Probably no reggae artist has had a bigger effect on Western popular music than Lee “Scratch” Perry. The formidable Bob Marley, a long-time pupil of Perry’s, took some of the sounds, dynamics, and populist appeal of rock and married it to reggae. Perry, however, brought reggae to rock—a much more subtle yet no less impressive task, especially when you consider that Perry is credited by many as having invented reggae. Even if the slowed-down, Africanized sound and drum/bass-heavy mixing that marked the transition between rock-steady and reggae found Perry in the right place at the right time, his legacy as a progenitor of dub is beyond reproach. Over several decades, Perry’s influence has touched everyone from the Clash to Mad Professor to the Beastie Boys to Gorillaz, to name only a few of the more prominent examples.
But Perry’s legend comes with a problem. Or, at least, a catch. Like fellow black music innovators James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, and Fela Kuti, Perry has, in later years, become a victim of his legacy, something of a walking punch line. Always eccentric, he played a part in turning that eccentricity into a caricature, making proclamations about coming from outer space and generally looking and sounding like a madman in many interviews. All of that would have been fine had he continued making quality music, but in truth, much of his post-1980 output has been crap, serving only to further the farce.
Theses days, newcomers checking out Perry have to navigate a muddy sea of compilations and reissues; at last check, typing Lee Perry into Amazon’s search engine yielded 249 different discs. How cool is it, then, that the septuagenarian has finally put together a two-disc, 45-track, near-comprehensive compilation of his own choosing? The Upsetter Selection gathers nearly all of the seminal Perry tracks that were not released via Island Records. Excepting a few post-1980 tack-ons, most everything here was originally issued on Perry’s own Upsetter label. For a madman, Perry’s choices are dead on; sitting down with The Upsetter Collection is diving into some of the best Jamaican music ever made—and, by extension, some of the best music ever made, period.
Disc One comes at you in several waves. The first consists of a half-dozen tracks from the late 1960s, Perry’s early days as an independent producer. Recorded under his own name, “I Am the Upsetter” lays out Scratch’s ground plan for the next decade, complete with trademark playfulness and irresistibly mesmerizing bass line. Early on, Perry’s genius for creating dense, disorienting atmospheres from delicate, stripped-down arrangements was evident. “People Funny Boy”, the African-inspired track that got the reggae spliff smoking, is equally impressive for its unexpected, unsettling employment of a baby crying. The experimentation continues when Perry takes Burt Walters’ sweet version of Clyde McPhatter’s “Honey Love”, runs the vocal track backward over the same rhythm, and calls it “Evol Yenoh”. And this, in 1968. Next comes a handful of more R&B-inspired, organ-driven instrumentals recorded under Perry’s band name, the Upsetters, and revealing his affection for action TV and movies. “Return of Django” remains his biggest commercial success, while “Clint Eastwood” inspired the Gorillaz track of the same name, and was itself inspired by the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak”. Then comes a representative six-song selection from Perry’s work with Marley and the Wailers. Lean, mean, definitive versions of “Soul Rebel”, “Kaya”, “Small Axe”, and Peter Tosh’s “400 Years” are ample evidence of why these sessions are widely considered career pinnacles for all involved. The disc is rounded out by a strong selection of cuts from U-Roy, the Heptones, and Junior Byles, plus Chenley Duffus’ hit “To Be A Lover”, (in)famously taken to US #1 by Billy Idol.
From a historical standpoint, Disc Two is not as epochal. But that doesn’t mean it’s not very, very good. One of history’s first mash-ups, “Cow Thief Skank” lifts from the Inspirations, the Staple Singers, and others, hence the title. The funky wah-wah guitar from 1973’s “Bathroom Skank” may or may not have influenced David Bowie’s “Fame” two years later, while “Kentucky Skank” employs synthesizer technology to disorienting, dubby effect. These tracks mark the beginning of Perry’s association with Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock, and of both men’s mastery of trippy, slow-moving dub. Within a couple years, Perry was recording at his own, soon-to-be-legendary Black Ark studio, the fruits of which make up the better part of the disc. Again, the sheer breadth of Perry’s repertoire is astounding. The quirky, dubby effects are here, but there’s much more going on, from Max Romeo’s scathing “Fire Fe the Vatican” to Susan Cadogan’s soulful, poppy “Hurt So Good”. Marley makes a return appearance, too, with the smoky original version of “Natural Mystic”.
A trio of post-Black Ark curiosities gives all the insight you need into the Perry-as-madman phenomenon. The “Chris Blackwell is a vampire” line from “Judgement Inna Babylon” still startles in its boldness; Perry was enraged by what he saw as the Island Records boss’s undercutting him by signing away all Perry’s top talent (including Marley). “I Am a Madman” reveals Perry’s ill-advised willingness to play up the caricature, while the menacing “Jamaican ET” from 2003 helps show why its namesake album incredibly won that year’s Best Reggae Album Grammy.
Perry’s cognizant track-by-track liner notes suggest that he may be sharper than his image lets on. You won’t find the best of Perry’s dub work on The Upsetter Selection; you’ll need an authentic version of Blackboard Jungle Dub and Island’s Arkology box set for that. Together, though, the three releases constitute all the “Scratch” you’ll ever need, and the very least you should own.