“I have to keep original music alive,” Lee Perry says from his Switzerland home. “My Job is to keep the original music alive. I have to keep the original music alive for the children. Music drives the nation.”
Perry (born Rainford Hugh Perry in rural St. Mary, Jamaica on March 20, 1936) has been among the most prominent figures in reggae and, more specifically, dub music, and he may be the most important. Lee (whose Panic in Babylon was released by Narnack in August) got his start in 1954 by running the sound system created by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd (it consisted of nothing but a P.A. and a turntable) and found himself recording for him at the infamous Studio One shortly after. Known for his ridiculous antics and out-of-this-world insight, only to be matched on some level by free-jazz musician Sun-Ra (and that’s including the absurd wardrobes), Perry has always been on the mystical, spiritual inside of dub music — and usually off in another planet completely.
Some consider him the inventor of dub (others give that title to King Tubby), but he has always been a spiritual leader for reggae music, producing such acts as Bob Marley and the Wailers and even recording some music for the Clash, all the while creating a style that’s all his own. He has gone by many different pseudonyms (including the Upsetter and Pipecock Jakxon), but he always seemed to find his way back to Scratch.
“Scratch is a feeling,” he said. “It’s an element of feelings. Everybody have a scratch; you have a scratch.”
It wasn’t until Perry formed his own label, Upsetter, in 1968 that he broke ground within the field. He had been given the right starts by such folks as Dodd at Studio One and Joe Gibbs at Wirl Records, but once those relationships went sour (and that tends to happen with Perry), he would move on to a new stage in his life. He helped create the prototypical reggae “riddim” with the first track he recorded on his own, “People Funny Boy.” It was a direct attack on Gibbs and can be considered an influence on the later battle tracks that would arise in hip-hop. He created some of his best work with his studio band, the Upsetters, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including 1969’s Return of Django.
But it was in the mid-’70s, when Perry moved on from working with other’s equipment and into his own studio, Black Ark, that he began truly defining his sound. He tinkered with studio effects and sounds that really defined a generation of dub music. He mashed everything from TV samples and animal voices into his music, driving complete originality into it.
“I lived in a place that was telling me to try to make a different sound,” Perry said about what drove him to work with machines more than human beings. “The fishes were trying to tell me what to do from the sea level.”
Perry had begun working with reggae legends like Max Romeo and Junior Byles, and in 1969 would begin collaborating with a young Bob Marley and his Wailers, producing such notable tracks as “Small Axe” (which was released by Upsetter and is worth a gold mine today) and “Duppy Conqueror.” Both songs would lay the foundation for Marley’s future success. He and Perry would part ways by 1971 (Marley signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1973), though the two would collaborate intermittently until Marley’s death in 1981.
He had teamed up with the legendary King Tubby to create 1973’s Blackboard Jungle Dub, which many consider one of the most important dub albums of all time. But it was during his Black Ark era that he created such classics as 1975’s Revolution Dub and 1976’s Super Ape. By the end of the decade, though, he had hit a wall, the stress of the volatile Jamaican music industry haven taken its toll. When Black Ark Studios burned down in 1983, Lee Perry decided to leave that stage of his life behind — and Jamaica as well.
Perry now lives in Switzerland with his wife and kids, secluding himself from all previous turmoil. “I moved [to Switzerland] because of the vibration of the continent,” he said. “I was not too happy with the politicians in the country at the time.”
He still makes music that falls under the radar more often than not — music he no longer wants to consider dub because it has a wide range of influences. And he feels dub/reggae has gotten far away from its spiritual roots.
“The current state has changed into an element of a new original into dance music, which is not on a spiritual level anymore but for good time and fun,” Perry said. “Entertainment. Reggae music is not like what it used to be. We can take it back to the stage and rearrange it, but the people keep making dance music.”
It’s of particular importance for Perry to drive that point home. The music is “spiritual music — words that you want to hear to change your life, words that you want to hear to do what you know you should do because you did not make any change and you need to make a change,” Perry said. “Singing words we can learn from how to make change. More so what I’m doing now is entertainment. We should give more respect to the jungle and give more respect to animals and give more respect to God. Be more like a vegetarian. I used to love meat very much, but I didn’t realize I would be transforming into a cannibal by eating meat.
“I don’t want to make any music now that is anything fake,” Perry said. “I want to make music that will heal your body, heal your heart and heal your soul.”