In a career spanning over six decades, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry has created a reputation for madness, creative genius, and other-worldliness that is truly unique. His music, his words, and his lifestyle all point towards Scratch being some kind of shaman, from his Rastafarian way of life to his condemnation of capitalism and every other ‘ism’ one could think of. From the late 1950s, through to the late 70s, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry had a monopoly on Jamaican music. His work as a producer launched the Caribbean island and it’s musical export, Reggae, into the consciousness of the rest of the world.
His work in several studios, with several producers and some of Jamaica’s brightest young upcoming stars, created some of Jamaica’s earliest Reggae classics. Scratch began as a recording artist in his own right in the late 1950s, working with two of Jamaica’s highest profile producers. When these relationships later collapsed under the weight of personality clashes and financial pressure, he moved on to create his own label in 1968.
Lee and Upsetter Records became a vehicle for innovation in Jamaican music, creating unique production techniques that affected the emerging Reggae scene in several places, most notably in the very first use of sampling, in Scratch’s own debut record ‘People Funny Boy’. The Upsetters, Lee’s own house band, helped create a collection of songs that are now unmistakable Reggae classics.
One day in 1973, in the backyard of his family’s home in Kingston, Jamaica, Scratch began to build a recording studio. The Black Ark, with its relatively low budget and basic technology, relied on Scratch’s innovation to make a name for itself. His eccentricity led the way into completely abstract and somewhat philosophical recording techniques; some stories tell of Scratch burying microphones under the ground to record into and even blowing marijuana smoke directly into the mic to bless it.
Before long, Lee Scratch Perry had become the local hitmaker. The Black Ark studio had given birth to the songs of Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, and most famously, Bob Marley and The Wailers. A young Marley approached Scratch when the singer was on a musical plateau, needing a kick to reinvigorate his sound. The two artists had a fiery relationship, Marley living under Scratch’s roof, hearing his unique philosophy on life, and eventually creating some of his best records in the studio, including ‘Soul Rebel’ ‘Duppy Conqueror’, and the classic ‘Sun is Shining’.
Not long after their incredibly successful musical collaboration, the partnership between Scratch and the awesomely successful Reggae singer began to break down over arguments, and before long they had broken ties. Even today, the names Lee Perry and Bob Marley are never far apart, if only because of the media’s insistence on tying their legacies together.
The relationship between Scratch and his artists are only a single aspect of his tumultuous career. The producer’s unpredictability has led to a near-mythological legacy where the weirdest stories are the ones most likely to be true. In 1979, after ‘bad energy’ had infiltrated The Black Ark Studio, it was burned to the ground, and to this day Perry claims to be the one who destroyed it. Since then, he has lived and performed in several locations around the world. In recent years he often travels back and forth between the UK and Jamaica, but after the Black Ark incident he spent many years in Switzerland, where his career saw something of a revival, and once again he rose up as one of music’s greatest innovators.
Ten years ago, British artist Peter Harris encountered Perry in the course of a project titled ‘Higher Powers’, in which Harris intended to capture people’s attitudes towards the concept of ‘Higher Power’, and what the broad term means to the various artists, musicians and other personalities that Harris interviewed to put the piece together. One of the people that Harris chose for the project was Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. “Everything about him is art”, Harris said of his reasoning when choosing Perry for the project. The two soon formed a spiritual connection, and before long, a second project, ‘The Higher Powers Bible’ was underway.
In the grander sense, Peter Harris and Lee Perry were a natural pairing. Both men revel in the abstract; Harris experimenting freely with short films, Documentaries and a wealth of abstract paintings, whilst Perry made his name by forcefully turning the world of music production on its head. Over ten years of work together, the two have created ‘The Higher Powers Bible: From Genesis to Revelation’, a series of over 100 paintings which retell Bible stories through a modern-day lens, with Perry as the protagonist at its core.
In February, Perry talked to me from Negril, Jamaica, where he had been with his family and friends for several months prior to his current UK tour. We talked about The Higher Powers Bible and what the work means to him.
Click here to read our full interview with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in February.
“You’ve created a lot of paintings with Peter Harris recently, ‘The Higher Powers Bible’. It’s an extensive series of artwork, ‘From Genesis to Revelation’, can you tell me about those paintings?”
“It’s about me creating the God Bible. Marcus Garvey is supposed to be the next ruler of Jamaica, which he has always been. Marcus Garvey will take over soon. Marcus Garvey will form a government. And Marcus Garvey’s government is supposed to rule the world, the globe, the universe, the creator, Universal Records, Island Records, Tuff Gong Records, with Upsetter Records. So Marcus Garvey will take over the whole world with Upsetter Records, shortly.”
“He’ll take over the world with the music.”
“Right, because Marcus Garvey is the lion.”
Whilst each piece of work in The Higher Powers Bible series mirrors a Bible story, most of them are also either moments from Perry’s life, or fragments of his consciousness, a life lived looking through Rastafari eyes out onto a world Perry often sees as completely spiritual. To fans, like myself, the work visually brings to life the words of wisdom Perry has spoken throughout his 60-year career. I met Peter Harris at the opening night of the exhibition of The Higher Powers Bible, in London’s Horse Hospital. We have since talked at length about the work, and what it means to the legacy of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and his philosophy on life.
“Where did you first meet Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry?”
“I first met Lee Perry when I interviewed him for a film I made called “Higher Powers”. The idea for the film was to ask the same ‘open’ questions about what higher power meant to a cast of characters that embodied the theme. So I interviewed a legal higher power, in the form of a Police Chief, then the opposite of that with a gangster. I talked to a spiritual Higher Power with The venerable Akong Tulku, and Uri Geller who claims to possess Higher Powers. The person I choose as the creative Higher Power was Lee Perry, as everything about him is art, from the way he dresses to the way he talks and thinks and exists. When I went to his home in Switzerland to interview him we seemed to make a real connection, and he was the most spontaneous and open interviewee.”
“How did you originally conceptualise this series of work?”
“The Bible series of drawings came out of earlier drawings and paintings we had made together, where Lee’s input usually involved Biblical idea’s, so it seemed to me that it would make a really interesting body of work to focus just on that, and cast Lee in his version of a contemporary Bible for outsiders.”
“The paintings are eye opening in many ways, was there any which you thought ‘someone might not be able to handle this’?”
The strangeness of the imagery is really the result of Lee’s stream of consciousness, text and collage that often went off in a freewheeling tangent from the initial drawing that I had started, and the 2 different inputs created a third image that has a life of its own. That’s why I collaborate with banks, debt collectors, musicians and other artists, because it means I am not in control of the outcome, and that for me is a really interesting thing that stops me repeating myself, although all the work is under the umbrella of a kind of self-portrait by proxy.
“How has dub and Jamaican music influenced your own career as an artist?”
“Dub and Jamaica are e a big element in the work. Lee’s text is like a D.J. ‘toasting’ over a stripped down dub, his language is Jamaican, not European. The people who appear in some of the work are also Jamaican folk heroes suggested to me by Lee, people like Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle,George William Gordon,Nanny, Samuel Sharpe etc.
My people were more from popular culture: Warhol, Francis Bacon, Miles Davies, The Elephant Man, and Joe Strummer (who Lee has worked with from The Clash).
Lee’s experience and understanding — or “over standing” — of Babylon is very different to my version of it. Lee’s version of Babylon might come from the Rasta’s view of western society as being corrupt, a world of ‘politricks’ and oppressors of Rastafarians. My version of Babylon is also about a society that oppresses our lives, but it is more about the unrelenting trajectory of existence.
Through years of listening to Lee’s phenomenal musical output I have become steeped in his world of abstract sounds and the strange vocabulary of ‘Bionic Rats’, ‘Vampires’,’ Evil brains’ and most importantly here, ‘Judgment’ and ‘Revenge’. When I make collaborative art with people I do it because they have influenced me in some subliminal way. It is my way of making our dual personality explicit. I call this ‘method painting’, whereby a sort of mental displacement occurs and I inhabit their mind for a while. Existence is 50% acting and 50% real. A fundamental touchstone of my work is that everybody is made up of a lot of other people, or “I is another” as Rimbaud said.
Lee’s love of cartoons — where both good and evil are at large — makes his statements and symbols more threatening to the adult mind, coming as they do from someone who plays by their own rules. He makes ‘serious Jokes’.
Picasso famously said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”. He also said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.
The idea of the Bible, particularly Revelation, plays a part in the making of these art works. With its tales of evil deeds, redemption and the apocalypse. It is rich in imagery, metaphor and parables. A parable is not a literal thing. It would not make sense to our modern minds, informed by readily available facts, to take it so. Language and visual language are vehicles for getting at some ‘truth’ as truth is often inexpressible.”
“This appears as a near-autobiographical piece of work, is this a form of memoir?”
“The work is very much a biography of Lee’s life or rather his internal life, you can see it from the painting ‘Fuck Hell Out’ where he ‘gives birth’ to himself, to him breast feeding and nurturing Bob Marley in ‘Minds Booms’. Re imagining the last days of The Black Ark studio I cast him as Sampson, tearing down the walls of the studio, and the burden of that choice is drawn in him carrying the cross in ‘Black Ark Undead’. The devil appears to tempt him in his wilderness with drugs, sex and Cash.
As far as working with him goes, it usually starts with a phone call where I try and coax images and themes from him, they may start off as very abstract yet definite, like ‘paint me in gold sitting on Haile Selassie’s knee in Heaven’.Then I start the drawings, making sure to leave out elements for him to finish, and set my own visual traps to capture his imagination. These might come from the things I think he will enjoy and respond to. Then I would make lots of Photoshop Colleges and Rasta symbols to take to him with the sketches.
Then Lee will lay the work out all over his studio and look at them for a while, lighting up incense and placing particular objects around the work, like a ceremony. He then chooses a costume to wear and puts on a cd with maybe 4 songs on and plays it on an endless loop; for one session he only played just one song over and over for days even when we slept, and when I put something else on he put the old one on again. This is all done with minimal talking, it’s a mind thing.
Then we may smoke some herb to loosen us up and kill any tension, then he starts to direct me, a lot like a music producer, “Add that there”, “Draw some blood dripping down the queen’s face” etc. Then he starts to write on the drawings and select particular collage imagery to glue on. This goes on till around 4 or 5 in the morning. The next afternoon when he rises we finish them all off. Then he gives me instructions on certain works he has ideas for like “Add a real bird’s feather to his head” or “This one should have this glued on” and he will give me bits and pieces from what was already lying around his studio, cartoon cards, pages from the bible etc. I then take them back to London and finish them off by adding the iconic gold paint.
I always say “I came for a crumb and left with a feast”.”
‘The Higher Powers Bible’ is on show at The Horse Hospital, London, until Wednesday 22nd March.