Going bananas for Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Super Ape
Aside from his eccentricities, such as burning down his own Black Ark Studio to rid it of vampires and decorating virtually every empty surface with his frenzied art, Lee “Scratch” Perry is perhaps best known for his special blend of music and technology. As innovator of dub, Perry took Jamaican music into a whole new realm by utilizing the mixing board as an instrument, weaving together patches of echoes and reverb into soundscapes that were inventive and danceable. So it’s no wonder that Perry, despite the fact that he is nearly eighty years old, continues to utilize technology in his career. This past July, Perry launched a Kickstarter campaign, tapping into the technology of social media and crowd funding, to purchase an essential element of his subsequent music tour—a giant inflatable gorilla. That’s right, an enormous Super Ape. Emch Subatomic, head of NYC’s Subatomic Sound System and DJ during Perry’s 2015 tour, wrote of the Kickstarter campaign, “Jamaican dub legend Lee Scratch Perry needs giant inflatable gorilla for Super Ape album performance on Dub Champions Festival U.S. tour.” The ape was funded, in addition to “a fantastic horn section and backing singers” at nearly $4,000 in one month, and the tour commenced, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Super Ape album for crowds throughout North America.
Segments of the iconic Super Ape album were performed live on this tour in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, New York City, and Chicago, among other cities in what was billed as the Dub Champions Festival. Although in Chicago at RiotFest it took Perry four entire songs before he even appeared on stage, the crowd didn’t seem to mind or even notice, amid wafts of smoke. Opening with “Dread Lion,” he paced back and forth in skin-tight galaxy printed leggings and lion T-shirt, a baseball hat riddled with mirrors and medallions, directing the crowd through his bedazzled microphone to “lift your left leg” and then “lift your right leg” in an exercise as much of the body as of the mind of Perry. At the end of the set at the Minneapolis show, Perry was reluctant to leave the stage, even after many of his band and crew had walked off and the lights in the venue had come up. But strange behavior and strange music is part of Perry’s appeal and what we expect from the man who calls himself “the alien producer.” It is visual, it is visceral, and it is art.
Veteran of the Black Ark Studio, percussionist Larry McDonald, affectionately known as Larry Mac, banged the skins on the Dub Champions tour, and McDonald is arguably as much a legend as Perry himself. McDonald learned to play in the Wareika Hills with Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of the Rastafari, the same drummers who provided the rhythms that would become reggae. McDonald performed in the studios and backed up the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Taj Mahal, the Skatalites, Bob Andy, even poet Mutabaruka and others. He has been recording and performing with Scratch again for the past five years.
McDonald says that working with Scratch was important for the music all those decades ago which is why they celebrated the anniversary of Super Ape on tour. “It was early dub sound and it was a significant moment in the music for Scratch and for the public because he was presenting a different kind of thing to them,” McDonald says. Onstage with Perry, McDonald performed on congas and a number of percussive gizmos such as a triangle, a modified flexatone, and even wooden frog rasps, giving an authentic vibe to dub-filled echoes. McDonald says, “I get to pretty much do what I want within the framework of the song.” The backbone of the performance, however, comes from the man behind the turntables and in front of the monstrous ten-foot inflatable crowd-funded ape, Emch Subatomic, a producer and deejay who has been touring Perry for the past five years. “We have a general understanding of the song and we work out which version Scratch wants to use and once he settles on that, it’s just off to the races!” says McDonald. “Emch has all the tracks and everything is all set to go. Once Scratch starts, if he decides he wants to do another tune and it’s not cued up or anything, we have to stall and Emch has to get it together. That happens every now and then.”
The U.S. leg of the tour concluded in Brooklyn on October 1.
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