I Am the Upsetter: The Story of Lee "Scratch" Perry: Golden Years

by: Various Artists

If you're looking for that one Lee "Scratch" Perry box that does it all, the first thing you need to come to terms with is that there isn't one. Producer/maverick/icon Perry has been involved with too many labels, been in the reggae business since day one, and is the kind of guy who burns down his own studio with the master tapes still inside (the "vampires" were after him, after all), so don't expect the career-spanner anytime soon. Island's three-disc Arkology has been heralded as the best box of Perry since the day it was announced, but there's a good argument to be made that the four-disc I Am the Upsetter is just as worthy and a tad more revelatory. Arkology has the really big hits that came from Perry's Black Ark studio (Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," Max Romeo's "War ina Babylon") and overlaps I Am the Upsetter a bit, but Sanctuary's box makes up for it with some jaw-dropping unreleased tracks, a narrative running order that makes total sense, and a beautiful booklet with meaty essays. While Arkology went with the more academic here's-the-vocal-track/here's-the-dub style (a style that always seems to win over the reggae snobs), I Am the Upsetter uses a more exciting chronology. Disc one picks up right after Perry split from Studio One and kicks off with the man's theme song. From there, it's a winding road through all of Perry's "golden years" (and no, the box's subtitle isn't hyperbole) that ends on disc three with the incredibly distraught bundle of nerves, "City Too Hot." Along the way there's Perry's flirtation with feel-good American R&B, his reggae interpretation of spaghetti Western music, and an amazing amount of bile and ire, sometimes directed at the Jamaican government but mostly directed at the music industry and its people. It all serves to humanize this brother from another planet, filling in the gaps every dub-obsessed compilation missed. That's where I Am the Upsetter wins out. It tries hard to tell Perry's late-'60s/early-'70s story instead of just packing the track list with dryly presented crucial cuts. Sanctuary's hand-holding walk through Perry's history also makes the case that the man's crazy stance comes from something other than a steady diet of spliffs, and that his burning down of the Black Ark studio was a cathartic move with purpose. Disc four is a detachable set of dubs and instrumentals that contains its fair share of highlights, and while the trippy, drippy set of tunes will thrill newcomers, Perry regulars are going to have heard most of it before, not that they'd mind hearing it again. Complain about the lack of hits and Congos or Marley cuts if you must, but I Am the Upsetter is one of the most purposeful Perry sets available and respects the man over the myth like no others. ~ David Jeffries

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