When one speaks of reggae music’s progenitors, there are usually three names that come before any others: Bob Marley, Coxsone Dodd and Lee “Scratch” Perry. And now, only the Upsetter remains—Perry, the mad, mystical and wildly talented musician and producer who burned down his legendary Blark Ark studio, which produced many of the genre’s landmark albums, including much of Marley’s seminal early work with The Wailers. Despite turning 70 earlier this year, Scratch is still disarming—one moment speaking of various divinities that flit around his own esoteric spirituality while the next explicating the various methodologies used in creating dub music, all the while striking the figure of a rapscallion monarch with a throaty, mischievous laugh. Speaking from his home in Switzerland—he still ventures to Jamaica at least once a year—Perry gives answers that wind around each other, occasionally rhyme, and teeter on the edge of the absurd only to occasionally reveal themselves as quite grounded.
Back when you were at the Black Ark, I read that you loved balls. What was it about those pieces of rubber with air captured inside that you loved so much?
Yeah, it’s true. That’s because most of them was written with a different country on it: America, Africa, Ethiopia, Addis Abba, London, England, Great Britain, everything was written on it like places that were America would want to sell. So I had at that like a souvenir.
Did you ever use them in songs?
No, I never used them in songs. Just have them like a picture in the mantle where I like to have my fans, where I like to sell records. Something like that. When I punch it, maybe I throw it up and I kick the ball. I like making contact with those countries like that.
You’ve said that, “the reggae kings are dying and the reggae princes are dying. I don’t want to die in it.” Are there are who will survive? Are there any new kings or princes of reggae in your opinion?
Some will survive. It was that thing… Seeing repentance, who survive. And I used to be a number one ganja smoker and I was even getting addicted to ganja and then this priest said to me, what about your health? As much you love the ganja, your health is more important. Why don’t you love your health? I still love the ganja but because the ganja can be many use, it can even be a medicine, you don’t have to smoke it. So why don’t you choose your health and use the ganja for making tea? (laughter)
So now it’s drinking and eating the ganja.
Definitely. And I repent. I was obedient to the spirits and I repent and say, “Ok, I love the ganja and I am addicted to the ganja but for the sake of my health I will have to stop smoke the ganja. And I will have to stop eating meat because the God said “thou shall not kill” and “thou shall kill the animals and eat the animals.” So I respect what the spirit said and I will be the spirit and if any other people who respect the spirit and let the spirit speak, they will survive.
I know you’re not fond of present day Jamaica. For you, when was the last time Jamaica was really great or when was it good for you?
I have to in Jamaica maybe once or twice a year. And the reason I have to be in Jamaica once or twice a year is because the studio I build, it wasn’t really a studio. It’s a temple away from my temple. I make it an example that I need a temple to worship my god. I build my own temple which is a temple of material—stones, sea stones and sea shells and I build called The Black Ark. So that is my holy temple. When I’m away from my holy temple, there will be something going on. Is a flood or a storm or something like that, so I have to go back. The temple call me to come home.
I don’t stay away from Jamaica because Jamaica is a blessed country. To prove that Jamaica is a blessed country, Jamaica give us reggae music. So I see that Jamaica is very blessed. So whenever Jamaica, my temple, they call it The Black Ark, call me, I go to Jamaica to see what the Black Ark need and to arrange things. If there is too much sin, we try and get rid of the sin. If there is too much police killin’ innocent people—it’s not that they are innocent but sometimes their sins are too much and it takes an evil man to get evil with an evil man. Jamaica needs some evil police to get rid of the evil rebels in Jamaica as well. Every country needs an evil set of police to get rid of evil rebels in the country.
You’ve often said, “I never try. I never plan.” My sense is that you feel that art must come naturally, that inspiration is divine in some way. Have you ever written out your lyrics or musical charts?
Because I have contact with the earth, I have contact with water, I have contact with the rain and I have contact with fire, and I have my most head contact with fire, I believe in the lord. And I believe in our father art in heaven. Art is art. And god father walking in heaven in an art. And I believe in art. And I believe in the invisible breath of life. I believe in the invisible ear and I believe in the words that I speak and I believe in the things that I do. So, things come easy for me, I don’t even have to think. I just pick up a pen and hear all the words coming from the clear blue sky. And what not coming from the North Pole, coming from the Earth, coming from the South Pole.
I read that you recorded in mono because, for you, it represented “one heart, one thought, one love, one destiny, one aim, one alternative.” Is this still true?
I record in compatible stereo. Before use to do mono, but then lately I start to do compatible stereo that you can have one riddim on the track and you can add device on another track. Because if you want to do dub, you could make dub from my music because the vibes could be separated. It used to be mono first but I think it be more fun if you have a compatible stereo that you can put a vice sometime on the DJ who do the turntable can do something on the riddim.
Do you feel like today’s technology has made artists lazy in anyway? People are still so impressed by what you did in mono with four-track to the degree that they don’t know you achieved it.
All those forty-eight tracks not necessary. I do whatever the truth tell me to do. The earth tell me we don’t need 44 track; we don’t 24 track. All we need is to know we have a very clean drum and bass. The most important is the bass, the bass must be very clean because it’s your brain cell and the drum must be very clean because it’s your heartbeat. Make sure your brain cell don’t distracted and make sure your heartbeat don’t get distracted; make you have a clean heart and a pure heart and a clean brain and pure brain and everything will be ok. And then when you play those tracks you’ll hear exactly what is needed and what is missing.
How does one today make dub sound new or fresh? What is the secret?
The secret is that if you want to make a dub a policy of music. You know you’re making a baby. You are an artist or a scientist. Depend on what ever babies you want to make—a righteous baby. Are you following me? I talk in parable but if you don’t understand I can explain it. You understand what I’m saying?
You say that one shouldn’t drink alcohol or smoke the ganja yet during the making of some of your greatest music in the ‘70s, you were under those influences.
Definitely. But the music that I was making, it was good but it was not righteous. I was responsible for making some good monsters as well. Half-monster, half-god. Half-god, half-man monster. I am responsible, I am guilty of that. (laughter)
You’ve used thousands of samples in your music—chainsaws, babies, rain, breaking glass—is there any one that you’re particularly proud of or is your favorite?
I am proud of the babies crying, the water and the cow mooing and the cock. I was thinking of something like the cock crowing (makes rooster sound) and then he says, “Rastafari.” The mistake that I make is the broken bottle. When I discover why there is a riddim of the broken bottle—the broken bottle was war. Fight. And I think I should not do that but if I did not repent I would not discover that I should not do the broken bottle and the music. Because it will lead to war or something like that.
Rumor has it you turned down a chance to work with the Talking Heads. Did you in fact talk to David Byrne for a while about it?
Yes, it would be true. Everything that you could hear first who want me to work with, I didn’t want to work with them because I was seeing things at a different level. It would be easier working with the punk. The punk wasn’t exactly knowing where to go; they were looking where to go. They need like a guide, a teacher to show them. So it was it was easier for me to work with the punk because don’t know they want and the punk need a teacher. But those guys were thinking they were great musicians that knows everything. And the people who thinks they knows everything have it wrong if they want to join my team. My team, we are always open to learn. Not to brag or not to boast. And we don’t music like it is on the scale; we make different scales of music, the way we feel it.
So you felt like the Talking Heads weren’t ready or really willing to work with you as far as learning and being open?
They think they are complete professional.
But when you were talking about punk, I know you did some work with Joe Strummer and The Clash. What were they like?
That’s what I’m saying. They were fresh and they want to know the road, what to do, what to go, where to go, whatever music hold. How long to play the drums; how loud to turn up the guitar; how low to use the bass. They were playing the drums too loud and they were turning up the bass too high and they were turning up the guitar too high, so I have to take them down to normal and show them that they’re not to play the drums so loud because you cannot be balanced. The needle will be hitting red and the bass not so high because the needle will be hitting red. Bring them down to a normal standard. Play it in the studio. They didn’t sound like Jamaican records. They obeyed the teaching and then they start to know how to make records. I would love to work with those people.
There were so many artists that passed through your studio back in the day.
I did have to feed them all as well. Pay their bills. And they used to tell me how much their mother is sick, their father is sick. And I have to give them money to take them to the hospital or they just lie. Supporting them, working around the clock. Wake five o’clock in the morning, never rest. They think I was taking coke but I was not taking coke. I was just taking the spirit.
So, if you could do it all over, would you do things differently?
I would do it specially, I would do it differently and I would only do it with chosen people. Because most of the people did not know that I was helping them, they think I was ripping them off.
Even a Bob Marley record I give to company in America called San Juan for publishing otherwise you couldn’t get it published properly. We sell them in the record shop and it was with people that have international contact and when they start to sell the Bob Marley, I was accused of giving the record to a pirate and ripping off the artist. If I hadn’t given the music to the pirates, there wouldn’t be no Bob Marley and the Wailers. They come in Jamaica and wouldn’t go any further. You have to take chance if you want to reach anywhere. So I do it and I don’t regret even though they accuse me of ripping off Bob Marley. But if I didn’t do that, they wouldn’t have reached anywhere. I didn’t rip them off. I was also losing. But you have to do something for the music to reach somewhere.
Your early work with Marley is continuing to be released on these box sets by JAD. When you hear your early work now, what does it sound like? Does time make a difference in how you hear things?
The most important part of everything is the vibe. And if the vibe is unlimited you can dub the vibe to any form of music. If you do a very good vibe, you can do the vibe in another track tomorrow, 20 years after, you do the same vibe on another track and that vibe can fit into any track. You can take the vibe to any dimension in music and it work, yeah? Because you feel good any time the way it was done five year, ten year, 20 years ago, and then it kick into any music and sound still good.
If you were stranded in space and could only bring five records, what would they be?
I would bring “Jah Live” and I would bring another one called “I’m a Duppy Conquer,” and I bring another named “Small Axe” and I would borrow “Exodus” from Bob Marley. And then sell Roast Fish, Kali Weed and Cornbread but this time I wouldn’t be smoking any kaliweed.
Lee “Scratch” Perry was interviewed by Josh Baron