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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image