Interview // Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
A couple of people have asked to see my interview with reggae/dub legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry from Friday’s Irish Sun. I figure it’s OK to put it up here since a) it wasn’t published online, b) you can’t buy it anymore and c) it’s no longer timely.
The guy was an absolute gent, even though he spent half the interview making fun of my accent and the other half rapping about bubblin’ in Dublin. There was also an extended rant that I, unfortunately, couldn’t bring myself to put in the finished article in which he compared his shit (his actual excrement, not his figurative shit) to King Solomon and his piss to King David. Dude is genuinely unhinged but what an honour to talk to him.
[I’ve decided not to reformat it into longer paragraphs because I’m lazy and I do too much for you anyway.]
“I love music because of what it can teach me and what I can learn from it.
“A lot of music you hear now, it can’t teach you anything good. Have you heard any good artists lately that you can learn something from?“
Dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry is never short of an opinion, but more than most he has the credentials to back it up.
Speaking in advance of his performance at this weekend’s Body & Soul festival at Ballinlough Castle in Westmeath, the 75 year old is his usual cheery self.
“Burial… is he black or white?” he asks of the acclaimed UK dubstep artist. He’s white. “Well I wouldn’t want to listen to him,” he giggles.
From a man who once accused Island Records chief Chris Blackwell of “cultural imperialism” for signing Bob Marley, that sounds a touch dismissive.
However the Lee Perry of today is a much mellower individual than the fiery character who burned as many bridges as he built in the ‘70s. There’s an air of mischief to every word that leaves his crinkled lips.
As a record producer in his native Jamaica, he helped transform reggae from the local flavour to an international phenomenon that, more than 40 years later, burns as brightly as ever.
He was an early supporter of Bob Marley & the Wailers, producing many of the group’s early recordings in his legendary backyard studio, Black Ark, before falling out as Marley moved to Britain in pursuit of fame.
Before getting involved with the Wailers, diminutive Perry (he stands just 4’11”) had carved out a successful recording career of his own, topping the charts in his native country.
One single, entitled ‘People Funny Boy,’ is an early example of sampling. Rapper LL Cool J would make particular note of the crying baby sample.
With his band The Upsetters, he created one of the all-time classic dub/reggae albums, Super Ape, a record that sounds as fresh today as it did 35 years ago.
He’s typically modest about his own role. “I am only really a part of the creating process of reggae.”
He’s equally scathing of artists who fail to use their music to challenge injustice. “They sing ‘I love you, I love being here,” but those people are stupid people.”
“I stop these people and I say sing a song like this: stop being a vampire, stop sucking the blood of the innocent people and change your ways.”
“I am singing songs like ‘Be Devil Dead.’ I am not the devil’s fan. I used to be a fan of the rebels, but I’m not their fan anymore.
“I want to do what God do, and I want to say what God say, and I want to think like God.”
Coming of age in rural Jamaica during the turbulent ‘50s and ‘60s, Perry absorbed the local ska culture, but what really excited him was the groundbreaking soul music filtering in from the United States.
“The kind of music that inspired me, before reggae, was soul music: Otis Redding, the OJs, the Temptations, Ben E. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips. I was a big fan of Aretha Franklin.
“I was into funk too. I was a big James Brown fan. I was even a fan of rock n’ roll. I’m a big fan of Elvis Presley.
“That was before I was in the reggae music. I would like to buy those records, listen to them and know them was something special.”
Perry’s latest release, Rise Again, a collaborative effort with innovative funk producer Bill Laswell, was released in April.
Though Perry’s recent output has been impressive – six albums in three years – he has increasingly come to rely on his collaborators.
“He [Laswell] do all of the work with the riddims and things like that. I wouldn’t be one who’d do the riddim or the music – it was his idea.
I just go one day, I go through all the parts and that’s it. He’d have it already done and I’d just go and do voices and that.”
Rise Again features a catalogue of guest performers and their presence occasionally overshadows the man himself, though Laswell’s clever production ensures the old-school dub vibe is constant.
TV on the Radio vocalist Tunde Adebimpe lends his voice to slick soul-infused opener ‘Higher Level,’ while Ethiopian singer Gigi is prominent on standouts ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Africa Revolution.’
Though there’s a strong political tone to tracks like ‘Africa Revolution,” there’s a more surreal, playful side best seen in titles like ‘E.T.,’ ‘Dancehall Kung Fu’ and ‘Inakaya (Japanese Food).’
“All my records was made for children. I make cartoon music and I am a cartoon expert. Children love to see me – I make children happy.
“The words I say to children make children happy. They listen to my records and educate themselves. I’m not a hypocrite – the things I say I don’t like, I don’t like.”
He still believes in the power of music to educate, and he’s been burned (literally) by his past association with the Rastafarian staple, marijuana.
“I used to be a victim of cigarettes and a victim of marijuana and a victim of alcohol.
“I look at it and say how stupid I was, destroying my heart and destroying my brain, destroying my mentality and destroying my lungs. And I turned my back on those.”
“I don’t know if you believe in your sh*t but me believe in my sh*t 100%. I believe in nature god. I believe in the gift God gave us. I believe in eternal life.”
Asked if he was excited to return to Ireland for Body & Soul, Perry responded: “It will be my great pleasure because the name of Dublin, it have a lot to do with my creation.
“Dub music, that’s what I play. I take dub music to another place [from] reggae music. I come to Dublin, I feel like I’m coming to my second heaven.”
We hadn’t the heart to tell him Body & Soul takes place in Westmeath.