Tonight I’m sharing a rare classic from the Midnight Dread archives: a legendary interview with the “King of Reggae” – Lee “Scratch” Perry.
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Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the Upsetter, a cornerstone of reggae music, got his start in his late teens at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One in Kingston in the late 50s. There amongst other major figures in the scene he soon made a name for himself as a highly creative yet eccentric producer who pioneered sounds with fearless chutzpa. As Brad Osbourne, a New York-based Jamaican who put out several Upsetter records in the US in the 70s once wrote, “Lee Perry is ten years ahead of himself.”
By the late 60s Scratch had his own Upsetter label and house band of the same name comprised of drum and bass wizards, Carlton and Aston ‘Familyman’ Barrett. Soon he linked them up with Jamaica’s most popular vocal trio, the Wailers, comprised of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. The fruit of those labors, the albums SOUL REVOLUTION and AFRICAN HERBSMAN changed the sound and direction of reggae forever. When Bob Marley left Peter and Bunny he took Scratch’s band to conquer the world.
In 1973 Lee had his Black Ark Studio up and running. From there the most haunting works in dub and reggae were forged with a galaxy of reggae’s finest. His instantly recognizable works of echo, flanging, and phase shifting combined with a dignified yet playful lyrical content grounded by a wicked bass line were recently compiled on the 3 CD box set ARKOLOGY (Island Records). In ’76 and ’77 he produced two of Bob Marley’s best singles, “Jah Live” and “Punky Reggae Party”.
However, the increasing violence in Jamaica coupled with his record label’s rejection of one of his greatest solo albums led Scratch to burn down the Black Ark and move to Amsterdam by the start of the 80s.
He spent that decade touring Europe, eventually connecting and releasing albums with the UK’s two best reggae producers, Adrian Sherwood and Neil Fraser, aka The Mad Professor. He also married a Swiss baroness and moved to a mountainous area near Geneva, Switzerland.
He has continued to release solo albums featuring his freely associating, unending stream of consciousness chant/rap utterances ranging from herbal and godly praises to off-hand japes and puns.
On the weekend Allen Ginsberg died Perry made his West Coast debut at San Francisco’s Maritime Hall and kept the world-beatnik thing going with rapid-fired words, unearthly howls and lion growls as the Mad Professor and his Robotics band flawlessly recreated the original sounds of over three decades of Upsetting material. “I’m here to bring back San Francisco alive!” he exclaimed to the sell-out crowd.
“Are you deaf? I will make you deaf” Scratch shouted before calling on all fellow madmen in the audience to raise hands if they too were “shits-o-phrenic mediums.” Nearly half did. “I am your psychiatrist and you are here for your treatment,” he intoned.
At 61 Lee looks more like the Rastafarian’s god Haillie Selassie than ever, only adding to the mystical, da-da is back spirit of his live performances. At Maritime he burned through killer remakes of “I Am A Madman”, “Secret Laboratory” and “Roast Fish & Cornbread” as well as scorchin’ covers of “I’ll Take You There” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” With a twinkle in his eyte he sat poolside at The Phoenix in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District between shows and answered a few questions.
Q: Will there be an Upsetters’ Band reunion?
A: I once planned the Upsetter Band. The upsetter was so upsetting that it upset even I. They wanted to take over the whole thing. They was upset and they become Reggae Boys and Reggae this and they become Wailers. So I give them all the things that wail and upset them and put all that is upsetting away. I put their alcohol away. I put the rum away. I put the deads away. And I put the massive dreads away p; they were all too dead and dreadful for me, you understand. I am the Upsetter. Anything that is upsetting me I must get rid of it, or execute it, or exterminate it. That’s why I’m the Upsetter p; to upset what is upsetting me and what is not good for me, is to exterminate it, liquidate it or wipe it out. I must not be upset. There won’t be any more Upsetter Band, I’m pressitively sure!