Work your way back through everything you know about hip-hop, electronica, punk rock and post rock, and somehow, some way, you always end up at Black Ark. It was at Black Ark, a four-track studio in the suburbs of Kingston, Jamaica, where, in the mid-and late 1970s, producer, songwriter and indie-label entrepreneur Lee “Scratch” Perry transfigured reggae’s loping cadence and R&B heart into something darker, holier and more dangerous — a music of visionary rhythmic textures and biblical-warrior vengeance. Many of the dub, sampling and remix techniques routinely exploited by the Beastie Boys, Wu-Tang Clan and the Chemical Brothers were forged by Perry on the humble, overstressed Black Ark console. And Perry, now in his 60s, was broadcasting the heavy manners of premillennial, black-exile tension on classic Black Ark productions like Max Romeo’s “War In a Babylon” and “Police and Thieves,” by Junior Murvin, when Tricky was little bigger than a spliff.
Perry’s legend is better known than his music: his associations with Bob Marley and the Clash; the stories of Perry at the mixing board, gunned to the eyeballs on weed, rum and Rastafarian creed; his psychological meltdown, which culminated in 1979 with the torching of Black Ark, apparently by Perry himself. Arkology, a 52-song, three-CD survey of Perry’s Black Ark output, helps to redress the imbalance. The set does not include Perry’s great ’60s ska sides, his early instrumentals or his crucial turn-of-the-’70s work with Marley and the original Wailers. But Arkology‘s sequencing of vital Black Ark titles like “War In a Babylon,” “Police and Thieves” and the Heptones’ sunbathed-gospel beauty “Sufferer’s Time” with their respective dub versions captures Perry at his most wily, disguising tripped-out socio-religious tracts as irresistible dance music.
In Errol Walker’s “In These Times,” a rewrite of the Gershwin standard “Summertime,” Perry places Walker’s lamentations about unemployment and oppressive inflation over a gutted rhythm track in which guitars and keyboards are yanked out from under the singer without warning. At times, Walker seems physically suspended over big, echoey holes of economic disaster and acute personal despair. Perry’s gift for whiplash drama and word-sound punning is also evident in the rude cymbal crashes that explode like land mines in “No Peace,” by the Meditations. And the extreme compression that Perry applies to the brass in the extended mix of Junior Murvin and Dillinger’s “Roots Train” makes the horns sound like a steam whistle on the Jah Railways express.
At Black Ark, Perry definitely operated on the crumbling margins of sanity; his own “Soul Fire” is anguished, hallucinatory dub, the sound of a man driven to terror and incoherence. But for the most part, Perry was crazy like George Clinton, drawing dynamic performances from a fluid cast of singers and sidemen and camouflaging his calls for social change and spiritual retribution in cool licks and cartoonish mysticism. A steely, stabbing guitar adds a Steve Cropper-like touch to Max Romeo’s Rasta-superhero hyperbole in “Chase the Devil” (“I’m gonna put on an iron shirt/And chase the devil out of earth”). In “Roast Fish and Corn Bread,” Perry’s slow, woozy chanting transforms the notion of a simple Rasta lunch into something akin to a sacrament.
The sacred aura and rhythmic might of these recordings make it easy to forget that Perry was trying to cut hits. He made records to be played on booming sound systems at Trenchtown dance parties. That he also made great art, though, was hardly accidental. “This is dub revolution/Music to rock the nation,” Perry declares at the beginning of Arkology. Black Ark went up in smoke almost 20 years ago, but the revolution set in motion there is still in progress.