The sonic experimentations conducted by legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry in the 1970s in his fabled Black Ark studio were so advanced, they continue to influence 21st century electronic music strains and recording techniques. As one of the pioneers of dub, Perry sometimes reconfigured his own work multiple times.
For example, the 1976 Perry-produced single “Chase The Devil” — from 1976’s War ina Babylon album from Max Romeo & The Upsetters, Perry’s studio band — is a searing roots reggae anthem offering an imaginative take on good triumphing over evil. (Romeo’s declaratory opening lyric, “Lucifer son of the morning / I’m gonna chase you out of earth,” was famously sampled on JAY-Z’s “Lucifer,” produced by Kanye West, in 2003.) With Prince Jazzbo and The Upsetters, Perry fashioned a “Chase The Devil” dub remix, “Croaking Lizard,” for his 1976 album Super Ape, considered among the finest dub albums ever made; he did another remix of the song, “Disco Devil,” again altering the rhythm and adding on his own inimitable vocals. That trio of “Devil” versions are interwoven on a brand new rendition of “Chase The Devil” (featuring vocals by New York City’s Jahdan Blakkamoore and Screechy Dan), which is included on Super Ape Returns to Conquer, a reimagining of Perry’s classic album, produced by Scratch, now 81, and Emch, co-founder of New York City’s Subatomic Sound System (a collective of musicians combining roots, dancehall, and dub reggae with electronic music, hip-hop and Latin influences).
“We brought together the three versions on the new ‘Chase The Devil’ to show Scratch’s innovative work from that time; he’s an amazing producer and songwriter who wrote for Bob Marley and Max Romeo (among others), he did great dub remixes and ran a successful studio; it’s interesting that Kanye West sampled ‘Chase The Devil’ because in many ways, Kanye is the realization of a blueprint that existed in Scratch’s 1970s work,” comments Emch, a DJ, producer, multi-instrumentalist and the driving force behind Super Ape Returns to Conquer, which drops on Sept. 22 on Emch’s Subatomic Sound label. “Of all the album’s tracks,” continued Emch, “we did the most musically faithful version on ‘Chase The Devil’ because it’s a classic and updating it was about bringing that message to a new generation.”
The refashioned version of “Chase The Devil” debuts here.
Subatomic Sound System has been Perry’s backing band since 2010. They’ve performed over 100 shows together in various international locales; on Oct. 24 they will embark on an eight-date U.S. tour. Scratch and Subatomic Sound System released their first joint digital single, “Black Ark Vampires,” in 2016 and the solid response, says Emch, inspired Super Ape Returns to Conquer, their first collaborative album. “We’ve been playing with Scratch for a while and some of the songs that people really responded to and that Scratch loved most, were from the (original) Super Ape album so I proposed to Scratch that we do the album. He liked that we weren’t just doing the old music. We incorporated a lot of new ideas, drum and bass, dubstep, electronic and in a way we had to push him a little to do the old stuff because he was more interested in the new stuff.”
Recorded at Subatomic Sound Studio in Brooklyn at The Hook, at The New Ark (Scratch’s home studio) in Jamaica, and at their various concerts. The featured Subatomic Sound System lineup includes Emch handling the live dub mixing, melodica, guitar, beats, bass, keys, echoes, reverbs, sirens, samplers, backing vocals and computers; Scratch providing “vocals, rock stone, thunder claps, ganja pipe, spiritual perseverance, magic and meditation”; Troy Shaka Simms, saxophone and Omar Little, trumpet and cornet. Screechy Dan’s singing, chatting and harmonies are featured throughout the project and the late Ari Up, of pioneering punk band The Slits, lends her voice to “Underground Roots.” Also featured is veteran Jamaican percussionist, and Subatomic Sound System core member, Larry McDonald, who played on the original Super Ape album and was frequently recruited by Scratch for Black Ark sessions in the 1970s.
“In those days when you recorded with Scratch you didn’t know where your recording would end up, it could be on albums by Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh or Max Romeo. He would call you in, he used a four track tape, you’d hear the basic stuff and you just played to that,” recalls the venerable McDonald who has played with legendary Jamaican outfits including Toots and the Maytals and drumming troupe Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari as well as veteran bluesman Taj Mahal and the late revolutionary poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron. Scratch’s visionary production approach reportedly involved mixing down his four-track reel to reel tapes to stereo, feeding that tape to another four-track recorder, which resulted in extra available tracks to add further recordings; Scratch would repeat the process until he achieved his desired effect, which resulted in the groundbreaking, multi-layered rhythms that characterize his work. “All these years later,” adds McDonald, “we’ve ended up working together on some of the recordings we did in the 1970s but now I have Scratch’s trust and the freedom to try the million things that occurred to me back then, so I can go to work and play and that is a great feeling.”
Gaining Scratch’s trust, as Emch and McDonald attest, is essential to communicating with him, but that’s not something easily attained by a journalist in an interview setting. Scratch reliably deviates from basic questions by dispensing fragments of information that usually can’t be pieced into a cohesive whole, yet sometimes, when contemplated, offer greater insight into his erratic genius. In an email sent to Billboard, Scratch offered a descriptive explanation, shrouded in mysticism, detailing the impetus behind the original Super Ape, the reimagined Super Ape Returns to Conquer and the reasons his music will continue to be embraced by subsequent generations. “Super Ape is the sky. Super Ape is the thunder and lightning! Thunder and lightning never die. I never copy no man; God create nature and I only copy God. No man rule God. I listen to the sound of the wind, the ocean waves, the drops of rain and I create my music from nature. My music is from nature and nature is the sound of God. My music is God music. So it can never get old and it can never die. Monkey win. Evil get squeezed.”