Lee "Scratch" Perry

20th Century Masters (The Millennium Collection)

by Tim O'Neil

29 June 2004


Dub reggae is heavy music, music with an irresistible gravitational pull. The rhythm section is more than just the genre’s backbone, it’s the undeniable pulsating heart and soul. The bass drum and bassline fuse into an implacably voracious whole, an impossibly attractive singularity that threatens to swallow everything else in it’s immediate vicinity. The vocals, the small snare flourishes, the minimal guitar lines, they’re all mere planetoids revolving around the massive gravity of the monstrous rumbling rhythm.

There is arguably no greater figure in the development of Jamaican music than Lee “Scratch” Perry. Even the indefatigably popular Bob Marley owes a percentage of his incredible success to Perry’s production, on early Marley albums such as “African Herbsman.” Amazingly, this rich compilation focuses merely on the period of 1976-77, following his signing to Island Records and the full establishment of the fertile Black Ark studio. After having helped to create both dub and ska during the early ‘70s, he entered a period of feverish creativity which preceded his eventual descent into vertiginous paranoia.

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Lee 'Scratch' Perry

20th Century Masters (The Millennium Collection)

(The Millennium Collection)
US: 18 May 2004
UK: Available as import

There are those who would turn their noses at the Millennium Collection series. While it is true that these discs represent probably the least subtle way for unscrupulous labels to repackage and strip-mine the discographies of classic groups who have no control over their back-catalogs, it is also true that the music speaks for itself. If you have even a passing interest in the history of dub reggae, you probably have most—if not all—of the tracks on this compilation. But I can think of many worse ways for a novice to be introduced to the world of Jamaican music than this bargain-priced collection.

The Millennium Collection format is actually pretty ingenious. By limiting every act to ten or twelve songs on a single, unadorned disc, the music can only stand or fall on it’s own merits. Sometimes a Millennium Collection is the perfect format to experience more marginal acts, third-stringers such as Jet, Stephen Bishop or Klymaxx. Sometimes, as is the case with legends such as Louis Armstrong, James Brown or Mr. Perry himself, the idea of encapsulating an entire career, or even merely a small sliver of said career, onto one measly slab of plastic is comical. But, as the tip of an iceberg—the sampler tray from an incomprehensibly dense menu—it does a damn fine job.

Working with a number of groups, as well as with his own solo material, Perry succeeded in creating one of the most recognizably distinctive production styles of all time. On tracks like the Upsetters’ “Dread Lion”, Perry was able to infuse his music with an air of sinister inevitability, an almost primal dread communicated through the hazy, paranoid fog of cavernous reverb and echo. The process of learning to appreciate dub begins with understanding the tension and the anxiety at the center of what, on the surface, might appear to be very relaxed music. British punk has always been attracted to reggae and dub for one very simple reason: reggae and dub are as much a means of political expression for the economically repressed and politically impotent black Jamaicans as ‘70s punk was for the undernourished and marginalized white British underclass. Bob Marley isn’t just the musical legend he is in America and Europe, in Jamaica he’s a political hero: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X and JFK rolled into one. When a track like “Dread Lion” conjures up images of the dark and dangerous African jungle, with a powerful dreadlocked figure ruling over the plains of ancestral Babylon, it’s a call for political action.

Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (which the Clash covered on their classic debut), features Murvin’s impossibly febrile falsetto over a deceptively placid rhythm. It’s nothing less than a full-fledged call to revolution, a fact belied by its massive popularity on the British pop charts circa 1976. Max Romeo & The Upsetters’ “War in a Babylon”, one of the most famous reggae songs of all time, is equally contentious. Romeo’s voice sounds bright and joyful, but there’s no doubt that his words foreshadow inescapable conflict and conjure the inescapably powerful force of Biblical prophecy.

One of the more interesting artifacts for the casual reggae fan are Perry’s own tracks, featuring the producer’s own voice and a slightly more unhinged perspective than the relatively restrained tracks he produced for other groups. “Soul Fire” in particular foreshadow his later bouts of madness, the same madness that would eventually climax in the destruction of the Black Ark studios. It’s a raw and vulnerable performance, and when he screams the words “Soul fire/ I ain’t got no water”, you feel the frenzied fingers of insanity clutching at the base of your own brain.

Brian Wilson wasn’t the only studio visionary to be felled by his own prodigiously scarred psyche. But regardless of his eccentricities, Perry still remains a singular figure in the history of world music. For anyone with a serious interest in the appreciation of Jamaican music, I cannot imagine a more redundant collection—but if you haven’t yet made Mr. Perry’s acquaintance, I can’t think of a better place to start.

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