Lee Perry is the original dub mystic, the liquidator, the one-drop upsetter, the Black Ark afronaut. For this exclusive interview, Kevin Martin received an invitation to an audience with Perry who was on a brief visit to London. This is what happened. This article originally appeared in The Wire 135 (May 1995).
'Mick Jagger, you are a vampire!' The voice casting the curse is eerie, strained and instantly recognisable. The latest victim of Lee Perry's historically documented vendetta seems ironically appropriate. In 1968, while the Rolling Stones were indulging radicalism with director Jean Luc Goddard for the One Plus One film , Perry was working in music's shadows, beginning his explorations into the outer limits of sound that would have a more profound effect on the next 25 years of popular music's development than any number of cosmopolitan pub rock updates.
Having served his apprenticeship ion the 60s studios of Coxsone Dodd and Hoe Gibbs, produced Bob Marley 's first recordings, influenced King Tubby and informed Adrian Sherwood's chaotic methodology, Lee 'Scratch' Perry has acted as reggae's sprit guide and its industry's perpetual thorn in the side for over three decades.
Throughout that time, he has adopted a number of cunning, pseudonymous personalities which have served as both self-protection devices and recyclable commodities in a notoriously shark infested economy. The Upsetter, Piperock Jaxxon, The Duppy Conqueror: Perry has constructed a personal mythology that, in contemporary black music, in rivalled only by that of Sun Ra.
Born Rainford Hugh Perry, details of his date and place of birth remain obscure (although the place might me Hanover or St Mary). A country boy who removed to Kingston's urban sprawl, his childhood exposure to the Bible and the supernatural continues to haunt his music. One part seer, one part info-scrambler, Perry has produced some of dub's most disorientating moments, mostly working from his legendary Kingston studio, Black Ark. Open to influences as diverse as James Brown, Motown Ennio Morricone and The Beatles, Perry filters infinite info through the studio's hyperreality, filing dub's open spaces with primitive sound effects, animal noises and, most prophetically, TV soundbites on such revolutionary albums as Dub Revolution and Super Ape.
Perry now lives in the Babylonian heartland of Zurich. I met with him in March at London's Ariwa studios, where he was recording a new album with Neil 'Mad Professor' Fraser. Clutching a block of hash the size of a large pocket encyclopaedia, sitting next to his personal inflatable globe which was reflected in the mirrors on his boots, his speech, like his music, was littered with revelatory observations, drop-dead one-liners and hallucinatory conjunctions...
KM: When you first got involved with Studio One, was it because it had been your earliest musical connection?
LP: In those days you have to be a fluffy, and to make it you
had to me monster tuff. In those days Duke Reid [producer and owner
of the legendary 60s Jamaican studio, Treasure Isle] and all those
people were the tuffest guys. It was like those guys were making
was all the time cause they wanted power . SO Coxsone [Dodd, owner
of Studio One] wasn't so tuff like Duke Reid, so he would give some
time in the studio, to get in and listen for as laugh. If you start
something with a laugh it will and as laugh; if you start something
with death it will end with death.
KM: When you worked with Duke Reid, was it as a tape op?
LP: No, it was one of those times when...He's a man who loved news. He wanted to be the news and he wanted to hear the news of what's happenin' all the time. Who's up and who's down? So that he could laugh. But those sorta people, I don't enjoy them; I don't enjoy people who laugh at the small people. I enjoy the people who they and share the view o the small people. Not the big giants.
KM: So when you set up the Upsetter label, it wasn't because you were inspired by what you had seen Duke Reid do?
LP: No, I called it the Upsetter label so I could upset everybody and create an upset/
KM: Did it work?
LP: Of course, as mad as what happen now.
KM: When you brought out those early instrumentals like "Return Of Django" "Night Doctor"...
LP: It was a series of gunfights from the OK Corral.
KM: So they were inspired by westerns?
Yeah, my mind in those days as a kid was strictly Texas. So me say 'It's now not an illusion, I bring it to reality.' Because I am a painter. I paint and it come alive. For Marley's portraits [on the sleeve of the Jamaican issue of the 'Soul Revolution' album] I give him a [plastic toy] gun, I give Dunne [Wailer] a gun and I give Peter [Tosh] a gun. I have all the guns. I mean I am the gun controller. That's what I was showin' them.'
KM: When you choose the form of instrumentals, was it to leave space for the imagination?
LP am a rebel. I am a revolutionary. I revolt for the poor people. Otherwise I take the form of Robin Hood.
KM: Straight from 'The Magnificent Seven" ?
LP: I love that. [Yells out loud] I am Robin Hood! Believe it or not, I am. If you 'ave to ask, who sent I? I sent myself.
KM: How aware were you of Ennio Morricone's film scores for 'A Fistful Of Dollars', etc., were you at the time?
LP: "Yeah man. Those were the times I would be influenced by 'A Fistful Of Dollars'. Gonna be a big shot or maybe at the OK Corral Deal.
KM: It sounded like you were trying to relocate Texas in outer space.
LP: Of course, that was in space at that time. That was my reality. It was not a jest or a joke, that was real magic we put together. 'Cause we worked it out. And what we discover, the future I is the brain of the children and it's all in comic stories.
KM: Did you read sci-fi?
It's real, everything is real, that's no joke. It's no secret anymore.
KM: So you were always looking to the future instead of reflecting the present?
LP: Why would God hide his brain in a stupid old man? God can't take rotten brain, God have to take perfect brain to make perfect rain. Perfect breeze for perfect trees, to create men with perfect knees, to dance to the blues. Heeeuuugggh! [He makes a noise like the sound of a rhino in approval]
KM: You must be one of the first producers to work with King Tubby. How did you hear about him?
LP: I didn't hear about him. He hear about me and come and join in. they all hear about me and come and join me. I didn't hear about them. My world, my little magic world. I created a magic world, thought it was a joke and called it serious joke. so it was just goin' as a joke. But it was not a joke, it just had to be happiness. It was a serious thing baby, that you kill much people and I'd of realised this. My little magic world so powerful, because it's music.
KM:: So you wanted your music to create a world with it's own rules?
LP: The music rule everybody. Every heart, the music takes over hearth and thoughts. It takes over flesh and blood, spirit, body and soul. The music did that. Telepathically, we didn't don't want to, so he say, 'OK listen, I am in the music'. So he go right into your brain and come into your body and lives in you. Music is the only saviour of the Universe, it don't have to be any special kind of music. It's not Christianity. One brotherhood, one sisterhood and love. We don't wanna deal wit hate. We see hate as terrible enemy, so we try to penalise hate and make hate non-existent. You gotta be perfect, 135 per cent strong. To prepare 134 000 saints for God. Breeze when invisible.
KM: When I heard "Bird In Hand" (From Return Of Super Ape) it sounded like a preacher's hymn. The Smokey Robinson of the cloth. Listening to you talk now, it's as if the church and gospel...
LP: I love Smokey Robinson. I love his voice.
KM: Do you mind that people generally seem to acknowledge you for your production rather than as a singer?
I wouldn't mind what they want me to. Whatsoever the people want me for, I owe them that responsibility, whatever they want. I am their humble servant. I'm ready to give.
KM: With "Bird In Hand" you sang higher than I'd heard you sing before.
LP: It;'s when the spirit come, then I don't wait because I hear
somebody unusual appear, so I accept whatever appear. I believe in
spirits. I believe in the invisible.
KM: So you believe in ghosts?
LP: I believe in the visible. The two of us here are talking right now. My words are speaking to you and are invisible, a are my Father, My God, my king. He didn't write anything, he just keep tryin'' and I believe in him and his Royal manifest.
KM: Is this how dub came about for you? As a music of spirits, a music of ghosts?
LP: Definitely, definitely. We were havin'' trouble makin' riddims; and to get the ones we were searchin' for... It was too messed up, the musicians weren't havin' a clean mind. So when I'm with em' in the studio, they have a confused mind, playing confused music. So I decide how to get the spirits to do it through drum and bass. Call in different musicians and dub in different feelings. Then you'll have perfect love and no confusion. So Tubby's them hear it, them love it. He decided to join me 'cause he knows it's new, and 'im wants new things if it soundin' good.
KM: Reggae's search for the new is what makes it exciting for me, but in the late 70s it seemed to get more reactionary.
I believe in my words. I was in England one time [late 70s] and there was a new vibration, because that one vibration is waitin' to escape. And the punks like the reggae. And we were here to spiritualize the punky reggae party. Bob [Marley] was here at the same time, and while we were here we recorded in Chris Blackwells's [head of Island records] studio, but it didn't sound like what I want so I had to go back to Joe Gibbs studio in Jamaica and hire different musicians. That was a big connection I made. Call it punky reggae party. But it wasn't a party for me it was a party for Chris Blackwell.
KM: You talk a lot about vampires'''
LP: Of course he is.
KM: Did you feel your inventions were being taken from you?
LP: Definitely. That's what happens, he takes the party. And Jambo, Trojan, EMI, they all take the party. That's why I form a new Universal party.
KM: You had a major fall-out with Blackwell. Was it after Super Ape?
I think so. He want everything. I was creatin' a jungle vibration; I wanted to have a secret music in the studio, that I didn't want to go outside. I love to have secret tapes. So if there's anything on them when I need fresh ideas, me have something to check on. When you need money when you have no money, they'll give you money to take away the little thing that you don't even want exposed. because them want to take the fuckin' glory and say it's them that exposed it. Them create it, and them just want power.
KM; So why did you release 'From The Secret Laboratory' on Island nearly a decade later?
Something have to happen. Some music explosion, some vital connection. Because it got to be that the rap was gettin' stronger, 'cause the rappin' was comin' on very good. 'The Secret Laboratory' that was where they got their feelin' from. So that was a must.
KM: When you set up your black ark studio in the 60s, it was after the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X assassinations and during a fragmentary period of black nationalism. Did that influence your choice of studio name?
LP: Yeah, because the original name for it is Noah. But I believe in black culture, and they were sayin' that Jesus was black, white only through stupidness and prejudice. It caused big problems. To say he is white is all shit, the colour was shadow black.
KM: When you set up Black Ark..
LP [interrupting] I was identifying with shadow. The shadow of the almighty creator is black.
KM: When you set up the studio, what did it look like? what equipment?
LP: Like heaven, like heaven on earth.
KM: Was it similar to the Ariwa complex here?
It was like heaven on earth. It was like a bubblin' gumpot. You could feel the bubbles. If you pushed hard enough you could feel goo and glue. A magic fuckin gumpot.
KM: you were one of the earliest producers to explore studio sound effects. Was it magical, illusory qualities of those effects that attracted you?
I hear sounds inside my head- I don't know where they some from; I would not ask. But I will put them to tape as far as I can hear them. But I wouldn't dare ask where they came from, because I know they've be comin' from the beginning to the very ending, and from the last to the first.
KM" You just wanted to paint the words that you were hearing in your head?
LP: Because I believe in those words, all per cent, not 100 per cent, but every per cent. Once I said I don't believe in God, but they didn't understand what I said and they have it all wrong. Not because each one is one God. But some of those other Gods people wanna worship, I don't wanna worship. I don't have to worship the money God, the Money God must worship I, because the Holy God who create I an; said 'let there be light'. He was here before the money , so how can the Money God be the almighy God? You see the I, but you don't see the I am.
KM: You have adopted many different personalities; Upsetter, Scratch, Super Ape...Why do you need all these?
LP: Because God's so smart to put his name inside a kid. You think God would be waitin' for a fuckin' idiot? It's all comics and super heroes, Inspector and Guru.
KM: Which was your favourite super hero?
I'm a batman specialist. A superman special. You know me have a special legion in the Justice Legion Of America. Justice Legion Of America represent John The Baptist. A legion of ghosts. So me join the ghost squad longtime and them notice me as the Ghost Captain. I am the Ghost Captain.. I was wrapped in a napkin in the River Nile. [he starts screaming like a baby]. Aliens come and kidnap the King. How can they do that? [Starts singing] "Them no know I was a real King"
KM: Why did you stop singing on your records to start making instrumentals and go into production?
LP: I have to make changes as come to my body - my body ask for changes. I have to support my body for change, because I know my body I believe in. Without my body I would not be here or be having no existence; so if my body calls for changes, I change my body instantly.
KM: When you first introduced dub, especially the earliest Black Ark productions, was it to show the music needn't have only one form?
LP: I introduced dub because I knew it was the roots of the heartbeat. The drum represent your heartbeat, the bass represent your mind and brain. I'm a heart and brain protector, and I'm a projector. I'm also an inspector, a director and imitator. The liquidator and Exterminator.
KM: Good and Evil combined?
LP: So? How it go? A mummy hook, I make you puke, make blood
spill through your bloodcloot ears. I'm dangerous but I'm good.
KM: Was dub a good way of bypassing musicians' opinions and mistakes?
LP: That's the only chance I did have; if it wasn't for dub, I wouldn't even be here. You want to hear about that? Look at the future. What look like a creation they want to worry about and use him for moneyhead later. You understand the game? Good for your head that. They have this image down on a computer - who is next? There's no way you're goin' next unless they put you where they wanna lead you.
KM: Was it the 'science' that attracted you to dub? Becoming integrated with the machines?
LP: Of course. Why Not? I design it. I wanted it to be so. To be spiteful to some musicians who weren't playing from the heart. They were so fuckin' corrupted. I said I was gonna get equal with them. I wanna be with machines.
KM: So you wanted to work with machines because musicians couldn't translate what you wanted?
LP: It wasn't clean enough in there. We were creating cannibals instead of human beings.
KM: Is that what's so attractive about working in the studio: answering to no one, becoming the centre of your own universe?
LP: I discover that I am creating cannibals. I though, Oh, fuck, what am I doing now? Creating some anti-human?' Some grabbed coke and some grabbed needle.
KM: How did you discover new studio technology?
LP: Hear what I'm sayin'... I was working with angels and ghost. I don't work with human beings, I was using spirits to manifest my dreams. I believe in so few humans, for they are so weak. Because they are freaks. That's why witches grow beaks, but I'm sitting on the mountain peak. I dare not grow old I grow weak. At the beginning, at the end I shall turn into a freak. I have no fear, I'm in first gear. I don't go backwards I go forward,. Presto.
KM: Was dub dealing with space: inner outer or structural?
LP: I dub from inner space to outer space. This is an interview, but how come this interview is coming form my 'innerview'? So this is my inside world to the world outside. Here come my inside to you outside. From my living world.
KM: Why do you think it's so tempting to talk about dub in terms of mysticism and outer space?
LP: I tell you, because it's the heartbeat and the mindpower.
KM: Is it because it deals with mutation and transportation?
LP: When you hear dub you fly on the music. You put your heart you body and your spirit into the music, you gonna fly. Because if it wasn't for music oppression and taxes would kill you. They send taxes and oppression to hold you, a Government to tell you what to do and use you like a robot. You are then the pinocchio and do their bidding. So they will torment you to death. So when you hear dub you hide from the fuckers there.
KM: Escaping through a parallel sound universe?
I want to put Krypton back together. That's my greatest dream... put Superman back together. What's impossible? These words, all these things are possible. There's a soul which cuts you on two sides; you must know which side you're on, to know who you're listenin' to. You are listenin' to a machine. I imitate human being ,I'm a machine being. To satisfy your greatest dream. Don't be mean...Hello from Lee 'Scratch' Perry!
KM: Were you aware of Sun Ra, when he was talking about his Arkestra, ideas of displacement and space, alienation and separatism, 'out' jazz and free playing - away from the real world?
LP: What the name of it?
KM: Sun Ra. He talked about coming from Saturn and sending his ideas through space.
LP: What (I can tell you, what I can say, there's many Gods here right now. I am the God of my planet Jupiter, and my planet says there's no music which can overpower my music. Dub music, drum and bass music, it holds space for all eternity. For all time, for every time. For every single second, for every single minute for every single hour. The drum music, the drums of Africa. The drum controls the heartbeat and the bass holds the space. The dead king Emperor Selassie, not dead, he just walk from body to body. He wants clean cells to drop into.
KM: Do you want to jack into machines and get out of your body?
LP: Well of course. Why wouldn't you want to live as a machine? It's fun. Michael Jackson lives in a machine. you didn't know that because it is our secret - he told me. Michael Jackson lives in a machine. You don't believe me? I'll show you something that goes from the other world. [He rummages through a diary and pulls out an iconographic postcard of a white archangel Michael] I've showed you a picture you a picture of what's goin' on. Something you don't know about.
KM: How do you feel about Michael Jackson? His plastic surgery, skin pigmentation and cultural transformation - becoming alien?
LP: It doesn't matter,. I leave him alone. I can use him in an experiment.
KM: He is an experiment?
KM: Do you regard him as a fellow traveller?
LP: Yeah. If he wants to make changes he is free because it's his body. Why should people complain about it? Michael's the biggest thing in America. Bigger than all the presidents too. How do you think he value? So that he could not be somebody now? I just give you an interview, an innerview of my inside. He wants to make changes to his body, I won't criticise him. I know that he loves his body.
KM: when you made songs like 'Kojak", "Bionic Rats" and 'Doctor On The Go", you seemed fixated by TV.
LP: Because I turned on the vision. Because it's the vision I believe in. I believe in seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. I believe in invisible feelings. [He breaks into song] "Love is the feeling, Love is the meaning, give it to me when I arrive" An arkangel man, you no recognise it. Myself is an angel, that's what I'm trying to show you. Changing from body to body. I am the Arkangel.
KM: What made you turn off the TV halfway through 'Doctor On The Go"?
LP: Because I wanted to come on television. To make music television manifest. I saw the programme, I wanted to make the contact, the connections, that's what I do. I now sit around and go "ha, ha, ha - my vision come true on music television'. Kojak on the go. I see Kojak so often, but what can I du? 'Cause most of the kids go out with their head shine so it's Kojak creation again. True?
KM: So what's your fascination with the cathode ray tube?
LP: The action: too much for some people but not me. Because I'm from that world where I can see everything that I want to see. If I think about a programme in my mind and say to myself; 'I think something like this should be on television now' I'll;l turn the television on and see it. It corresponds to what I want and am thinking.
KM: "Bionic Rats: what are they?
LP: Chris Blackwell is one of them. So I have to create a bionic cat to chew up the bionic rat. Then I'll take back the reggae.
KM: Where did you first hear the term 'bionic'?
LP: From the spirit that speaks The spirit always speak form the mountain peak. Always ready the spirits speak loud, I serve them by listening. Hearing, when one lose their hearing they lose everything.
KM: Is it possible to hear too much?
LP: Hear too much? Well if one activates their brain too much, but then I switch my brain to a normal level. To listen as a machine, Listening to human beings, I peep into their dream. I don't have no right to peep into their dream but they expose. Fly right into my machine and I read your dreams.
KM: Are there times when you want to turn off the information?
LP: Why should I disappear and leave so many fans here?
KM: Are you surprised at the level of interest in you?
LP: It was created especially for them and they know it. They hear it. I know my people and my people know my voice. My sheep followed my voice. Follow me everywhere, over the body, over the mountain, under the mountain, under the Earth, through the pipes, through the pipe man. They will go into the [word inaudible on the tape] and touch the rain. Blow the wind, roll thunder and flash lightning.
KM: Out of all the people you have worked with, who have you received the most from?
LP: Taught me the most? The people who be little and rob me.
LP: They teach you to be stronger, faster?
LP: Yeah, huh, huh, huh.