We at the Idler were saddened to hear about the death of the legendary Lee Scratch Perry. Youth interviewed Perry for the Idler back in 2017 and we present the interview again now as a tribute to the iconic musician and creator of dub reggae.
The myths that surround Lee “Scratch” Perry have filled books. Lee is many things – a living Orphic channeller; a superhero for our times; the Black Ark magician on a quest from God and Haile Selassie to chase the devil out of the world. He is a progenitor of reggae and the father of its offspring, dub, where the recording studio becomes an instrument.
The journey began for me in 1975, when I first heard the Scratch & The Upsetters album Super Ape with my old school friend Alex Paterson, later of The Orb. We were both amazed. The cover jumped out of the record racks as a riddle and a mystery. There were little bits of perplexing writing like “Roast Fish, Cornbread, Makka” and it featured a comic book superhero, a kind of King Kong meets the Yeti, wading through a primordial swamp. I hadn’t seen or heard anything like it before.
The music exploded my flat binary world, way beyond my conscious horizon, into a 3D holographic multiverse. The world prior to this seemed like grainy black-and-white TV alongside Scratch’s HD sonic vision.
If you have to destroy to create, then Lee Perry proves the point with his Shiva-like capacity for metamorphosis. He turns a simple hi-hat drum pattern into a phasing cosmic snake of many colours. The original music had been deconstructed, smashed, erased, alchemised and sonically morphed into something so completely different that I felt confused about what was actually going on. I’d been listening to Sgt Pepper since the age of seven, but had never experienced anything like this before. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination and obsession with Lee and his voodoo soul music, culminating in the album I’m making now, and this very interview.
Lee is one of the most prolific artists and producers that ever walked this planet. Some discographers have cited over 1,000 releases by him. He produced Bob Marley – later saying “I gave Bob Marley reggae as a present” – and he’s worked with Paul McCartney. Now 81 and living in Switzerland, he still tours and makes records. There are rumours of no-shows at concerts, of bedraggled performances, and of Perry charging labels and collaborators for doing press interviews before his own gigs.
I admire his tenacity and respect his spikiness: he’s still banging on about Island Records and Bob Marley ripping him off. Lee shares the same astrology – Pisces Rat – as Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke and David Tibet from Current 93: charming, sensitive and very sharp.
Scratch has gone under a few other aliases too: The Upsetter, Columbia Collie, Jah Lion and The Prophet, among many others. He’s obsessed with superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man. Folk legend John Martyn played on the Black Ark sessions and was paid in rum. Remix culture wouldn’t really exist without his contribution, for he transformed the idea of a producer from technician to artist. Scratch used the mixing desk and effects as instruments, and I certainly wouldn’t be a producer if it wasn’t for him.
Paul and Linda McCartney recounted lots of stories when they were working with Scratch in 1977 – not least that Scratch wrote a letter on Paul’s behalf to the Japanese Minister of Justice about the benefits of the collie weed! (When recording The Fireman albums with Paul [Youth works with McCartney on electronic music project The Fireman] we would reference various drum sounds and dub-drenched vibes from old Scratch records.)
Scratch is “on” all the time, has multiple personalities and can switch mid-sentence from one to the other. John Martyn was similar; he would start a sentence with an Irish lilt then two words in would switch to Glasgow brogue then flip to cockney and end in a Jamaica patois. Maybe he learnt it from Scratch? The father to sixteen kids – maybe more – he has a twinkle in his eye and women really like him.
Scratch has a shamanic thing about fire, infamously burning down his Black Ark studio in 1979 (beautifully covered in Volker Schaner’s movie Vision of Paradise). More recently his art studio in Switzerland went up in flames. He has a suitcase on stage that contains his fire ritual regalia and he often sets fire to things in a ceremonial way. He’s the original “firestarter”. Burning the studio, he said, was “burning the demon” – very similar to the KLF burning a million quid, or me in a kimono burning money on the King’s Road during my LSD meltdown in ’82.
For me, burning stuff is all about the physical, ritualised rejection of consumerist state-controlled power. It’s personal sovereignty – the spiritual trumping the political.
Like a few other enlightened artists, such as Sun Ra, Bob Marley, Moondog and even Jim Morrison, Lee is plugged into the mains. He’s totally in the moment and completely free. He hears things no one else does. This kind of genius always comes with mental health issues and at these high altitudes… it’s hard to say where madness starts. He’s in possession of higher powers – powers that make normal rules of behaviour null and void. There’s a wild abandonment of convention and of social restriction. The way he looks, what he says and his whole philosophy are unique – a kind of urban shaman. What this man has made has changed the course of music. What drives people to levels of evangelical rapture and to queue around the block to catch him is no mystery when you experience him in full flight.
Lee has a reputation for being unpredictable and tricky to deal with. Nevertheless, he’s surrounded by people who love and take care of him – from long-standing collaborator and producer Adrian Sherwood to Alex Paterson from The Orb, who describes him as a prophet and a shape-shifting genius. When The Orb recorded with Scratch a few years ago, Alex rang me up from Germany in a state of panic. Scratch had turned up, and after hearing a couple of backing tracks had demanded to hear the “Youthman bass”, which, as Alex explained, I was supposed to add later. Lee had stormed out, saying Alex should let him know when it was ready. Alex sent some rough mixes immediately and I laid down the bass lines fast. When Lee heard the bass the next day, he was very happy and continued the session for the rest of the week, much to everyone’s relief.
I’ve been working on a Lee album for the past six months. Volker Schaner, the German director of Lee’s movie Vision of Paradise, had asked me to do it, providing me with vocal recordings of Lee and promising a session with him. The recordings were a bit rough, but with some imagination, I set about making a record. Trying to get that elusive session with Lee was proving to be difficult, but getting this interview was even tougher.
Then a series of fortuitous coincidences began to occur and things started to fall into place. First, my friend Anu, a journalist, rang me up asking if I’d help her interview Lee and if I’d meet her at his gig. She assured me that she had permission from Lee’s wife and manager. I told her that I was due to meet Lee at an exhibition of his artwork in collaboration with Peter Harris at the Horse Hospital in Clerkenwell. She replied that Lee was doing a show that night in Shoreditch. Serendipity was in the air and the cosmic signs looked good.
The art exhibition was mind-blowing. Anu filmed lots of heads and interesting cats talking about Lee, and chatted to Peter Harris about their working process, although Scratch didn’t show. Later on, I whizzed Anu and photographer Matt over to east London for the Reggae Roast show. My old friend and MC partner, Brother Culture, was warming up the capacity crowd. The vibe was electric and the place went wild. Lee turned up and was on form. The gig was great; however, Lee disappeared after the show. No interview.
Without much expectation, we met at Lee’s show in Guildford the following night. Lee delivered another stomper performance and then suddenly he was offstage. We were ushered quickly back to a quiet room with Lee to conduct the interview. Just as we began, a hysterical blonde woman burst in. She apologised for interrupting the interview and then proceeded to occupy Lee for fifteen minutes of superfan adulation.
I reminded myself to keep calm – that patience and humility are the way, and that we were in the presence of a living saint and avatar prophet, even if he was knocking back huge gulps of Jamaican ginger wine as if it were apple juice and hotboxing strong sensimilla whilst studiously ignoring the interview questions. He was responding well to the charming blonde though, and anyone female in the room… deep breath. Eventually, things started to settle down and I began the interview, only to be thwarted once again by the primal voodoo energy of Scratch changing down a gear while moving quite fast.
LEE SCRATCH PERRY: Why do you love to fuck?
(Shocked silence, then everyone laughs nervously.)
GIRL: Can you repeat that? What was the question?
LSP: Give her my address.
(It feels like I’m in the middle of a classic Bukowski moment and no one seems offended. We’re all over 21… or is it a good time to preserve the lady’s dignity and swiftly intercede with another question – to change tack?)
YOUTH: So back in ancient times, the original sound system was thunder and nature.
LSP: Ancient time.
Y: What was the original dub then?
(Great, and just as we’re starting to get into the sensitive depths of his mystical philosophy, the blonde with zero empathy for our current predicament breaks this perfect spell and declares she’s leaving.)
LSP: You’re crazy.
G: It’s a Monday night.
(I have another go at re-focusing the interview, this time concentrating on the cerebral.)
Y: So, Scratch, when God speaks to you, when spirits speak to you, does God come through the trees, or through the sky?
LSP: The thing what is happening, is the way the people are activated. This is your path, this is anti-clockwise and you rewind. After you rewind, you say, “What did I do wrong in my past?” and after you say OK, now look to the future. And that’s it [cackles out loud]. You come. If you are negative, you have to go anti-clockwise. When you become perfect, you can go clockwise. It’s a circle.
This reminds me of Castaneda’s recapitulation technique, where you symbolically cut the cords that bind you emotionally to previous lovers. I’m not sure why, but what Lee says makes sense. There’s a kind of riddle you have to decipher with this magic.
ANU SHUKHLA [journalist]: I’d like to ask you about the art exhibition in London of your work with Peter Harris. We were at the exhibition yesterday and you didn’t come.
(They’ve made a Bible together, with Lee’s painting, writing and collaging, and Peter’s very detailed biro drawings.)
Y: Your Bible – we loved it.
LSP: Peter makes me know what’s going on – makes me a better man.
A: Tell us about the work you created with Peter. There were some very powerful images.
LSP: Peter is a very good artist. There’s always an element of pussy…
A: I really liked your painting of the Queen with the blood coming out of her eyes.
LSP: You like this one?
A: Yes, we saw all of your work there with Peter. What would you say was the message?
LSP: It’s all here. Take a picture of this [he fans out three Egyptian Tarot cards]. Blood coming out the Queen’s eye. Maybe because she’s a bloodsucker. Blood. Coming out the Queen’s eye.
Y: Who were the Egyptians in a cosmic sense?
LSP: The original people. God gave them voice for love. God gave them his freedom. He loved them. Them black magic, them cards.
Y: The Pyramids?
LSP: My real name is Pyramid. Black magic, them call it. Black magic. My real name is Pyramid. If someone says Pyramid, they know who I am.
Y: Is sex a creator?
LSP: Yes, sex is a creator.
Y: Why are there always consequences when you have sex?
Y: Is sex sacred?
LSP: Yes, sex is sacred. When you got stupid brain you can make stupid children. You got stupid brain you got stupid wife. ’Cos stupid robot needs robot.
Y: How do you stop being a robot?
LSP: Robot is something that you make. Anti-robot is God, and God never should be used lightly. God has to be chosen.
Y: When you’re on stage and you’re doing the circles, are you playing with elements? Is there an alchemy there? What about the fire?
LSP: Fire and water. It’s a circle. Here, look my hair. My hair’s funny.
(Lee scratches his dyed bright red hair.)
Y: What’s your secret to looking so young?
LSP: I’m a fish. I’m trying to look like a human being. My secret is Pisces. I believe in Christ and some people don’t. And I’m sure I’m not an anti-Christ. I believe in Christ my heart. And if pussy wasn’t so great to make children, I would never love pussy. And I’m not addicted to pussy anymore. I’m addicted to me. Is that good?
(I’m not quite sure how to answer that, but I nod in affirmation and start to wrap it up.)
Y: I’m very honoured to have met you properly at last. Thank you for all the inspiration and amazing music. You were the inventor – the originator – of so much, including dub. You invented so much, and the legacy is still so strong.
LSP: That’s it, that’s it. But without God, you can’t see.
Y: What advice would you give to a musician or producer today about how to be creative and innovative?
LSP: You should wake up early and look into the sun, but not too long ’cos the sun a ball of fire and it burn out your eye. But love the sun because without the sun you’ll be too cold. You’ll be freeze if you don’t have any heat. And don’t eat no more meat and eat no more beef and stop eat fish. And then you become immortal.