To call Lee “Scratch” Perry a mad genius is to do him a disservice, because it implies we’re somewhat comparable to him. Creatively, the reggae innovator and dub creator does not occupy the same realm as the rest of us: He has pushed his sounds — and in effect, the possibilities of recorded music — so far into space that they scarcely resemble anything human. As the self-proclaimed "Upsetter," Perry has been upending the accepted boundaries for how music ought to sound for nearly five decades, having thoroughly redefined both the role of a record producer and the noises they can conjure.
As it is on record, so it is in conversation. Perry is known for having a unique way with words, and talking with him can sometimes feel like navigating a maze that’s also an ever-changing puzzle, with a blindfold on, while you’re really, really stoned. Speaking with New Times in advance of his and Subatomic Sound System’s South Florida shows at Respectable Street and the Ground this weekend, Perry touched on his consumption habits, godliness, and the eternal nature of the Upsetter, all in his inimitable style and cadence.
New Times: How are you doing today?
Lee "Scratch" Perry: I’m doing good. And today we want to talk about righteousness.
Nice, so what does that look like?
[Long pause.] Righteousness!
Righteousness! Yes, rules the world. Righteousness rules our nation. Righteousness is the opposite of unrighteousness.
OK, so tell me a little bit about righteousness then.
You change from unrighteous to righteous. And you ask God to help you to be righteous. "Dear God, help me to be righteous, and dear God, help me not to be unrighteous. Dear God, help me to be holy, and dear God, help me not to be unholy, because I wish to go to Heaven and I wish not to go to Hell." Something like that.
Well, you've spoken at length about the importance of God and spirit and righteousness in your work, but does that manifest itself differently on the stage as opposed to the studio?
Well, actually, the stage come to the audience, and the audience come to the stage. [Tell the people] so that they don't sell their soul anymore. Some sell their soul and some sell their whore and some sell their door for money.
So in dealing with these audiences, what's it been like back on the stage after you've been in the studio for so long? The last few years have seen you performing live way more than you used to.
Well, I always have an open door. It is open to listen to what people talk about and what people think they need. So what I am saying to you now, whatever we do, what we give is what we get. So what we should only try to do is good and don't do anything that is not good. We give good and get good, we live good... and live good. We eat good and live good; we drink good and live good; drink less alcohol! [laughs] Less alcohol, less wine, less rum, less Red Stripe beer, and less cigarette. Cigarette, you're not good for my breaths. Cigarette, you create death. Cigarette, you create cancer, and cigarette, I don't want your cancer, and I've got the answer.
So how do you feel when you see your audiences drinking and smoking when you're playing live? Does it upset you?
Well, I get upset. I fly up into the sky — I live in the sky... with the birds. [laughs] I live in the sky... telepathically with the birds... then give me an upset. Because I have no reason to be upset, get me upset... It get me OK. And I want a clean medication to come from Mt. Zion... from the high, high, most high ganja marijuana... cannabis. [laughs]
In some interviews, it says you've stopped smoking ganja, but in others interviews, you say you still partake a little bit. So what's going on? Are you still smoking ganja?
Sometimes I get too hot! And when I get too hot, I go crazy... I breathe smoke for a while. So I can say I stopped smoking for a while. If I stop smoke cigarette, if I stop smoke ganja, I will never again smoke cigarettes... When I have enough [ganja], I say, "OK, I have enough ganja." When I try to light my pipe, it don't light. [laughs] And when I smoke too much marijuana, I try to light a spliff; then it won't light, so I knew I had enough and take a pull. But as far as cigarette, cancer, and cancer cancerous... and as far as the virus cancer cancerous, I ban cancer, permanently, from Heaven to the Earth.
So how's it been working with the Subatomic Sound System; have they been righteous? I know some of these guys go way back with you, and some of these people are newer collaborators.
Well, rarely people are working with me. My program is to follow onward ever, never to backward. If anyone is on my program that is backward, I will welcome him backward and don't ever come again come forward. [laughs]
Yeah, tortured — I have them tortured. Some of them have salsa, and some of them have touch-a, and some of them give too much-a. [laughs]
How's touring been? You famously have a pretty freeform work and creative ethic; has touring affected your routine or your ability to innovate with regards to your painting or even with your studio productions?
Well... record not selling anymore — I'm gonna start write books. I want to start write books because I reckon that they'll sell more... The word have to go on, the word is forever, the word is the creator, and the words represent the God. And them records not sell anymore — that's the other reason. So I say I will be going into book for my new collection... a Black Ark [Lee’s famed record studio, which he purportedly burned down in the '70s] book, a Black Ark magic book or something like that. [laughs]
So is that going to be the history of Black Ark Studios or more your creative routine and what you do to get your creative works done?
Well, what I intend to to do is to continue with my work praising the Almighty God. There is only one God... Righteousness exalt the nation, and sin is our push to emanation and end of people. So we find a way to export... to report my words by writing books and getting rid of crooks. There be too many crooks in the record business; that's why the record business not sellin'. But they have less crooks in the book business, so I'm going into book business to advertise God. [laughs]
So is this going to be your last tour then? Are you leaving the record business to write books?
Well, I go into the book business because book will sell faster. I can't speed the word that's imperfect and word that's untruthful in the sight and in the ears of God and man. And my work must be perfect, and I am come here to... present righteousness, holiness, godliness, cleanliness, goodliness, and life, amen.
Presentation is pretty important to you... What have you been rocking onstage clothes-wise?
If any obstacle stupid enough to get into my way, I will turn the obstacle into popsicle. [laughs] I have the obstacle crapsicle... I have the obstacle crapsicle, and start the axe-sticle, and say there's only one axe. [An extended, difficult-to-discern speech involving God, a small axe, and Bob Marley — presumably referencing one of Perry's collaborations with Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Small Axe" — ensues.]
God take back his small axe, and he lend Bob Marley and lend the Wailers... God used his small axe to chop down the demons and chop down the Devil. God believe in Jamaica and God send Jamaica, and you've got Jamaican to African. So Africans represent Jamaican, and God represent Africa... so we can't lose.
I like that — "we can't lose." No, seriously, I really like that.
We are anti-losers! [laughs]
So regarding your production style, in your experience, do you think you can imbue electronic equipment with spiritual properties as easily as you can with analog stuff?
I am sure I am perfect; I am sure righteousness is perfect. I am sure righteousness overtake Hell money — oil — and send Mr. Black Oil straight to Hell to repent. Unrighteousness take over United States of America and send all the American presidents to Hell to repent.
Speaking of the United States, I was just wondering if you have any thoughts on Florida or Miami?
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I am coming not to con the people and not to condemn them, but to bless them, raise them... [indecipherable, laughs]
Last question: As the Upsetter, do you still like to upset people, or have you mellowed out over the years?
Me the Upsetter for all time! The Upsetter is not for just a moment, but the Upsetter is forever and ever, ever, ever, ever. And Upsetter is number one forever, ever, ever, ever, ever. Upsetter make everything perfect; Upsetter make everything happen; Upsetter make miracles. Miracles, scorcher, and torturer.
Lee “Scratch” Perry and Subatomic Sound System. With DJ Kiva. 8 p.m. Saturday, January 13, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-375-0001; facebook.com/thegroundmiami. Tickets cost $25 to $30 via tickefly.com.