Music is My Life: Episode 050

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on Bob Marley, Dub, Reggae, and Production

Lee "Scratch" Perry is shown performing in 2016.

Photos of Lee “Scratch” Perry by Frederik Ranninger of Pit Pony Photography (© / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Lee “Scratch” Perry passed away on August 29th. We were fortunate enough to interview the Upsetter in 2020, for the 50th episode of the Music is My Life podcast. What follows is a transcript of the very surreal interview.

At 84 years young he has enough laurels to rest on, but he still keeps creating. As a music producer, he arguably invented reggae in the late 1960s and early 70s, and he inarguably invented dub in the mid 1970s at his famed Black Ark Studio in Jamaica. He was Bob Marley’s mentor, producing some of his first recordings. It’s possible he also invented sampling, using the sound of a crying baby to begin his song “People Funny Boy” in 1968, a scathing song against one of his rival producers.

His musical influence is not limited to reggae either. He collaborated with the Clash, with the Beastie Boys, with George Clinton, with Keith Richards, and so many more.  One other thing about Lee “Scratch” Perry and the reputation that precedes him. He sings a song called “I Am a Madman,” and a lot of people who have worked with him would agree with that.

The conversation that you are about to hear takes a lot of twists and turns and some of his answers were so different from the questions I asked that I was tempted to dub in some alternate questions. What I decided to do instead is to interrupt every now and then to give you some context. So do not expect a traditional episode of the Music Is My Life podcast. I mean, is anything traditional anymore? For instance when I ask him ….

You grew up with what, four siblings?
Yeah, I grew up with revolution.

So yeah, he grew up with revolution. Oh, also, another thing to warn you about: This interview was done via What’sApp, so the quality suffers a little. But if you go to right now, you’ll be able to read along with the transcript. Okay, back to the program …

Lee Scratch Perry: I grew up with revolution in my brain, revolution in my leg, and revolution in my head. 

Were there songs in your family before you went off to Kingston, music that you liked?
Well, I liked “Charlie Brown,” like pop music.  Yeah, I was loving pop music and [songs like, “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters] “Take out those papers and the trash, or you won’t get no spending cash.” I am a lover of pop music. So I reckon my number one spot is Michael Jackson. 

Michael Jackson? You’d been recording for years before you heard him, right?
Well, I love stars that are uncommon. I’m really a pop music lover. I really love hip-hop music. I love hip-hop music even more than reggae music. Reggae music is okay. I love the American artists, them so much because the American artists have super very good voice [laughs]. So I was always listening to good singers. I love good singers, I love real singers. I watched Bob Marley in that duration before reggae becomes so common. So most of the stars that I have put up were coming from the American singers. You know what I mean? So I mean to say if you want to hear about something like “Me love Jamaica because they’re my people,” but they actually are too nice to me and they’re like raggamuffin, and me no like raggamuffin. Me like special artists. James Brown is my friend [laughs]. 

James Brown?
Yeah, was my friend.

Rolling Stones are my friend. I don’t like to see what will happen to the Americans because most of the American singers, I learned from them and I love them. I don’t know what will happen to the good singers in America to find a way out, to find freedom, because if all of the American singers die, I will cry. 

Yeah, I mean singers are our last shot.
It will be too boring without the American singers.

[Okay, here is the first interruption! So at this point, he is talking about how he’d be sad if all of the American singers died because he is referring back to a theory that he revealed when our conversation first started, that the coronavirus is affecting America so badly now because the American government gave Bob Marley cancer. Are you following? He is actually not the only one to believe the second part of this. Most biographers of Bob Marley will acknowledge that there was definitely a suspicious amount of interest the FBI and CIA had in the reggae superstar, and that the agency considered him a threat. Maybe he would inspire a great uprising? Maybe his songs were too political. Most biographers will acknowledge that yes, there is at least some credible evidence that the American government had something to do with the 1978 assassination attempt against Bob Marley, but there is little credible evidence to support the theory that a device the American government had placed in Bob Marley’s shoe caused the cancer that killed him in 1981. However, there are some people who believe that. Lee “Scratch” Perry seems to be one of those people. And he also seems to believe that the virus is karmic retribution. Here’s the clip from earlier in the discussion, complete with annoying phone notification on my end.]

American scientists and American Obeah men and American beasts gave Bob Marley cancer, in a year. They gave Bob Marley cancer and them could not find the answer. Why did they give Bob Marley cancer? If they give Bob Marley cancer, then Bob Marley give them the virus [laughs]. 

Yeah, I always wondered about that. There was that conspiracy that the government gave him cancer.
Bob Marley was my student. He’s my student, so the American Government and the American scientists give my student cancer. Now they’ll find the answer and send back what they give [laughs]. So what the American government give to Bob Marley is cancer. 

[Trying to steer the conversation in less of a conspiracy-driven direction] But then he gave back something much more positive than cancer …
So Bob Marley give them virus [laughs].

Oh yeah? Well then I guess it took a while. I don’t know. I mean, you knew him well, was he a vengeful person?
No, it not him doing it. It him boss. His boss looked at them and said, “Look at what they have done to our superstar.” [Laughs].

[Okay, here’s another interruption for context. By Bob Marley’s boss, he says he means Cyrus the Great from the Bible and Marcus Garvey. So I tried to get the interview back on track and ask Lee “Scratch” Perry about his move from the country to Kingston, Jamaica, where he worked on building the first road to Negril in the 1950s. He has said that hearing the rocks bashing against each other while he worked on the road created a great rhythm that inspired him to get involved in music. In his answer you’ll hear that he begins to talk about dub, the artform he invented as a producer, where he would make extended versions of songs people were already familiar with, and drop out key components to focus on other portions of the song, like drum and bass.]

Okay so let’s see, when you do move to the city and you’re working on construction and you start hearing the rhythm of the rocks, how did you start to go to the recording studios to make your mark that way?
Well, when I listen to a good song, it turns me on and it turns me on and then me want to make another version of it or make a copy of it. Well, not the original way like it is, in different form. So most of the artists’ song them that me listening was American like Stevie Wonder and all of those other people. So then me would have an artist who people say “Why you want to copy Stevie Wonder?” Me have an artist named David Isaacs, I really wanted him to copy Stevie Wonder and it worked. And Tina Turner was my bubble in America. Tina Turner.

Yeah, I remember hearing a story once about how reggae kind of happened because the way that you would pick up the radio stations in Jamaica, there were little gaps in the reception, and that’s how people thought that’s the way the songs really were. Is there any truth to that?
Most of the way the reggae come, we want to make soundsystem and stuff like that and most of the melody was coming from America. So then we would put it to its version, build another version, copy some American good songs and make it in another version. So ya know what I mean? So the American music, you call it pop music or whatever it was and the funky music. Me love the funky music, me love the American soul music, me love the funky music, me love the pop music. So me was growing close to making another version of most of the American music. Make another version of English, then we will do the Beatles, but we will do all the English. We will do the Beatles and some others. Rolling Stones and something like that [laughs]. So if the Americans fail out it’s going to hurt me very much too because most of my idea was to listen to a good American singer; Percy Sledge and all of those people [laughs].

Yeah, like Sam Cooke …
Temptations, Tina Turner, you heard what it’s about. Marvin Gaye and all those people, you know. The way those people feel a way is not good [laughs]. Maybe if we all are living righteous. I wish God to help them and send me some more top American singers. Not much … Me can’t listen to the raggamuffin reggae. It don’t reach me. I don’t need another raggamuffin. 

You don’t listen to reggae anymore? Is that what you are saying?
Well, when you hear a good rapper talk something sensible … but then you listen to this raggamuffin, me not into raggamuffin, basically, because the word don’t sound good to me when I put it together: raggamuffin. Ragga mean nothing to me. And muffin means nothing to me. Muffin could be something that smells very bad and very stink. I’ll never love raggamuffin, if I love me doo doo, I love raggamuffin. [Conversation pops up from the background …]

[Okay, another context break: So that’s Lee’s wife and manager, Mirielle. The question she wants to ask is all about how Americans are dealing with the coronavirus, and lockdown procedures, etc. Anyway, we do end up having that conversation, but it’s way too tangential for this podcast. And when Lee “Scratch” Perry comes back, he continues to talk about what components of a song are essential to make it move him.]

So um, me like chords. Me believe in good chords. Me believe in soul. Me believe in soul music, soul singers, funky singers, pop singers: Michael Jackson is like a little baby to me. 

Speaking of little babies, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about “People Funny Boy.” That was one of the first samples in music. Where did you get the sample of the crying baby?
Well, me had a friend named Andy who was working at JBC, a Jamaican radio station. He had me listen to a special thing that he made when it led to commercialize and he bring me a copy of that baby crying. I then put the record into my track.

Yeah, that’s brilliant. It changed the world.
Right, because without the baby, nothing can go on. Babies are the future. My next choice in music in all this now that goes on in Jamaica. Vybz Kartel is the top and the very best. 

[Okay, here’s another context break. At this point Lee “Scratch” Perry goes on to talk about Vybz Kartel, the Jamaican dancehall musician who is currently in prison and won’t be eligible for parole until 2046, but he’s still releasing music. I’m not including that part of the conversation because I have to admit I had only a vague idea who Vybz Kartel was until we talked about him, so that part of the conversation is just Lee “Scratch” Perry filling me in. He actually comes back to Vybz Kartel later in our chat. So then I wanted to steer the conversation back to his own history, and how he worked his way up from helping out in the studios of other Jamaican producers in the 1960s to building his own legendary studio, Black Ark in the 1970s.]

So then, basically you started the Black Ark after basically interning and working as a janitor at all of these other studios. Were the other producers upset that you finally struck out on your own and was doing better than they were?
Coxsone [Dodd], Duke Reid … 

Yup, Duke Reid
Yeah, the Duke. 

And then Prince Buster, right?
Prince Buster, right. I upset those people, [but they] die without the business. In the defences of people who come up in the business, and the dreads wanted to take over and tried to take over. So out of all those dreads Bob Marley become the best [laughs]. 

Yeah, he did become the best dread.
Yeah, because his songs are perfect. He really composed them, and the story he had behind it … 

I wanted to ask you a little bit about working with him back in the day. You take a song like “Vampire” and that becomes “Mr. Brown,” do you remember recording “Vampire” originally?
Yes, of course! 

Well, I don’t know! You’ve recorded so many things, I don’t know how much memory you have for each individual track. Do you remember them all well?
Eh, not really, but sometimes yeah. It’s just like a movie going on in the brain. He was just like a brother to me, made me feel. Right? Otherwise you have two spirits in this world: that one is the devil [laughs] and one is Jesus. The way he treat his mother and treat his family. So he was half-white and half-Black. He wasn’t 100 percent Black, and wasn’t 100 percent white. It was a good story and a good formula. So me get in the mix. 

Yeah, the mix. It’s all about the mix.
Yeah the other part of this is … do you take coke? 

I don’t take coke, no.
Alright. So you have another people who take coke. All those people who take coke, they are the devil. 

It makes you a different person for sure.
Two different people.

Me never take any of the coke. When we were working with Bob, and he wasn’t taking no coke. He was living with me, and when you live with me, you wouldn’t get no chance to take coke in my house. [difficult to decipher] … I don’t know. But he’s really like a kid. 

Bob is a special kid. 

You mentioned coke, were people using things stronger than ganja in that scene then?
Yeah, different things from ganja, the drugs that take you on a different trip. Make you feel like you can fly or something like that. I think they make you feel like you can’t die. [Difficult to decipher]. Maybe cuz them take too much of the coke.

I’m making a super joke. Anyhow, you never take none with me. All those songs that me and him put together. It was spiritual dreams. Spiritual dream that I got and a spiritual dream that him get. So I put his dream with mine together and it worked out to feel like I was Bob Marley. To call his song that, him sing, it makes you feel like you are the singer too. So he was something special. 

Yeah, certainly.
This other guy Vybz Kartel, he’s not in that spiritual section with Bob but [difficult to decipher] people love him. But him do all kind of different music. Artists like that, me love them. You understand?

Yeah, they don’t come along that often.
I had a special way to love Bob because Bob was half-white, half-Black. They were picking up two spiritual vibrations. One white, one Black and put them all together. 

So you find special artists who play like other special artists in Jamaica. 

So we talked a little bit about “Vampire,” or, “Mr. Brown.” While at the Black Ark, you weren’t actually playing instruments, right? You were just humming the parts for the musicians to play, is that right?
Yeah, that was my job, to tell the musicians, “Me want the bridge” or “me no want the bridge.” I would say, “Let’s make a bridge to make it sound different.” We go on this bridge to somewhere or go back to the bridge. I would shout, “To the bridge!” You can’t make it one track. I never make one straight track. When you have a bridge in a song, most of the artists [difficult to decipher] enough to make bridge. 

So doing a song like that would you say, “Just play this ‘ERR’” Is that a synth or a Moog? What the heck is that thing that makes that noise in “Vampire”?
Well, that song is power. It sounds power. Magic turns on or something like that. Merlin waves his magic wand.So now when you’re going to the bridge, be careful. Either you go over the bridge, under the bridge but don’t go into the bridge. 

I’m also interested in knowing, people would always say you “played the mixing console” as an instrument. There was a lot about your energy and how many …
It plays in the brain.

It plays in the brain?
Yeah, in the brain. You’ll be able to pile up in the brain. Try pile up in the brain and tell the driver when he goes over the bridge or when he goes under the bridge, and goes into it and causes an explosion. I saved the boom, saved the plane, saved the people, and the toys flying on the plane. 

Yeah, but what I’m wondering though, even talking to you now, you have so many flights of thought … but listening to the music, some of it is so focused. Would you ever spend days and days on a single song or would you just get it done as quickly as possible and move on to another?
No, I wanted to finish. Each song is a dream. If you want to tell a good story, you have to make the first dream page one, the second dream page two, third dream, third page … and you have to make sure it’s good. People can’t say, “turn it over and give me another page.” [Laughs]. Maybe page three, page four, page five. Sometimes you work hard. You turn to page one, might be boring a little but what happens next? Turn page one over then turn to page two to hear what happens next and what happens on page two and you love it, you’ll say, “Well if I love this so much then the third page will be better.” That’s the way I think. I’m a painter. I’m a painter too, ya know. 

Yes. I guess that’s the thing, how do you know when a work of art, whether it’s a painting or song, when it’s done, when it’s ready for the world?
Well, you can tell. I was a painter and I saw the paint when I did not know it was paint. Then I decided to try to learn to paint. And the spirits said to me, “Go find yourself a manager or an advisor and you can learn how to paint from that advisor.” My advisor could teach you store management, a master painter. Now you’re gonna learn how to master painting. Like if I was a painter I say, “How I make salary? Draw dimensions?” And him say, “I’ll take you there. I’ll take you there on my airplane. And I will make know where you are going to.” Now you know where to: I wave a flashy paintbrush [laughs]. 

Let’s talk a little bit more about dub. Just in the simplest terms, how did you first think, “Alright, I’m gonna take this track I recorded and make a totally different song out of it.”
Well, the power of the drum is clap hand. Clap hand. You can clap to the rhythm. [sound effects]. Then guitar! Then you go for the bass, [pum pum, etc.] 

[Context break: At this point he gets a bit more graphic about how the music relates to sex, so if you are sensitive to that sort of thing, you might want to skip ahead 20 seconds].

You hear pum pum and the ladies have the pum pum. So you scratch your lady pum pum … [pum pum effects] Then you whack it. Now whack the pum pum. You’re gonna whack it. And you jame the pum pum. PUM PUM! Wacka Wacka [sound effects mimicking instruments]. 

[Alright, another context break. So then I tried to steer him away from that a little and asked him about his legacy, which didn’t exactly get him off the topic of sex.] 

What are you most proud of as your contribution to music in general?
Stiff wood. Tough wood. Strong wood. Hard wood. Can’t get old. Stiff cock! Tough cock, Rastafari! Okay?

I guess so, I probably won’t be able to use that though, because uh …
Rastafari! [difficult to decipher] Cock-fari!

No, I wasn’t asking about that as much as the music. I remember hearing a quote from you saying “what else can make you happy, but music?” Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
There is nothing else. Without the music people get miserable. And that cause revolution. Because it’s what make people happy. And they don’t want things that make people happy. They want to stop it. And if you can stop that, you get buried alive for it, and you fight against the people who love music. Anybody that do that is stupid. Music means to me the God of Thunder, the God of Rain, the God of Destruction, the God of Obstruction and the God of [difficult to decipher]. No human being can stop music. No human king can stop music, no human queen can stop music, and no human dream can stop music. Music means to me, magic: Merlin the great magic master.Roll of thunder, flash of lightning, send the rain, bring brimstone and fire. Open dreadlocks, open up the locks [difficult to decipher]. It can paralyze government, can paralyze soldiers, can paralyze vampire in the name of God. Merlin the great music magic master. 

Merlin, the great music magic master. And Lee “Scratch” Perry, the great music magic master.

Hey, if you want to become a great music magic master, one thing that could certainly be helpful in attaining that is taking a course with Berklee Online. And because you listen to this podcast, you’ll get $100 off any course if you’ve never taken one with us before if you visit right now. Do it!

This episode was edited by Talia Smith, mastered painstakingly by José David Vindas Mora, transcribed—just as painstakingly—by Ashley Pointer. All visual assets coordinated by Mike DeBenedictis, and social media by Brooke Larson. Web assistance courtesy of Mark Thomas, Steve Zimmerman, and Joe McDonough. I wrote and recorded the Music Is My Life theme song, but the expert remixing comes courtesy of Lily Dickinson. Special thanks to Gabriel Ryfer Cohen, Frederik Ranninger of Pit Pony Photography, for his imagery of Lee “Scratch” Perry. Thanks also to Mirielle Perry, Clint Weiler and John Palmer for working so diligently to make this interview happen, and thanks to you for listening.

Be sure to listen on November 23rd when our guest will be Gavin Rossdale of the band Bush!

Stay safe, stay inspired. We’ll talk soon!