Trojan Records—one of the most important reggae labels—is celebrating its 40th anniversary with some very cool releases. 2007 has already seen Jonny Greenwood Is the Controller, a collection of reggae dub handpicked by Radiohead’s innovative manipulator of sound. That three of the 17 tracks he chose were performed and/or produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry is quite the testament to the dub master’s lasting influence on the textures of contemporary music. Electronica, hip-hop, reggaeton: Where would these genres be without him?
Throughout the first half of the 1970s, Perry was predominantly known for his skills behind the glass and at the boards, producing reggae cuts for other artists, including Bob Marley. In the decade’s latter half, however, he broke out as a great recording artist. This two-disc collection, Ape-ology, collects remastered versions of his three best late ‘70s LPs, along with a fine batch of bonus tracks. Based on the name of this release, the savvy Perry fan will have anticipated the inclusion of both 1976’s Super Ape and 1978’s Return of the Super Ape. As if this weren’t already enough to bring a smile to any dub-lover’s face, Ape-ology also offers Perry’s first album as a lead singer, 1978’s Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread.
The first of this excellent trio is presented as Scratch the Super Ape—reflecting its original title when issued in Jamaica—and credited to the Upsetters (Perry’s band). But don’t pay that distinction any mind. His multitude of identities are seemingly interchangeable. Lee Perry or Lee “Scratch” Perry, with or without the Upsetters. The names on the packages change, but the dub remains the same. Super Ape distinguishes itself by featuring guest performances on five tracks by vocal trio the Heptones, Prince Jazzbo on another, and the Full Experience on its final two cuts. But it’s the music behind the vocals that’s distinctly the work of Lee “Scratch” Perry. His beats seem to spill over one another, but they always land perfectly. Spare bass lines burble up mid-measure, then duck out for a beat, or maybe four. Horns flow hazily into the mix, as if captured through the walls from the building next door. Somehow, all this weirdness fits just right, song after song.
Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread occupies the second half of Ape-ology‘s first CD. The album offers a fuller mix, but the arrangements and production are just as inventive. On opening cut “Soul Fire”, percussive sounds vibrate and sproing. We’re also given our first taste of Perry’s lead vocals, which, on the chorus, sound completely unhinged. Did I forget to mention that the man’s a certifiable lunatic? In 1983, Perry burned to the ground his own Black Ark Studios, where all the music on this collection was set to tape. Why did he do it? To get rid of its “dread vibration.” Um, sure thing, man. So, yes, Perry is a mad genius. His kookiness really comes to the fore on Roast Fish, which is a wonderfully odd and fun album. Well, excluding one terrible track: “Favourite Dish”, with its incessant sample of a mewling baby. Happily, the other nine songs are as tasty as the album title’s dish.
Disc two begins with Return of the Super Ape, which also sees the return of the Full Experience’s lovely vocal harmonies on two of the record’s cuts. Sonically, the album generally recalls the more minimal dub tones of Super Ape. Then again, cuts such as “Jah Jah a Natty Dread”, “Psyche & Trim”, and “Huzza a Hana” are more closely aligned with the off-kilter Perry vocals and kookier instrumentation of Roast Fish. The rest of Ape-ology‘s second CD is filled with seven bonus tracks, including four mixes of “From Creation”, the single release of “Roast Fish & Cornbread”, and a much earlier cut, 1970’s “OK Corral”. Although none of these feel terribly essential, they’re good dub and certainly don’t detract from the set.
The three albums found on Ape-ology cover the spectrum of reggae dub, from “too stoned to move” on Super Ape to “just high enough to let loose and party” on Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread (I mean, dude—the word “weed” is in the title). Or you can listen straight and let Lee “Scratch” Perry’s trippy productions carry you off into another world. He was the master of the recording studio, and his audio lessons have influenced many artists over the past 30 years. More important, this music has remained vital and highly listenable. Ape-ology is dub-ology 101. Begin your studies today.