Lee “Scratch” Perry’s music has probably never been described as futuristic.
Ahead of it’s time? Yes.
Unapologetic and uncompromising? Without a doubt.
One of the reasons his music has never been considered futuristic is because, in all honesty, Perry is defined by the “classic” lo-fi sound that was a result of recording at the Black Ark. That intangible “Black Ark sound” is synonymous with Perry. It’s a sound that has been often imitated, but never duplicated. However, it’s not only a sound, it was a place in time and, as they say, you can never go back home again.
It’s a Wednesday night. May 16, 2012. I’m lucky enough to be sitting in the balcony of my favorite venue, the historic State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia – a small community theatre just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. I spent all day texting back and forth with DJ Emch, a Brooklyn-based DJ/Selector/Musician/Label Head who is en route with his Subatomic Sound System in tow. Having never heard of Subatomic Sound System, I am eager to get the skinny on this collective of musicians dedicated to preserving and extending the many roots and branches of Jamaican dubwise studio techniques and the sound system tradition.
“They must be good,” I’m thinking, “because they landed the gig of Lee Perry’s DJ outfit for his 9-date North American mini-tour that kicks off tonight, here at the State Theatre.”
Formed in 1999, Subatomic Sound System brings together musicians, producers, DJs and visual artists to form a record label and collective that use a combination of new music technology and traditional instruments to produce music across a variety of genres in an effort to adapt 1970s’ Jamaican sound system culture and dub reggae studio techniques to current music genres and forms of live performance.
In real talk, they are attempting to make dub the sound of the future. And if what I witness at the State Theatre is any indication, they seem to be doing a pretty damn good job.
In fall 2008, Subatomic Sound System garnered international attention for a limited edition vinyl 12″ featuring their collaboration with Vienna’s Dubblestandart and Lee Perry, releasing the first songs from Perry in the dubstep genre. This is one of the first times that classic Jamaican dub reggae-or what I refer to as “God’s music”- is used in a dubstep mix.
In order for you to grasp the concept of adapting Lee Perry’s classic dub tracks to a dubstep style, you need to understand what dubstep is. Dubstep is a musical form centered around bass. It originated in South London, England and is described by Allmusic as “tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples, and occasional vocals.” The name “dubstep” originated from the common use of dub elements in the genre, and because both traditional dub and dubstep are often played at a similar tempo.
The more experimental releases of UK garage producers contributed to early dubstep, and sought to incorporate elements of dub reggae into the South London-based 2-step subgenre. Dubstep rhythms are usually syncopated, and often incorporate triplets and the One drop rhythm common to traditional reggae, a reference to the genre’s dub music influences.
In the fall of 2008, Emch of Subatomic Sound System rethinks one of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s all time classic riddims. This bouncing riddim, commonly known to reggae/dub fans as “I Chased The Devil,” was composed by Lee Perry and Max Romeo in 1976 for Romeo’s legendary “War Inna Babylon” album. It also appears on The Upsetters’ “Croaking Lizard,” a version with different lyrics that is included on the “Super Ape” album and on “Disco Devil,” the Lee Perry and the Full Experience 12″ a-side track recorded in 1979.
The classic riddim, remixed in a dubstep and dancehall style by Emch and Subatomic Sound System in the fall of 2008, is released as the “Iron Devil” 12″. It overwhelms critics and fans alike upon it’s release. A limited pressing of the record, which also included several dubstep tunes with Prince Far-I, disappeared from shelves worldwide in less than a week.
To follow up the success of “Iron Devil,” Subatomic Sound System decided to climb a mountain: they would rethink Lee Perry’s dub classic “Black Panta”/”Blackboard Jungle Dub” riddim in a future dub step style. This is a monumental task. Considered by many to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, compositions in the history of reggae, it is perhaps only bested by Augustus Pablo’s “Cassava Piece” riddim, which was later over-dubbed by King Tubby to create “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown.”
Emch enlists Brooklyn’s dubstar Jahdan Blakkamoore, who has long time been on the front lines of Brooklyn’s dancehall, reggae and hip hop scenes. He also enlists the Vienna, Austria dub/rock collective Dubblestandart, whose bassist, Paul Zasky, is an absolute phenom. The result of this collaboration is “Respect My Shit!,” a stunner of a 12.” Lee “Scratch” Perry in dubstep. A “dark wobbly version that follows up on the rootical, dancehall dubstep version.”
…Which brings us to the tour. Subatomic Sound System supporting Lee “Scratch” Perry in a future dub mix style, along with live bass player Paul Zasky and legendary Jamaican percussionist Larry McDonald of Dub Is a Weapon.
Emch takes the stage at 9:45 p.m. as the mighty selecta, here to hype the crowd for the dub legend awaiting backstage. He drops the bass from a Subatomic Sound System remix and the place quakes. Just the right response. He runs through a set of Jamaican murda tracks that range from classic dub to dancehall to modern roots to dubstep. The evolution of dub in a 15-minute set.
Is that U-Roy rhyming over a Subatomic track? Yes it is.
Anthony B blazing a Subatomic track? Sure, why not?
He closes the set with a superb 7″ Subatomic remix of Ari Up’s (The Slits) last recording “Bed Athletes” – the first and only time that Ari Up and Lee “Scratch” Perry appear on record together.
The rest of the show is classic Lee Perry in a future dub style.
(For a review of the show, please click HERE.)
So, is Lee “Scratch” Perry’s music futuristic?
It is now, thanks to Subatomic Sound System.
Are we witnessing something special here? Maybe the future of classic Jamaican dub? A re-thinking, re-tooling of the genre?
I don’t know. But I do know one thing. Emch and Subatomic Sound System are doing something that nobody else thought to do at a time when dub reggae is on life-support. They are breathing new life into a style of music that is far too often overlooked. A style of music that was disrespected from the start.
And who knows, they might make a reluctant star out of Lee “Scratch” Perry along the way…
“Respect The Foundation”…
Oh!…Emch…King Tubby’s “Prophecy Of Dub” inna future dub style mix…it has a certain ring, no?
I had the chance to speak with Emch about the tour and recording with Lee Perry. Here is an excerpt from our interview:
Have you been rehearsing at all with Scratch or was it mostly improv?
“At 76, Scratch doesn’t rehearse anymore but he certainly leads and organizes on stage so the band rehearses to be ready for whatever he might call out. You may have seen on stage how he treats it almost like a studio session, composing music live, telling us what to play on the spot and us having to do it, whether a horn or melodica part a conga beat, a drum pattern, whatever.
Famously he once ran up to the horns players one night and shouted “bumblebee” over and over until he made a sound like a bee buzzing. He pushes your creativity to find a way to do it no matter what. He may not be as strict as James Brown but he does put you on the spot in front of a massive crowd of people so you have to be on point.
Since I am running samplers, analog noise boxes, and a computer, playing melodica, and dubbing the mix of the live instruments as well as the samples of his original recorded music, I really have to be on my toes and be ready to switch gears at any point. He talks about Kung fu and balance a lot, quick thinking and anticipating the next move of your opponent, so that’s the mindset I try to stay in when performing with him. Like Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water”.”
What does it mean to be on stage with such a legendary figure?
“His music changed the course of my life. I spent countless hours over the past decade trying to sort out and refine bringing the studio performance of dub to the stage and so it’s mind blowing for me to get to walk in the blackboard jungle with the Super Ape himself.
A decade ago i remember writing a bio for my first live dub project Dub Champions, talking about trying to represent his influence in my music, so to now support the master on stage is really an incredible gift. The opportunity to make music with one of the greatest producers of the past century, someone who is responsible for reggae and dub and who massively shaped the style and vision of Bob Marley and countless other artists is really powerful.
The pearls of wisdom he drops are like dialogue from Yoda or some martial arts master. I worked really hard to incorporate his original recordings in the performance while at the same time reinforcing them with what i feel are a 21st century interpretation of his music, a balance of reverence and relevance. He is all about new sounds and styles and constantly evolving so he is looking to take chances.
Everyone in our live crew is deeply influenced by his music and deep into his history so I think that gives us a good jump off point to go from the roots to outer space. I remember hearing a quote I think by Miles Davis about free jazz, saying essentially that you have to know the rules before you break them. We all know the rules but we aren’t afraid to break out and experiment which is what we are doing with Scratch, touching all the way back to the past Randy’s and Black Ark recordings and pushing then into the future as we imagine it.”
How many Scratch tracks have u remixed and was he involved?
“I essentially remixed every song we play for the live show, about 14 tracks, but those aren’t available to the public. Officially there have been three to five remix projects on the Subatomic Sound label with Scratch and Dubblestandart remixed by Subatomic Sound System, depending on how you count it.
The first dubstep track to feature Lee Scratch Perry, Iron Devil (a hand stamped limited edition 12″ vinyl release that also featured Prince Far-I), Blackboard Jungle Vol. 1 “Respect the Foundation” & Vol. 2 “Respect My Shit” (featuring dancehall artist Jahdan Blakkamoore), “Chrome Optimism” (featuring American filmmaker David Lynch), and “Hello, Hell is Very Low,” a 7″ exclusive that features Ari Up of The Slits, which would turn out to be her first record with Scratch and sadly the last release during her lifetime.
It all started when Dubblestandart, the live dub band from Europe. I was working on their album “Return from Planet Dub,” a double album with Lee Scratch and Ari Up of The Slits. I was on tour in North America and I was playing guitar and melodica for them and I was playing releases from Subatomic Sound System in the car. They played me some of the tracks with Lee and told me I needed to do dubstep remixes of them. That was back in 2007 I think, when dubstep was a much more wide open and creative genre than people know now through more mainstream Grammy nominated dubstep productions.
Anyway, the reaction was massive to all the remixes and one thing led to another. We got a call to play Central Park Summerstage, a lifetime dream for me, just an incredible place in New York City. Lee Scratch Perry, Dubblestandart, Subatomic Sound System, and also Alpha Blondy. Biggest show of the summer. Capacity crowd. From there we just kept moving with Dubblestandart backing Scratch quite a lot in Europe recently and now this US tour with Subatomic Sound System tour in the US that has had an incredible response, numerous shows sold out in advance.
One of the remixes we did on Blackboard Jungle Vol. 1 was titled ” Respect the Foundation” and ultimately that is our goal, to see Scratch get his due and proper recognition at a time when so many people are tapping into dub without even tipping their hat to the originators.”
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