The Best of Lee “Scratch Perry” at the Black Ark

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It’s been said that Jamaica has produced more records per capita than any other nation. And of all of the recording facilities that have served the island nation’s massive music industry, none is more steeped in legend than Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark.

Operational for just under six years, from 1973 to 1979, the Black Ark was crudely fashioned in the backyard of the legendary dub/reggae producer’s family home in Washington Gardens, Kingston. It was as much an anachronism for its time as it is now a template for today’s DIY home studios. Where other Kingston facilities like Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One and Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle were places of efficient commerce, run by businessmen-producers, The Black Ark was one of unfettered creativity. Unconstrained by time, logistics, and restrictions on marijuana smoke, this was a place where Perry could unlock new levels of bass by thumping microphones buried under the base of palm trees, and where mooing cows could be summoned by applying tin foil to cardboard tubes.

Perry has been the subject of a meaty biography (2006’s People Funny Boy by David Katz), two feature-length documentaries (Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough’s The Upsetter and Volker Shaner’s Vision of Paradise), and a 1994 issue of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine. All grant his Black Ark years their just due as Perry’s peak period of creativity. Yet the mystique of the Black Ark— which Perry is said to have burned down to ward off the presence of evil spirits — seems to grow greater with each retelling.

From the outset of his career, Perry was committed to experimentation. His use of a crying baby on 1968’s “People Funny Boy” is widely regarded as the earliest use of a sample (to say nothing of its status as one of the first reggae songs and earliest diss tracks). With the launch of his Upsetter label in the late ‘60s, he revolutionized the role of the producer, beginning his first experiments with dub and making himself the featured act from behind the boards.

The opening of the Black Ark in 1973 coincides with Perry’s estrangement from Bob Marley and the Wailers, whom he had molded from a marginal, suit-and-tie-wearing vocal trio into the fierce, defiant soul rebels first announced on the group’s 1970 debut LP. Perry was the first producer in Jamaica to use drum machine, which he first employed on Marley’s raw, unfinished “Rainbow Country,” and an early version of “Natural Mystic.” (A rhythm, known as Chim Cherie and credited to Perry’s band The Upsetters—and recycled over the years by other producers for tracks like Shinehead’s “Billie Jean”—also dates from this time). In 1973, Perry also released his landmark Blackboard Jungle Dub album, which featured Perry’s mix in one channel and engineer King Tubby’s in the other (though it should be noted that the rhythm tracks from this release pre-date the Black Ark).

Other early Black Ark recordings include Junior Byles’ “Curly Locks,” (1973), Susan Cadogan’s “Hurt so Good” and Dr. Alimantado’s “Best Dressed Chicken In Town” (1974). The latter would form the nucleus of a 1978 album that launched Greensleeves Records’ London-based reggae empire, while “Hurt so Good,” one of the more straightforward songs to ever emerge from the studio, enjoyed great success on the U.K. charts.

The Black Ark era peaks in 1976-77, a period in which Perry produced The Heptones’ Party Time, Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon and Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves albums, as well as his own dub LP, Super Ape, each issued through Island Records. If reggae was becoming known as the sunny sound of the tropics, these albums offered a much darker vision of the genre. War Ina Babylon depicted a biblical battle between good and evil in its lyrics (and cover art), particularly on the classic title track and “Chase the Devil.” That song’s haunting opening line would later color The Prodigy’s “Out of Space” and Jay-Z’s Kanye-produced “Lucifer.”

The Heptones’ deceptively titled Party Time contained weighty material including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and the Perry-penned “Sufferer’s Time.” And the title track from Murvin’s album, “Police and Thieves” would be retroactively remembered as the soundtrack to clashes between Caribbean immigrants and cops at that year’s Notting Hill Carnival in London. Super Ape, meanwhile, remixed pieces of these and other Black Ark recordings, while introducing an alter ego Perry has continued to revisit throughout his career. (His latest release, Super Ape Returns to Conquer, is a wholesale revisiting of that LP, with new versions of each track).

The Clash covered “Police and Thieves” on their 1977 debut and tapped Scratch to produce “Complete Control” during the producer’s visit to London that year. Joe Strummer and crew never reached the Black Ark, but they helped it become a magnet for musical tourists. These visitors—or at least their record labels—were generally flummoxed by Perry’s unusual methods. Paul McCartney sought Scratch’s services for his wife Linda’s quickly aborted solo career, travelling to Kingston to record covers of ‘50’s bubblegum hits “Sugartime (by the Maguire Sisters) and “Mister Sandman” (popularized by The Chordettes). The tracks would not emerge until the posthumous Wide Prairie in 1998. Robert Palmer visited in 1978 for a session that yielded only “Love Can Run Faster,” the little-known B-side to classic rock staple “Give Me The News (Doctor Doctor).”

Likewise, the record many regard as Perry’s apex as a producer was rejected by Island Records in 1977: Heart of the Congos, by the titular trio of Cedric Myton, Roydel Johnson, and Watty Burnett. The album was instead issued by Perry in a run of several hundred copies, its legend left to grow over subsequent decades and reissues. After reuniting with Perry in London to record 1977’s “Punky Reggae Party,” Bob Marley visited his former mentor’s studio in 1978, recording demos—”Who Colt The Game” and “I Know A Place”—which, too, were only released posthumously.

By this time, reports had begun to surface of erratic behavior and a possible descent into madness on the part of Perry. Fortunately, his eclectic nature manifested itself in increasingly odd, but brilliant recordings, the contents of which continue to baffle and inspire. This includes 1977’s Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread—in which the aforementioned cow noises were achieved by running Watty Burnett’s baritone voice through a tin foil–laced cardboard tube—and 1978’s jazz-inspired Return of the Super Ape.

Sometime around 1979, Perry was seen covering the walls of the Black Ark in indecipherable magic-marker scrawlings, crossing out all of the vowels. Recent retellings suggest that this and other acts of seeming insanity were possibly a calculated effort on Perry’s behalf to free himself of the figurative “vampires” who’d set upon his home and studio—mobsters seeking a cut of label profits, or underemployed singers who’d taken to squatting on the premises.

In fact, Perry’s legendary act of arson may be a distortion. Family members have been quoted as saying the studio actually burned in an electrical fire in 1983. Perry, now 81 and residing primarily in the Swiss Alps, still owns and keeps a home on the property that formerly housed the Black Ark.