“Being a madman is good thing!” Perry told a Rolling Stone reporter in 2010. “It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don’t come around and take your energy, making you weak.” Under the guise of the court jester, Perry infiltrated Western music, earning that nickname of “the Upsetter” as he set profound messages to enticing grooves. As a forefather of dub reggae, he upended just what a song could contain, what elements it needed to be successful in the dancehall. Other musicians understood Perry’s vision and gravitated toward him, with the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Kanye West, Madlib, Robert Palmer, Sublime, Carl Craig, the Beastie Boys, Basic Channel and more — either in-person, in spirit, or via sampler — carrying his sound forward.
With only a rudimentary four-track machine and a battery of studio effects — reverb, echo, delay, phase and a syrupy slow flanger that felt like the universe breathing — Perry elevated the act of recording music into a feat of levitation. From a humble backyard recording studio that he dubbed “the Black Ark,” Perry moved like a hermetic alchemist, infusing reggae music with all the gooey squishiness of space time itself. Thick as island humidity, opaque and swirling as exhaled smoke, Perry’s productions for the likes of Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, the Heptones and the Congos took familiar chunks of American soul and R&B (that guitar lick from Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” Stax balladry, the aching falsetto of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions) and transformed them into something spellbinding, empowering and weird.
Perry folded plenty of bizarre sounds into the murky water of his tracks. You could hear what sounded like alien moaning, sizzling deep fryers, black-hole noise, even flushing toilets. He told his biographer that it was the sound of two stones smashing together at a construction site that kindled his sound: “When the stones clash, I hear the thunder clash, and I hear lightning flash.” But to be enamored with that strangeness, that perpetual smokescreen of his, means getting caught in Scratch’s most profound musical trap. His own music could veer toward the nonsensical and ribald, but his greatest productions were also powerful and prophetic, the sound of a real revolutionary embodying the type of Black empowerment and pride that had only recently infused American music. During his 1970s heyday, he crafted music that was steeped in a deep knowledge of the brutal past of the Western hemisphere and an equally corrupt present, both in Jamaica and elsewhere. With the array of reggae vocalists and DJs who came through the Black Ark, Perry paired their heavy messages in a head-swimming sonic brew that could not be denied.
So even if you giggled at the cover of 1975’s “Super Ape,” a muggy masterpiece featuring a Kong-sized ape with an equally monstrous spliff in hand, it was no mere weedy escape. In the opening minutes of “Zions Blood,” one encounters the thunderous sound of nyabinghi drums (a form of ritual drumming performed as a communal meditative practice in the Rastafarian tradition) and the triumphant boast of “African blood flowing through [my] veins.” Max Romeo’s “Revelation Time” and “War Ina Babylon” were revolutionary in outlook, biblical and Marxist in equal measure, while detailing a brutal police raid on a party set to the tune of “Three Blind Mice” in another.
Junior Murvin’s sweet, high voice on “Police & Thieves” and the uncanny harmonies of the Congos’ “Heart of the Congos” became the perfect conduits for Perry to deliver hard truths in song form. The former’s “Working in the Cornfield” and the latter’s “Sodom and Gomorrow” detailed the brutality of slavery. Coupled to Perry’s bewildering production, which feels smoky and playful elsewhere, it turns suffocating and wearying now, his music bearing the full weight of centuries of oppression and struggle.
Scratch’s genius was also nimble enough to capture the smallest matters of the heart. Lately, I’m taken by the easeful lilt that underpins “Curley Locks,” a sublime 1974 single from Junior Byles. It’s sweet and placid on its surface: the sun shines and breezes blow as Byles purrs of his betrothed’s hair and that tactile feel of new love. But as the song drifts along, Perry gently pulls at that dreamy air, revealing heartbreak at its core. It’s one of the most devastating moments in Perry’s vast catalogue, not the sound of two rocks clashing, but of two lovers, ultimately on divergent paths.