Lee Perry’s dead and I’m not yet. Just on the day of his passing, Saturday the 28th in August, deep into the night I could not sleep, and about him I was reading, don’t want to make no fuss about it, but tired then I did know this was not some randomness, the Universe has its own mathematics, He went to lenghts to express this, it also just happened that Erik Davis’ older wonderful Notes on Modern Esoterica put me again on Scratch’s path with impeccable timing.
First bought a record of his at fourteen while traveling to Annecy to see the French uncle, so close with the Swiss border I had to go. During the week there, took a bus to Geneva & hung out in a few streets with head shops, t-shirt & record stores, drank beer in cinema it was legal there, came back late with wax from the Black Ark, re-issued in a dubious way. It was then a pure gesture of desire, for the object more than anything, because at home their was no way yet I would be able to play this back. The summer after I was getting my first Technics, a SL-1200 via mail transmission, you best believe dub music is the first thing that spinned. Same with this massive sound-system-as-public-art rig, open airwaves through bluetooth at the right frequency it called me.
There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air
”Having abandoned the Jamaican tropics for the snowy peaks of Switzerland, the legendary reggae producer Lee Perryaka Scratch, the Upsetter, the Super-Ape, Pipecock Jackson, Inspector Gadget, the Firmament Computer, and a cornucopia of other monikers and aliasesnow makes his home in one of the quietest corners of Europe. It’s an odd but somehow fitting environment for Perrynot because precision clocks and banks have much to do with the intense, spooky, and profoundly playful records he’s known for, but because Lee Perry had always been something of a stranger in a strange land.
The question of Perry’s sanity opens up the tangled relationship between tricks, madness, art, and the prophetic imagination, but what is most important about Perry and his astounding musical legacy is how they highlight an often ignored strain of New World African culture: a techno-visionary tradition that looks as much toward science fiction futurism as toward magical African roots. One finds this fusion in the experimental cosmological jazz of Sun Ra, who also pioneered the use of synthesizers and African percussion; in Jimi Hendrix’s “electric church music,” which psychedelicized the guitar with feedback and studio effects; in the juicy cosmic technofunk of Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton, which, as Cornel West writes, “both Africanizes and technologizes Afro-American popular music.” Hip hop music also began with an totally unexpected redeployment of turntable and mixing technology (introduced to the South Bronx by the Jamaican DJ Kool Herc), creating what Tricia Rose calls “an experimental and collective space where contemporary issues and ancestral forces are worked through simultaneously.”Though predominantly secular, hip hop nonetheless hosts an intense subgenre of rappers who belong to the Five Percent Nation, a street-wise offshoot of the Nation of Islam. In contrast with the worldly concerns of gangsta rappers, acts like Brand Nubian, the Poor Righteous Teachers, Paris, and Lakim Shabazz fuse hard-hitting political prophecies, righteous moralizing, and bizarre numerology into a forceful amalgam of Black Pride and imaginative Africentric “science.”
This loosely “gnostic” strain of Afrodiasporic science-fiction emerges from the improvised confrontation between modern technology and the prophetic imagination, a confrontation rooted in the alienated conditions of black life in the New World. According to Greg Tate, who sees science fiction as continuing a vein of philosophical inquiry and technological speculation that begins with Egyptian theories of the afterlife, “black people live the estrangement that science fiction writers imagine.”As Perry’s own scathing protest music proves, the prophetic art that arises from this condition of perpetual exile does not simply “escape” from the pragmatic demands of politics. But neither does it deny the ark of the imagination that lies on the other side of the inner door, a tricky craft capable of navigating through the shadowed valleys of this world, guided by a black star whose very invisibility renders its virtual possibilities infinite.”
In addition to working daily with the Congos, Perry was also starting to have greater contact with members of the Niyabinghi Theocracy, a strict religious order that now formed a habitual presence at his studio. This Kingston-based order was centered on a congregation of Rasta Burru drummers, followers of Marcus Garvey who held regular Niyabinghi groundation sessions since 1960; their leader was an elder Trench Town resident affectionately addressed by the order as Pa-Ashanti. In groundations, the Rastafari faithful conduct extended drumming ceremonies to challenge the oppressive forces of Babylon; various ideas and solutions are debated through “reasoning” and grievances aired in sessions that can last hours, days, or even weeks. In the stricter Niyabinghi variant, the concept of “death to black and white oppressors” is central; the movement itself, and its attendant Niyabinghi sessions, take their name from an East African anticolonial movement inspired by the alleged spiritual possession of a Ugandan woman by an Amazonian Queen.
Gradually, Perry’s Black Ark studio became a focal point and meeting place for the order. Lee Perry was the most prominent producer making music that was relevant to the Rastafari cause; his records were consistently radical and uncompromising, and he was never afraid to express his religious beliefs. The brethren thus appointed him their “Minister of Music,” heightening his role within the movement. As member Jah Ned Willacy explains, “Scratch is instrumentally a representative of the Rastafari government; his musical contribution was enough weaponry for him to use to do his part. Scratch was responsible for the musical development within the movement of Rastafari itself, so Scratch was generally responsible for the music ministry of our movement. Everyone was looking forward to Scratch.”
Wax Poetics : City Too Hot by David Katz
Ark Work, Cabinet, London, March 9 – May 6, 2023