Sunday, August 29, 2021

Lee Perry: Farewell To Scratch



I lay in bed, 14 or 15, waiting for sleep to come. I switched over to the AM dial and caught the soothing voice of reggae DJ Gil Bailey, whose show on WLIB I had enjoyed before. Even the commercials, often for local businesses in Queens and Brooklyn (such as Paul’s Boutique, immortalized by the Beastie Boys), were entertaining. 

Then I heard something hard and beautiful: a brutal drum intro followed by a reedy wavering voice: “Welllll, a wicked man I know will live forever...” What WAS this? Then the chorus: “When Jah Jah come, he make hellfire burn/When Jah Jah come, all Babylon have fe run.” The bass line, even coming out of the mono Radio Shack speaker, cut through me, a sound as serious as your life. That bass had a physical quality, a sculpture in sound, and formed an unstoppable groove with the ticking of the high hat, which had been processed into a gleaming chain of mechanical noises. I was wide awake now. Clearly this was reggae of a different order than the Bob Marley I knew or The Harder They Come. I never wanted the song to end, but I also couldn’t wait to hear Gil Bailey say who it was - I HAD to get that record. 

The next day, after school, I was on my way to J&R Music World to buy a record called Scratch and Company: The Upsetters Chapter 1.
This was my introduction to the world of Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died today at the age of 85. Perry had been an apprentice to Sir Coxsone Dodd, the founder of the legendary Studio One and one of the creators of the Jamaican recording industry. Perry eventually went on his own, building the Black Ark studio, the source of some of the most fascinating sounds ever committed to tape, and working with nearly every important singer in the roots reggae era. As an avatar of dub reggae, where sounds are manipulated with echo and other effects and instruments and vocals drop in and out of the mix, Perry was a central figure in the “Jamaica-fication” of popular music. Thanks to his innovations, and those of other Jamaican wizards, the producer became preeminent. Recording musicians in the studio is only the beginning of making a record, and a song can be the subject of endless remixes. The development of hip hop and dance music is unimaginable without his contributions.

Most of all, however, he made fabulous record after fabulous record, a river of music barely contained by the many discs I have. Any serious collection should have Heart of the Congos, Police & Thieves and at least one collection of Perry's work with Bob Marley. He also contributed to records by everyone from The Clash to the Beastie Boys. Sometime in 1979, either due to a mental breakdown or in an attempt to extricate himself from punishing business relationships, Perry torched the Black Ark and left Jamaica. For most of the last 40 years, he lived in Switzerland, still making records. He also made live appearances, including a bravura performance at Le Poisson Rouge with Adrian Sherwood and others in 2013 as part of Red Bull Music Academy's NYC in Dub festival. In 2015, he weathered another loss when his Swiss studio burned down in an accidental fire.

But he kept going. While his most recent output has been patchy, there have been moments of scattered brilliance. Seek out Rainford or its dub companion, Heavy Rain, to hear the best of his latter-day albums. Whether he’s truly nuts or just crazy like a fox, Perry deserved to rest on his laurels as someone who changed music in seismic ways - the aftershocks are still being felt today. Back in the day, I never went anywhere without 20 or 30 Perry-related songs on my iPod. Thanks to labels like Pressure Sounds, there is inexhaustible stream of new material to absorb. 

I am still in touch with that visceral reaction that I had that night, listening in bed. The liner notes on the back of Scratch and Company put it very well (all grammar from the original): “The Emotional Thrust The Burning intensity and the expressive feel in his recording stream; Here is a small drip of what I am talking about...listen in depth and you will hear what I mean and love it." 

The Black Ark man has left us today. It's more than time to "listen in depth" if you haven't already.







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