Music

Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Golden Age of Roots: 'Super Ape'

Photo: Drew Goren / Subwaysleeper.com

From the irresistible call of the opening drums to the indeterminate farewell of the last, fading chant, 'Super Ape' incarnates a sonic world, a microcosm of rhythm, mix, melody, and toasting that, whatever your personal tastes, stands replete and to itself.

There is nothing quite like Super Ape. On first listen, the uninitiated are set up for disappointment--it's a gateway but also a dead end into the world of dub and psychedelic reggae. There's a legion of adjectives that fly fast and thick to describe it: dense, lush, and inimitable, it's a critic's wet dream. Above all, Super Ape is captivating. It's one of those rare "masterpieces" that embraces you instead of demanding your concentration. From the irresistible call of the opening drums to the indeterminate farewell of the last, fading chant, the album incarnates a sonic world, a microcosm of rhythm, mix, melody, and toasting that, whatever your personal tastes, stands replete and to itself.

The ape of the title and of the outrageous cover art is meant to represent Lee Perry himself (the original LP was titled Scratch the Super Ape and had a different track order), and though the artist credit goes to the Upsetters. he does loom large over the music of Super Ape. He was never distinguishable from his house band anyway, but here the studio dub thoroughly supersedes the instrumentals. Perry has been praised by many for his skills as an arranger and coach to his session musicians, and this album is manifest proof of his talent for supervising each step of the process with an eye toward the final result. Even when his samples are taken from other completed songs, they feel authentic and utterly natural in dub. The innovative instrumental albums of his past show Perry doing just as much "dubbing" in the studio as he and his peers would eventually do after the fact, working with experimental effects and imbuing his music with an exceptional ambiance. In some ways, Super Ape is the conclusion of that process, a bona fide dub album built from the ground up.

Perry's intense and highly individual spirituality comes through too. He would not broaden his commitment to Rastafarianism until doing Heart of the Congos with the Congos, and even then his religious affiliation, debated over by friends and family in interviews about his past, was hazy at best. Whatever his exact beliefs, Perry had often fostered strong spiritual messages. He kept a Bible in his studio at all times, for moral guidance and musical inspiration. Reggae's political and religious focus in the '70s made it not just easy but routine to work with similarly-minded artists in the studio, and so Perry had a hand in roots classics like "Sons of Slaves" by Junior Delgado and "Mr. Cop" by Gregory Isaacs. Super Ape, however, takes Perry's personal vision of repatriation, protest, and redemption to a whole new level. Like War Ina Babylon before it (and using many of the very same rhythms), Scratch paints a definitive portrait of the ongoing Jamaican struggle over the meaning of the red, gold, and green, from Africa to Jah to democracy. If Max Romeo was a realist, though, Perry is an expressionist, and the creative and spiritual outlets of Rastafari -- marijuana and music -- come newly to the fore.

The wild exclamations of "Curly Dub" that "Zion's gates are open / Jah Jah arms are open" are thus nestled comfortably alongside the stoned assertion of "Underground" that "Underground roots / Are collie roots" and Prince Jazzbo's serene if confused toast on "Croaking Lizard" about a "Natty dread skank", the whole package wrapped up in a submarine haze. If the album has a thesis statement, it is the Heptones' opening chorus on "Zion's Blood": "Zion's blood / Is flowing through my veins / So I and I / Will never work in vain". The voices, free of obvious manipulation, cut across the heavy, murky rhythm as though their alignment is nothing more than perfect serendipity, staking their claim to pan-African identity with absolute confidence. This is the clearest, most sublime moment on all of Super Ape. Romeo, Isaacs, and Bob Marley sang protest songs, but Perry here conceptualizes music as a method to free oneself from Babylon, a weapon to itself in the struggle for salvation.

It all comes back to that ape. The cover (drawn by Tony Wright, the same artist who did War Ina Babylon) shows him raging across the countryside, smoking a monumental spliff, his belly full of "Roast Fish, Roots, Cornbread, Makka" (a posture which anticipates his encore appearance on the cover of Scratch's 1978 follow-up, Return of the Super Ape and calls to mind Perry's solo album of the same year, Roast Fish, Collieweed, and Cornbread). He is indomitable, insatiable, and utterly roots. On the last track, "Super Ape", the shadowy singers croon "This is the ape man / Trodding through creation / Are you ready / Are you ready to step with I man?": an elegant if inflated parable for Scratch himself, bringer of primordial forces and guide to the turbulent, always immanent power of Jah.

Naysayers zone in on such self-importance and claim that the album is indulgent and unfocused; devotees sometimes claim it's reggae-jazz that ranks among the American avant-garde masterpieces of the '50s. But for most conventional critics, it's simply a competitor for title of Best Dub Album Ever. Granted, Super Ape is hard to pin down, but it's not incomprehensible--at least, not any more than its creator. Then again, considering the wild, wholly uncontainable vision of Lee "Scratch" Perry, that gives us a lot of room to maneuver.

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