PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Speaking in Pastiche: Lee "Scratch" Perry and Subatomic Sound System Revisit 'Super Ape'

Photo: Heather Augustyn / Beat Kitchen, 27 October 2017

"[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."



Super Ape Returns to Conquer

Lee Scratch Perry, Subatomic Sound System
(Subatomic)
22 Sep 17

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."

Please don't ad block PopMatters. We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers. Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support. Thank you.

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)

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.