The dub-reggae legend speaks out...

At the feet of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is laid a lifetime’s work, burnt to ashes, beyond any hope of recognition or salvation.

Behind him is a career as the king of the soundsystems, the man who taught Bob Marley righteousness and invented dub reggae. In front of him lies one of modern music’s most bizarre back catalogues, stretching what is possible with both sound and the human imagination.

Perry stands as one of the most elusive figures in modern music. Born into poverty, he pulled himself up through the jungles of the Jamaican music industry with a series of breathtaking innovations that would take most other producers the best part of 30 years to catch up on. But he’s not finished there, continuing to tour the world and release bizarre, puzzling and magical music well after his seventieth year.

ClashMusic tracks down Perry, one of the last truly enigmatic figures in music, for a very rare interview…

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What’s your first musical memory?
My first musical memory? When I started listening to music, it was something like Louis Jordan, boogie-woogie. You know the boogie-woogie shuffle? Shuffling and spinning on the floor, things like that. Boogie-woogie, then the music called yank. That’s my first musical memory. Then I started coming into things like jazz, then going into ska. Rocksteady, then what you call reggae now, that’s where we are.

When did you begin making your own music?
When I was 25. Didn’t make music until I was 25 because I started late. I was amongst music, but it was mostly Coxsonne who helped me start. Clement Dodd. I learned to write some songs, some of the songs I write were like ‘Lion Of Judah’, things like that. He was regimental, you couldn’t really do the things you wanted you like that. So I said: “OK I’m gonna do something for myself”. So I worked with Andy Capp. He was my friend so we went down to the studio to make ‘People Funny Boy’. He said, “Listen that,” and we record and then the record break all over the country. I didn’t try to do any more, I didn’t want to make it myself so I walk away. That was my record, y’know?

What was the Jamaican soundsystem scene like then?
It was quite hard back then, a lot of people had no money but everyone wanted to go to the soundsystem. We would have people fighting all the time, like fighters. Everyone had a set of bad men – Coxonne would have a set of bad man. Then the bad men would fight, draw blood. But for some it was good because you would always have music. You would have people dancing before we would advertise it.

You then had a huge hit with ‘Hurt So Good’, with Susan Cadogan. How did this come about?
Well, I hear the song and I like the song. I keep the song for a singer as she would understand the message. But there was a boy who had a girl in Manchester who say: “Let me hear what goes on”. Then she arrive, and that was Susan Cadogan. The song wasn’t made for her. We had to put Susan down, instead of the other singer, but she was catchy and everyone like the record. It look like we made it up for her, but the song had nothing to do with her. Even though she became a star.

Why did you adopt the ‘Upsetter’ nickname?
Well, it come like this. A man lie amongst us – his name is the Upsetter. He upsets everything. So I call myself that as the music makes things better. It’s a word from a song – I have an Upsetter record but it doesn’t upset anybody. It want to change things, to make things better, to what we know it should be. I make the song but I don’t want to upset anyone. I just want to take the evil and take it away. That’s how that come. I am in the groove, I am the upsetter; but I don’t want to hurt anyone.

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Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – ‘I Am The Upsetter’ (1982 Joe Gibbs version)

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Why did you decide to build your own studio, the Black Ark? Do you have a need to work on your own terms?
The space [offered] more privacy. I like to make music, make plenty of music for the soundsystems. It was good. It was very good.

Your work in the ‘70s is marked by massive musical shifts – what was inspiring you?
My inspiration was what you would call love. Some people would like fun. We would gather some good vibrations, go into the studio and make a record. But my main inspiration came from comics. I loved comic books very much, comic books from the United States. I love Batman and Superman very much, Iron Man and Spider-Man. Most of the time my inspiration was coming from comic books. In comic books good triumphs over evil – good and evil battle and the good always win. And my music was like good against evil. A lot of my inspiration would also come from movies. I go and watch, and what happened on screen just make it in music.

What was your first impression of Bob Marley?
Well, he was with Coxonne before I started my own game. I liked his style, he sang really beautiful. I had met Bob Marley before. Then when I do my own thing, he leave Coxonne and come to me. He had a beautiful spirit.

Do you ever listen to those recordings?
Do I look back on my career? Of course, why not? Why shouldn’t I? I was recording things back then, I look back to see what was going on. Right now something different is going on. But there’s value in everything.

What was your belief in God?
Well you find righteousness in God, it gives you comfort in your heart. A comfort that in bad times things change to good. Music is a gift from God and you must use it wisely. You can count on music as you can count on God. Music is a manifestation of your soul – people listen to your music and wonder where you are going, where we are all going at the end of the world. I work with Adrian [Sherwood] on ‘Timebomb’ and at the time I didn’t know something like that would be coming. All the troubles in the Bank Of England and all that has been in our music for a long time. It was prophesied.

Why did you burn down the Black Ark and then leave Jamaica?
Too much stress in Jamaica, all the time. Everybody want money, everybody want paid. Everyone got problem and want me to solve their problem. Nobody gave me anything, people just took everything. Everybody take this, and take that. So the atmosphere in the Black Ark studio was changing; it wasn’t like it used to be. Then I decided to make a sacrifice as the energy wasn’t good anymore. Then I moved to London, lived four years in London. Then got up to Jamaica, met my wife and move to Switzerland. I been here ever since.

You produced The Clash – was there a common approach to music between you?
Fun. Good fun. It was good, they were listening and wanted to learn and I could teach them what they wanted to learn. They were happy working; they were all good boys.

How did you react when you found that people in Britain were familiar with your music?
That great for me, that was great fun. They got to hear our music, that was great fun to me. The music get bigger, get given more attention and this get me introduced to other people. Britain wants to make reggae music and then it does.

Why did you return to the name Upsetter, for last year’s album?
I use on mine and Adrian’s album, ‘The Mighty Upsetter’. Me and Adrian have a new album which we call ‘The Mighty Upsetter’. The name represents a victory. There is a destroyer in me, in the prophecy. And also in Adrian.

Do you keep up to date with current technology?
I love technology. Technology is a gift from God, and we should give thanks for technology. It makes everything easier. I am glad for technology, it makes things much easier and you can do more things. I love technology, I am glad for technology I hope it live forever. It is a gift from God. You may think that the music in the past may be more alive without technology, but now the music has an energy it didn’t have before and technology keep it going. Music was there before technology came along, but now you go to a computer make music. The music is still good!

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Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at his Black Ark studio

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And a word from the man to see us home…

“This is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry live and direct saying good night and God bless the Clash magazine. I wish you a very great success, it was great fun working with you and I am glad that the Clash have a magazine. Don’t shoot me!“

Find Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on his official website HERE.


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