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Why Lee “Scratch” Perry Wants You To Stop Smoking Weed

The producer who fathered reggae 40 years ago talks new music, old studios, and negative influence.

Photographer Mark James

Lee "Scratch" Perry, who crafted sounds for Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and countless others while releasing genre-formative albums of his own, is relaxing in a grand old English guest house in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. He has just gotten through performing at the Lakefest Music Festival and is wearing a full red suit covered with dollar, pound, and Euro signs written in Magic Marker; his baseball cap is adorned with metallic badges, a large circular mirror, and a pinecone-shaped chunk of crystal perched on the brim. When he speaks, his words, like his clothes and his tunes, are freewheeling, arcane, and ceaseless. From a small settee, he holds forth on a wide range of subjects, including his new signee, Iguana, his return-to-form new album Back on the Controls, which he recorded in a replica of his legendary Black Ark recording studio, and why he feels guilty about the marijuana culture his art helped to spread to the masses.

How would you describe the Black Ark sound? Well, that sound was a special sound. That studio did come to create some people with good vibration, spiritual vibration. So whatsoever those people were hearing from that time, they think they could hear spirit talking to them, and the spirit showing them something. So they love to deal with spirit. When you hear anything it always have to have spirit in it. Like illumination or Illuminati and that. But we not in anything like that. They want to hear something that spirit talking to you. The Ark of the Covenant is a spiritual vibration. The ancient spirits speak, and speak through people. So everything is spirit, because God is a spirit. And Satan the Devil also is a spirit. But Satan need competition.

You worked in so many different studios, what made you open Black Ark? I was giving Coxsone [Dodd] a lot of ideas. And most of the ideas, he give it to, like, Delroy Wilson to sing. And I did want to sing myself, but him think my voice wasn't good enough to sing. So I say "Okay, I'm gonna teach him a lesson." I made the Black Ark to make a revenge on Coxsone. To bring Coxsone down to nothing and to make him know that I can sing. Him say me can't sing. So me going to prove me can sing. So me build the Black Ark so that he can't tell me that me can't sing. And when me finished with him, he was nothing. When I finished with him he couldn't walk anymore. He was crippled. When I done prove that I can sing, he couldn't stand on his leg anymore. He was walking on his knee—paralyzed, crippled.

Is that the Black Ark effect? A whole heap of thing. It produce rain, whirlwind, hurricane, tidal wave, lightning, thunder, hailstone, earthquake… And it preserve life and it kill. It cripple, it cramp, and paralyze.

Was that the reason you had to wipe out the Black Ark studio? To burn it down in 1979? I can't. Not even me can wipe out the Black Ark. Because why it is black—no care how white you are, your shadow is black. And no matter how pink you look, your shadow is black. You understand me? If you are Indian or Chiney, or a negro or a white man, your shadow must be black. So the power of black is very serious. But the black man don't know that him powerful. They can't make him know yunno. Because he will kill the judge and kill the barrister them too, and kill the jury.

"I was out of control because I was following fashion, thinking it was the ganja making the people sing. "

You worked with Bob Marley and The Wailers a lot at VP Records founder Vincent "Randy" Chin's Studio 17. What was it like working there? It fun to work with Randy's studio. Because Randy was just a man who want to prove that he had sense and that he could something too. So him want us to come to his studio to show us his equipment, that his equipment could be better than Coxsone's equipment. That is true. Because his equipment was not distorting, but Coxsone's equipment was distorted.

So Coxsone's Studio One equipment was older than Randy's? Randy's was not distorted. So there were two different [problems at Coxsone's]. One of the studio was humming [Scratch imitates a low hum] or [Scratch imitates a swishing sound, like wind blowing]. But Randy's wasn't humming or Randy's wasn't [shhhh-ing]. The machines were well cool. You understand?

Randy's studio ended up an important place for you. Of course. When you put on the record there, it sound good as you can make it. And people could buy equipment and the right turntable that him could play and don't hear the voice. It was good for them because they could rap around the riddim. They do that because they want to practice what goes on. Or if you could take out a riddim, a voice, or play a track with no voice, they practice on that.

Peter Tosh recorded at Studio 17 for a very long time, even beyond his work with The Wailers. Yeah. He was a warrior. A warrior and a great youth. Very talented. I think him do an LP with me, and I think it's Trojan Records we give it to. And I can't remember so much, but there was one song he sing 'bout second-hand girl. Him no want no second-hand girl or somethin' like that. You ever hear that song?

"Brand New Second Hand"? Yeah. A me him do that for him [Laughs]. We have a lot of songs but some of them… In those times we just tried to get them to the outside world, and we didn't have enough money to do it we'self, so we have to give it to another company. But most of them don't like doing promotion. Well everything was looking good because him still come back very strong.

"Anything the politician and the government hate, I love it."

So look, I have to ask you about this hat you're wearing? Well, this hat is actually really about ganja. [Perry takes off his hat and starts pulling rolling papers out of a compartment.] I used to be actually addicted to ganja. Until I reach to a time that I don't think I did need ganja already. Because if I smoke ganja anymore I get too smart.

Ganja makes you too smart? Yes, cause I smoke too much. So it was so much that I get crazy. Too much fire. [Laughs] Too much weed, so I get crazy. If you love God you would never destroy your lungs.

So it's not good to smoke anything? Nah. When you don't know, it's alright. But when you know, you know cigarette is hurting your lungs and you put your lungs to sacrifice. That mean you nail your lungs on a cross. You know it's wrong, but because it's in fashion, and you want to follow fashion, you put yourself on a cross.

When did you realize you wanted to stop smoking? Me decide to find out if it was me singing or the ganja singing. And the scribe says, if it was the ganja singing, you're gonna stop sing. It's better when me sing. If the ganja can sing, the ganja gonna take you to a height that you can't come back. And the ganja love to mix with cigarette, and me get to hate cigarette. Me was addicted to cigarettes and me start to hate it, when me discover what it is.

So tonight, onstage, that was you singing? Yeah. No cigarette, no ganja. Fully in control. I was out of control because I was following fashion, thinking it was the ganja making the people sing. So we smoke too, and get high. And then I discover that my voice was different. Thinking anybody can smoke a spliff and start to sing.

You made many amazing and successful records during the time you were in Jamaica. You were smoking then right? Yeah. I was smoking those time. But the thing is when I do what I do, I go back and listen to it and say… "If there's a certain amount of people given to I, then I only want to teach them what is real." Because if I don't teach them what is real, when it end all up, they are not guilty. Only you are guilty for teaching them something that is not real. You can follow people do things. But there is people that you create. They follow you, you are responsible for them. You are their teacher. Because of what you teach, they follow what you teach, and live by what you teach. So anything happen to them is you are guilty.

So what's the solution to that? Choose only what is good for you, and give it to the people who believe in you. So if you were smoking ganja and making records, and other people grow a part of this smoke thing that you were smoking, like drugs. And all those people who get drugsy, then you're guilty, not them.

Speaking of influence, you've had major influence in the world of reggae as one of the pioneers of the genre. How have you seen it change over the years? Well, the whole thing about it… For me to say "reggae" me just say that to make the people who living off it live. Right? But the music itself is a spiritual organization that I put together. And because of the other people in Jamaica there wasn't a name for it. It was like a weapon, a revolution weapon to correct or to make connection with the American funky. Like, to fight against the funky. So it did not have a name and they wanted to know what they should call it. So they want to say, "Let's call it reggae." But it name revolution music. Redemption music. Revolution music. But because of the people who are suffering like sufferers and they are rebels. "Streggae" the sufferer mean, so me join it as a fun.

When you listen to drum & bass, jungle, and dubstep today, do you hear reggae's influence? It have influence actually over all music. Is a rebel. And the people together… it's a sufferer's music. And music to let you have freedom, set you free, communication, community, people, sufferer's peoples, rebels and devils and whatsoever it is love it. And that's why it has so much strength and so much power.

We're here in the UK, so I have to ask you about Bob Marley's "Punky Reggae Party," because you recorded that here. How did that song come about? Well. like I was saying, there was a little mix-up of what goes on our type of music. The pop music was so much… Everywhere. Pop. And these sufferers wanted something different for themself. Punks are different people. Punks didn't have any locks. Punks like to put hair colors, and I like hair colors too. So I was liking what the punks do. So we decided to mix with punk ideas, and move away from the funk—the funk is American. So we gonna make a "Funky Reggae Party." We put the punk and the reggae together. We were throwing stone at the funk music. Decide to upset the funk music. So we put the punk and the reggae together and call it "Punky Reggae Party." It's an organization. Me like, like for instance, the government don't like ganja and the politician hate ganja. So anything the politician and the government hate, I love it.

Because that's the rebel in you?
[Nods head.]

Why Lee “Scratch” Perry Wants You To Stop Smoking Weed