Singular, challenging and awe inspiring, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry stands as a lesser known giant in the history of popular music. Famed for incomprehensible interviews, fiery relationships, and as a man whose eccentricities were eccentric, Scratch passed away in late August at 85 years old. His impact on music stretched beyond the comprehensible. His 1968 track ‘People Funny Boy’, which also featured one of the first samples in a hit song, is oft considered the first true Reggae song moving Rock Steady away from American Soul towards something uniquely Jamaican. In the early 1970s he produced the first albums by Bob Marley and The Wailers to be released outside Jamaica, including writing ‘Duppy Conqueror’ for the band and helping them establish themselves as an international act. Yet these pale in comparison to his golden period in the mid to late ‘70s when he was responsible for songwriting, arranging and production on at least three classic albums, Max Romeo’s ‘War Ina Babylon’, Junior Murvin’s ‘Police & Thieves’ and The Congos’ exceptional ‘The Heart of the Congos’. It’s an incredible career, beyond what many critically acclaimed producers have achieved, and we’ve not yet mentioned his most significant contribution to musical culture. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry invented Dub. In doing so he reshaped the musical landscape in such a dramatic way that it’s nearly impossible to see Post-Punk, House, Techno, Drum & Bass, Dubstep, and even Hip Hop in the same way without his master stroke studio creation.
An easily misunderstood genre, the origins of Dub begin as a history of ‘versioning’ where Rocksteady and Reggae hits would be stripped of their vocals and turned into lightly remixed B-sides ideal for use at outdoor Sound System parties where DJs and MCs could toast over the rhythms. Often these mixes were produced in limited numbers, kept off the main singles and distributed straight to DJs on lightweight acetates that came to be known as dubplates. Over time producers like King Tubby, Niney the Observer, Joe Gibbs, and Coxone Dodd began experimenting with more focus on the drum and bass rhythm section and the addition of echo and reverb. By 1973 a series of experimental tracks had been created and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, working with King Tubby, crafted an album from tracks by Perry’s Upsetters band featuring heavy use of reverb and making full use of full stereo. The resulting release that has come to be known as ‘Blackboard Jungle Dub’ is generally considered the definitive origin for the genre. The definitive statement, greatest Dub album, and arguably the pinnacle of Perry’s career, however, came in 1976 with the release of ‘Super Ape’.
Written under the name of his house band, The Upsetters, and produced in Scratch’s own Black Ark studio at the height of his recording and producing career, ‘Super Ape’ goes beyond versioning to a new level of sonic creativity. Beginning with ‘Zion’s Blood’, which opens with a tumbling drum beat before being joined by a hollow bass line that, ghost-like, drops in and out of the mix the album canonises the Dub sound while expanding on it through liberal experiments. Hot on its heels is ‘Croaking Lizard’ featuring Prince Jazzbo toasting over Max Romeo’s Scratch produced ‘Chase The Devil’ rhythm section that takes the original in an altogether looser direction. Further twisting things, Prince Jazzbo utters the line “it’s sipple out deh” from Romeo’s track “War Ina Babylon’, adding new layers to the proceedings. From here on out it’s a stew of drums and bass, that Scratch has repeatedly referred to as the heart and brains of the music, echo and reverb, and samples from any number of Reggae hits of the era. By the time we get to ‘Curly Dub’, a version of Junior Byles’ ‘Curly Locks’, a new layer has taken shape that is often forgotten even by ardent Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry fans. As the vocals begin “sing along Jah Jah children…” the voice of Perry comes through. His place as a Producer is so often held up, yet his work as a musician, solo artist and toaster is often overlooked. This is surprising considering the events of the early 1980s when he burned his studio down, variously because of blackmail, bad spirits or psychosis depending on who and what you read, and then spent the following decades on the road touring and demonstrating his striking abilities as a performer and toaster. Part ringmaster, part prophet, truly a master of ceremonies, the real MC, Perry has demonstrated his outlandishly unique and charismatic rhyming style with audiences across the globe that are sure to have included many if not most of his critics and biographers. Yet so often his skills are overlooked when they are here to see at their finest on many of his recorded works, not least ‘Super Ape’, where he holds court while espousing his individual take on the world.
That viewpoint is, for many, alluring or impenetrable. ‘Super Ape’ proudly wears its cultural influences of Rastafarian and black nationalist outlook but never fully embraces either, instead adhering closer to Scratch’s own quasi-spiritual sense of self. It is, in its own way, a surprisingly secular album that sets itself quite apart from the dread trends of the time. After the album was released, and it’s unclear how much after, Scratch began to refer to himself as the Super Ape. Always fond of seeing others within himself, over the years he has variously compared himself to Marcus Garvey, an alien, Emperor Haile Selassie and a fish. Yet, reading ‘Super Ape’ as a personal parable only goes to add a deeper layer as the title track asserts “this is the ape man, driving to creation”.
The beauty of Dub is the way volume swells and instruments dropping out the mix are controlled like waves. It’s an expert craft of studio science made more impressive by an auteur like Perry by the way he clips the opening of conventionally staccato accent notes, riding faders with a flourish and sending things off kilter with all too brief lines of melodica buried in a mix or the ghost outline of only the reverberation of a bass line, the original note completely stripped away. It’s these deft moves in an analogue studio, working with just a four track recorder that Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry showed generations of future pioneers that with a slight of hand and an openness to experimentation the studio environment and pre-existing recordings could be hacked, cut up, remixed and turned into something totally new. Whether on the sampled baby crying on his first Reggae hit or the otherworldly, farmyard come King Kong groaning present throughout ‘Super Ape’, Scratch found sounds that changed how we came to think of music and worked them into a package that then blew those new understandings apart.
‘Super Ape’ is widely considered a landmark album, for Dub and for music as a whole. Its legacy and influence is gigantic to the point of almost being immeasurable, with entire genres owing it a hefty debt. More than that, it captured Scratch at the most fertile period of his life. While many will point to ‘The Heart of the Congos’ as his master work, and it truly is exceptional, it also led directly to his downfall as his falling out with The Congos precipitated the end of the Black Ark era. As important as the moment Dylan went electric, as influential as ‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Super Ape’ changed the musical landscape forever. For all its challenges to new adherents, ‘Super Ape’ is, for many, one of the greatest albums of all time.