If you had to choose one song as proof of the superiority of the late Lee “Scratch” Perry, the antiquated-yet-futuristic production beast from 1976 called “Disco Devil” immediately comes to mind. With sounds of an aerated bong, treble and bass EQ’d into fuzzy synthesis, the song hints at the core of the vocalist, musician, studio god, dub creator, and Godfather of Reggae’s modus operandi.
Here, Perry threw in a little bit of everything, mashed, time-stretched, and stamped his signature flavor on yet another essential piece of dub history. Sonically, “Disco Devil” sets up the framework for a type of vibration that later, the great electronic music producer Ras G would use to collapse ceilings and set speakers on fire at the now-defunct, Los Angeles-based Low End Theory parties. Scratch conjured such black sorcery, infinite wizardry. Is that knowledge and culture riding an electromagnetic wave through the sky? Or is it just you?
There is a restlessness to Perry’s funk that renders the listener unguarded, then caught up by the master in the grips of a perpetual thwack.
This month, we’re given a fabulous opportunity to revel in the man’s work. The Critieron Channel is screen The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry as part of of its “Roots & Revolution: Reggae on Film” series.
Directed by Adam Bhala Lough and Ethan Higbee, with narration by Academy-Award winner Benicio Del Toro, this showing of The Upsetter marks the first time that the 2008 documentary will be made available on a digital streaming service. And that is OK, according to the filmmakers: “The Criterion Collection giving love to The Upsetter is fucking awesome” said Lough in the press release. “Props to them and Criterion curatorial director Ashley Clark.”
Perry, who died at age 85 last August at a hospital in Lucea, Jamaica, is given free rein here to explain, confuse, proselytize, and generally display how one man, operating basic technology in his home (virtually everything Perry recorded at his The Black Ark studio was done using simple machinery) constructed a template that would shape the future of contemporary music.
Not only did Perry give reggae music to Bob Marley, but he also created dub: the forebearer of all modern electronic music. House, techno, drum and bass, hip-hop—all active ingredients within the EDM rubric—sprouted from dub. These sub-genres could not exist without Pipecock Jackxon (one of Lee’s many self-created monikers.)
At the peak of San Francisco’s drum and bass takeover in the late ’90s, an average week held the possibility of attending at least six drum and bass parties, which were always packed to the gills with rave-adjacent attendees who probably had no idea who Lee Scratch was. One must also take into account that previous to the pandemic era, EDM was generating around seven billion dollars a year—a number that fell to three and change after COVID hit. Much like documentaries made about Sun Ra, Thelonius Monk, and Charles Mingus—all rigid personalities, but unquestionable geniuses—when we are able to hear Perry’s philosophies directly from his mouth via The Upsetter–we can walk away with more clarity on the birth of a music that changed the way we move.
Stream The Upsetter—with a Criterion Channel membership—here.