An excellent conversation with a bona fide music legend.
If the history of reggae was the Old Testament, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry would be God. He was there, making it happen. In 1968 he released ‘People Funny Boy’, one of the first ever reggae tunes. Two years later he was approached by Bob Marley to produce the second and third Wailers albums. From that moment, musicians from Perry’s house band The Upsetters, named after his song ‘I Am The Upsetter’, became part of the definitive line-up of Marley’s band.
Perry himself went on to record with everyone from The Clash to Paul McCartney, and he was more than just a producer. He was a guide and a friend in times of need. In 1980, when Macca was arrested in Japan for possession of 7.7 ounces of cannabis, Perry sent a letter to Tokyo’s Minister of Justice, pointing out “the Herbal powers of marijuana in its widely recognized abilities to relax, calm and generate positive feeling”. Perry made it clear he was writing in his personal capacity as a “creator of nature’s LOVE, light, life and all things under the creation sun, positive feelings through songs, good times and no problems.” McCartney was later released.
On March 5, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is coming to London’s Village Underground to play a dub reggae DJ set. I called him up at his home in Jamaica to find out how preparations were going, and received the following transmission from the mountain top:
Hi Lee. What should we expect when you play in London in March?
“Say to people in London that God is coming. God is coming. God is coming to save all the people that love God. If you love God, share in that. We will conquer. Conquer the Roman Empire. Conquer politicians. Conquer kings and conquer queens. Conquer princes and conquer princesses. Rastafari!”
I will tell the people of London. Do you have good memories from when you’ve come here before?
“I conquered. I conquered the markets. I conquered bread markets. I conquered chicken markets. I conquered blood-suckers and I conquered vampires. In the name of Jah and the golden lion. Jamaica! Are you ready?”
“By the God of thunder. By the God of lightning. By the God of Christ. God will conquer. In the name of Marcus Garvey. I am in Jamaica now. Jamaica is the country of magic. Jamaica is the country of science. It’s the confluence of magic. Give that magic to American rappers. Give that magic to Aleister Crowley. [Singing:] ‘Follow me, I’m the pied piper.’”
You’ve had a long career – 60 years – but who’s the most talented musician you ever worked with?
“A bass player named Boris Gardiner. A drummer named Mikey. A guitarist named Chinna. A guitarist named Ernest Ranglin. A piano player named Winston, Winston is dead now. They played in my band The Upsetters, after the others went to play with Bob Marley.”
Your London show will be a couple of weeks before your 81st birthday. How do you plan to celebrate?
“Smoke it up.”