Saturday, December 4

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: a limitless genius who took Jamaica into the future | Read ‘Scratch’ Perry


“Until reggae, everything was Kingston … Kingston, Kingston, Kingston! Ska? … Rocksteady? … they were Kingston things with the same Kingston men doing the same Kingston things. “

Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died at 85, was talking to me about perhaps the most significant gear change in the early years of Jamaican music, and he was understandably upbeat, even by his own hyperactive standards.

His statement sums up a lot of what made his music so special. “It was when the people from the country came to the city and brought with them the land, the trees, the mountains, that’s when reggae music returned to the land. They used to look at the peasants like crazy and that? Sometimes it takes a madman, because these madmen can’t play the same thing in the same way because it doesn’t mean anything to them. “

He was talking about the shift, in the mid-1960s, from musical styles that had strong American bases to something more or less exclusively Jamaican, namely reggae, and how the makeup of Kingston’s music business had changed as that was established to attract talent. from all over the island: Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer.

And Perry himself was very often at the forefront of this change, creating sounds that deftly evoked his rural idyll softer and gentler than anything that was happening in other parts of music.

“Organic” was always a working adjective when talking about Perry’s productions, although if you wish, look no further than his 1969 single The Return of Django, a Top Five hit in the UK and itself symbolic for which made him so special as a musical creator. .

He was never afraid to ignore whatever else was going on in reggae; The sounds and rhythms of Django were unlike anything else at the time: the work of the aforementioned madman.

At the same time, he was always deeply appreciative of what was happening in the world outside of the studio and was eager to absorb it into the songs he wrote and the music he produced – Django and a host of records he made around him, he reflected. Jamaica’s obsession with cowboy movies.

Perry performing in London, 1984.
Lee Perry performing in London in 1984. Photograph: David Corio / Redferns

It was around this time that Perry worked with the Wailers, and the producer’s enthusiasm for bringing his surroundings to the recording studio played a large role in shaping his approach.

He wasn’t interested in working with singers, he preferred to experiment musically, hence Django, but he connected with this trio in large part because they could keep up with his free flow of ideas and often unnerving spontaneity.

Without warning, he chased the group up the narrow staircase from Randy’s studio to the street, where they huddled in the Rover car he brought from a British tour, yelling that if they wanted to write about reality, they had to find this. reality.

They drove all over the city and sometimes through the countryside, observing incidents or just the mundaneities of life, discussing what they had seen, writing letters on the car. It is rarely disputed that the Wailers’ sessions with Perry are the highlight of their catalog, and many of those songs appear on later albums.

It was in the early 1970s, after building his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, that Perry was able to fully satisfy his magpie creativity; With the growing influence of country people coming to the city, roots reggae established itself as the perfect platform.

It is here that the trees and mountains of its rural roots flowed into its furrows. Perry was never afraid to slow down to this almost weary pace that rides through hard-working people in the Jamaican countryside, leaving him more room to pack whatever he wants.

Conventional instrumentation shared space with their children’s toys, the most famous example being the moo box from the Congos album. In his own time, he could experiment and work to become aware of the sounds he was hearing in his head, to move the music forward instead of repeating what had been done.

This often meant running out of tracks to record as more and more sounds were added. You’d have to “bounce” them, that is, layer one track on top of another to free up space, and the resulting sound would be fuzzy and more than a little dizzy – its famous soft, gentle vibe.

Perry’s approach to singers also evolved in the Black Ark. Unlike the standard Jamaican way of doing things, in which the backing track was set up and the singers were put on top, he would set up his tracks with specific vocalists in mind and then mix them together as part of a piece of set (not unlike Norman Whitfield with the Temptations, of which Perry was a fan).

While it may have taken some of the attention away from the signers, it created an overall vibe that was exactly right for the roots reggae and its cultural aspirations. Witness the Feast of the Heptons, Max Romeo’s Ina Babylon War, and The Heart of the Congos by the Congos.

All of which shows something else: Perry thought in terms of albums, much more than was usual in reggae at the time, and this made his contributions to dub even more appealing.

For example, Super Ape and Blackboard Jungle Dub are special not only because of their fearless use of unexpected sounds and effects, but because they are built and evolve as albums rather than collections of singles.

Perry’s broad-minded approach and sense of Afrofuturism, before the term became popular, alienated him from many of the main reggae division.

He would look beyond the often claustrophobic limits of music (among others, he worked with the Beastie Boys, George Clinton and Moby) but was never seduced into trying to assimilate into another genre.

In the studio, it was always Lee “Scratch” Perry, a reggae producer first and foremost, for whom very little was off-limits. The world was there to be drawn, all for the greater purpose of advancing Jamaican music.


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