Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Madman or Genius?
Interview for Time Out London, June 2002
As the Jamaican dub pioneer curates his Meltdown Festival at the South Bank, John Lewis travelled to deepest Switzerland to ask him about Prince Charles, Bob Marley and ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’.
We’re in a cab, half-an-hour from the high-finance capital of Zurich. I’m searching for the home of black music’s most eccentric maverick in what appears to be Europe’s whitest town, a land of cuckoo clocks, ski-lifts and pretty Alpine cottages. Along a country lane dotted with luxury chalets we encounter a pile of rocks on the ground which has been arranged into a cross, decorated with old CDs, glass and shards of metal. Behind them is a garage sprayed with crazy graffiti and spiritual images. Yes, I tell the cab driver, this’ll be the home of Hugh Rainford Perry, known variously as The Upsetter, The Super Ape, Pipecock Jackxon, The Black Jew, and The Arkologist. Or, more commonly, as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
The door is answered by his nine-year-old son Gabriel, who tells me that Daddy is upstairs in the conservatory. I walk upstairs to see a tiny, sprightly 67 year old Jamaican gleefully camping it up for our photographer in a room filled with rubber plants and tropical birds. Perry, all 5’4” of him, is wearing a crown and balancing a potted cactus plant on his head while flashing V signs with his fingers.
‘Peace, perfect peace!’ he sings. ‘Peace and thieves! In de street! Fighting de nation! Peace!’
If you’ve never heard of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, you’ll have heard his effect on music over the past 40 years. Not just for his pioneering role in so much Jamaican music – from rocksteady to ragga – and for his crucial (but largely uncredited) collaborations with Bob Marley, but also the way that his groundbreaking dub productions have shaped the sonic template for three decades in the world of punk, hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass, electronica and ambient music. He’s worked with everybody from The Clash to the Beastie Boys, and namechecked by everyone from Paul McCartney to DJ Shadow.
He lives in a small, sleepy town called Einseideln, best known for its beautiful Catholic cathedral whose chapel is dominated by a black-faced Madonna (‘she be the only other black face in town’ laughs Scratch). He’s lived here since 1989 with his (fourth) wife Mireille, a wealthy Swiss beauty who’s a curious mixture of muse, patron, agent, reggae fanatic and razor-sharp businesswoman.
‘I like Switzerland,’ says Scratch. ‘I like the birds, the hills, the green, the bees and the fishes. Me a country boy from Jamaica, from the hills, like Switzerland.’
Scratch doesn’t miss Jamaica at all. He even claims that he’ll never work with any Jamaican musicians ever again. He’s developed a hatred for the people who forced him to trash his legendary Kingston studio, the Black Ark. Between 1974 and 1979, this rickety backyard complex, equipped with a simple Tascam four-track and a host of primitive effects units, sculpted some of the most adventurous soundscapes in music history – bubbling basslines, splattering hi-hats, hypnotic organ patterns and gorgeous, soulful vocals, all shrouded in clouds of echo. It entertained Jamaica’s finest musicians and some bizarre overseas visitors, including Linda McCartney and Robert Palmer. But it also attracted hundreds of rastas, gangsters and hangers-on, forcing him, he claims, to set fire to the building in the early ’80s.
‘I had to burn down the best studio in the world,’ he says. ‘I know what happens when you mix with poverty. Me had to work just to support all the dreads, all these ragamuffins, all these dirty people. I’m very scared of bacteria. Sometimes it gets dangerous and becomes fronteria…’
Scratch has cleaned up remarkably in recent years. He’s not touched alcohol since moving in with Mireille. The man who once wrote a hymn of praise to Kentucky Fried Chicken has completely given up meat and fish (‘you are what you eat: I don’t wanna be dead meat’). And, amazingly, his prodigious ganja consumption was reduced to zero a couple of months ago. ‘It gives you good vibes, but you lose your soul. Anything you think you cannot do without, you better get rid of it.’
But conversation with Scratch is still never easy. He’ll shift from one topic to another with alarming rapidity. About why he loves science fiction (‘I like bringing the impossible to life and making it look real. Steven Spielberg is a genius’). About his obsession with Bruce Lee (‘kung fu is my religion’). He’ll tell us why George Bush is a reptile, and inform us, with some authority, that Prince Charles practises black magic (‘he make himself disappear and reappear; that’s why Queen Elizabeth will never make him king’). He’ll spin off for a while about musicians who have the voice of an angel but the heart of a devil (‘Freddie Mercury, he’s a devil but he sing like an angel. Same with Sisqo. And who’s that drummer guy? Phil Collins. He’s the same’). He’ll tell you why the music business turns angels into devils (Kate Bush, apparently, is the only angel left).
He sleeps uneasily, he says, frequently awoken by visions that he has to write down (‘when I sleep, I enter another world, and I get messages’). He often has nightmares about vampires (he loves ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’) and sometimes wakes up in his sleep to confront them (Mireille says she has been woken by Scratch shouting ‘Move, Buffy, move!’). He claims that his music is delivered by UFO. ‘My music is not from Jamaica,’ he says. ‘It is a spaceship.’
Scratch is often compared to other black mavericks who’ve constructed an Afrocentric take on sci-fi futurism, like the avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra (who claimed to be born on the planet Saturn) or the funk pioneer George Clinton (with his talk of the Mothership Connection). But, in conversation, Scratch’s child-like wordplay, his surreal flights of fancy, and his near-perfect comic timing actually remind me more of Spike Milligan. Like Spike, Scratch will often end an anecdote by collapsing into hysterical giggles, his eyebrows raised, tears streaming down his craggy face. It’s difficult in print to convey what an astonishing comedian he is – even listening to the interview tape again makes me howl out loud with laughter.
I end the interview by handing Scratch a briefcase-sized, battery-operated children’s toy where a dozen or so buttons play a range of different animal and train noises. My daughter was given two of them and I thought that Scratch – this pioneer of sampling, who built songs around crying babies, toy ducks and weather sounds – might appreciate the gift. How would he use these sounds to compose a song?
He pokes at it excitedly. ‘This is sounding good, very good. That’s the intro,’ he says, triggering the sound of a steam train whistle. ‘And this the rhythm, the sound of the midnight train,’ he continues, activating the chuggada-chuggada noise. He’s swaying to the pulse of the train by now, and pushing the colourful faces of the animals. ‘Ah, now these are all very good. You could put all of these on a rhythm track. That’s a goat, yes? And a cow? Ha! Yes, this is a frog, but the head look like the devil.’ It’s actually a pig, but it’s coloured green so I understand his confusion.
‘You could play the froggy noise and rap a song over the top.’ And he begins to do so. ‘Hello little froggy! You feeling little groggy!’ He hugs the toy and his face crumples into another Milligan-esque laugh.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Meltdown line-up
The Royal Festival Hall send me CD from lots of people and I chose the ones that sounded good to me. We are trying to create the new generation. They create different vibrations, but they all sound good.
Alpha Blondy RFH, Sun June 8
I love reggae from Africa. Africa is tearing itself apart, which make me sad. But no evil has been put on Alpha Blondy. He is a good person, an angel. Not just his music, but himself. He is a good person. And also a wonderful voice.
Public Enemy RFH, Tue June 10
Hip hop is a music that make you move. If you tired it give you some energy. It’s a loving vibration. I love it. But the truth is I think we have too much rappers. I’d like to have more singers to sing a hip hop rhythm, which would be nice.
Mad Professor RFH, Wed June 11 & Mon June 16
He’s a friendly person. He’s nice to work with, him give me no hassle. He tries to sort himself out, sort his path out. He not really crooked like the rest.
The Songs of Bob Marley and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry RFH, Sat June 14
Bob Marley was someone that I love inside. Very much. From the heart. It seem like he was a brother to me in some other life gone by. I have a special feeling for him. But it is a shame he didn’t have any feeling for me. Most of his songs we write them together so I give them to him free and say it’s yours. Some of his songs he claim he write. Me think he should be here forever. If he recognised me as a brother, I’m sure he wouldn’t die.
Jamaica Dance Day RFH Ballroom, Sat June 14
I was a dancer as a youth. My mother danced a special dance from Africa they call the etu. Dance is both art and exercise. In those days I would do the boogie woogie dance. Shuffle and spin and all those things. Take girls across your chest and pull them over. Like you’re going to throw them upside down. Put them over your back. I used to be very strong. I still strong now. If you got a girl that not too heavy and girl that can jump you can still do it.
Tricky RFH, Mon June 16
Well I never meet him yet, but what he done sound good to me. Sound professional. I like what I hear.
Sun Ra Arkestra, RFH, Fri June 20
I never liked jazz so much, not like Coxsone Dodd did. I prefer funky music! But, as far as I understand the late Sun Ra, there is something that is righteous. And everybody who performs with righteousness is acceptable by me with no criticism. He’s well respected. And he is well accepted by me, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, with lots of love.
The Madness of King Perry
There are lots of crazy stories about things you did...
(shrugs) Well, you have to do something…
Did you really walk backwards around Jamaica for a week?
Oh yes. That’s the only way I can get my energy back. It’s like when you finish a tape, to hear it you have to rewind it. Otherwise you won’t hear it. So if I never walk backwards I would be walking forwards forever. People would be eating me alive and I would have no chance to come back.
Did you worship bananas?
Of course. Bananas and coconuts. Both things are magic. This is not a joke. It’s real.
Why did you build a duck pond in your studio?
Birds are angels. They were here when we built the pyramids. The bird laws are the only laws. And the duck pond was my drum booth. I had no room for my drums, of course. But the duck cannot survive without the water. So that is why I needed a pond.
Did you really repaint Chris Blackwell’s flat because you didn’t like the vibes?
Of course. I also fill up his fridge with rocks. To kaput his energy, confuse his brain, give him big shock. Ha ha!
And you buried Adrian Sherwood’s television in the back garden because it was evil?
Him deserve more than that. Me no waste time talking about Adrian.
You wrote to the Japanese prime minister appealing for leniency when Paul McCartney was busted for cannabis possession…
Paul McCartney is a wonderful person. A really nice fellow. Very, very clean. I did what I could to help him.
Are you still a big Michael Jackson fan?
I did really love him. Until he start to do this stupidness. He hiding his children from I-and-I, so I not his fan anymore. You are our idol, we want to see what you generate, what you create. Children are the future. If the children have germs on their face, show us the germs on their face. And if the children too ugly, show us why the children so ugly. Otherwise you committing more sin.