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Dub pioneer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry brings true sonic wizardry to Detroit

Sounds like dirt

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With a human as magical as the 81-year-old Jamaican music producer, singer, and songwriter Lee "Scratch" Perry, it might not be so ridiculous to suggest a cosmic connection between the word "legend" and the name "Lee," starting with the same two letters as they do. We're not stoned, at the moment, so hang with us here for one second, please.

"Music is happiness," Perry tells us on the phone from his current home in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. "Music makes you dance. Music makes you sexy. Music makes you want to have sex. Music makes you want to dance forever. Makes makes you happy forever. Happiness is a cure. Sadness is stress. Music is life. Music is happiness."

Along with King Tubby and a couple of other folks, Perry invented the musical genre dub, which posited that the recording studio can be the most important element in creating a record. In turn, this not only helped to influence hip-hop and spawn techno, but led to the ProTools and phone apps which create every hit country song and every hit rap song you listen to today.

Originally an offshoot of reggae, dub music — which you might already recognize as referring to a copy, as one meaning of the verb "dub" is to make a copy of material from one recording to another — is remixed reggae with the vocals removed (although vocals can be re-added) with the drum and the bass severely accentuated. The beauty of dub is in the manipulation, the way a track is developed and transformed, with the mixing console acting as the producer's instrument.

Enter echo, reverb, delay, and other effects to create space-filling soundscapes, often ghostly and haunting, with a concentration on repetition. The genre is in cultural conversation with Afrofuturism, the cultural aesthetic and philosophy that combines elements of science fiction, history, Afrocentrism, and magical realism with non-Western worldviews to examine and critique both modern-day problems faced by black people and historical events.

This is put carefully in focus by music historian Luke Ehrlich in the oft-quoted 1982 essay "X-Ray Music: The Volatile History of Dub": "With dub, Jamaican music spaced out completely; if reggae is Africa in the New World, then dub must be Africa on the moon."

It's not even remotely a surprise that dub went on to influence everything from hip-hop to techno and house to punk and post-punk. But before it could do that, it had to be invented, and Perry is one of the original mad dub geniuses — and yet, in the late '70s or early '80s, he allegedly burned down the place where most of not only the dub magic but also his earlier focus on straight up reggae had occurred: the Black Ark, a studio he had built in his backyard. The set-up was rudimentary, and some of the gear quite dated; people now speculate that the utterly unique sounds he was able to both create and obtain may have had something to do with the literal decay of the space and equipment.

At the Black Ark, he produced or recorded everyone from his house band the Upsetters to Bob Marley and the Wailers to the Heptones to even Paul and Linda McCartney with Wings. Still, Perry had always been a thoroughly enigmatic and superstitious individual, with some rather unorthodox practices — such as consecrating his equipment with mystical invocations and spraying tapes with fluids to embellish their spiritual properties — so it's not entirely a surprise that he takes credit for the fire that destroyed everything, which he often states was a sacrifice he made to cleanse the space of "unclean spirits." (Others claim it was simply an electrical fire after rewiring had gone bad, but there's something cosmologically fitting to the notion that Lee torched the place himself.)

If you don't have time to watch one of the films about him — the one you've probably at least heard of is the 2011 documentary The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry, narrated by Benicio Del Toro — before his performance at El Club on Monday, join us as we take a brief trip through the twists and turns of his voluminous musical past in preparation for a performance that is likely to leave us scratching our heads with mystical wonder.

Born Rainford Hugh Perry in Jamaica, he took off down a musical path in the late 1950s selling records for Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's sound system (in Jamaican culture, the collective name for a group of DJs, engineers, and MCs playing ska, rocksteady, or reggae). Dodd was extremely influential in the evolution of ska and reggae in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond. You might better know the name of the recording studio and record label he founded: Studio One, which has been described as the Motown of Jamaica. Perry eventually logged many hours there, recording almost 30 songs for the label. Growing disagreements caused him to leave; thus was born his moniker the Upsetter, so named after his song "I Am The Upsetter," a direct musical jab at, and dismissal of, Dodd.

A brief stint at Joe Gibbs's Amalgamated Records followed. It wasn't until 1968 that Perry formed his own label, Upsetter Records. His first single on his own label, "People Funny Boy," was another sonic jab at a former boss, this time Gibbs. The track is now renowned, not only for its inventive use of the sample of a crying baby, but also for the fast-paced rhythmic shuffle we today recognize as reggae, a nascent sound at the time.

In 1973, Perry built the Black Ark studio in his backyard in order to exercise more control — in the numerous bizarre and beautiful ways that control was manifested — over his work. Access to his own studio enabled his productions to expand in scope and become increasingly unusual. For instance, Perry surrounded the drum booth with chicken wire to augment the sound, and also buried microphones at the base of a palm tree to capture a perplexing bass drum effect produced by rhythmically thumping the tree itself.

"The truth is the sun, the moon, and the stars, the clouds, the rain, the rainbow, and the weather; the earth is a magician," he says.

The marvel of his songs is in the layers and layers of subtle effects added in production ­— everything from rainfall and the sounds of broken glass to crying babies and cow noises ­— which were not actually recordings of cows, but rather the baritone voice of reggae singer Watty Burnett as fed through a tin foil-laced cardboard tube.

To name just two landmark dub albums of the time would be 1973's Blackboard Jungle Dub (originally released as Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle), featuring Perry's singular mix of quavering guitar effects, obscured rhythms, and horns that seem to be miles away; and 1976's Super Ape, half the pure essence of raw dubs, half featuring re-done vocals that almost lean into a jazz sound.

Perry worked his magical mixing console for many years, greatly contributing to the highest points in the history of reggae — until the fire, of course. With the destruction of the Black Ark came an end to one of Jamaica's most creatively fertile and musically innovative eras.

"I went away from the Black Ark for a while because there were too many vampires trying to suck me dry," Perry says. "I don't want them to suck them dry, I don't let them suck me dry. So the Black Ark Vampires, they are losing. The vampires lose."

In the 1980s and beyond, Perry spent time in both England and the United States, performing live and making records with numerous collaborators, including British producers Adrian Sherwood and Neil Fraser (better known as Mad Professor), who helped solidify Perry's career again; the Beastie Boys, on whose 1998 track "Dr. Lee, PhD" he was a guest vocalist; Andrew W.K., who co-produced Perry's 2008 album Repentance; and Keith Richards and spiritual brother George Clinton, who appeared on his 2010 album Revelation — to name just a few.

Solo albums and collaborations combined, the array of Perry recordings is dizzying, and he is still as prolific as ever; his latest release is this year's Zion Funky Rock. While he has traversed all the manifestations of reggae and dub throughout his life, these days you would do just as well to call him a performance artist.

"I'm coming to have a good show; I'm coming to see my fans, I want to see people there," Perry says. "Everywhere I go, I have a full show, a full house."

His live shows are often described as exceptional experiences, utterly weird and totally mesmerizing, featuring a combination of digital music and live performance. Here in Detroit, he is joined by the Subatomic Sound System, a Brooklyn collective composed of musicians, producers, and DJs that combine new technology with traditional instrumentation in an effort to adapt the Jamaican sound system culture to today's genres and forms of live performance — in other words, the perfect people to perform with Perry in the modern world.

The group is his go-to band when playing in the United States, with their masterful ability to recreate the imaginative sonic architecture of the Black Ark sound on stage.

"We'll have a good time," Perry says. "We're coming to bring peace to the people, peace in America ... so I've come to have a peaceful party and I hope they are happy. A party that is part reggae, and part dub. We will mix reggae, dub, hip-hop, and soul."

In addition to all of this musical work, Perry also had his first ever solo art exhibition in 2010 (appropriately titled "Secret Education"); received Jamaica's sixth highest honor, the Order of Distinction, Commander class, in 2012; and has appeared everywhere from the dub radio station the Blue Ark in Grand Theft Auto V to several Guinness commercials. Is there anything this man cannot do?

Perry now lives and works in Switzerland with his wife and children. Not only did he wish to escape the poverty of Jamaica, but the mountains, with their naturally occurring echos, seem to be the perfect home for a dub genius — which makes his rare appearance here in Detroit that much more exciting. When will you get another chance to see a true genre innovator? You better take this one.

Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Subatomic Sound System play El Club Monday, May 15; Doors at 8 p.m.; El Club, 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $26.

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