Lee “Scratch” Perry, Jamaica’s mad studio genius, has been anthologised before, sometimes shoddily. Most notable – for the right reasons – is 1997’s three-disc Arkology set, which represents the best of his early to mid-1970s Black Ark Studio years – before he burned the place down, that is. I Am The Upsetter sees Trojan, currently on a roll with a whole slew of imaginative and well-researched reggae compilations, attempting to do his entire career justice, or at least from 1967 through to 1978, which for argument’s sake, is about as good as it got.
To try to call a collection from as sprawling an output as Perry’s “definitive” would be wholly subjective. The absence of Junior Murvin‘s Police And Thieves in favour of Roots Train Number One, or the substitution of Max Romeo‘s Chase The Devil or War In A Babylon with his Public Enemy Number One proves this is not the intention. Anyone who doesn’t already own a copy of Police And Thieves probably wouldn’t think of approaching a four-disc set anyway. Murvin’s ‘version’, Bad Weed, does make an appearance though.
I Am The Upsetter runs chronologically, kicking off with Perry’s first productions after leaving Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd‘s Studio One, such as his own People Funny Boy, which uses a screaming baby as a hook line, and the title track. Dave Barker‘s hit Shocks of the Mighty sits alongside early and significant recordings from U Roy, Junior Byles and yes, Bob Marley And The Wailers, whose Perry-produced Duppy Conqueror and Small Axe still sound as fresh and original as anything the band later did. The US R&B influence is there to be heard in much of Perry’s early production work, a fast and frantic booming bass sound that just oozes adrenalin.
It’s on disc two, with the slower sound that the 1970s ushered in, that Perry’s distinctive, more understated but experimental studio sound starts to take over, complete with the mooing of cows or the splashing of running water as the mood took him.
By disc three, The Upsetter rhythm is in full swing, and while Augustus Pablo, Dillinger and Junior Delgado have all passed through the Black Ark’s doors by this point, and are present and correct, there are also a number of obscurities to attract the seasoned collector.
The final disc concentrates solely on dub versions and instrumentals from the Black Ark years 1974-1978, a goldmine of rare and rootsy Jamaican B-sides. Chopping guitars give way to the hiss of a hi-hit before everything is swallowed by a well of dub once again, or is assaulted by one of the producer’s bizarre interjections. Music is rarely feels as organic as these tracks. Lee Perry may have come from the country, but as his ‘golden decade’ shows, they never took the country out of him.
Not only is I Am The Upsetter a treasure trove that will please and impress even the most hardened collector, it’s also very well presented. Perry enthusiasts Chris Lane and Lol Bell-Brown set the context for each disc, and Jeremy Collingwood’s track by track commentary answers many of the questions the listener is bound to be asking, like “what the hell was that?”.