Eternity Doesn’t Die: An Appreciation of Lee “Scratch” Perry

It’s impossible to adequately summarize or describe Lee “Scratch” Perry’s life in sounds; from inventing/advancing dub to mentoring Bob Marley to an entire decade (the ’70s) that saw him churn out masterpiece after masterpiece and produce/direct some of the best reggae albums of all time; to becoming Jamaica’s Crazy Uncle, an extended second (third? fifth?) act where he kept making music because he could, because he had to.

It’s likely that, in death, a proper and thorough recognition of his output and influence will begin, and Perry will increasingly — and correctly — be regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

(I’m delighted to see the outpouring of proper tributes and obituaries; I wouldn’t have necessarily thought Perry’s passing would drop under the radar, but one never knows these days. For anyone reading this who wants the full bio and mini-tributes from Perry apostles, just hit the ‘net and there’s tons of great info; I couldn’t — and wouldn’t try — to do it justice. Some excellent work here by Rolling Stone and The Guardian.

A small sampler, below. Pay attention to the individuals quoted and the genres they represent; when legends are in awe, that’s the ultimate testament:

“You could never put your finger on Lee Perry — he’s the Salvador Dali of music,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stone in 2010. “He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen. More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the artist’s soul. Like Phil Spector, he has a gift of not only hearing sounds that come from nowhere else, but also translating those sounds to the musicians. Scratch is a shaman.”

“It was Lee Perry’s sound and the Jamaican toasters that inspired us to start hip-hop,” Afrika Bambaataa said.

“Perry was using a 4-track at the Black Ark studio, but he could get about a hundred other tracks bouncing in and out of there by using stones, water, kitchen utensils and whatever else was available,” Max Romeo told Rolling Stone. “He makes his money by being crazy, but he’s no crazier than I am. All geniuses are mad. I remember Chris Blackwell at Black Ark sitting on a couch and saying, ‘Scratch, the tape is spilling over. You can’t do that!’ Scratch just said, ‘The album is called Super Ape, and so I need a Super Tape!’ He is a wizard, there is nobody else like him.”

As Beastie Boys’ Mike D said in the Perry biography People Funny Boy, “All three of us are all really inspired and influenced by Lee Perry’s music and production. I think of it in terms of opening up truly infinite possibilities of sound and music, by manipulating sounds through using the mixing board and every outboard effect and every potential tape speed to achieve sounds you might have in your head, to make those a reality.”)

It really is overwhelming to get a handle on Perry’s discography; his brilliant tentacles spread over so many artists, albums, and eras one needs to simply do research, start connecting the dots, and dive in. I will note, not without some old school street cred, that it’s indescribably less onerous (not to mention expensive) to go deep into any musician’s oeuvre. Indeed, it’s a bit mind-boggling to recall the good old/bad old days when there was no Internet (and streaming songs, for free, was beyond Sci-Fi), so one was obliged to acquire individual albums, and learn along the way. I wouldn’t trade that slow, more analog experience for anything, but I also envy this generation’s ability to immerse themselves, gratification that’s instant and free (never mind the myriad implications for the artists and Art).

Anyway, I think the most efficient way for me to pay personal tribute is by revisiting a piece I wrote about Heart of the Congos, a tour de force that arguably represents the pinnacle of Perry’s genius. This at once apex and gateway: for the uninitiated, start here and work backwards (and forward, once you’ve absorbed everything from the early days to the heyday).

HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos (from 2008)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for — or at least can be fully appreciated during — specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The ’70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd — producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo — that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece — and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.

(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting — and instructive — to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)

Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet — lyrically, vocally, sonically — seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected — even obligatory — shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and — crucially — the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.

Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…

This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation — from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.

Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s — and the Congos’s — vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.

“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light — a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

We come with our culture to enlighten the world…

Any questions?

What The Upsetter achieved, at his Black Ark, from ’73 to ’78 — in terms of output, influence, enduring bliss — stands alongside any sustained creative apex in musical (or really, artistic) history. Absolute visionary who could not be controlled or contained by time so he created his own original, eccentric realities. The best advice I can offer anyone willing to listen is to check out the compilation Arkology which changed my life (literally) when it came out in 1997. Be warned: it will be impossible to hear music the same way, and there’s an excellent chance you’ll eagerly leap down a rabbit hole that will expand your capacity to appreciate not only reggae and dub, and not just music and not merely creativity, but humanity. It’s that deep; that powerful and positive.

Lee Perry is not dead because Eternity doesn’t die.

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net