Musical resumes don’t get much more impressive than Lee “Scratch” Perry’s, the Jamaican maverick credited with inventing both dub and reggae.
Now 70, Perry was a talent scout for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s famed Studio One in the late 1950s and early ’60s; he pioneered sampling with his first single, “People Funny Boy,” in 1968; invented the remix with King Tubby in 1972; and produced early works by Bob Marley & The Wailers, The Heptones and The Congos.
A devout believer in God, Perry had already forsworn many of his contemporaries’ hedonistic ways by the time his Black Ark studio burned down in 1979. Although evidence points to faulty wiring, Perry claims to this day that he destroyed the studio himself, acting on the same word of God that then also led him to shun alcohol and drugs and devote his life to “spiritual music.” In 1989, he moved to Switzerland, where he still lives.
“The Upsetter,” a Perry biopic by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough, is due out next year. Perry says it’s about “the music and the life of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and the weather.” Well, quite.
How much do you remember about the early years of your career?
It was a long time ago, but maybe it was yesterday. When we used to do recording, I thought I was being holy but I was committing sin. That’s why I had to burn down the studio, because righteousness and sin don’t work together. It’s like exercising and smoking. God command me to burn it down, so I burn it down.
Did you learn from that?
Of course I learned! I repent and stop smoking cigarette, I repent and stop drink rum, repent and stop drink wine and repent and stop smoke marijuana.
Back then, how did you do so much with your simple four-track equipment?
Well, I tell my secret. One of the four tracks was smelly. The second was water and piss. The third was sh*t. And the fourth was the voice — the voice of prophecy. That’s the track I was concentrating on, the voice in my head. That was the only track I need. It was [as if there were] 24 track, but 20 was invisible; that was God’s work. And you say it’s only four tracks . . . so it must be magical or a miracle, which it was. A miracle.
Would reggae have happened without your innovation?
It could not have, because other people did not believe in the elements like I do. There could be nothing happen for them. There could be nothing like spiritual reggae and dub music, there could be only ska and rocksteady.
Which other producers did you admire at the time?
I admired Coxsone because he was trying something different; it was like he was cutting jazz music with a Jamaica flavor. Coxsone’s music was my inspiration, but it wasn’t 100 percent what I was looking for.
What do you think of music today?
I do not see any spiritual music to admire. The sound is for pleasure, for dancing and making yourself happy. It’s not giving pleasure to Jah; I don’t admire that much. People want something where they can smoke and drink rum and get drunk. If we are the people that are going to heaven, we will say, “I’ll not have none of your dancehall anymore; I’m going to save my soul.” But I like the work that Ziggy [Marley] is doing, that’s OK for me.
You’re a big fan of Japanese technology, right?
Yes. I used to buy tape machines and Tascam things from Japan, and I buy every Yamaha piano that comes out. Before hip-hop music got popular in America, Japanese started to make it first. They have a thing called triple hop on the Yamaha piano too. The Americans don’t heard about that yet but I have it!
And the Japanese music scene?
Well, Japanese are trying. Japanese music can be improved if they put out spiritual vibration. I wouldn’t mind doing some Japanese music, with a Jamaican beat. When I come to Japan I come in the form of a dragon speaking words of fire. They go wild for it.
Why did you move to Switzerland?
Because in Jamaica, everybody who is down want you to support them. You always have so much madmen waiting for you to give them money. Too much people waiting for you to give them a start. Those poor energy will bring you right down to the level of the person who come to you for help.
Why Switzerland specifically?
It’s not polluted like other countries. You have mountain, fresh air, people love plants and flowers here. And you don’t have much rude boys here. There aren’t much terrorists here neither. Right? Not much vampire. It’s very safe. When I’m in Switzerland, I make sure it’s safe!
Like a superhero?
Yeah. I don’t have any black neighbors. All my neighbors are white, I’m sorry. And all my fans are white. I don’t have any black fans.
At 70 now, have you any regrets?
No regrets at all. Everything I do was perfect. And even when people think it was craziness, that’s the only way it could manifest [itself], in the form of craziness. I’m never more happier than I’m happy now.
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