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An Influence on Everyone—Including Himself—Lee "Scratch" Perry Returns to Conquer

Jan 17, 2018 7:00 AM

On one hand, the groundbreaking 1976 record Super Ape didn't need a modern reworking. Recorded in Jamaica at Lee "Scratch" Perry's infamous Black Ark and credited to The Upsetters, the seminal reggae album remains an undisputed classic of the genre, primarily due to the producer's inventive and original studio techniques. At the time, he was already a progenitor of the genre thanks to his own 1968 single "People Funny Boy," a perceived diss track toward former associate Joe Gibbs, reinforced by his Upsetter imprint for Trojan Records and his recordings there with The Wailers.

With Super Ape, Perry pushed boundaries behind the boards from the unassuming space behind his Kingston home. While not strictly a dub record, the album employs many of the creative strategies that personify that now instantly recognizable sound, including "Black Vest" and "Curly Dub." Perry's invaluable contributions to that subgenre began a few years prior with 1973's Upsetters 14 Dub Black Board Jungle, considered one of its first and best. Paired with Super Ape, it is a testament to his many innovations.

Still, there's something to be said about making a record so influential that, four decades later, it prompted a reboot helmed by its original creator. Headlined by Perry and the Brooklyn-based Subatomic Sound System collective, last year's Super Ape Returns to Conquer reimagines the 1976 original, faithful in some spots more than others.

The prodigious producer has borrowed from himself before, and the comprehensive nature of this project fosters the idea of music as a living thing belonging to the artist, rather than something archived for posterity or off-limits beyond dutiful, on-demand re-creation in the live setting. Now in his eighties, Perry assuredly deserves the right to reflect on his discography via re-recordings, just as Johnny Cash did during his twilight years under Rick Rubin's stewardship, or how Neil Young has done on some of his late-career releases.

Contemporary artists have regularly drawn on Perry's back catalog to build up their own. Major-label and indie hip-hop acts alike, such as Busta Rhymes, Cage, Dead Prez, and Lil Wayne have all benefited from digging in his crates. While many marveled at No I.D.'s flip of Sister Nancy's dancehall classic "Bam Bam" on Jay-Z's latest album, 4:44, it was Kanye West who brought the Black Ark to The Black Album by sampling Max Romeo and The Upsetters' "I Chase the Devil" for the Brooklyn rap mogul's "Lucifer." Perry's most frequent rap patrons were The Beastie Boys, who liberally yet reverently drew from his discography with placements on Check Your Head and Ill Communication. To mark the pinnacle of the trio's apparent fandom, he even made a proper vocal appearance as a toaster on Hello Nasty, doling out resonant poetry over "Dr. Lee, PhD."

The lore around Perry's eccentricities and superstitions has surely lured others deeper into his work and his inner circle. Over the years, the dub mystic attracted a wide range of wide-eyed collaborators, many coming well after the suspicious quietus by fire of the Black Ark premises. Whether undone by Perry's own doing or the work of malevolent forces, the studio was clearly not the source of his genius, as evidenced by creative partnerings in the subsequent decades with Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor, and The Orb. DJ Spooky tapped him to join the fray for 2003's Dubtometry set, while professional party persona Andrew W.K. recruited techno aesthete Moby, the Afghan Whigs' Dave Rosser, and, yes, himself for Perry's 2008 full-length, Repentance.

On this side of the millennium, Perry has found himself aligned with a motley crew of revolving well-wishers hoping for a blessing from the icon. He has been a resolute presence on the touring circuits in both North America and abroad, abetted by backing bands including The Robotics, White Belly Rats, The Upsessions, and the aforementioned Subatomic Sound System. All the while, Perry continues to record new releases for labels affiliated with various session partners. Meanhwhile, reissued editions of his older records find their way back into print or are otherwise repackaged.

With no guarantee that Perry will see appropriate royalties from all this activity capitalizing on his name, it seems the best way to both celebrate and materially support the aging artist is to catch him in concert. Given the retro feel of his Super Ape Returns to Conquer, now might be the best opportunity to do so.