Lee Perry’s ‘Rainford’ is a Dub Icon’s Victory Lap

Will Hermes

“People: repent ” intones Lee “Scratch” Perry to begin what might be his gazillionth LP, Rainford — and his signature spacey West Indian storefront-preacher steez feels perfectly-suited to a cultural moment defined both by widespread institutional criminality and high-grade legal weed. As a founding father of dub reggae and arguably its greatest first-gen practitioner, Perry is by definition an architect of modern pop, rock, r&b, EDM and hip-hop sonics. His most legendary productions date to the ‘70s, and remain timeless: the Congos’ Heart of the Congos, Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon, the early Wailers / Bob Marley recordings collected on sets like African Herbsman, and Perry’s own deep-space dub journeys, including Super Ape­ and Blackboard Jungle.

But the artist caught a second wind in the ‘80s with help from Adrian Sherwood, an English producer and dub scholar whose On-U Sound label semi-famously built bridges between the reggae diaspora and the post-punk scene. The two men reunite on Rainford, an LP Sherwood’s likened to Rick Rubin’s work with latter-day Johnny Cash. The comparison’s imprecise but spiritually on point — an artist nearing the end of his career gets a reboot from a fan-producer who not only respects their legacy, but reasserts and recontextualizes it for a new generation.

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The production is credited to both men, with Perry also providing lyrics and vibe. Some tracks feel like freestyles, with Biblical allusions that veer into babbling chants, snarls and shrieks. Sherwood’s signature sound is crisper and brighter than vintage Perry; the grooves here are mostly taut, whirlpooling gradually, with dub pyrotechnics largely reined in; see “House of Angels,” an understated fireworks display of echo, reverb and disappearing/reappearing rhythms. On the other hand, there’s the hallucinatory “African Starship,” whose woozy groove recalls Perry’s work with the Congos, and “Makoomba Rock,” an unhinged jam where Perry alternately cries like a baby, bleats like a goat, and whines “I want my mommy” as heraldic horns and tape-machine chaos swirls around him.

But the standout tracks aim for soulfulness rather than face melt or couch-lock. “Let it Rain” is draped in choral vocals and a plaintive cello. With its ghostly melodica and horns, “Children of the Light” conjures golden-age Augustus Pablo. And the set is capped by “Autobiography of The Upsetter,” a seven-minute memoir by Perry that begins with nursery rhyme free-associations, then proceeds with reflections on birthparents Henry and Lillian (“My Father was a Freemason, my Mother was an Eto Queen, they share a dream…”), his work with the Wailers (“Bob Marley come to me saying ‘my cup is overflow … and I don’t know what to do. Can you help Mister Perry?’ Yes I can”). He reprises his oft-repeated indictment of Island Records’ chief Chris Blackwell (“in Nassau drinking chicken blood, in a rum glass…”), along with the tale of burning down his own Black Ark recording studio. “People thought I was crazy,” he chants — and of course, they did, and maybe still do.

But as many have pointed out, Perry’s persona fits into a long tradition of tricksters and trickster narratives. And his influence on modern music just grows, despite the fact that he coined his dub approaches a half-century ago, long before digital gear simplified the process. As Perry, 83, testifies near the end: “Me have me skin black but I’m not crazy . . . I am a black angel.” Let’s hope he doesn’t fly off too soon.

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