When it comes to music, the term Living Legend can be a descriptor for anyone who’s survived a musician’s life. When describing Jamaican producer-musician Lee “Scratch” Perry, though, it’s not only apt, it’s wholly true.
Since the late-’50s, Perry has pioneered recorded music. As inventor of sampling and reggae, his mark on recorded music is indelible, mercurial. Black Ark, his 1970s backyard studio, gave birth to crucial work by Max Romeo & The Heptones, and kick-started Bob Marley & the Wailers’ careers.
Perry produced the first recordings of what was being called “dub” and “remixes,” ducking out solo instruments to enhance electric bass and drums, sound shards swirling in slap-back echo and reverb, sweeping sounds through the spectrum. Perry was known for an unconventional nature and skill at innovation. He cited the power of blowing pot smoke onto tape reels; in 1978 he burned Black Ark down.
Perry removed all barriers in the studio, changing a clinical vibe to one acknowledging space and equipment as living, even spiritual, entities. In this digitized, cut-and-paste era, it’s an endangered view, if not extinct.
“I don’t think some of the producers know the truth. So I don’t think they’re honoring the truth,” Perry tells Folio Weekly. “Some will and others won’t; but you can’t blame them because they don’t know the truth.”
That ineffable “truth” is the rock of Perry’s career. Now 80 years old, he’s a signifier of reggae, dub, hip-hop and electronic music.
Vital to Perry’s lifelong involvement in music has been his openness to collaborate. His backing band, The Upsetters, were the core of early works. Over the years, The Clash, PIL, The Beastie Boys, George Clinton, Keith Richards—even Sir Paul McCartney—have all worked with Perry.
“It’s good to teach people something good … something that’s good for you that they can teach someone else. Your good will keep on forever,” says Perry, of his near-religious “good over evil” cooperation approach. “Good over evil. Everyone wants to know what’s good. Even bad love’s good. I stop doing bad—I only do good.”
For the last 10-plus years, the man has been making good in intense collusion with Subatomic Sound System.
Formed in 1999 in NYC by musician-producers Emch and Noah Shactman, Subatomic Sound System (SSS) are logical partners. Synthesizing an egalitarian vibe of 1970s Jamaican sound system culture, old-school roots reggae and dub with a 21st-century sensibility, SSS fuses genres and technology.
SSS has released dozens of recordings, working with distinct artists like Ari Up, Dr. Israel, Matisyahu and South and Central American musicians. Keeping an open palette at these levels has earned the band global praise. It’s obvious they’re pioneers of a nameless, ever-evolving genre.
“Our goal is to create a spiritual music that strikes at something universal to the human experience and to the nature of sound, a primal energy at the deepest level, the subatomic level, that’s why it’s Subatomic Sound,” explains Emch. “Sure, it’s about sub bass and atomic energy power, but it’s also about fundamental vibrations at the core of all existence, which I think are the root of the human fascination with music.”
Perry and SSS have released a potent project, a revamp/reinterpretation/mirror of Perry’s classic 1978 effort, Return of the Super Ape. Drenched in reverb, instruments and voices in and out of the mix, anchored by wobbly bass and drums, Super Ape is the definitive dub album, a reference countless musicians emulate and explain deep dub.
Dropping in ’17, Super Ape Returns to Conquer takes source material and expands its experimental tenor. Emch and Shactman create a gurgling background, as melodica, guitar and Perry’s voice intone over diffused soundscapes. Veteran reggae conga player Larry McDonald slaps off thudding beats, voices move through sax and Ethiopian horn, and tour performances blend with studio music. The original Super Ape raised the dub and reggae bar high; with Super Ape Returns, Perry and SSS easily clear it.
“It’s a revolution and evolution of Super Ape, an introduction to those who come to Jamaica to have fun, to get rid of boredom, to make themselves happy, to know where the music comes from, and love Jamaica more,” says Perry of the update. “Enjoy the music. And have fun for ever ever ever.”
SSS went into a singular realm of music and personality working with Perry. “It started out daunting, but became surreal. Scratch is different from any other person any of us have ever worked with, or ever met, for that matter,” says Emch, adding that when he performs, Perry’s like “a film director and a performance artist. Our shows with Scratch really got good when we realized we needed to understand what he wanted, but [also] think more about making the music great than waiting for him to tell us what to do.”
Perry and SSS tour in support of Conquer, with McDonald, saxophonist Troy Simms and Indian-Scandinavian vocalist Talia Bentson.
It’s 40 years since Super Ape dropped, and Perry’s had time to reflect. “It was something special going on … on those songs with me and Boris Gardiner. After Marley grabbed The Wailers and ran [Ed. note: The Wailers were a studio band before Marley worked with Perry], I found a new bass man, a different drummer, bass player, organist and horns men, and made a new adventure, something greater than what Bob had. I didn’t miss anything.”
Emch heard reggae and dub through Bad Brains and Jimi Hendrix’s studio tests. Trace dub lineage; the source: Lee “Scratch” Perry.
“In the Subatomic crew … we listen to what Scratch listens to but also grew up on—disciples of hip hop, punk and electronic music—and it led us back to Scratch and all around the globe,” says Emch. “We’re extending the roots further into the past the same time we’re trying to push those sounds to the future. It’s the same kind of mission Scratch is on. In combining elements from older traditions, you create something new.”
Reexamining earlier work while making fresher sounds, Perry speaks well of SSS’s musicianship. “It’s a spiritual vibration and it’s very good ... for the spirit,” says Perry. “We can bring the past to the present and the present to the past. It’s possible.”
Lee “Scratch” Perry has outlived most of his peers and influenced many more. How he stays a prolific artist at an age when many would’ve long since retired is, unsurprisingly, mystically imbued—invoking music’s magic.
“To share the magic, play magic and sing magic. Play magic. Balance magic. Advertise the magic and know the magic.”