Perfect Sound Forever

The Return of the Return of Super Ape:
The Lee Perry Renaissance

Lee Perry

by Mick Sleeper
(June 1998)

"I don't have any memory of the past. The past that need me will have to come to me". This bit of wisdom comes from The Upsetter himself, Lee Perry. His words have certainly come to pass. In the past two years, the reggae world has seen a Lee Perry renaissance as a solid series of reissues and a new interest in The Upsetter's legacy have taken hold. The past has come to Lee Perry, and to us. Perry's story is well known by now: throughout most of the 1970's, Scratch was simply the producer in Jamaican music, his legendary Black Ark studio being the hinge around which most of the island's heaviest music turned. His subsequent breakdown and crazed behavior have approached almost mythic qualities, as well as his reputation inside and outside of Jamaican music. "I write 'Punky Reggae Party'", Scratch called out at June's alternative Free Tibet concerts in New York. "Dat mean I am a punk!" Even though this statement was simply a bit of banter, like all of Scratch's ravings it contains a lot of truth. If it wasn't for white fans of punk and alternative music, Scratch's music could very well be something that only hardcore reggae aficionados get excited about. In the past year, this excitement has reached a peak as a new wave of fans and critics are embracing The Upsetter's music. This is the return of the return of the Super Ape.

Serious reggae fans have decried the rise and cheered the fall of computerized dancehall music that rarely strayed from guns and getting laid. Such was the state of Jamaican music throughout much of the 1980's, and it's only been in the past few years that a return to conscious music has happened thanks to people like Luciano, Everton Blender, Sister Carol, Buju Banton, Beres Hammond, and others. What goes around comes around, and with the new wave of conscious reggae came a new interest in the work of earlier rootsmen such as Augustus Pablo, Horace Andy, Peter Tosh, and many others. The Lee Perry renaissance can be seen as a part of this trend.

If Jamaican music is a gold mine, then record companies and collectors alike started to dig. Scratch's work as performer or producer is a particularly rich vein, and Steve Barrow's excellent Blood & Fire reissue label was the first to strike pay dirt with the amazing Heart Of The Congos re-release in 1995. One of the truly legendary albums in Jamaican music, Heart was lovingly resurrected by Blood & Fire with extensive sleeve notes and a bonus CD worth of rare 12" mixes. Next came Larks From The Ark on Nectar, a wonderful collection of rare grooves from heavies like Leroy Sibbles and Black Ark stalwarts such as the Jolly Brothers. The third album in this "trilogy" was Voodooism, one of the first releases on the maverick On U Sound's reissue label, Pressure Sounds. A collection of Perry rarities complete with dubs, it was an esoteric collection whose songs hadn't seen the light of day for decades. Heart, Larks, and Voodooism were eagerly sought out by serious Perry collectors, and the trio of albums seemed to get the reissue ball rolling. However, as might be expected with a punky reggae party, the real impetus behind the Lee Perry revival came from a few of Scratch's white fans in America.

The Lee Perry renaissance seems to be spearheaded by an unlikely source: the Beastie Boys, whose magazine Grand Royal published an outstanding Scratch retrospective by editor Bob Mack in their 1995 issue. Introducing the words and wisdom of the Upsetter to an entirely new audience who perhaps would have never gotten the tip otherwise, Grand Royal ended up teaching fans old and new a lot about Perry's canon. Editor Bob Mack took an irreverent yet extremely detailed look at the life and times of Lee Perry, and the lengthy article had contributions from a wide variety of sources, including Perry's "ghost writer" and faithful Scratchologist David Katz. Complete with amazing photos, a no nonsense suggested discography, and an interview that must be read to be believed, the Grand Royal article was a goldmine for Perry fans. Even more valuable, however, is the flood of Perry re-releases that followed.

1 We're living in a golden age of reggae re-releases, and thankfully Perry's work hasn't been overlooked; quite the opposite, actually. Trojan led the way with a dizzying series of reissues in 1996 including The Upsetters' Double Seven, Eastwood Rides Again, and Return Of Django, solid collections like Words Of My Mouth, Battle Axe, Scratch & The Upsetters Again, Dave Barker's Prisoner Of Love, and several others. Oddly enough, Island didn't bother trying to compete with its UK reggae rival; they made up for lost time a year later with the outstanding Arkology, the long awaited box set of rare and unreleased Black Ark music overseen by reggae lions Steve Barrow, David Katz, and Trevor Wyatt. The set generated quite a bit of press: Rolling Stone, The Face, Straight No Chaser, NME, Billboard, and several other pop magazines all reviewed the set or ran articles about the life and times of The Upsetter. Lee Perry took the attention in his stride, but there's little doubt that he must be privately thrilled at having people beating a path to his door once again. Realizing that he has a formidable base of fans old and new, Scratch didn't hesitate to step into the spotlights again.

In April 1997, Lee Perry played his first live gigs in America for close to 15 years with two sold out shows at San Francisco's Maritime Hall. The upsetting shows were followed by a fall tour of America, Canada, and Europe, and at the time of writing (June 1998) Scratch has already repeated the American tour. Perry also played the role of elder statesman at the alternative rock Free Tibet concerts in June alongside young hipsters such as Alanis Morrissette and Californian punk rockers Rancid, who paid homage to Scratch by playing Junior Murvin's "Roots Train" as they took the stage. Despite being the leading exponent of Jamaican music after Bob Marley, the music press all but ignored Scratch's performance at the high profile gig; in the words of the man himself, "while others were chasing riches, I was chasing witches."

Besides Arkology, 1997 has seen two more crucial Perry releases. Heartbeat stole a bit of Island's thunder on the eve of Arkology with Upsetter In Dub Vol. 1, a heavy collection of Black Ark dubs that included a few previously unrelased tracks. Most recently, 2B1 Records in San Francisco has released a live album - a first for Scratch - capturing Scratch's delirious performances at the Maritime Hall in April. In the coming year, we can expect some more Perry grooves from the early years when JAD releases volume two in its series of Bob Marley rarities, dedicated to the Perry produced Wailers sessions. Arkology proved that the Lee Perry vaults can be plundered much further; who knows how many more treasures await the light of day?

Finally, my own small contribution to the Lee Perry renaissance is my website dedicated to all things starting from Scratch, "Soundzs From The Hotline". Since making it's debut in August of 1996, it has received thousands of visits from fans around the world; even people in Antarctica have seen it. My favorite aspect of the page is that every week I hear from people across the globe, all of whom are enthusiastic to shoot the breeze about Perry's music. The biggest thrill was in December of 1997 when I found out through a neighbor of Lee Perry's that the Upsetter himself had seen the webpage; he now tunes in once a month to see what's up with Lee Perry online. Check out the site at [ED NOTE: that site is no longer up].

Whether or not the Lee Perry renaissance will continue or fade remains to be seen; the interest from fans is certainly there, but will record companies continue to re-release Perry's esoteric work? Several albums worth of 7" and 12" singles, dubs, versions, and DJ mixes await the CD treatment, and no doubt there are things that only Scratch himself knows about, buried in his garden or hidden in his hubcaps. In this weird end of the millenium world, we seem dedicated to make sure we take as much of the past into the new millenium as possible. If anyone can make it a punky reggae party when we reach 2000, it's Lee Perry.

Return to PSF's main Lee Perry page