“By throwing stones to stones I start to hear sounds. When the stones clash, I hear the thunder clash, and I hear lightning flash, and I hear words.”
That’s Lee Perry, recounting his discovery of dub music to writer David Katz in the icon’s biography People Funny Boy—a childhood memory, creative origin story, and Old Testament prophecy wrapped up in one. The reverb and boom of those rocks, sounding out in the gully at the hands of a boy in Jamaica, amounted to much more than child’s play. They portended a half-century of some of the most roots-deep, spaced-out sounds in music.
It’s impossible to tell the story of 20th century Jamaican music without Lee “Scratch” Perry. He got his start peddling records (and then cutting them) for Sir Coxsone Dodd and his mighty Studio One soundsystem and label in the early 1960s. And when that relationship soured, he moved on to work with another legendary producer, Joe Gibbs. And that’s before Scratch produced the crucial early sides of the Wailers, laying the foundation for Bob Marley’s future world-conquering success. With some of the strangest, haziest, dankest sounds ever heard emanating from his Black Ark studio, Perry crafted stone-cold classic albums for the likes of Junior Murvin, Max Romeo, the Heptones, and the Congos. In the late ‘70s, at the height of his sonic madness, Perry torched Black Ark, a turning point in Jamaican music history.
It didn’t mark the end of Perry’s career though. In fact, it only tells half of the story, as Perry has remained tireless in his solo work, even as an octogenarian based out of the reggae stronghold of… Switzerland. His own body of work has grown even stranger and wilder, with a wide array of artists from well outside of reggae collaborating with him: the Beastie Boys, Andrew W.K., Keith Richards, George Clinton, TV on the Radio, and the Orb, to name just a few of his fellow travelers. Perry also tours fairly regularly, and even dabbles in visual art. On his latest album, Rainford, Perry teams up with Adrian Sherwood, a dub legend in his own right, who took the lessons imparted by Perry’s classic productions and wielded them within British post-punk and industrial in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
Though Perry is now firmly ensconced behind the microphone rather than the mixing desk, those seismic echoes of thunder and lightning still crackle in his music, his well-worn grainy voice adding a visceral texture to the mix. For those looking to take a deep dive or else just “scratch” the surface on his large body of work, here are a few suggestions.
There are rare instances of a sequel being better than the original, and while some might argue that Lee Perry’s muggy mid-’70s classic Super Ape is untouchable, Return of the Super Ape proves far more outlandish and wiggly. Rumored to be the last album made at Black Ark in 1978, it, like its predecessor, boasts a cover of a giant ape wreaking havoc across the land (this one’s holding a giant spliff, though). Perry rants about vampires and Rastafarians on the muddy “Jah Jah Ah Natty Dread,” and “Psyche and Trim” uses slapback to add glints of light to the otherwise dark track. One can picture Perry as that titular ape, wrecking all the elements in a way so that the chaotic jumble feels just right.
At his peak, Scratch was cranking out music at a pace that few could match (much less keep tabs on). This compilation collects several ridiculously rare 7-inches from the 1970s, which U.K. collectors inevitably snatched up the moment they were first released. Psychedelic spirituals, crackling grooves, and wobbly vocal melodies are on offer here—all shot through with an array of echoing chimes and drums—and dubs like “Proverbs of Dub” and “African Style Version” serve as a worthy showcase of the man’s many talents.
Perry, known variously as Scratch, the Upsetter, and Super Ape at various points throughout his career, unveiled yet another new alias on this 1980 solo album: Pipecock Jackxon. Instead of the usual Rastafarian righteousness, Pipecock twists the biblical with the bawdy. Consider “Bed Jammin,” with its tantric, 11-minute runtime, a bit of a hint, as Scratch rambles on about Moses and the Seven Seals of Revelations while also imparting “bed jammin’ is a must with the woman you trust” (he also recites the entire alphabet for good measure). Absurd and light-hearted, full of strange synth effects and murky production touches, it’s one of Perry’s quirkiest albums.
Perry has collaborated with countless dub producers over the years, from fellow dub originator King Tubby to the likes of Bill Laswell and The Orb, each using the methods of dub to craft brain-expanding new music. But few match his mischievous bent like the Mad Professor. The two first connected on this 1989 set, both men playing off of one another’s wildest tendencies, the songs full of spongy digital bass, glossy synth tones, taffy-pulled drum machines, flummoxing sound FX, and plenty of Perry’s skewed lyrics, from rambling about pirates and kung fu to the paranoia of “Dub Those Crazy Baldheads” (a Bob Marley cover), with its talk about “brainwash education to make us the fools.”
The full title of this meeting of dub masterminds is Lee “Scratch” Perry Meets Bullwackie In Satan’s Dub, Bullwackie being the Bronx dub legend known for his gritty, visceral productions. The two met up in a New Jersey studio and dubbed out Perry’s 1988 album, Satan Kicked the Bucket. Keys flutter atop the gooey bass of “President Dub”; on the tingly title track, Perry growls about the devil and a newscaster talking about banks.
Of all the characters to ever share a studio with Perry, the strangest of all might be Yello’s Dieter Meier. Getting together in Perry’s then-new home of Switzerland, they created a very bizarre amalgam of reggae and techno, one far from the notion of “dub techno.” Instead, this collaboration touches on trance and ambient house, and furious tribal rhythms crop up, along with playful samples of Perry classics and even some flutes. It’s Scratch at his furthest afield: a fun, dizzying listen.
Only unearthed and compiled in the 21st century, the dub plates on Sound System Scratch aren’t so much songs as they are weapons, engineered exclusively for Jamaican soundclashes. On these selections, Perry unleashes wilder sounds which seem just as likely to stun as spur on dancers. “Lama Lava Mix One” (a dub made with the mighty Augustus Pablo) seems to resound from the bottom of a river, while a dubbed-out version of Junior Murvin’s “Roots Train” turns every element into vapor while keeping its driving rhythm intact. But there are also lots of primitive drum machine sputters (see “Chim Cherie”) that anticipate early dancehall, and an encroaching sense of dread infiltrates these tracks. See also the sequel to this set.
One of Lee Perry’s outright classics: a deconstruction of Max Romeo’s “Lucifer,” famously sampled by Jay-Z and the Prodigy, that takes a deep belly-flop into the swamp. Sweet female harmonies, spine-scratching percussion, and more urge on Perry’s own skewed vocals, drawing you ever deeper into the song’s darkness as it continues to unspool.