Reggae pioneer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s lessons in good music as good magic

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Balazs Mohai/EPA

As electronic music shape-shifts its way through the early years of the 21st century, the influence of dub – reggae’s stripped-down mutant version – on contemporary production is becoming more apparent. In “Remixology”, Paul Sullivan captures the fluidity and complexity of dub as a diasporic form:

Ethereal, mystical, conceptual, fluid, avant-garde, raw, unstable, provocative, transparent, postmodern, disruptive, heavyweight, political, enigmatic … dub is way more than “a riddim and a bassline”, even if it is that too. Dub is a genre and a process, a “virus” and a “vortex”.

The work of Lee “Scratch” Perry, who turned 80 in March 2016, is central to the way we perceive dub today. His influence is audible in the liquid electronica of Arca and FKA twigs; the Afrocentric spiritualism and vivid sound collaging of Flying Lotus; the sonic murk and vast reverberant spaces of Burial, Laurel Halo and Actress; and the work of countless other cutting-edge producers.

Seen in this light, Scratch is a cornerstone of modern electronic popular music. But his work is so richly allusive, his persona so layered, that it’s possible to frame his contribution any number of ways.

‘Magic Music’ by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.

Good music is good magic

Interviews with Scratch amount to a hall of mirrors for anyone searching for simple answers or posing simple questions. John Corbett notes that “[Scratch’s] is a discursive kingdom, a creative world of hidden connections and secret pacts exposed in language.”

Common strands do emerge in Scratch’s elaborate discourse though, ideas that recur and so seem central to his worldview and musical philosophy. I’ve written previously about outer space, cyborg, natural/ecological and religious imagery in Scratch’s work. Another concept that recurs as frequently is that of magic.

In an interview with the Guardian, a newly octogenarian Scratch was uncharacteristically direct on the subject:

Music is magic. If you have good music you have good magic. If you have good magic you will be followed by good people. Then they can be blessed by the one God.

It’s obvious to identify Scratch as a practitioner of magic in relation to his use of language, his virtuosity with spoken and written words. Maybe it’s missing the point, though. By restlessly repurposing language, Scratch pushes it towards an adequate secondary expression of the complex, layered reality he expresses so effortlessly in sound.

What’s exciting here is not that we might think of Scratch as a maker of magic because of what he tells us. Rather, it is that we might calmly and with a sense of intellectual or academic rigour acknowledge the magic in his art.

Production as the practice of magic

Positioning Scratch’s work as attaining the qualities of magic is not the same as essentialising the image of the man himself, making him a caricature musical mystic or shaman. Similarly, I’m not looking to reduce the work to a set of instinctual, unintellectual functions either. On the contrary, the proposition is to properly acknowledge Scratch’s work as irreducibly complex, deeply layered, subtle and nuanced.

Reggae historian Lloyd Bradley has touched upon this quality of his work. Bradley attests to “an intrigue and multidimensionality too seldom even attempted in reggae”, and to musical ideas taken “way past the point at which logic would tell most people to stop, into a place where the instrumentation took on ethereal qualities”.

Filmmaker and author John Corbett similarly observes that the producer pushed his rudimentary four-track Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica, “way past conceivable limits”.

Bob Marley with ‘Natural Mystic’, as produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in the latter’s Black Ark studio.

It seems pressing now to reassert the status of record production – in the hands of a master of the art like Scratch – as the practice of magic, because from an educational perspective it’s increasingly difficult to do so.

It may have always been the case that to teach production as a creative discipline one has first to overcome some preconceptions: that it is primarily a technical activity; that there are right and wrong ways to do things; and that the success of a production can be assessed objectively.

For me, this means that while we need to be aware of the dangers of an uninterrogated mystical/mythical perspective on an artist like Scratch, the opposite danger of a reductive position that assumes his work can be understood simply, technically, that all of its qualities are tangible and replicable, is equally significant.

Auteurs like Scratch provide direct and convincing counterarguments to all of the above. We can analyse and deconstruct a production like Bird in Hand (from his album “Return of the Super Ape”, 1978). We can identify the tools and techniques used, and even demonstrate and replicate them with the nearest equivalent technologies available. But in doing so we still don’t really provide a template for remaking the particular sound of that mono-mix.

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s ‘Bird in Hand’.

We certainly don’t get close to the strange magic that resides in a near infinite number of contributing factors, including myriad tiny decisions made by Scratch and the Upsetters live to tape in his Black Ark studio.

These include nuances of performance and recording; the needle pushing into the red as the kick drum hits, the character of the resultant distortion dependent on the reel of tape used that day; the temperature in the room; dust and dirt on the tape heads; the same factors affecting each layer of echo provided by a tape delay unit, the variation of the speed of the motor inside that unit; hands on faders and filters; the physical circuitry of the studio, then near the end of its life. As soon as we look closely, the character, the sound of the mix, reveals itself to be fantastically complex, ultimately impossible to unravel.

In some ways, this is clear and simple. It’s easy to assert in the face of a reductive approach that art just doesn’t work that way. But changing educational climates make the alternative position – that the art of production can’t be delivered and measured so simply – more difficult to defend.

Beyond reductionism

A neoliberal educational context requires that the learning product sold by universities is neatly delineated, the success of the enterprise easily assessed. This model of “knowledge transfer” founders if the thing to be known is in part intangible, too complex to communicate in the course of, say, a two-hour lecture, and is itself born of experience.

If the question is how do we fit the magic of artists like Lee “Scratch” Perry into this framework, I’d propose the answer is that we cannot – and we should not seek to do so.

In “Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm”, Stefan Hertmans grapples with what art might mean as a subject to be taught:

Perhaps art “works”, simply and incomprehensibly at the same time, precisely because we do not know what it is and cannot predict it. Because artists create art, they can afford to sidestep the question about its essence: it is clear from what they do. They embody its essence in their practice.

I don’t think this goes quite far enough. To observe that there are elements in any work of art that are essential but cannot be easily explained in a technically reductive sense is not to “sidestep the question about its essence”. It is to provide the most substantial, nuanced and truthful answer to that question.

One of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s best known songs, ‘Disco Devil’.

Seeking an example of record production as the practice of magic, we could wish for none better than the extraordinary work of Lee “Scratch” Perry. As an educator, if I’m obliged to ignore that aspect of Scratch’s work, I’m dismissing much of what it can teach.

To argue for the magic in this music is to argue for its status as art – sophisticated, compelling and profound. When Scratch tells us that “the breath of live God” can manifest in his work as “perfect magic, perfect logic, perfect science”, he’s emphasising not a plurality of expression, but a one-ness. Magic, science and logic here are intertwined, inextricable and indistinguishable.