Master of the Upsetter

“I like to give something special to people: that’s why I tour. I go because the people believe in God, and there is no other God coming but me. I’m not working because of the money; I’m working because the people believe that God is going to come to save them. I give them a sweeter soul and take away the bitter souls. Save them from pain and save them from cocaine.” Lee Scratch Perry in conversation with Laura Barnett, The Guardian in 2014.

The Upsetter, Lee Scratch Perry is touring the UK in March 2020, if you have seen him before, chances are you are going, if you haven’t, do, there ain’t no show like a Lee Scratch Perry show. Four Foot Eleven, swathed in mirrors, patches, badges and glittering CD’s, he’s a striking dude. Many misinterpret him as mad. Mistake. The man is a colossus. Sweet Lamb of Jesus, Lee Perry is a founding father of both Dub and Reggae.

It’s summer. It’s long. It’s hot. It’s love. A Saturnalia. Lovers kissing in the sand. Sugar cubes on tongues. Stoned pipers tooting willowy whistles. Naked dancers twirling in buzzing side streets to the beat, the beat, the beat. Gazelles wrapped in kimonos gazing down from bougainvillea balconies, their scent mixing with the ganja, the incense and the ocean. Sound Systems roll into town, gathering hordes about them, moving from pragmatism to mysticism. The Innovators are within. Making the noise that will change the world. Bringing Heaven to Earth.

It’s Kingston. It’s the late 60s. Duke Reid in cloak and crown above The Treasure Isle Grocery and Liquor Store at 33 Bond Street takes the beat down, shooting his pistols – ska becomes rock steady. U-Roy toasts. The Upsetter, Lee Scratch Perry is bringing back Mento, further slowing the groove, bringing back the word. The Upsetter removes the soul vocal from rock steady. The Upsetter ramps up the bass, echo, echo, echo; in with rhythm, out with the melody. Music was never made this way before, indeed, what had been hereto defined as music was warped into something more free form – samples, sound effects undercut with sinister, subsonic bass – turntables, mixing and scratching vinyl.

Lee Scratch Perry is nothing if not prolific and so breaking into his discography is overwhelming. He has being recording for over half a century and he always churned out the output. It becomes all the more maze like as he puts out the work under a plethora of great sounding pseudonyms – Jah Lion, Pipecock Jakxon, Super Ape, the Upsetter, and his most famous nom de plume, Scratch. From Ska vocalist at Studio One; early partnerships with Prince Buster, Joe Gibbs, Clancy Eccles and Andy Cap Anderson; Bob Marley and the Wailers early productions; creation of his own Upsetter Records – those early records with the All Stars; Afrocentric album Africa’s Blood; the early dubs of Cloak and Dagger, Rhythm Slower and Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle; early lo-fi Black Ark stuff – Double Seven and the sampling revolution of Revolution Dub– he’d being around and then some, before investment in Black Ark Studio Equipment and a distribution deal with Island Records resulted in 1976’s supreme Super Ape.

For many, their first introduction to Lee Scratch Perry is through Super Ape. Yes, it is definitely one of his masterworks, a boss record but the truth is more evidenced by Mike Powell writing in Pitchfork in 2007 about a friend of his discovering the album as an adolescent, saying, “I wasn’t sure which was the best one, so I just bought the one with the comic-book gorilla smoking a gigantic joint on the cover.” It is unforgettable. As is the record. It is listening into a place in a time, it doesn’t start nor end, it flows along, it’s a Jamaican night out. And this is supposed to be the inferior mix, the original gone the way of the Holy Grail. No, it’s not pure dub, but beyond the purists, the vocals transcending them is was makes it seminal to Pil, Massive Attack and dubstep. We are eased in by The Upsetters dragon like vocal on Zion’s Blood, the drum and bass here is wicked. Man, you’re there, on the streets of Kingston, walking past bars and clubs, different music floating in and out but all complete, a masterwork.

Prince Jazzbo toasts us in on Croaking Lizard

“Oh Lord, have mercy.”

The mix here is superb. You’re at the bar quaffing rum, the back-door slamming open and shut, things are getting murky, it’s right there but astonishingly still elusive. Black Vest is almost seaside bandstand brass, bongos on the beach, smell the salt, feel the warm breeze, that chug-chugging rhythm takes you along in a psychedelic swirl, you trudge into the mountain forests and the brooding stormy clouds overhead looking for Dread Lion, King of the Forest, the drums and bass soothing you, making you brave, making it familiar, towards sweet chants on Three In One and the reassuring refrain on Dub Along

“Come Along, Come Along with me, Come Along, Come Along With Me, Follow I, Follow I, I, I, Follow I, Follow I,I,I”

At the end, but not the end, the title track asks –

“This is the ape-man, treading through creation, are you ready to step with I man?”.

Yes, Lee, by God, yes, I Step with I man.

Tip – An Ariadnean thread through the Lee Scratch Perry maze – releases on Trojan, Heartbeat, Island and Mango are generally excellent.

And make sure you get to one of the following –