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At 83, Music Legend Lee "Scratch" Perry Is Still Putting Out Some of His Best Work

Lee “Scratch” Perry (center) and Subatomic Sound System
Lee “Scratch” Perry (center) and Subatomic Sound System
Photo by Nataworry

"You're going to record this conversation, aren't you?" Mireille Campbell asks before putting her husband, dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry, on the phone. "Otherwise you're going to have a hard time understanding him."

Her comment proved to be sage advice: As established in New Times' previous interview with Perry in January 2018, speaking with him can be as challenging, absurd, and playful as one of his songs. Over the course of the 20-minute conversation, the Godfather of Dub sang "I Believe in Miracles," claimed that late Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey was his drummer, and led me in a call-and-response that began with him saying "Amen," followed with "Hallelujah," and quickly had me chanting back into the phone what he claimed were African words, like ashkabash and alakabuk. The lines between Perry's earnestness and playfulness became blurred (if they were ever there at all).

Take, for example, Perry's response when asked about his origins as a recording artist.

"When I was 24, I went to Kingston," he says. "I decided to make some sounds. My God say what to make. My God tells me exactly what to sing. I follow my dream. I dream to become king of Africa and king of the world — the king of kings and lord of lords."

He hasn't accomplished such lofty goals in a literal sense, but Perry indeed built a musical career that spans the history of popular music. Over the past 60 years, he has worked with some of the heaviest musical hitters one can think of: The Clash and Paul McCartney recorded at Perry's famed backyard studio, the Black Ark. Later he collaborated with the Beastie Boys and the English electronic act the Orb. But if there is one act Perry cherishes being associated with above all others, it's Bob Marley. Perry says, "Bob Marley was my twin brother. I died when Bob died. Reggae music died when Bob died." In addition to recording much of Marley's early work, many members of the Jamaican icon's backing band the Wailers were once in Perry's band the Upsetters.

With or without his many esteemed collaborators, Perry's musical output is extraordinary. Even more remarkable is, at the ripe age of 83, Perry continues to put out the goods. Last year, he released Rainford, an album that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best works from his decades-long career. The LP holds nine tracks of infectious grooves capped off by the sonic memoir "Autobiography of the Upsetter," a seven-minute joint in which the mischievous reggae Sphinx invites listeners into an intimate walkthrough of his past.

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But if you ask Perry for an explanation of how he continues to find his muse, all you'll get is more Zen koans. "I believe in soul music, old music. I believe in old people. I have the old ear. I'm a miracle worker. I'm a magic worker. I'm a scientist. I'm a magician. I believe in my magic. I believe in my logic."

Perry rattles off a similar list when asked what concertgoers can expect from his show at Culture Room on Saturday, February 15.

"You get the past and the present," he says. "Word power. Soul power. Drum 'n' bass from Marcus Garvey. Africa music. Africa foundation." Maybe over a proper dub beat, it'll all make perfect sense.

Lee "Scratch" Perry. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 15, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1074; cultureroom.net. Tickets cost $25 via ticketmaster.com.

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