The Upsetters - Super Ape (Cover Artwork)

The Upsetters

Super Ape (1976)


What’s great about regional or international music is how it can be an inspiration to opposite ends of the spectrum. The homegrown music of Jamaica has reached out to the farthest of places and in turn, has helped small artists discover their own sounds and create their own specific genres with love going back to the artists who inspired them. I love the story of how Jamaican music swept over the UK with the local kids blending in with their foreign guests and all sharing a love for the same thing. The popularity of these genres is immeasurable and what came later owes a debt to the originators who lived through these tunes in the literal trenches and sweltering hazy heat of their home country. This is music of the people, for the people, and by the people.

I wanted to take a quick journey into unknown territory and see what all this Reggae stuff was about and of course that was the only term I called it because I did not know. My only knowledge of it was Bob Marley and remembering a few tunes by him and the Wailers. Coming into my own during the 90’s, Third Wave Ska came about and I heard similar stuff being played by popular acts like Sublime and really, that was about it.

It wasn’t until college and reading the history of how the music of Jamaica inspired acts like Public Image Ltd, The Pop Group, and even Electronic music such as Massive Attack and Burial, that I took notice and decided to dive straight down into one of the deepest wells ever.

When first visiting these styles of music you will eventually come across certain names in the scene. Lee “Scratch” Perry was the most common. His story is a fascinating one, and the rich history of the bands he worked with in his famous Black Ark studio and the techniques used are legendary. Many artists crossed his path such as The Congos, Max Romeo, The Wailers, The Heptones, and a protégé by the name of Scientist who would go on to help develop and push the Dub genre into far reaching levels of smoky “riddims”. Perry even worked with The Clash and Paul McCartney who recorded at Black Ark with his Wings project.

Perry’s Black Ark studio had a house band called The Upsetters and they often accompanied the various artists who came through to lay down tracks. It really was a family/roots thing happening there. In 1976, the Upsetters released perhaps one of the best Roots Reggae/Dub albums of all time. The original name was Scratch the Super Ape. Island Records did the international release, calling it Super Ape, and with it came a different track listing and a worse mix that purists will tell you is the inferior version. Good luck trying to find an original Jamaican release from Perry’s Upsetter label though…

If you ever wanted a good place to start at with Jamaican music, Super Ape is not a bad choice. Some argue that the album is not a pure Dub album because of the vocals, but that should not really be a factor. This is a good mix of multiple genres within the scene and is often regarded as Perry’s masterwork. The album was also one of the last to be completed at Black Ark before it burned to the ground (That’s an interesting story to read up on. Crazy stuff man…)

After careful study of the productions and sounds, I start to hear the influence Dub music had in the UK. PiL’s bass extraordinaire, Jah Wobble must have slept playing this music repeatedly. When you jam PiL’s best album Metal Box you can feel the riddim’s being carried over into something new. As well, the Bristol Trip-Hop sound of Massive Attack and their albums Blue Lines and Mezzanine and future stuff like Burial and his self-titled debut evolving from multiple Electronic genres and into what is now called Dubstep all stem from this stuff here.

The tracks themselves are solid and seem to float along into the ether. I guess that’s what Dub is supposed to do. Mind-altering substance not needed here, the music can get you that high feeling if you so care to experience that, but whatever is in your bag folks.

First track, “Zion’s Blood” is a great start and the group vocals are superb. The harmonies bring a sort of rhythm and blues that remind me of the classic Motown vocal groups of the 60’s. The drums are simply incredible here as well. Each beat feels like the earth is thumping. And that BASS! Oh, man that bass is smooth man. Add to that the wall of sound, echoes, reverberations, and instrumentals dropping in and out of the mix and you have the perfect concoction of true Jamaican Reggae/Dub or whatever.

One of the more upbeat sounding songs is track five, “Curly Dub”. The brass used here is warm and accompanies the sound well, but that trademark echo effect when the beat is hit rings on and it carries a sound similar to rain drops falling on sheet metal. Track eight, “Patience”, is supreme Dub in a mystical, almost psychedelic journey while the title track, “Super Ape”, is a great closer and ends the album with a peace of mind vibe that lingers well after the record reaches that last groove.

After Super Ape came the final Black Ark studio album by the Upsetters called, Return of the Super Ape, thus culminating in Perry’s musical genius exploding, his closing of Black Ark, and retreat to the UK.

If you are curious, try reading up or watching a documentary about Perry and his Black Ark studio. Be amazed at this genius who did absurd things like bury microphones at the base of a palm tree to produce bass drum effects, place rubber balls on the walls to prevent reverb, surround the drum booth with chicken wire for a distinct sound, use a 4-track machine to overdub layers with such precision that he put all other Jamaican producers to shame who had 16-track’s, "bless" his recording equipment with mystical invocations, blow ganja smoke onto his tapes while recording, bury unprotected tapes in the soil outside of the studio, and surround himself with burning candles and incense, whose wax and dust would infest his electronic recording equipment. He would even spray tapes with a variety of fluids like urine, blood, and whisky to enhance their “spiritual properties”.

Many other producers sprung up afterwards like Mikey Dread and Mad Professor, and it is worth checking them out as well, but Perry is still out there working silently and his legacy lives on.

Sometimes genius comes from madness. Give this album and listen and hear it all for yourself.