Speaking in Pastiche: Lee "Scratch" Perry and Subatomic Sound System Revisit 'Super Ape'
"[Scratch is] like this jester and he's joking around and people discount him, almost like he's a clown but he's actually speaking these deep truths in jokes."
Standing in the audience for Lee "Scratch" Perry's sold-out show at the Beat Kitchen in Chicago, one of the eight-stops on his tour to promote the Super Ape Returns to Conquer album, it came as no surprise to hear the comments from the crowd as the eccentric performer launched into his repertoire of re-imagined dub classics. "Wow, dude is crazy," said one guy behind me to his girlfriend. "I mean, look at his shoes."
It was hard not to notice Scratch's high-top sneakers amid a tray of candles and dozens of sticks of incense that wafted smoke at his feet. His shoes, or "boots", as Scratch calls them, were tricked out with an owl magnet and loads of other bedazzling chunks of plastic and mirrors. The baseball hat atop his head was no different: medallions and patches and tiny paintings. Did he travel with a hot glue gun, I wondered? His microphone, or what I assumed was a microphone, lay buried beneath a giant brass ankh and a collection of charms -- crowns, tokens, even a bent key. Crazy? So say many, but to Emch of the Subatomic Sound System -- a producer, DJ, and musician who has toured and worked with Scratch for the past eight years -- the way that Scratch looks, the way that Scratch talks, and most of all, the way that Scratch makes music are all part of a condition that walks a fine line with crazy: genius.
Two days earlier I had talked to Scratch by phone to ask him about his new album, or old album. "Dub Godfather Lee 'Scratch' Perry Boldly Re-Imagines Hi Genre-Defining Masterpiece. New LP Super Ape Returns to Conquer", proclaimed the press release headline. Super Ape certainly was genre-defining since it essentially introduced Scratch's creation, the genre of dub, to the world in 1976. The original album pieced together sections of Max Romeo's "War Ina Babylon" and "Chase the Devil" (songs Scratch produced for Romeo) into a mélange of reverb, echo, and delay.
Before pioneering dub, Scratch had produced Bob Marley and the Wailers. After pioneering dub he had won a Grammy and been nominated for several others. Today, 41 years after the release of Super Ape, Scratch and his touring band, the Subatomic Sound System, bring the new album to stages in the US and Canada.
"How are you?" I asked him, and immediately his reply conveyed warmth and a sense of humor. "I'm not good. I'm great!" he said, giggling like a child. I asked him to describe the new Super Ape Returns to Conquer and his answer came in a stream of sentences, one after another, and no further questions would be necessary.
"Super Ape. The animal was here before human beings and it is supposed to be animal alone, but human beings have no feelings and they stab and kill the animal so God take revenge and create a flood to drown them and the few that save he create the world with them, the few that he save, but at this time I don't know what is going to happen, I think we are going to be burned to ashes and dust by Marcus Garvey.
"Marcus Garvey own Jamaica and Marcus Garvey going to take over America, take over Canada, take over everywhere. Marcus Garvey is a vengeful man. He is taking revenge. He's not a human being. He is a lion.
"The new version is when you go to the bathroom and what you put inside the bathroom. What you put in the bathroom is the Super Ape and rise out of the pit like Joseph rather than out of the pit like the drain bowl. Think about Joseph they throw in the pit and then Joseph come back out of the pit with his rainbow crown and sit on his rainbow throne. Not to kill those who put him in the pit, but to punish them, make them poor. Make them poor, take away them money, take away them cash, them dollar.
"The Super Ape is the glory of god. If you look good on his face you'll see the Super Ape's face look like shit. But shit comes back to take revenge. If you want to know the secret weapon, his secret weapon is shit. America has secret weapon, Russia has secret weapon, and Super Ape is shit and he is revengeful. He's an amazing little monkey. The big master is the Super Ape. He's coming like a rolling thunder out of the pit. Roaaaaaaar! And whoever make it, Super Ape come and step on them and he crush. Shazam, lightning flash. Thunder roll and lightning flash and bazam. The sun and the moon and the stars. Super Ape is the thing that you put in the pit.
"Think about what you put in the pit, the toilet pit, what you eat. Be careful of what you eat. Eat special things like vegetable. Vegetable is life itself, the green life. Vegetable is the life giver.
"Ganja is the king of kings. One-ja. Jamaican want revenge and is taking revenge with Marcus Garvey. They call it reggae, they call it geggae, or meggae, or whatever they want to call it. Meggae reggae keggae."
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A few days later I would call Emch to ask him to decipher these words, these ramblings, these metaphors. Though it was helpful, it still felt like listening to Lee "Scratch" Perry talk was a bit like speaking in tongues or a foreign language. "It's pretty abstract," said Emch when I asked him, point blank, what the heck was going on. "Honestly it has taken me years to understand the things he says that seem like non-sequiturs, tangential, and it's really these themes and he has this whole philosophy and outlook on life that's really interesting.
"He's like an abstract painting, he just puts things together and at first maybe they seem simple, but eventually it gets to the point where he's added so much that he's created a style. Even his hats and his boots. I've seen him make so many hats and boots over the years and you look at all of them and there's a consistent style. It's very interesting to see his creativity manifest across different mediums and it's consistent. His visual appearance is very much tied to the way he approaches music." Emch had a point. If Scratch's music was a pastiche, and his appearance was a pastiche, why wouldn't the way he spoke and the way he thought also be a pastiche?
Still, there was all that stuff about shit. What was that all about? Emch explained, "He has an obsession with shit and piss, because sometimes it would seem like he was regressing, because he is sort of childlike and sometimes he'll regress to shit and piss humor and get a kick out of it. I think there's something to do with it too of it being the first creative act -- creation and the whole idea of consuming and processing food.
"He'll tell me that one day it's your food and your striving to get it and you eat it and it comes out and it's shit and you want nothing to do with it. I still don't quite understand how that fits into things, but that's part of it. I still think it's a clear idea to him, but he doesn't express it in a way that ties it together -- it's little bits here and there, which is really interesting to me because the more I hear him talk, the more these themes come up and in context, it's not a joke.
"Everything for him is a joke with meaning to it. I once called into a show for him and I called in at the wrong time. I called during the Shakespeare show -- it was a radio show about Shakespeare, and we ended up talking instead even though it was the wrong show. We talked about Lee Perry as being like the Shakespearean jester characters. There's the jester, or the clown, who is actually the one who speaks the truth. There's one in King Lear and the one in Hamlet is a gravedigger. I feel like that's Lee Perry. He's like this jester and he's joking around and people discount him, almost like he's a clown but he's actually speaking these deep truths in jokes."
Indeed, there are many reoccurring "truths", themes and motifs in Scratch's music, as well as in his appearance and conversation. Animals, money, shit and piss, mirrors, earth, air, water, and certainly fire. Hearing Scratch chant, "Open flame, open flame, open flame" on a small stage in the back of a bar while holding up a Bic lighter and stepping around that tray of candles and incense may make some fans a little uneasy, considering the legendary Black Ark studio in Jamaica burned down in 1983, and his Blue Ark studio in Switzerland burned down in 2015. Both studios burned at his own hand. But if shit, as Emch suggests, is an act of creation for Scratch, then fire is certainly an act of destruction that regenerates the cycle of creation, and so this fire, this energy, is brought to the stage in what Emch accurately reframes as performance art.
Photo: Heather Augustyn (Beat Kitchen 27 October 2017)
"He's a performance artist. And he drives people to discover different creative potentials within themselves," says Emch. "If I ask him about a song, he'll use a metaphor and say it's the sound of water flowing, and instead of him telling you how to do it with the equipment, you have to manifest what that idea is and sometimes it's more powerful than saying, 'play this note or that note.' He'll say to the horn player, 'buzz like a bee', or he'll say to Larry, 'open skull cave', or 'take me to the jungle, Larry.'"
Larry is Larry McDonald, the percussionist who performed on the original Super Ape and has toured and recorded with Scratch over four decades, including on the new incarnation. This octogenarian deserves as much of the spotlight as Scratch for his massive body of work, collaborating with countless artists to punctuate their songs with his congas. He has performed with Count Ossie in the Wareika Hills, Carlos Malcolm, Gil Scott-Heron, Taj Mahal, Bob Marley, and Mutabaruka, just to name a few.
Troy "mobius" Simms on saxophone is wicked, and Emch himself DJs the massive, occasionally scattering flourishes on top of the bass-heavy rhythms with his melodica à la Augustus Pablo. They are all guided by the spirit of Scratch whose collection of creations on Super Ape is the framework they use for their own inspiration. This is a collective in every sense of the word and Emch explains how that ethos transferred to the new recording.
"People think of dub as very minimal. His is kind of maximal. He puts a lot of stuff in there. There's a lot of space, but there's a lot going on. When we dug into Super Ape we realized how many layers and subtle things there are buried in the background and it was really important to capture all of that, but also it was also so busy that we had to degrade some of that sound and push it to the background to make space.
"It's a live album so we tried to keep a balance of openness and those layers. It's like a really good book or movie that you can read or watch repeatedly. Super Ape is that kind of album where you can listen to it over and over and still notice little things in the background and subtleties that are interesting. That's part of the magic of Lee's creativity. There's a lot going on and that's what makes it rich and deep and you can listen to it over time and you can find new meanings in it. Any powerful art is open to multiple interpretation and layers. His whole aesthetic is different. It's all about spirituality and energy and it's about manifesting that through the music, kind of by any means necessary."
Super Ape Returns to Conquer takes that aesthetic and applies new elements to appeal to contemporary audiences, like deeper bass. The album features no samples and was not mixed using any master tapes -- it's all new recording. Emch says, "We were pushed to a new level to remake his stuff. The mission with this album was to give people a sound system resonant bass feeling from a reggae album so when you're listening, even on a smaller stereo or headphones, you get that. It's not sit around on the couch and smoke weed music. This is dance music. Turn this up loud and make your whole body vibrate.
"That's something that Lee talks about and why he'll play for two and a half hours. He says that this is healing, we are healers. It's healing to listen to those bass lines and feel it. He's a musical shaman. He's got a lot of wisdom. His real gift is that he inspires others to find their highest level of creativity. That's an amazing gift."
(Photo: Heather Augustyn) (Beat Kitchen 27 October 2017)
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