Lee “Scratch” Perry :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

When I call up the reggae legend, Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Upsetter, to talk about his new album Rainford I reach him on a grainy WhatsApp audio connection. He’s in Jamaica and he’s in bed, “looking at the lights. looking at the day, and looking at the night.”

Perry’s in his eighties and when he gets going he speaks in limericks, but he doesn’t come across as wacky, just joyful. The first thing I notice about Perry is the giggle that roils through the conversation and punctuates his sentences. It’s disarming, a Buddha-like by-product of a lifetime of producing joy by way of deep and heavy rhythms, and meant for killing egos.

“In my life, men come here to serve God but some come to profess their ego. You let them do what they want to do or they will try to kill you, if you try to stop them. Because their ego is their God!” 

He’s deeply serious about the mission of joy: “There can be nothing better than to make people feel happy. When people are happy, I’m happy. I will continue to make the people who believe in me and love me happier as long as I’m living. Under the sun under the sky. I want to make the people who believe in me happier, happier. So they can jump up and touch the sky, and the sky starts to rain!”

Joy permeates Lee Perry’s bright new album Rainford (after the name on his birth certificate) recorded and produced by Adrian Sherwood, himself a dazzling producer, (African Head Charge, Dub Syndicate, Mark Stewart + Maffia, Singers & Players), and released on Sherwood’s On-U Sound imprint. It’s very much an apex of Perry’s brilliant decades-long run. 

Similar to the genre-defining career of Miles Davis, to follow The Upsetter’s rise is to follow the history of reggae music. “Lee was going from all this wacky, fast, gimmicky stuff in the ’60s,” says Sherwood. “Like ‘People Funny Boy,’ ‘Return of the Django,’ ‘Dr. Dick,’ both instrumental and vocal, and then when the black awareness and Garvey-ism and Rasta came in, he was at the vanguard of that as well.”

Dub is the process of stripping a reggae song to its elemental rhythm, chopping up the vocals, enhancing the bass, and lacing the track with heavy echo and reverb. It turns roots reggae’s sunshine into something more repetitive, minimal, and psychedelic. “Lee was on the evolution of dub music,” says Sherwood, “the evolution of ‘version,’ because it used to be a boring instrumental on the B-side, and it evolved into exciting soundsystem versions for the DJ to go over. Lee was at the forefront of the most interesting things with that as well.”

As a producer, Lee Perry laid the foundation for Bob Marley’s superstardom (“Small Axe,” “Duppy Conqueror,” “Kaya,” “Concrete Jungle,”). Lee says of Bob Marley: “He helped me transfer my message across to the world, and that’s OK!” 

But he expresses concern about a YouTube video that he saw that insists Bob Marley was “part of the bafflement” or in cahoots with bad spirits. “I don’t know if they were joking that he was part of bafflement, and dem tings. I didn’t know that. I don’t have to believe that, either. What was done was well done, and could not be better.”

Somehow all of this — the joy, the gimmicks, Bob Marley, the mastery, the bass — is contained within the nine tracks of Rainford. “Lee’s made so many brilliant records,” says Sherwood, “all the gimmicky ones, all the rude ones, all the conscious ones, the dub ones. He’s incredible. I know that he can switch from being this child-like brilliant character to somebody who is very serious. He’s perceived to be a bit crazy and a bit jovial, but he’s a fascinating, fascinating man.”

Rainford is heavy with ambition, a deliberate play at defining an artist’s legacy, and a Grammy contender. “I wanted at this stage,” says Sherwood, “to get an album out of him not dissimilar to the one Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash. A later-in-your-career album that is actually a really strong piece of work and has a level of intimacy about it.” 

The intimacy comes from Sherwood’s history and care with Lee Perry, and is conveyed by sly musical references of Upsetter songs past. “Reference points,” says Sherwood, “fractured parts of Lee Perry productions,” appear throughout Rainford, “brought through the mangler. Bits of his old records cut into it.” The past building the present.  

The opening track “Cricket on the Moon” makes me wonder why there are so many animals in Lee Perry songs? 

“They were here before us,” Perry explains. “All we can do is love dem, care dem, share dem and don’t eat dem. Eat vegetables! I’m a Pisces, too – I’m a fish. I really like ocean. People eat fish, but I’m not complaining yet!”

I am curious if Lee Perry ever had dreadlocks, so I ask him. “Never. I have no reason to do that. I am the child of a king and my king is a dread head. My king is dread, not dead. My king’s name is King Neptune. King of the moon, king of the stars, king of the sun, king of the rain, king of airplanes and king of trains!”

Sherwood says there’s an arc to Rainford, it starts, “mischievous and silly, then [when it gets to] ‘African Starship’ it’s quite psychedelic. And then it gets very personal and very intimate.

The personal he’s referring to is “The Autobiography of The Upsetter,” the album’s core and its emotional culmination, a 7+ minute tour of Perry’s past, from birth to the present. It’s a starkly personal, serious–and rare–moment from the typically jovial Mr. Lee. 

Referring to a line in the song, (“My Father was a Freemason, my Mother was an Eto Queen, they share a dream…”), he wants to set the record straight, “My father was not a Freemason. That was a joke in there. It was a joke. My father was a free slave, who worked on the road.”

“I pushed and pushed to get that autobiography out of him,” says Sherwood. “I had to coax it out of him. A lot of work went into that one tune.”

It’s a beautiful and revealing song, one in a lifetime of beautiful genre-defining bass-heavy, bone-shaking songs. 

I ask Lee if he remembers all of his songs, hundreds and hundreds of them. He says he has an image of them. “Yeah, I’m got image. I don’t remember them all. But I am the image of God. When you are the image of God, you are there to remember the songs, every chord you play. You are watching the songs with your mind and body. I don’t have to remember all the songs. As long as they help you and are good for you, then they give praises to God and memory.” words / s mcdowell

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