For half a century, Lee "Scratch" Perry has been making his own heaven here on Earth. He's credited with co-inventing entire musical genres — reggae and dub — and pioneering recording and mixing techniques. If you don't know his name, you know his sound: When someone says something is "dusty" or "dirty" or "otherworldly" or uses any of those adjectives that try to communicate that this music is not completely from this planet, they're talking about what Lee "Scratch" Perry does.
Perry claims he receives direct communication from God; he burned his own famous Black Ark studio to the ground in order to purify it of evil spirits. (And he was just nominated for a Grammy!)
He also started painting just after he started making records. Decades later, these paintings make up the last undiscovered treasure trove of Lee "Scratch" Perry. Their first public exhibition, "The Secret Education of Lee 'Scratch' Perry," closes in L.A. this weekend.
Perry's artistic process, like his recording process, resembles a shaman's ritual: He surrounds himself with each of the Earth's natural elements and lets the soil, water and stones tell him what to paint. He cuts pop culture references from magazines — Avatar's Neytiri, King Tut's tomb — and glues them to surfaces that he slaps with painted hands and feet, sprays in bright zigzags and brands with currency symbols — his signature is £$P — or phallic symbols or both.
He's a postmodern mystic and he uses himself as a canvas, too: charm bracelets, a gilded and bejeweled baseball cap, a cheetah-print suitcase full of supernatural objects. Perry surrounds himself with both the magical elements of nature and modern effects that have been — according to his curator, Sebastian Demian — "customized to the point of being artworks" themselves.
Perry's aesthetic fits within a contemporary canon that includes Jean-Michel Basquiat, but his story and his perspective make up an unforgettable personality.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you start making art?
LEE "SCRATCH" PERRY: Very early — when I started to do the music. Most of the things that I painted, I painted about righteousness and deadliness and about what goes on in the future. From those paintings we started to gather knowledge about creation itself. That creation is an art.
You could see painting like most of the Babylonian painting — Christ and angels and things like that. For me, painting is about how you see God and how you see the angel, what color you see God in and what color you see the angel in. So you make a demonstration of your being — of your mind — about God.
Your painting process is quite a ritual. With which objects must you surround yourself while you work? What powers do they hold?
I am a man of nature. First I'll look at the earth, and I discover that the earth is the greatest magician. The earth is a life-giver. I will have some earth with me, have some water with me, have some rocks with me, have all the elements of nature with me.
While I'm painting, I get strength from these elements. Strength come out of the earth and tell you what to paint. Strength come out of the water that quench thirst and make blood and tell you what to paint. I'm addicted to the water! Addicted to earth and addicted to stone! I'm addicted to flowers! I'm addicted to plants! I'm addicted to roses!
I look and see the elements — God made them all those things, then God made the animals and made man after. You look at what the first subject of what God created and try to follow that example. Everything was here before man, and he give it to man to take care of. But man get greedy and man get jealous and man start to fight the animals and start to eat them. That's murder. So if you are a vegetarian, you are better chance. I really, really loved meat, but then I discovered that I was creating a different life than what God wants because God is a vegetarian.
Do you communicate the same messages in your visual art as your music?
Same thing — me look into the world. I can become perfect! What is not perfect, I can't sing. I'm looking for perfection. If you think you cannot be perfect, you will not be perfect. If you think you can be perfect, then you will be perfect. It can take time. You forgive yourself for all the things that you know you should not do them. You have to wake up and realize! I ask me and myself — God is in me! God is in you! God is your conscience. You can be perfect if you want to be perfect. You can wish to be positive.
Do you think that your work — each song and painting — is a stepping stone —
— toward perfection. My music itself is a healer! My music is a great magician! He make you happy when you are sad. When you are feeling very bad, my music make happy, so my music is a genie!
When you create a song or painting, do you put a part of your soul into it?
One hundred percent.
Do you think when an artist passes away, their soul remains on the Earth?
When the artist creates something that is righteous, it lives forever. If it's not righteous, it just fall down. So you have another part — some artist who follows Satan and do the satanic thing. The satanic thing is that you can get rich quick and then afterwards you die and give your soul to Satan for making you rich quick! You say stupid words like there's no God. Rich quick, die quick, lose your soul quick!
You talk a lot about the power of creation — what about the power of destruction?
The evil part of the man that tries to compete with God — him creates something that tries to prove that God does not exist. It is total destruction. (Laughter)
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Of course I'm enjoying it!
You should start your own church!
Thank you. One day — one day it will happen.
"The Secret Education of Lee 'Scratch' Perry" at Dem Passwords, 7914B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. Through Sat. dempasswords.com.