Lee ’Scratch’ Perry – A complex living legend
(In January 2003, Sunday Gleaner writer Chaos conducted a two-part interview with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, one of the nominees for the Reggae Grammy Award. This is a repeat of Part 1.)
If Bob Marley was King, Dennis Brown the Crown Prince and Clement ’Sir Coxsone’ Dodd the man who started it all, Lee ’Scratch’ Perry is the prophet who receives no honour in his own country. Revered and respected practically everywhere else in the world but here, Lee ’Scratch’ Perry is the man who took, and continues to take, reggae to places it has never been before and probably will never be again. A man with a vision only he can see, but one he freely offers glimpses of on each of the many albums and songs he produces. He has been described as an enigma, an eccentric, a pioneer and a genius – and each description is somewhat apt in its own way.
This is the man who wrote and produced Punky Reggae Party, the man who truly put reggae on the international map by collaborating with groups such as the famous English punk outfit The Clash before Eric Clapton had covered Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff. Someone who, according to reports, burnt down his very successful Black Ark studio in the 1970s apropos of nothing anyone outside of Perry, and perhaps God, knows of. A man who has sent himself into self-imposed exile from the land of his birth to Switzerland, because he refuses to work with the “crook parasites and vampires” who he believes control the Jamaican music industry.
Lee ’Scratch’ Perry is one of the five men, with African Alpha Blondy, Capleton, Bounty Killer and Freddie McGregor, to be nominated for 2002’s Reggae Grammy Award. The Sunday Gleaner caught up with him at the headquarters of Real TV at 15A Braemar Avenue, where he was scheduled to pick up one of the Dub Trafficker’s inaugural Poetic Pioneer Awards. When approached, he insisted to touch index fingers instead of shaking hands, coming back a few minutes later to assure that everything “is cool”.
Lee ’Scratch’ Perry is shirtless under a jacket that appears a size or two too small for him. A short man, he wears a hat which he later calls his IMF cap, which is lined with banknotes of various denominations from different countries. Each finger on both hands is adorned with an ornament of some sort, many of which defy description. Shards of mirror, CDs, medallions and icons bearing the image of Haile Selassie and Jesus Christ cover practically every available area on the front of his jacket and the outside of his cap.
He often laughs; it is a hoarse, whispery sound, yet joyful and somewhat cynical at times. The esteem he is held in is obvious, as those present hang on his every word, laughter and/or shouts of approval greeting each statement that proceeds from his lips. Most of these statements are, to say the least, out of the ordinary. Coming from anyone else they would be deemed the ramblings of a madman, but with Perry, one finds oneself searching for that kernel of truth that a little voice in the back of the mind says is there. He holds nothing back and holds very little – if anything – sacred. This is Lee ’Scratch’ Perry’s world and everyone else is just living in it. His words are biting as he takes shots at all and sundry, unfearing and totally believing the truth and power of his words.
Prior to the interview, he spreads a flag of Ethiopia over a chair before he sits on it. He then, almost reverently, removes a round (and whole) mirror from a small bag he carries and places it with almost exaggerated care on the ground in front of him.
On the outside he had been asked to autograph a particular album, which he emphatically refused to do. When asked why, he said: “The big king duppy (laughs) reincarnate himself inna likkle duppy ... . You raise the duppy, you raise the duppy – if the father a di devil, then who yuh believe him is? The son is here, really look like the devil fi tru ... then who the father was? God?”
Why do you say he is the devil?
“Men were going to die, don’t ask me why (laughs his hoarse laugh again). That is a number-one threaten and nobody want to threaten people without a reason unless they gonna reincarnate and come back young ... come back as the devil ... my son name Gabriel the archangel.”
So what/who is the devil?
“In the beginning was the word and the beginning of the word was God. So after God make Gad, Gad come in and start to copy God ... Jah found the 12 Tribe and start to copy God. So you couldn’t have two God, one must be the devil and one must be the original God. Ah Gad a do di copy, him also have AIDS well galore like wha him give AIDS to (name omitted) to spread cause him wha be a second God. Mi nuh haffi look fi de enemy first yuh know, is Gad, the battle is burned in me.
“Di Arab live in Bob house and dem never know him is an Arab. Him name Aba Manjafro. Him bless Bob and Bob die. Mi nuh kno’ wah him going do wid di res a family. Him bless Bob wid di Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Bob die. Is illegal murder. I don’t know happen to him, him going to get up in the pit (for) his crimes – somebody rob him, somebody trick I tink. I wonder if is the Arab who is in his house trick him, and he wouldn’t know he was an Arab because he was an Ethiopian. He wear little glasses. He also was a gay, he play two way.’
OK. On to a more conventional scheme of things. How do you feel about the Grammy nomination?
“All dung a dis people are stupid yuh know. I’m wearing the IMF cap, they ongle wear the reggae cap ... the reggae cap is nothing ... I’m wearing the money cap, dem a wear reggae cap ... so dem caan sue even the queen. I’m richer than the queen, the queen is crying because she go join black magic. She get involve in the black magic, all leave dem land go live in Africa to get rid of the black magic in Africa and don’t get rid off it.’
Do you care about the Grammys?
“The only think I care about is that I am here to show the Marleys that Emperor Selassie cannot dead. If a black queen come an’ tell the black people that the king is dead, den what if somebody claim to kill the black people? When the king is dead then the black nation dead.’
Tell us about ‘Jamaican E.T.’ (His Grammy-nominated album). Why that title?
“His eternal Marcus Garvey, who caan dead, so that’s where the title of the CD came from. When Marcus Garvey leave Africa there was no more Africa left in Africa.”
So what’s in Africa?
“Dead men. Dead bodies and dead bones, people without any brain. Selling each other tribalism and catching AIDS, bacteria, ’fronteria’, ’sideteria’ all over Liberia, ’bacteria’, ’fronteria’, ’sideteria’... .’
You have a reputation for being somewhat eccentric. How do you respond to that?
“Well, is the only ting what could mek me do the things I could. I repent, I did love meat very much and I start to say, well is only one body I have and if what you eat you become, then soon I’m going to dead because the things that I’m eating, the meat that I’m eating, is dead meat. So when I look into my heart, the later you will die if you eat dead meat forever, so I stop to eat meat, stop drink rum, then I start to see people as they are.”
When you are booked for a performance, what will make you decide if you are going to perform or not?
“The people who are coming to see me are not people who are looking for anything special. They say anything can happen and what he gonna be, as I appear they glad because they expect something different that they never know might happen. Anything might happen. They expect miracle so far as shows ... when tings happen, the miracle ... .”
Why haven’t you done more work here in Jamaica?
“Because I’m afraid of mixing with those crook parasites and vampire. If you are in the business and you as the crook, you must know, as mus’ God cripple you fi warn you.”
You are one of reggae’s pioneer producers. You have been credited with starting rap, but it seems you are only just getting recognition here. Why is that?
“The story of the Bible, like the stone that the builder refused and it became the cornerstone, the people didn’t recognise who the person are and the person didn’t have any money to do what he should do, but other people could know that they could use that person to get what they want to gain. I’m one of those people. I can open the door, so I can be used easily. Until I’ve been recognised where it was coming from, in the beginning that’s where. It’s coming from the earth.’
The funny thing is that you are ’recognised’ pretty much everywhere else. Do you think that’s because you don’t spend that much time here?
“No, yuh see them seh the king did never get any honour in his country. The people in the country never honour the king, they choose another king. You have to understand that. The people of a country where the king is coming from, those people never accept the king, the king is always accept outside, so the king must learn that he must still love those people who did not accept him ‘cause they did not know he was the right king. (Hoarse laugh).”
How do you feel about the Grammy nomination, does it mean anything to you?
“Yes, I’ve been recognised where people does not recognise the truth, white people see the truth and black people cannot see. That’s why black people always sell out Marcus Garvey, but Garvey nuh vex with them. They were programmed to sell Marcus Garvey all the time fi rice and peas. So? You tink Marcus Garvey going to vex about dat? Marcus Garvey is really recognised with people with economic brain, but the rebels and devils will always fight against them.”
While we’re talking about ‘economic brain’, what’s your take on the state of Jamaica in terms of the Government at the moment?
“Without I there wouldn’t be any power of economic here. With I all things is possible, without I nothing is possible. The Government would go down on their knee and they will go down with Gad and the Third World and the 12 Tribe will go down to the seven fathom deep in the bottom of hell. And they’ll end up in oblivion and won’t have any economic. I am the S-T-R-A-T-T-A Scratch – seven letters. I am the key man.”
How would you describe your contribution to Jamaican music?
“Those that repent will get blessing from me economically. Those don’t, well they will get seven fathom of portion seven time hotter than hellfire.”