On any other day, it would be hard to know quite where to begin when talking to Lee “Scratch” Perry. The Jamaican legend kickstarted Bob Marley’s career, has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to John Martyn to the Clash, and has racked up countless records as both artist and producer. Perry’s 1960s and 70s studio innovations were decades ahead of their time, and the godfather of dub’s incalculable influence is still reverberating through genres from hip-hop to grime to dubstep. But with the man chalking up his 80th birthday, there is only one place to start the conversation.
Happy birthday, Mr Perry.
Thank you. I’m going to be 20. Allow me my reduction of age.
Is it a particularly significant birthday? Eight decades is an incredible period of history.
It means that I can now become a billionaire. It’s history and poverty. I’ve seen people robbed of their birthright. Island Records and EMI Records and Universal Music ripped off Jamaican music and reggae musicians.
I suppose that’s the history of a lot of pop music – big corporations making money off black music.
Well some of us survive. We survived poverty. We inherited poverty and survived it. Being rich is a blessing and a curse. If you’re not righteous it can be a curse.
The other side of that is that your music changed the world, and has brought people together.
It has and it does. It brings people together and heals people with sick minds and tells people how to live, like not eat much meat because it’s not good for the soul. I used to eat meat but my mother and father were wise enough to tell me not to eat it. So some of us survive. And I’m one of the survivors. I am here to help my fans. To save my fans in the name of love.
Can you remember what first got you into music?
Love. To tell the truth and speak the truth. Only the truth can save people. So to tell the truth on record and in the studio. God loves the truth. And whenever you are not dealing with the truth it is not good.
So music was a spiritual calling?
Yeah, I hear it. We have a song, Zion’s Blood. “Zion blood is flowing through my veins, and I can never work in vain.” What I do is because Zion blood is in my veins, and God runs Zion. God is the teacher, the high priest, the coach, where we are coming from.
In the new documentary Lee Perry’s Vision of Paradise, there’s a terrific scene in which you go back to the Jamaican town of Negril, where you were working in the 1950s, and where there is still a large rock. According to mythology, this “king’s stone” became your spaceship, which took you to Kingston, where you started your musical career. What really happened?
I was working on the tractors. I saw the stone and the spirit came to me and said: “You need to go to London, Great Britain and create your church.” It felt like something very important, something godly.
What was special about that stone?
Magic. But music is magic. If you have good music you have good magic. If you have good magic you will be followed by good people. Then they can be blessed by the one God.
You began in music as a gofer, then a talent scout, an uncredited songwriter and eventually performer under the pioneering producer Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. Did you watch what Dodd and other producers were doing and then do things your way?
I did it differently. I heard voices talking to me, telling me what to do and what to say. So I listened to what the voices told me, changed exactly what they told me to change, wrote they told me to write and sang what they told me to sing. And it worked. Brilliantly.
You did things that nobody had ever done in a studio before, whether it was recording garden implements for beats, burying microphones under trees to get a different sound, running tapes backward, using found sounds and techniques which 20 years later would be called sampling … even blowing ganja smoke over the tapes!
That’s it. I blew smoke because smoke it was the breath of life. If you have good breath, you can put it in the music. The breath of live God breathes into man. If he says everything is perfect, everything is perfect. It can be perfect magic, perfect logic, perfect science. And even when you do the finance … So all the dollars, the cash, the riches, are coming back for my family, for my imperial family.
In 1966, you were among the crowds that greeted Emperor Haile Selassie’s state visit to Jamaica, a pivotal incident in the development of Rastafarianism. What was that like?
It was a hot day. People had come from all over the island. Everybody wanted to see him, and everybody was glad. It was like heaven had come to Jamaica. Everybody in Jamaica turned up to see him. They were thronging the streets.
Would the young Bob Marley have been in that crowd?
I don’t know if he will have been communicating on that level that you’re speaking about then – Rastafari – then. But his majesty [Selassie] talked about righteousness, holiness, and godliness. So good heart, clean brain, clean and you have to have luck.
And then, four years later, Marley was on your doorstep, wanting to work with you…
He’d tried everything. He’d tried working with Coxsone, he’d tried Beverley’s Records and Leslie Kong. Many record producers in Jamaica. Nothing was happening for him. He wasn’t doing reggae then. He was working with a producer who wanted him to be like Otis Redding; he wasn’t a bad man but was holding Bob back. I wasn’t really interested in working with another singer, but he’d heard that people loved me in England and in America and maybe he wanted to share a bit of that. He wanted to be loved and respected like me, so it worked.
Was Marley different to other people that you’d worked with?
He was a little person, not giant in stature. But he’d learn about history and could understand everything, very fast. You’d tell him something and he’d pick it up instantly. We did a song called Duppy the Conqueror about conquering demons. I said: “If you aren’t going to conquer demons they’re going to conquer you.” He listened and we did that song. Then we did the song Jah Live. We were talking about God – Jah Rastafari – and I just said to Bob: “Jah live,” and he started singing it, instantly, and after that everything started to work good. He sang with my Upsetters musicians, but later on, some of the Upsetters became the Wailers who signed to Island Records, and that was that. Much later on, when he was ill, people told him to come and see me, a spiritual person, and I would tell him how to conquer cancer. I really thought he would conquer cancer, but he didn’t come to see me and then something changed. Yeah. That’s how life go.
It must have been a tremendous shock to you when he died, aged just 36.
Of course, it was a tremendous shock. I had a special car, and the car needs something to fix it, which they only had in America. He was just about to go to America, so I asked him to buy something to mend the car. He’d told me when he was going but when I went to see him he’d already left, the day before. I don’t know why he did that, but I never saw him again. Here today and gone tomorrow. It wasn’t such a good feeling, but I have nothing but good to say about him, you understand.
In the late 70s and early 80s – when you were in your 40s – you worked with a variety of British musicians, from the Clash to John Martyn to Paul and Linda McCartney. Was that a totally different expereience from working with dub and reggae stars?
It was very good, because they were expecting something good, expecting the best, and we achieved something better than what they had imagined. They were intelligent human beings and artists who understood the equipment. They were intelligent artists to want to work with me, because they wanted to become stronger.
It was wonderful, but they were trying to frame him. And after the letter was sent, they freed him.
Has he thanked you for that? I presume he must have – several times.
Have you ever regretted burning down Black Ark Studios, which had been where you made many of your greatest recordings?
No. There was some bad energy because my intention was to help poor people and most of the people were in poverty. So I was taking their poverty and giving them my energy, but they remained poor. All I wanted to take from them was their demons. So burning up the studio was a way of burning the demon, burning up the bad luck that had come to the people who lived in Jamaica. There is a Jewish saying that if you don’t burn the demon, maybe you die instead of him.
Did it work for you? You moved to Switzerland, and your career seemed to get back on track in the late 1980s and 90s.
Yeah, yeah. I didn’t regret anything because it worked perfectly, the way God planned it. [Sings] “The way God planned it. This is God’s planet!”
When you turned 60 in 1996, did you have a lot of fun working with the Beastie Boys on Hello Nasty?
It was great, great fun. They were nice Jewish boys and they were clean inside. Very lovely. They called me Dr Lee, PhD because they could feel that I loved them. They were very good boys, wonderful.
And then when you reached 70, you stopped smoking ganja and drinking alcohol.
I had to break it a while. If I didn’t, it would have broken me. It wasn’t going very well ever since I started mixing ganja with cigarettes. Ganja is a pure herb, a healer, but if you mix it with nicotine, you’re only going to destroy yourself. God said to me: “Ganja is cigarettes.” So I put it down. Then after a while, I was missing it because ganja is a healer. So I started smoking it again but not mixing it with cigarettes. But not so often. And not as much!
Adrian Sherwood – who you’ve worked with several times – compares you to Salvador Dalí, in that your whole life is a work of art, whatever you’re doing at any moment is art. Is that how it feels to you?
For real. He feels it. He has something good about him, very much. His brain was good. He could tell lightning fast when something was good. He said he’d never worked with anyone like me and that we made something special. He was true to the art. There’s a saying: My soul, my father, how great thou art. That means God is art. Therefore God is an artist.
And now, aged 80, you’re still playing more shows than many artists a quarter of your age and your output is as prolific as ever. Is it important that you keep recording and performing?
Well, I wasn’t playing shows for so long, when I was in the studio. But … are my shows full? So people seem to be getting blessed by it. I think it’s true because when I started doing shows, everything changed. It was like a whole angel came down from heaven among the plants and the trees and the roses. If people come to my shows, they feel the presence of God. They feel the music and some get healed and some get turned on.
Is making music as an octogenarian easier or more difficult than when you were young?
It gets easier because the shows give me heart and strength. If you’re tired, you don’t feel strength, but there are no bad vibes. I am happy, and I would like to wish all my fans a happy birthday too. Tell them all to listen to the songs and they go crazy as a butterfly and fly straight up into the heavens.
You’re 80 and seemingly fit as a fiddle. What’s the secret?
The music did it for me. As an example to prove to people that God is still alive. He keeps me well to this age. It’s like… I am a prince and the music is the king and the music is my father who art in heaven, hallowed be his name. So the music lives on.
Do you have a favorite among the dozens of albums and innumerable tracks you’ve made?
- Lee Perry’s Vision of Paradise is screening at selected UK cinemas. It is available on DVD via Cadiz Music.