It is unfortunate that the artwork for King Scratch, the new retrospective released by Trojan Records, features the latter-day Lee “Scratch” Perry. This is the Perry who released music of varying and often-spotty quality and, through his increasingly bizarre words and actions, became something of a caricature. It is also not the Perry represented by the music on King Scratch.
An archival 1970s photo of Perry would have been more appropriate because that is the period King Scratch focuses on. That was when an always-eccentric but relatively lucid Perry was at the height of his powers as a producer, recording artist, and talent scout, making what became a seismic impact on Jamaican music. This impact resonated across continents and genres. Perry became an icon of alternative music in the West and was feted by everyone from the Clash to the Beastie Boys.
Perry’s influence was still being felt, and he was still making new music up until his death at age 85 in August 2021. In a move whose perversity somehow suits Perry’s legacy, Trojan Records is releasing King Scratch to coincide with the first anniversary of his passing. There are multiple versions: In addition to the two-CD, 40-track set covered here, fans can choose either a 22-track double vinyl edition or the inevitable “deluxe” box, which spreads 109 tracks across four CDs and four vinyl records.
Even before King Scratch’s release date, fans on internet forums debated the utility and value of another compilation of an artist whose work has been compiled many times before. Record labels seem to be aware of these kinds of debates. In recent years, they have responded by trying to include essential, familiar material and rarities that might pique the interest (and wallets) of completists whose collections already run deep. As such, King Scratch boasts a number of tracks and versions that have been “previously unreleased digitally” and a few that are surfacing for the first time in any format.
Despite its From the Upsetter Ark-Ive subtitle, King Scratch is not limited to material Perry recorded at his own Black Ark studio in the mid-to-late 1970s. Rather, it extends beyond those years in both directions, covering Perry productions ranging from 1968 all the way to 2002.
For many, Perry is primarily associated with Black Ark. Black Ark, in turn, is mainly associated with dub. However, what quickly becomes apparent on King Scratch is the impressively wide range of styles, singers, and even subgenres Perry produced. Early tracks like Perry’s own “People Funny Boy” and the Inspirations’ “Tighten Up” feature the quicker tempo of rocksteady; the latter even has ska-style horns. Gradually, though, the tempos slow down, and the basslines become deeper and more pronounced as reggae is born.
This is an oversimplification, of course. Within those broad parameters are many approaches and influences, none more crucial than soul and R&B. Dave Barker mimics James Brown‘s swaggering screams, hollers, and exhortations on “Shocks of Mighty”. Perry’s “Jungle Lion” replicates the riff from Al Green‘s “Love and Happiness” in a pioneering bit of proto-sampling. One of the set’s true revelations is Susan Cadogan. A helium-voiced singer who coos in the manner of classic girl groups, she covers Millie Jackson’s “Hurt So Good” and lays out the blueprint for countless trip-hop seductresses on the slinky “Do It Baby”.
Of course, not all is sexiness and good vibes. Plenty of roots or “conscious” material addresses serious social and cultural issues, both in Jamaica at the time and the African diaspora in general. That includes some of the best-known names in the collection, Perry stalwarts Junior Byles, Max Romeo, and Junior Murvin. Each is well-represented, and classics such as Byles’ “Place Called Africa”, “Beat Down Babylon”, and “Curly Locks”; Romeo’s “War in a Babylon” and “Fire Fe the Vatican”; and Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and “Roots Train” are essential to any reggae collection.
Most of the aforementioned selections appear on the set’s first disc, which spans 1968-1976. The second disc gets into the heart of the Black Ark years, and this is where Perry’s dub innovations really take the forefront. Even from the crying baby on “People Funny Boy”, many of Perry’s productions evinced the unique effects and general weirdness he became famous for. But the likes of Watty Burnett’s cavernous, apocalyptic “Open the Gate”, and Murvin’s ringing, careening “Cross Over” take things to a level that set the standard for dub and helped usher in countless new subgenres, from dubstep to drum’n’bass.
The producers of King Scratch really should have stopped there. Instead, they include a handful of latter-day productions that find Perry losing not only his edge but also his mind. Increasingly affected by heavy drinking, drugs, and the pressures of fame, he shut down Black Ark, which was later destroyed under still-mysterious circumstances. Subsequent tracks like a syndrum-heavy cover of Bob Marley‘s “One Drop” do nothing to bolster Perry’s legacy, and titles like “I Am a Madman” and “Jamaican E.T.” only show the extent to which Perry encouraged and embraced his pigeonholing as a loveable but loony relic, albeit one who never became uncool.
Even with a collection as expansive as this, some notable omissions exist. Sadly, the Congos’ Heart of the Congos, often cited as the all-time greatest Perry production, is not represented, though a couple of outtakes from those sessions are included. The most glaring absence, though, is that of Marley and the Wailers. Their formative work with Perry laid the foundation for Marley’s international superstardom. Some of Marley and the Wailers’ classic tracks were first cut with Scratch, and many fans and critics view the fruits of the collaboration as Marley’s true artistic peak. Sadly and probably due to licensing issues, none of this work is included on King Scratch.
The Perry/Marley/Wailers material is still available and is essential for a complete understanding of anyone involved. Furthermore, the excellent 1997 Arkology set offers a more thorough immersion in Perry’s Black Ark period. Still, as a comprehensive career overview, King Scratch more or less gets it right; at the very least, this is a great place for newcomers to take the dive.