Pin It

Dub Wise 

Lee "Scratch" Perry creates the template for Jamaican transcendence

Wednesday, Aug 1 2007
There are several figures in music who, despite their significant impact establishing genres, styles, and mythologies, still aren't household names. Lee "Scratch" Perry is one of those important instigators lacking mainstream kudos. He's a Jamaican producer, songwriter, mixologist, and performer who's catalyzed so much music around the world that it's a wonder the nations of this planet haven't given him his own postage stamp.

As a lad, Perry — born in Jamaica in 1936 — got into the biz on the ground floor. He sold the records of ska giant Prince Buster and served apprenticeships with ska/rocksteady mini-magnates-to-be Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Joe Gibbs. Soon the student began chafing at his professors' restrictions, though, and Perry went into business for himself.

The debut record on Perry's label Upsetter, People Funny Boy, circa 1968, is considered the first Jamaican release to have the identifiable reggae "riddim," that lazily undulating, languorous, tug-at-you beat that was markedly different from the ultra-caffeinated ska upbeat. He established his own studio, too, christening it Black Ark, where a young Bob Marley would make his earliest recordings. It was to be an Ark in more ways than one. Inspired by the sonic wizardry of King Tubby — likely the very first human to use the mixing board as an instrument to remodel music already extant — Lee "Scratch" Perry would become the prime mover in this sub-genre known as dub. With little or no knowledge of the Summer of Love, Perry would create surreal, eerie, psychedelic tapestries that'd make the Dead and the Airplane at their trippiest sound like Air Supply. Every DJ mix-master, dweeb electronica purveyor, and composer with a concept redolent of deconstruction owes a debt to Lee Perry.

Under various pseudonyms, including Jah Lion, Super Ape, the Upsetter, and Scratch (an old Anglo-American term for Satan), Perry had major hits in Jamaica and the U.K. Black Ark had a house band, the Upsetters, that worked with almost every Jamaican singer. Jamaican music — ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dub — was not only more popular in Britain than in the U.S., it was also a serious cultural force. Its outsider mythos held great appeal for disenchanted youth, many of whom went on to form bands such as the Clash, Ruts DC, Basement 5 (remnants of which formed Big Audio Dynamite with ex-Clash Mick Jones), and Public Image Limited. (One of the early American bands significantly influenced by reggae and dub was Ohio's Pere Ubu.) The Clash covered the Junior Murvin Perry-produced classic "Police & Thieves," and Perry himself produced a few tracks for the group.

Of course, Lee "Scratch" Perry's life had its share of roller-coaster ups 'n' downs. The Black Ark was burglarized, with tapes of Perry's and others stolen, winding up on the market as bootlegs presented as "new" product. The Ark caught fire in 1983 — most likely set by Perry himself — utterly destroying the legendary studio and its contents. Things got bad, worse, and then there was change for the better. Perry relocated to Switzerland in 1990, got rested and recharged, and connected with Swiss reggae combo White Belly Rats, with whom he recorded his finest disc in years, Panic in Babylon (released in America last year on Narnack). Though the album doesn't feature much dub, it contains compelling reggae grooves with Perry ranting, raving, and testifying over the music. Devotees are calling the disc a return to form, while Perry just calls it "spiritual music." Whilst panic may reign in Babylon, once-lost, now-found explorer Perry has achieved a measure of serenity.

About The Author

Mark Keresman


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed