Lee "Scratch" Perry

Lee "Scratch" Perry

SOMETHING ABOUT A recording studio: Either it attracts nutcases or it creates them. One theory explaining the mixing board's appeal as an eccentric's playground has to do with the disorientation of sensory deprivation: The entire function of a studio is to isolate, capture, and manipulate sound; sight, taste, smell, and touch be damned. Plus, most studios are artificially lit, temperature-controlled, sound-proofed subterranean shells where time and place--and a sense of reality--are easily lost.

If you know pop music, you've probably heard about the exploits of Phil Spector or Brian Wilson. But unless you know reggae--and have delved deeper into it than the standard pothead or Club Med vacationer--you might not know about Lee "Scratch" Perry. As both a producer and all-around demented genius, the Jamaican-born Perry is without peer. After a career that included operating R&B sound systems of the late '50s, talent-scouting ska bands in the early '60s, and producing rock steady and then reggae in the early '70s (when he worked with Bob Marley), Perry built his own 4-track home studio in 1974, called Black Ark. There he produced hits for others and recorded his own albums, released through Island Records, until Perry's love for spliff and rum, combined with an apocalyptic worldview and delusions of grandeur, got the best of him. Sometime in 1979, Perry scribbled graffiti across every inch of Black Ark and set his studio on fire.

With Black Ark long reduced to ashes, what remains of the period is a large body of recordings, featuring Perry at both his most successful and most unwound, anthologized on the three-disc Arkology. Though Arkology captures only a fragment of a career that spans five decades, it includes some of Perry's best work (Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves," Max Romeo's "One Step Forward" and "War In Babylon"), and provides glimpses of Perry in all his guises: deft producer, eloquent songwriter, playful singer, visionary remixer. For collectors, the set also throws in unreleased tracks, extended mixes, and alternate takes from his Island work. What emerges is a picture of Perry the creator, beyond his madman exploits. Using only 4-tracks, Perry managed to create a reverb-drenched world of infinite variety and possibility. Whether with Black Ark's house band, the Upsetters, or other artists (Jah Lion, Augustus Pablo), Perry imbues the music with a personality that few producers in any genre can match.

If Perry can be compared to Wilson or Spector, it's not through their madness but rather because they all stretched a relatively limited and predictable genre (reggae, surf, girl group) to its limit. For his part, Perry played a major role in creating an entirely new genre--called dub (featured prominently on Arkology)--where original songs serve only as raw material for myriad new songs, or "versions"; where the producer becomes artist and the mixing board becomes the instrument.

Through Perry, dub reggae provided the conceptual blueprint for dance remixes, early hip hop, and the last two decades of electronica. Perry's musical influence is apparent; now if only his thoughts and actions were as clear, we might really begin to understand this crucial, though often missing, link in the history of modern popular music. Arkology is a good start.

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