I’ll admit that when I met Lee “Scratch” Perry, I didn’t quite know how much of a musical figurehead he was. I knew about his work with Bob Marley, and I knew he had something to do with the famed Black Ark Studio. I hadn’t listened to a ton of his music, but I’d listened to some, and I liked what I’d heard. I knew the album Super Ape was a big deal. I knew that Perry occupied a space within Dub and Reggae music, but I wasn’t entirely familiar with the space he occupied. So, I really didn’t go into my conversation with him with any preconceived notion that I was talking to a legend.
Looking back, my meeting with him was akin to meeting The Beatles and thinking that they were just some awesome band from Liverpool. After meeting him, he left such an impression on me that I did my homework on him and came to realize how deep his imprint is on reggae music. To say Perry was a pioneer of dub and reggae music would be an understatement. Perry, along with a few other people, invented dub and reggae music.
Dub and Reggae legend Lee "Scratch" Perry
After the show, I saw a buddy of mine working cleanup and asked him if it’d be okay if I went back to talk to Perry. He nodded in approval, and I headed backstage. Back then, the Paper Tiger didn’t have as nice a green room as it does today, so most bands hung out in the trailer in the back parking lot. Just as I was heading up the steps to the trailer, Emch and Perry were coming out.
“I just wanted to say ‘hi’ and that I enjoyed the show a lot,” I said. They thanked me and invited me up to the trailer. Perry was a sight to behold. At that time, he must’ve been around 80 years old --with the energy of a 20-year-old. He had dyed his beard and hair bright red. He had random bits of mirrors attached to his clothing –including his shoes and hat. He and Emch were great and very hospitable. I felt terrible and kind of embarrassed that I couldn’t understand Perry’s heavy Patois accent; but he and Emch didn’t bat an eye, and Emch took on the role of translator. Afterwards, I took the band over to The Mix and introduced them to Jameson Irish Whiskey, but that’s a whole other story in itself.
Perry was charming and didn’t say a word about himself. He asked me about who I was, where I was from, when I was born, etc. The meeting was basically Perry interviewing me about my life, which I thought, to myself, was hilarious. As I was getting ready to leave, Perry prophesized that I would 1) stop smoking cigarettes very soon and 2) bring him back to San Antonio. I did quit smoking a few years after that. Unfortunately, Perry passed away in August of last year, and I never was able to bring him to San Antonio to play. But I suppose, in a sense, whether I’m selling his records, playing his songs on the radio, or writing about him, I’m bringing him back to San Antonio.
There’s so much more to say about Perry than what I’ve written here. I suggest googling him and listening to his tunes if you’re unfamiliar. He was one of a kind.
What I’m listening to:
Flying Mojito Bros – Greatest Hits 1970-1983
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Goat – Headsoup
Forthcoming vinyl releases of note:
Black Midi – Hellfire 7-15-22
The Dream Syndicate - Ultraviolet Battle Hymns And True Confessions 7-15-22
Sunny & The Sunliners – Mr. Brown Eyed Soul Vol. 2 7-15-22
Perry and Subatomic Sound System
Perry was born in Hanover, Jamaica, where he spent his youth relaxing after quitting school at 15. Eventually, he moved to Clarendon where he started getting into the local music scene, which consisted of the Ska and Rocksteady genres. After moving from Clarendon to Kingston, Jamaica - where he sold records for Clement Coxsone Dodd, who owned the famed Studio One recording studio and record label - he began recording songs at Studio One. Perry and Dodd clashed on many occasions and soon the relationship fizzled -- this would be a common theme throughout Perry’s life. Perry went on to work for another studio, though after clashing with that studio’s head, Perry decided to form his own label, Upsetter Records.
His new label would seemingly serve as a launchpad for insults, as his first song, the Proto-Reggae track, “People Funny Boy”, was a direct insult to a studio head he had previously worked for. The song incorporated a sample of a baby crying that Perry would use throughout his career as a jab at whoever he was mad at. In fact, I have a copy of Terrence Trent Darby’s “Sign Your Name” (popular in the late 80’s) single that features a Perry remix of the song on the B-side. Perry put the baby sample in his remix to insult the record label Darby was signed to. Apparently, the label did not like any of the remixes Perry had brought them for “Sign Your Name”, and it angered Perry to the point of including the baby sample. Somehow, it slipped by the label. His song “Run for Cover” - another Proto-Reggae track - would serve as an attack on Coxsone Dodd.
All that said, it’s no wonder that Perry chose the name “Upsetter” for his label and the name of his house band (The Upsetters). In time, Perry would forgo the Upsetter Records label for a new label, “Black Ark”, named after his studio.
In ’73, Perry built the famous Black Ark studio in an effort to gain more control over his productions. At Black Ark, Perry produced his own music, but he also did production for the likes of Bob Marley & The Wailers, Junior Byles, Junior Murvin, The Heptones, The Congos, Max Romeo, and more.
In addition to producing some of the world’s finest Reggae, the studio is cited for its role in the creation of the “Dub” genre, an offshoot of Reggae. After the Black Ark label was formed, many of the bands he produced for appeared on the label. Black Ark had a string of successful and innovative productions until ’78 when Perry, citing stress, burned the studio to the ground. You read that right. He burned it to the ground.
I met Perry in 2016 at the Paper Tiger on the Saint Mary’s strip. He was on tour with his backing band, Subatomic Sound System. Subatomic Sound System is headed by DJ Emch from NYC, and their sound is very heavy, bass-y Dub, akin to Dubstep, the electronic, bass heavy genre that is an offshoot of Drum and Bass. They put on a great show, and if I recall correctly, they performed one of Perry’s most famous tunes, “Chase the Devil” –written by Perry and Max Romeo, the latter of whom championed it with the Upsetters band backing him. At one point, Perry, in true Rasta style, sparked up one of the biggest spliffs I’ve ever seen to cheers from the crowd. I wondered if he'd even be able to finish it. I don’t really remember whether or not he did.
Tommy Newman is the owner and operator of Southtown Vinyl.