Following the recent rework of the legendary Black Ark album Super Ape, David Katz speaks to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Emch Subatomic about how 40 years on, the album holds weight with the youth of today
“Me work for God! Me see how God make nature and me create that sound. Me never copy no man; me look around and don’t see no man me want to copy, me only see God.”
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is trying to communicate the spiritual impetus that led to the creation of his latest album Super Ape Returns To Conquer. His convoluted speech erupts in rapid bursts of cosmological significance, and although there are ominous proclamations aimed at perceived enemies, including record company executives and some of reggae’s most feted stars, there is laughter in his eyes and plenty of mirth beneath the barbs.
“Me hear the sound of rainfall and wind from the trees, thunder roll and lightning flash,” he continues. “Boof boof boof is the heartbeat, and that become the drum and the bass.”
As referenced by the new album’s title, Returns To Conquer is a contemporary reworking of Perry’s 1976 dub masterwork Super Ape, put together by the American electronic dub collective Subatomic Sound System, who have backed Perry on live dates in the US for the last seven years. The original album, recorded at the Black Ark when Perry was at the peak of his powers, remains one of the greatest dub albums of all time. It drew from the various recording projects Perry was then working on with The Heptones, Max Romeo, Prince Jazzbo and The Full Experience female harmony trio, the tracks all being completely deconstructed to their drum and bass dub core, bolstered by heavily-processed layers of custom effects, including the Mutron phaser and Roland Space Echo that characterised the peak-period Ark sound. Now, over four decades later, Subatomic has painstakingly recreated the rhythms in a way that stays relatively faithful to the original, yet aims towards younger ears that may not be acquainted with the original. And Perry’s lyrics are completely new.
“As sound system culture continues to expand globally, I wanted to create DJ-friendly, heavyweight versions of Scratch material that makes sense in the 21st century, and represents what we have successfully been building with him live,” says co-producer Emch Subatomic, who has recently moved his studio and base of operations from New York to Los Angeles. “So it sounds like the classic Black Ark vibes in the high frequencies, but in the low end it has the weight and punch of electronic music, dubstep and hiphop. I also wanted to show that Scratch was 40 years ahead of his time with Super Ape, and at 81, more relevant to youth culture than ever. He’s the original Burning Man, the original producer as artist, the guy who laid the blueprint for reggae and dub, that inspired punk artists and electronic producers worldwide. Keith Richards called him the Salvador Dali of Music, Bounty Killer recently hailed him as the greatest Jamaican artist of all time, and Basquiat called him a significant inspiration for his paintings too. He transcends not just reggae, but even music. And he’s still at it!”
Perry and Emch crafted Super Ape Returns To Conquer in different locations. Some of the best vocals were captured at all-night sessions conducted in Jamaica, where Perry benefitted from some local boulders, thunder claps, and a perpetually-full ganja pipe. Although he’s not mixing much himself these days, Perry did make prudent use of an audio sampler, another feature to distinguish Returns To Conquer from Super Ape. And the pair are in good company on the new disc too: percussionist Larry McDonald, who played such an important role in the work of Gil Scott-Heron, is amply represented here, and Screechy Dan gives vocal support where necessary, along with Jahdan Blakkamore on “Chase The Devil” and the late Ari Up of The Slits on “Underground Roots”, which was given its final mixdown by Adrian Sherwood. Great care has even been paid to the mastering process, to glean the maximum listening experience possible, with high quality audio present in every aspect.
For diehard fans of the original LP, it should be noted that Returns To Conquer messes with the order of things through a slightly different sequencing. And in addition to a couple of entirely new, short vocal tracks, four of the songs are given the ‘dubstrumental’ treatment at the end, allowing you to hone in on Perry’s outré percussion. It all helps to emphasise that Returns is a new creation, even as it references the past. And although the original will always be representative of his Jamaican home studio, Perry says he sees the new disc as more universal, an audio representation of the battle between Good and Evil. “Monkey win, and it’s not about Black Ark anymore,” he insists. “Times change, and Evil get squeezed. Too much singers. Too much vanity. But God don’t have no confusion.”
Lee Scratch Perry and Subatomic Sound System, Super Ape Returns To Conquer is out now on Echo Beach