At 70, Reggae Pioneer Perry Releases 'Babylon' Lee "Scratch" Perry is one of the fathers of reggae and dub music. At 70 years old, Perry has a new album out called Panic in Babylon. Christopher Johnson reports on Perry, who is as famous for his eccentric lifestyle as he is for music.

At 70, Reggae Pioneer Perry Releases 'Babylon'

At 70, Reggae Pioneer Perry Releases 'Babylon'

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Lee "Scratch" Perry is one of the fathers of reggae and dub music. At 70 years old, Perry has a new album out called Panic in Babylon. Christopher Johnson reports on Perry, who is as famous for his eccentric lifestyle as he is for music.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

He calls himself Super Ape, the Upsetter, and sometimes just Scratch. By any of these pseudonyms, Lee Perry is undeniably a giant in reggae, a musical form he helped invent. Some of Perry's hits in the late 1960s were among the first to use the slow, bass-thick bump that would define the roots reggae sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Why, why be (unintelligible)...

CHIDEYA: Perry wrote and produced songs with some of Jamaica's greatest acts, including a young trio called the Wailers, featuring Bob Marley. Perry had legendary clients, but his eccentric fashion sense and erratic behavior got him just as much notice. Perry helped pioneer a spacey instrumental form of reggae called dub. It was music straight from his far-out imagination, and Perry churned out stacks of singles now considered classics.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Lee Perry's latest disc is called Panic in Babylon. NPR's Christopher Johnson has this report on the reggae legend.

Mr. LEE PERRY (Musician): It's like an illusion, look in the crystal ball and tell me what you see.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Lee Perry talks in riddles. Relaxing on a couch after a recent show in Los Angeles, the Upsetter quickly upends our interview. He dangles in the air a small crystal ball that hangs around his neck. Rainbows speck his face and Perry volunteers another random, unprompted puzzle.

Mr. PERRY: I'm from North Africa and my two legs are still in South Africa. And I stretch my two arms, and one of my hand is in East Africa and one is in West Africa. Usually, my hand is in East Africa.

JOHNSON: At this point, it's easy to dismiss Perry as crazy or senile. He's 70 and aglow with eccentricities, like the mirrors and glass that he's got glued all over his shoes and his hat, which only sort of covers his short, golden-dyed curls. As out there as he might seem, tonight the not-quite-five-foot Perry is surrounded by a diverse group of hangers on, all under his control.

They hand him artwork and bottles of water like offerings to a diminutive reggae deity. The groupies are fixed on Perry's face as he explains how what he calls nature's blessing has given him decades worth of artistic longevity.

Mr. PERRY: When you have been blessed with nature's grace, you can't have stoppage (unintelligible), no cancer, no bacteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Perry's probably been laughing like that over the last few decades at all the rumors of his insanity. Reports persist that he was hooked on hallucinogenics. He was supposedly spotted once walking backwards through Kingston, Jamaica, hitting the ground with a hammer and mumbling to himself.

One of the most enduring Perry tales has to do with his black art studio. That story begins back in the late 1960s. By then, Perry had had a history of falling out with some of Jamaica's most powerful artists and producers.

It was clear early on that he was best off as his own boss. He created a record label and formed a band called The Upsetters. He wrote songs that dissed his old mentors, and those tunes became hits in Jamaica.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PERRY: (Singing) This is the house of Jah. Suffer, you're going to suffer.

JOHNSON: In the early 70s, dub was on the rise in Jamaica. Perry didn't' create the style, but he poured so much imagination and sleepless energy into the music that he flooded the island and became knows as a dub king.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PERRY: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

JOHNSON: The dub scientist needed his own laboratory. And in 1973, Perry opened Black Ark studio. Some crucial roots reggae was laid down there by groups, including Bob Marley's Wailers. Perry made quick enemies with that trio when he secretly sold their tapes to another label and kept the money.

Despite the curses shot in his direction from other Jamaican artists, Lee Scratch Perry continued to produce stacks of great dub and reggae records.

(Soundbite of song "Police & Thieves")

Mr. JUNIOR MURVIN (Musician): (Singing) Police and thieves in the street. Oh yeah! Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition...

Mr. DJ RIKSHAW (Chicago-Area Disc Jockey): In terms of a revolutionary force in music, Lee Scratch Perry is undeniable.

JOHNSON: DJ Rikshaw is a Chicago-area disc jockey who has been spinning reggae and dancehall music for more than a decade. He keeps some of Perry's early hits in his rotation. Rickshaw respects Perry for being on the inventive edge of Jamaica's most influential music in the 70s.

Mr. RIKSHAW: He was experimenting with things that people still to this day are inspired by. He was doing remixes before the term even really existed with these 12-inch dub plays, disco mixes that would splice together different songs, different rhythms and effects.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PERRY: (Singing) Every morning the morning the black sun rise. Every morning the black sun rise out of the arms of (unintelligible).

JOHNSON: By the mid-'80s Lee Perry had turned Black Ark into a place famous for its roots music. And then, the rumors say, Perry turned his 12-foot studio into a pile of ashes. He blames the fire on bad wiring. Almost all the rest of the reggae world thinks drug-induced madness led Perry to put a match to his studio.

Whatever the truth is, that Black Ark fire torched countless dub and reggae singles we'll never get to hear. It also marked the breaking point for Perry.

Mr. PERRY: Yeah. That's why I leave my home. They only love money and they don't love nobody else. What them say, (unintelligible) it too much and they want to keep it for themselves to get rich. So you want me to (unintelligible) those people?

JOHNSON: He was fed up with the island's cutthroat music business and decided it was time to get out of Jamaica. Eventually, Perry landed in Europe and today calls Switzerland his new home. The move didn't stop his creativity. Three years ago, Perry won the Best Reggae Album Grammy for Jamaican ET. His new disc, Panic in Babylon, captures the innovator merging modern roots sounds with classic reggae themes.

(Soundbite of song "Rastafari"

Mr. PERRY: (Singing) Rastafari, rastafari...

JOHNSON: For a man that has long been marked as a lunatic genius, Perry seems very much in control of his own life. He's devoted to Ethiopia's late emperor Haile Selassie, the man Perry calls God. He's also committed to being healthy, inspired in part by his rock 'n' roll friends, the Rolling Stones.

Mr. PERRY: (Unintelligible) stop eating meat, stop drink rum, stop drink wine, stop smoke because I don't want to have any wrinkle. That make (unintelligible), you know what I mean? It's my great fear. You know, too much wrinkles or (unintelligible) don't think he would like me. I'm much older than Mick Jagger. I'm older than the Rolling Stone. I'm older than Emperor Selassie, and I am old, very old.

JOHNSON: Perry says he's still like a baby, though, which makes more sense than calling him crazy. His spaced-out music, his brilliant clothes, even his riddles. Perry is an artist whose senses are intensely engaged with the world around him.

That world seems to be at a frequency many of us can't hear until the Upsetter tunes us in.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song from album "Panic in Babylon")

Mr. PERRY: (Singing) I am the Upsetter, I am the Upsetter, I am the Upsetter, I am the Upsetter...

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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