Digging deep to rescue and share the music

Dreamer ManThanks to the efforts of one dedicated Lee Perry fan, the world can appreciate the depth of material recorded at the Black Ark, waiting to be re-discovered in the land of vinyl oblivion.

When Perry opened the Black Ark in 1973, it was not only to have more control over his own productions, but to make the studio available to new talent and producers. In a Jamaica Gleaner article at the time, Perry claimed that all "sufferers" would have a chance to record there at the lowest possible rate. Many producers took advantage of Scratch's largesse, and the result is hundreds of records that have no apparent indication of being recorded at the Black Ark but bear the studio's unmistakable sound. Finding these records is very much a case of looking for needles in a gigantic haystack.

Jon Lottman is a serious reggae fan from Washington DC who has spent years tenaciously collecting those musical needles. He operates the incredible Black Ark Nuggets and Not Yet Upset channels on YouTube. Featuring more than 500 videos of extremely rare singles and album cuts recorded at the Black Ark, it's an upsetting treasure trove of music. Lottman says he wanted to contribute something to complement Lee Perry resources like Upsetter Riddim Shower and Eternal Thunder. If you have never spent any time on Black Ark Nuggets, be prepared to lose yourself there for an afternoon and marvelling at the depth of Lottman's collection.

What was the inspiration for Black Ark Nuggets?

My idea was to create an online listening station and shopping portal for everything Perry had ever recorded. Fans could go there and discover tons of music they'd never heard before, at least in snippets. And with click-throughs for buying copies of the music, there would be something there for the shops, artists, publishers, and labels as well, so no one's getting robbed and everyone wins.

To learn that so much Black Ark material might be on the verge of extinction was alarming.

Good luck with that, right? I quickly ran into the difficulty of sourcing all that material. Finding single copies of even some of Perry's best-known and most-loved music wasn't that simple. CDs were supposed to be our eternal and endlessly replicable music format – but now many Perry collections are out of print. And apart from that, there were scads of rare records that had never been re-issued, and might never be.

To learn that so much Black Ark material might be on the verge of extinction was alarming. But there was the opportunity. I could collect those tunes and share them online. And as long as that was the only realistic way for people to hear them, I wouldn't feel like I was displacing sales or otherwise causing any trouble for myself or others.

Do you own all of the records on Black Ark Nuggets?

With one exception that I can think of, yes.

That's incredible. How on earth do you find these records?

I find the records because people like you, David Katz, Jeremy Collingwood, Ron, and Sigi [the team behind Upsetter Riddim Shower] and others who do the work so I know what I'm looking for. Beyond that, as much as I'd love to have tales of miraculous finds in unlikely places, it's more just a matter of one of a dozen online retail shops or marketplaces offering these records for sale, and me buying them.

I suppose it takes some tenacity, and a tendency to not spend money on anything else. I love owning the records, but I also love that there's a purpose to it. The fact that people are digging the videos and the YouTube channel definitely spurs me to keep adding more. And when there's nothing more to add, I hope to refresh and re-organize the whole museum tour in some way that makes sense and makes it more enjoyable.

What have been some of your favourite discoveries?

I love owning the records, but I also love that there's a purpose to it.

Ones that really stick with me include "Love And Prosperity" by The Gaylads, "Poor Man" by Mello Maestro, "Rebel Girl" by Orlando Folkes, and "Black Bird" by Little Roy. A number of highlights over the years actually involve records that I thought maybe were Black Ark, but turned out not to be. Both Susan Cadogan and I Kong have contacted the site to say they were psyched to see their debut recordings online: "Love of My Life", and "The Way It Is". Also Max Romeo's "The Question" – with Ron Wilson's "Rat Poison" on the B-side – was given a replica-style reissue on Horus Records, and they used my copy's artwork for that. I also assisted Horus with their reissue of Rupie Edwards' "Rise and Fall" and "Togetherness" by Clinton Fearon, both of which are Black Ark recordings.

I've lost track of all the sides and LPs that have been re-issued since they went up on the channel. There are quite a few, including at least a handful where I can take some responsibility for that. In any case, that's always gratifying.

Even with such an incredible collection, what's your holy grail?

“Fighting For Survival” by Sons of Brave, and the Jamaican pressing of the Double Seven LP with the sun-and-moon Black Art label.

What's next for Black Ark Nuggets?

Well, acquiring new stuff for the YouTube channels has slowed way down, since the remaining pieces are obviously really, really scarce. So what comes next is improving the channel. Uploading new videos for vinyl pieces that I’ve upgraded since the original videos went up, and re-organizing it for a more guided and curated viewer experience. And just generally engaging more with viewers.

Jon also reports that he's making plans for a physical record store to be located in Washington DC that he hopes will be "focused, well-curated, stocked with new product, and operating on multiple streams including online retail, marketplaces, and a re-issue label." If the shop is anything like Black Ark Nuggets, it will be worth the trip to DC to spend an afternoon there.

For over a decade, a group of hard core Lee Perry fans have built a complete-as-possible catalogue of Scratch's music, including the rare and impossible to find records that are at the heart of Black Ark Nuggets. Maximum respect to Upsetter Riddim Shower and all who have contributed to it over the years.

December 2019