The Plant Speaks: Lee "Scratch" Perry

This is the latest installment in The Plant Speaks, an ongoing series of personal notes from the members of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant about their favorite albums.

Snow. It’s two days before Halloween and all I see outside my window is snow. And if the predictions are to be believed, winds tonight may surpass those which knocked out our power for over a week just a short while ago. My thoughts drift back to the original House of Blues in Harvard Square, and the phenomenal cornbread they used to dish out… peas, carrots, peppers, and corn all baked in. Eating a piece could uplift you to the point where you felt like jumping out of your seat and singing “Breaking Bread” by the J.B.‘s… But cornbread nostalgia aside, this foul weather means I am now stuck inside for the day. I decided to use the last lingering mental whiff of buttery goodness to motivate myself toward the treadmill. Popping in a DVD, I switched my inspiration to get fit from bread to martial arts. Watching Donnie Yen in “Ip Man” provides plenty of impetus to keep jogging. Sure, I’ll never be as fit as Donnie Yen or Bruce Lee, but inspiration serves its purpose if its results manifest in reality. And it is incredible to see. Having trained with the son of the man he portrays on screen, Yen unleashes a more authentic, dynamic display of Wing Chun than has been seen since Lam Ching-Ying’s incredible performance in “the Prodigal Son” (1981). It’s no surprise that veteran Sammo Hung was heavily involved in the making of each film.

Reggae music and Hong Kong cinema have long enjoyed a close relationship. Shaolin monks were mentioned prominently in early dancehall tunes after the success of Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple” series and such classics featuring Gordon Liu as “36th Chamber of Shaolin”, “Shaolin Drunken Monk”, “8 Diagram Pole Fighter”, and many more. Barrington Levy released the classic “Shaolin Temple” album in 1979. The monks were even popping up in unexpected places and situations, such as Madoo’s “Yuh Jamming So“, recorded for Joe Gibbs, in which he chats: “I was coming from the Shaolin temple/ when the girl said I really look simple/ Through she see mi with mi sexy dimple/ she never know me as a Shaolin disciple”. Joe Gibbs also released Ranking Joe’s classic “Drunken Master“. But when it came to full-on promotion of the kung-fu craze, no producer could compete with the Mighty Upsetter, Lee “Scratch” Perry. In his own way, Scratch embodied the true meaning of Gung Fu, since the phrase literally denotes not necessarily martial prowess, but a high level of skill in one’s own field that reflects a lifetime of experience, hard work, and livication. During the late ’70s, Perry worked tirelessly from his home studio in Washington Gardens, a musical haven known as the Black Ark. He released many kung-fu themed sides, such as the amazing “Kung Fu Man” from Linval Thompson and “Natty Kung Fu” from Dillinger. In 1975 he released the seminal Kung Fu Meets the Dragon album, a collection of scorchers with titles like “Enter the Dragon”, “Iron Fist”, and “Black Belt”. But Scratch had yet to unleash his greatest treatise on health and fitness, which are after all, the primary reasons for most people to learn martial arts in this modern age.

Stepping off the treadmill after the movie ended, I decided to continue the workout with some sit-ups and weight exercises. Once again, some inspiration was in order. I reached for the CD rack. And there it lay, Scratch’s ultimate self-help motivator. The survival guide. The basics of how to live, as filtered through the mind of a mad genius. The album, of course, is Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Corn Bread. If you do not own this album, stop reading right now, go out, and find a copy. I’ll be here when you get back. Released in 1978, this album of vocal cuts from the master himself was produced during the short interval between the release of the Heart of the Congos album and Perry’s destruction of the Ark a short time later. The mixes are over the top, as Watty Burnett provides moo-ing background vocals through a paper towel tube and reverb-soaked percussion flies in and out of the mix. “Throw Some Water In” is Perry’s most succinct ode to fitness, in which he compares taking care of your body with maintaining your car. “Throw some water in your irrigator”, he sings. “Service your body if you want it to function/ exercise and build up your structure/ go to sea and learn how to swim/ if you can’t afford up a gym/ buy a piece of rope/ exercise and tune up your system”. In “My Favorite Dish”, he praises the virtues of “I-ckee and salt fish/ I-umpling and I-anana… I’m a working man so I feed up strong/ I hope you overstand”. The title track employs an incredible bassline from the Gladiators’ Clinton Fearon that proves empty space can carry immense weight. Once again, Scratch sings the virtues of a balanced diet and eating I-tal. But the entire album doesn’t linger on physical health. There are also classic social commentaries as in “Big Neck Police”, a reworked version of “Dreadlocks in Moonlight” with sweet female harmonies added. “Soul Fire” is a biting scorcher with plenty of punch.

Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Cornbread remains among the best of Perry’s vocal work, alongside the tracks collected for the “Soundzs from the Hot Line” CD released on the Heartbeat label. No other reggae artist has done as much to embody the mystical connection between mind and body as Lee Perry, and as such I can think of no better workout soundtrack than the aforementioned work. As for me, my workout is ended, and the snow is accumulating quickly. Now I believe I have to go see if I have any cornmeal in the cabinet…

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