Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry & Subatomic Sound System
Super Ape Returns to Conquer
Subatomic Sound – Digital, CD, & LP
There is an English variation on the American saying ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ which says ‘Don’t f*** around with it’. It’s a phrase that came to mind when I first heard about this re-working of the mighty Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Super Ape album. Although I probably shouldn’t have been concerned as the driving force behind the project is long time Perry collaborator Emch from the Subatomic Sound System. You can read about some of their earlier collaborations in this piece.
Struggling a little to start this piece, I sat in front of my blank word document thinking, how do you define the differences between two different albums containing the same tracks? It’s easy to think that however good the newer version is, particularly if the base is a bona fide reggae classic that people know inside out, the perception will be that it will never be as good. It’s truly on a hiding to nothing.
So before making up my mind I went straight to the horse’s mouth and asked Emch what he thought he had added to the tracks. I was not prepared for the depth his answer! In fact I have changed the focus of what I was going to talk about and will leave the floor to Emch. He explains the process, his thoughts on the album and offers some insights from the mind of Scratch himself. I think this is an important project so his words need to be documented for the good of reggae history! It started with a simple question on Facebook…
Quick question Emch, although maybe difficult to answer. What do you think you have added to the tracks, is there much of a difference from the original?
‘Funny you ask. It’s intentionally subtle because it is a classic and we didn’t want to corrupt anything, but there are many differences. If you really want to dig into it, I have a song description file that describes exactly the differences on each song (I have included this here for those of you who want the fascinating detail). The main difference is the bass and beats are more prominent.’
You have worked with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry a lot over the years, I guess this project seemed a natural extension of that?
‘Besides singles and remixes over the last decade, this is the first Lee Perry & Subatomic Sound full album after seven years touring together, and following last year’s 40th anniversary Super Ape album tour that we put together and led us across the Americas, Europe, and Jamaica. We refined and developed the music a lot over approximately 50+ Super Ape anniversary shows for all types of audiences, building on the ideas and influences of the original, using live instruments and computers to recreate the Black Ark sound on stage and adapt
the album for a live show in the new millennium. To do that, we painstakingly reproduced all the music from the original, no samples from the original recordings, so we could have multi-track files to start building the new album.’
Thinking of these new studio versions, I have been playing the old and new tracks side by side. The new versions do sound ‘beefier’, was this difference intentional?
‘The biggest difference is the energy level! The original album is a great laid back head nod album but for it to make sense in a live performance it needed energy. One thing we realized is that the original was almost like a blueprint or sketches and it was easy to build off of what was there.’
‘Scratch’s music is incredibly orchestrated, many subtle layers, often almost lost because as he was using a 4 track tape machine and as he bounced multiple tracks down to one track, things like hi hats and horns would lose their high frequencies or distort and after many plays almost get lost in the mix. Part of this created his Black Ark sound but it was unavoidable. We were able to control when we wanted that to happen for effect and when we wanted the sounds to be clear. If you take Zion’s Blood for example, that was one of the first songs we did live from the album and we noticed how incredible those horns were when we recreated them, like some royal Ethiopian horns from the emperor’s court. By pushing those to the front and increasing the sub bass it changes the energy level of the track enormously.’
‘If you don’t listen on a system with proper sub bass response you will miss a lot of what was added in terms of frequency response. That’s why there are sound systems on the album art. It’s Super Ape for the sound system generation. That’s the optimal listening environment. If you don’t have a giant system then we recommend the SubPac personal tactile bass apparatus (this is like a bass system for your chair), which is why their logo is on the back of the album. We also built on the lyrical themes too.’
Was it difficult to convince Scratch that it was worth delving into his past and working on this project?
‘Scratch often jokes that he has no time for the past. His curiosity is ravenous and coupled with energy that drives him every minute of every day to try something new: whether singing, painting, drumming, joking around. He’s still as easily bored as a little kid with ADD. So it took me seven years of touring with him to convince him to go back, only after I proved that we could do something new with the old music not just repeat it. He has vowed never to perform the same song the same way twice because he says he would be faking the feeling and betraying the audience.’
You obviously have a passion for this album, did that put more pressure on to ‘get it right’?
‘The 1976 original was my top ‘desert island album’ so I made sure we revisited the music with respect but also pushed it somewhere else that might make it feel fresh to new and old listeners alike, as an alternative perspective on the same music and not just cover versions or straight remakes. In no way is it a replacement for the original album.’
‘Dub is like jazz in its improvisation, so you could have many dubs even with the same track. They would be different, so even if we hadn’t changed the music as much as we did, there would be room to hear new dubs of the same classic material. Although many people know Scratch, I don’t feel like he really got his due for all his contributions to music and culture and so I hope it shines light on what he has done and, despite what many might expect for an 81 year old, continues to do to inspire people, myself included.’
I understand that you built the songs from the ‘ground up’, was that an important part of renewing the sound?
‘As far as specific song changes: The title track Super Ape is one with the most changes. The original is a very hazy lazy one drop sort of meditation. We changed it to a steppers beat, which is very popular in European dub these days but actually used a lot by Scratch around that time. We also added in Ethio-Jazz sax and melodica and guitar lines, a ton of percussion by our percussionist Larry McDonald (who was one of the original percussionists at Black Ark at that time) and turned it into a heavy throbbing stepping beast that takes you on a psychedelic journey. It all made sense with the lyrics and Scratch’s style.’
‘It makes me crazy when people do remixes of songs trying to update them that ultimately completely corrupt and ruin the original, like a Skrillex remix of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds or something where it’s completely incongruent. Like when rock rap started back in the 90s, pasting together two popular things without putting any real thought into finding their synergies and in most cases it was garbage. That’s exactly the kind of approach I wanted to avoid.’
I love that to add in a further layer, you had DJs in mind when you mixed the tracks, can you explain the process?
‘A lot of the songs start very similar to the originals and evolve through the song, changing from one drop beats to rockers beats or steppers beats. Patience, Dread Lion, Dub Along, Go Deya all do that.
That helps the energy build in a live show. It will also work great for DJs. Most DJs would never play Super Ape tracks in a live set but with this album they can, the songs have enough energy for that and are as loud as current releases and also have a steady BPM so they can be looped and mixed in creatively with long cross fades. That’s huge for a DJ these days.’
‘Chase the Devil’ has got to be one of the most popular and well known reggae tracks. I think this newer version is excellent, particularly as I do like Scratch’s ‘Disco Devil’ version. Was this a difficult track to approach? You would have had the whole reggae establishment on your back if this was ruined!
‘Chase the Devil and War Inna Babylon are the two songs that are most faithful musically to the originals, but they do have many differences still. In Chase the Devil, the classic octave guitar lines in the intro are developed further in the verses. We do that kind of thing on a lot of songs, Zion’s Blood also. Almost like revealing a part that was maybe muted on the original recording. The Chase the Devil opening vocal also becomes the chorus. Scratch sings new lyrics telling the Lucifer to repent and come back, start to work for God again. Screechy Dan does some chatting reminiscent of Prince Jazzbo on the original Super Ape Croaking Lizard dub but also references Scratch’s Disco Devil version. Max Romeo actually listened to it and said he was quite fond of the version. So I felt like, if Scratch and Max liked it, my work is done here.’
I am in awe at the amount of work Emch put into this project, I can’t comprehend the pressure he must have felt during the process. Although reading back his answers I guess he wasn’t too fazed as he knew he was going to do a great job. I think his final comment says it all.
‘It was a big commitment but I don’t think it would be possible to causally revisit a masterpiece like Super Ape and expect to do it justice otherwise. It’s the kind of album that will reward the listener by revealing subtleties on repeated listens, even the original is like that.’
Super Ape Returns to Conquer
I would be really interested to hear what you think of this project. Reggae does continually evolve as new generations of musicians add in their own influences. Rhythms are re-used and re-visited so perhaps taking this a step further and re-imagining a whole album is not such a stretch?
Super Ape Returns to Conquer is very much a product of now and works so well in my mind with its punchier, grittier sound. This could only have worked with Subatomic being involved though, as their care, attention to detail and close harmony with Scratch made sure the album was completed with the love it deserved. So if you have doubts maybe think of the album as its own entity. It’s not a safe pastiche, but a fantastic selection of reggae tracks tailor made for a modern audience. Big, noisy and gritty with a seam of solid gold running through it.
The album will be available around the 22nd September on CD, LP (limited to 999 copies worldwide) and download from all good retailers. If you want to get your pre-order in try Norman Records in the UK or Forced Exposure in the States. These are the ones I spotted on Google.
I hope you enjoyed this interview, Bless, Paper Lion.