Lee “Scratch” Perry—musical righteousness, no wrinkle at all!
By Erin MacLeod
Lee “Scratch” Perry is a genius. The legendary mind behind a boundless catalogue of incredible records released throughout reggae’s history, Scratch needs really no introduction once you’ve heard a record like Superape. His dub experiments from the 1970s sound like music from an era we still are far from reaching. Thing is, a guy that can make music simultaneously sound like it’s coming from underwater and outer space at the same time is probably a little odd.
Perry is most certainly a character—some might say eccentric, some might say insane. David Katz’s fascinating biography, People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry, allows you to make your own decision. Whatever the nature of his much-discussed madness, the reality is that he’s still an engrossing character. Even though his most recent work pales in comparison to earlier masterpieces—like the incredibly gorgeous Congos’ Heart of the Congos—he’s still making music. His latest record, Panic in Babylon, is an acceptable, if somewhat bizarre, outing. It’s tough to know how to take lines like “I am Lee Scratch Perry the cocky man, I'm Doctor Dick, I'm Doctor Quick, I'm Doctor Tree, I'm Doctor Lee, I'm Doctor Me.” More antics than anything else. To discover his genius watch The Upsetter—said to be the definitive feature-length film about his life story by filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough.
Perry spoke to Heads Lifestyle from Switzerland, where the conversation shifted from a state of normalcy to what you’d probably expect from a man who famously wandered around Kingston backwards, hitting the ground with a hammer and also claimed that he could get a good bass beat from sticking cables into a palm tree.
Lee Perry: Scratch here on the wire. What can I do for you?
Heads Lifestyle: I wanted to ask you about your record, Panic in Babylon (2004). Lots of reviewers are saying that it seems to be a return to form for you.
LP: It’s part of the first sort of record that I used to do with a collie vibration, things I’ve gone through. It’s like Panic in Babylon is a new version of People Funny Boy. It’s another version of my sound.
HL: And how is working with the White Belly Rats band in Switzerland?
LP: We’ve been working together before I did the record. We made a version of War Inna Babylon, though we call it Pussy Man, it’s on the album. We did it here in Switzerland and I listened to it and said there was some more that we should do. And that we would finish all the tracks. Some of them are designed by them and some of them are my mixover.
HL: You have some interesting remixes by Dave Sitek from the band TV on the Radio and DJ Spooky. How did you get involved with them?
LP: The group in America, know ya mean? What did you say about them?
HL: The Bonus Remixes.
LP: I think they just invited them and got involved with them. But I don’t know them, (laughs) I don’t know who they are! But I’m confident that it’s okay.
Perry in his Black Ark Studio, ground zero for some of Jamaica's most innovative sounds and recordings.
HL: When Jamaica E.T. won the Grammy for best reggae album in 2003, newspapers and radio call-in shows in Jamaica were all talking about how people weren’t familiar with your music.
LP: Who dem don’t know who Lee Perry is? When you go to Jamaica, you learn that they are jealous. Because I am not from Kingston, I am from the country. When I come from the country to Kingston, Coxsone [Dodd] was making some music over the American Jazz. And then reggae music came and it was my type of music because I am a spiritual being. You have human beings and just beings and spiritual beings, and I am more of a spiritual being. My type of music was like folk songs, spiritual music and I would go to Coxsone and tell him, Do you like my type of music? And he wouldn’t record me; he just took my songs. He would take it and just change a chord, but it’s the same. He didn’t want to let me into the business. But my music, which is now reaching the mass market, is recreating this because them not like me too much because I do some things that dem cannot do so dem jealous and want to take it over. You understand? They have a grudge.
HL: There are lots of new talents in Jamaica that come from the country: Warrior King, Gyptian… Do you think that there is something about the country that makes good music?
LP: Yes. As I say, my vibes are from the country. This is what I’m telling you. Because I am from the country, the Kingston people they don’t like me much, but the country people, they understand me very well. And country people are blessed. It is better to come from the country because God is from the country. People in the city are not so much with God.
HL: I hear that a film is being made about you. Can you tell me about it?
LP: It’s about the weather, but not only the weather. It is about the people that were here before human beings, from the Ice Age. In order to keep fresh, you have to have 100% communication with the Ice Age. I am sent from there, that’s why I don’t have any wrinkles. I am 70 and I don’t have any wrinkles, no wrinkle at all.
HL: Since so many Jamaican musicians have such long careers, it’s as if there are no “oldies” tunes. Sugar Minott once said to me that all musicians, even the older ones in Jamaica make new tunes, so there are no oldies.
LP: We can take things from the graveyard to support us. But, after a while, the people will dies, but I am keeping cool, in the Ice Age, with no wrinkles. The people from the Ice Age can do this, from the kingdom of the Eskimo. We live longer than all of them. The people from the Ice Age have all the economic books, the trust fund, and everything. I am the controller of the money, the IMF, here I am in Switzerland. I am unaged, and I believe in ice. And the sunshine is coming from the Ice Age. And the sunshine is the father and is the colour of gold, the golden lion. I am the inheritor of the International Monetary Foundation. I am the only man who can bring the healing to the United States of America. And if any youths want to get back their money, they need to ask me because I am the controller of the U.S. assets.
HL: Maybe you should speak to the U.N.
LP: Well, if the Jamaicans had known that I was the director of the International Monetary Foundation I would have given a chance to Jamaica (laughs). You understand?
HL: Are you Rasta?
LP: I would want them to know that one time, I had locks and I wrote a song. And I made locks so famous, golden locks and silver locks, and then my locks don’t grow. I am not of the Rastafari; I am of the Son of God. And the Son of God must shave the locks because the sun is shining without any locks. And I discover I am a fish being, I’m not a human being. I am a fish being and water is my god. And I am sure that ganja is good for healing and ganja is good for smoking. I am not a natty dread. I am a spiritual being, a physical being, I have super strength, I feel no pain, I have no wrinkles. I see Rastafari and they have all sorts of wrinkles so I don’t want anything like that. I discover a way out.
HL: Ice and sun and water, is this all part of maintaining a connection with the countryside?
LP: I believe in water, I believe in nature—they are through God. But when people take cocaine they don’t respect God. To be with God, don’t do any cocaine, don’t smoke any cigarettes, don’t eat any meat. But if you do cocaine, smoke cigarettes and eat meat you will see Bob. Mr. Bob Marley.
HL: You mention the water and fish. I’m thinking of Row Fisherman, Row by the Congos, which was just released as a riddim with a bunch of new versions. What do you think of reggae today?
LP: It’s not among water, it’s among corruption and cocaine and drugs. There is nothing holy about it anymore. But if you stick to musical righteousness like you mention—the Congos. That was created by water, and talking about the Ark of the Covenant and righteousness. With righteousness nothing is impossible.
This interview was originally published in Heads Magazine Vol.6 Issue 10, 2006
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1976's "Super Ape" by Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Upsetters is considered by many to be his finest work.