to listen to cocaine music because I want to protect the young children and their brains from the cocaine.
You think cocaine is an extremely evil thing, right?
But you've taken cocaine yourself in the past, haven't you?
I am not one of the world's unwanted population.
But you have taken...
Listen, I have answered your question. I am not on the unwanted population list and so I would not take cocaine. Cocaine is there to wipe out the unwanted. There are too many people on the planet earth and some of them are shit and so there has to be way of getting rid of them. Cocaine is destruction. Your inner self will tell you that. You know when I take coke, I could not make joke. And my favourite joke of all is judgement.
Why have you chosen to make your home In Switzerland?
Because I think Switzerland is most cool and you don't see gun boys. I make the punky reggae party but then it get too dread, so I have to leave Jamaica. I go to Switzerland, but I am still the punk and so others follow: Tina Turner, David Bowie...
Tell me about the magic tree you have in your Swiss garden. I hear you hang many strange objects on it.
It is true I have a magic tree in my garden. I believe in elves. My magic tree represents music, so in my magic tree I hang all the sounds: do-ray-me-fa-so-la-te-do. I am the king of the rats -- look at my teeth, I have none left. But I am getting new gold teeth with "L", "S", "P" on them: that is for "Lee", for "Sterling", for the dollar, and then 'P' for "Poor".
What is more important to you, food or sex?
OK, why sex is more important to me is because I was created through sex. I come from pussy and I can use pussy to make creation, to make good things. When you see pussy you see your birthplace; that is why when you see pussy you get that different vibration in your mind. Your brain come out of pussy!
Have you got vibrations from a lot of pussies during your life, Scratch?
Not much, no. More than 10. Maybe 20? I don't know.
Is there anyone you look up to and respect?
Superman, Batman, Robin and Spiderman.
Hulk. And Dick Tracy.
What about Bruce Lee?
I can't let Bruce Lee down. Think about it, I'm Lee Scratch Perry and he's Bruce Lee. That makes Bruce Lee Scratch Perry. He's my number one, my champion every time. I can't let him down.
Can you really do kung fu?
I turn the kung fu into fu kung. They make the kung-fu -- (Perry shouts) "ooh-haa!" - in order to conquer everybody. So I go the other way, fu kung "haa-ooh!" - so the conqueror cannot get me. I blow away the kung fu with fu kung.
You say you're from outer space, Scratch. Have you ever seen UFOs?
Of course. I see flying symbols all the time. They are there for all of us to see if you look hard enough. The Earth is a living being and there is life beyond the Earth. Space exists and everything flies through space.
So Star Trek was the truth?
And who was your favourite on the Starship Enterprise?
The answer is the captain of the ship, because without the captain it could not be irie. Without the captain the ship can't sail and the plane can't fly. If I played football I would have to be the captain.
But would you be a goalie or a striker?
I would have to be the striker. I'm not a goalkeeper. I have the flame in my heart. I have to be the striker. Listen. Lee Scratch Perry always wants to be the captain, the admiral and the major.