Dub’s 1970s creative explosion represented dual shifts within reggae: wider appreciation for the fine art of deconstruction (i.e. tunes reduced to apparition-like guises of bass, drums, and melody); and celebration of the engineer (as opposed to the producer) as the console conductor responsible for these innovative mutations. Pioneering dub mix engineers King Tubby and Errol Thompson may be rightly heralded as modern music’s earliest remixers. But if ever there was an individual to upend the conventions of a musical evolution already rooted in upending convention, it was the Upsetter himself, producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
In collaboration with Tubby on one of dub’s first and best albums, 1973’s storied Upsetters 14 Blackboard Jungle Dub, Scratch helped establish the genre’s anything goes ethos – utilizing severe stereo panning, liberal doses of reverb, and the occasional mimicked lion growl. However after settling into his own now-legendary recording HQ, Black Ark Studios, Perry’s productions eschewed the jagged sonic edges that would become synonymous with dub, moving towards an earthier sensibility more aligned with the rural spirit of the Rastafarian roots movement (as well as his own Hanover parish upbringing). “Until reggae it was all Kingston… All the music was a big city thing,” Perry explained in Lloyd Bradley’s essential history of Jamaican music, Bass Culture. “It was when the country people come to town and get involved they bring with them the earth, the trees, the mountains. That’s when reggae music go back to the earth.”
True to this sentiment, Super Ape, Scratch’s stunning 1976 dub LP with his superlative studio group The Upsetters, sounds so richly of the earth you can practically smell the soil. Dub as re-imagined here by Scratch isn’t simply about stripping back a track’s existing musical elements and bathing them in studio effects. Rather, he builds an indelible atmosphere using all the skills at his disposal, introducing new elements to the mix. Perry mines his own catalog of rhythms on Super Ape, reworking obscurities and classics alike, yet the level of reinvention never fails to impress. “Zion’s Blood” resurrects Devon Irons’s roots number “When Jah Comes” and adds a haunting refrain voiced by the Heptones evoking an ancestral chorus (“African blood is flowing through I vein/So I and I shall never fade away”). “Underground” rectifies Clive Hylton’s dubplate “From Creation,” punctuating the reshaped rhythm with ghostly female staccatos. “Croaking Lizard” imports Prince Jazzbo’s ethereal toasting over Max Romeo’s classic “Chase the Devil,” while “Black Vest” similarly places phantom horns over Romeo’s “War Ina Babylon.”
Super Ape is also ambitiously progressive on “Three In One,” again featuring the Heptones, and “Curly Dub’s” convergence of jazz flute, trombone, and saxophone, and Perry’s own vocals. “Jah Jah arms are open wide/Why not step inside,” Scratch warmly exhorts on the latter. His additive approach reveals something uniquely profound within dub beyond technical wizardry: an alternate mode of expression in service of spirituality. That it would be Scratch’s last Black Ark dub album is perhaps no surprise. Super Ape remains a complete musical statement.