Lee “Scratch” Perry, the monumental reggae singer, producer and studio magician who pushed the boundaries of Jamaican music – and as a by-product, rock, hip-hop and dance – with his explorations in dub, has died at the age of 85.
The Jamaican Observer reports that Perry died at Noel Holmes Hospital in western Jamaica on Sunday. The cause of death was unknown at the time of going to press.
Andrew Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica, tweeted Sunday, “My sincere condolences to the family, friends and fans of legendary record producer and singer, Rainford Hugh Perry OD, affectionately known as ‘Lee Scratch’ Perry. He has worked and produced for various artists including Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys and many more. Without a doubt, Lee Scratch Perry will be remembered for his remarkable contribution to the musical fraternity. That his soul rests in peace. “
Over a career spanning seven decades, Perry has been one of the most prolific artists in music; Kiss my neck, a book that lists Perry’s entire record production up to the early 2000s, is over 300 pages long.
“You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music,” Keith Richards said. Rolling stone in 2010. “It’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen. More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the soul of the artist. Like Phil Spector, he has a knack for not only hearing sounds that come from nowhere else, but also translating those sounds to musicians. Scratch is a shaman.
“It was the sound of Lee Perry and the Jamaican toasters that inspired us to start hip-hop,” Afrika Bambaataa said.
“Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry transfigured the reggae cadence and R&B heart into something darker, more sacred and more dangerous – music of visionary rhythmic textures and biblical warrior revenge,” wrote David Fricke in his 1997 review of Archeology compilation.
“At Black Ark, Perry definitely operated on the shattered margins of reason; his own “Soul Fire” is an anguished and mind-blowing dub, the sound of a man driven to terror and incoherence. But for the most part, Perry was crazy like George Clinton, pulling dynamic performances from a fluid cast of singers and accompanists and camouflaging his calls for social change and spiritual retribution in cool licks and cartoonish mysticism.
Born in the Jamaican countryside in 1936, Rainford Hugh “Lee” Perry moved to Kingston in the early 1960s. “My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school… I didn’t learn anything at all. Everything I have learned comes from nature, ”said Perry NME in 1984. “When I left school, I had nothing to do other than fieldwork. Hard work, hard. I didn’t want that. So I started playing dominoes. Thanks to dominoes, I practiced my mind and learned to read other people’s minds. It has served me forever.
Perry’s musical career began in the late 1950s when he was employed to sell records for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Downbeat Sound System; in the early 1960s, Dodd opened his famous Studio One, where Perry – nicknamed “Little” at the time, due to his 4’11 “stature – had his first experience in the recording studio, producing a few dozen songs for the label.
“Coxsone never wanted to give a country boy a chance. Certainly not. He took my songs and gave them to people like Delroy Wilson. I had no credit, certainly no money. I was screwed.
After falling out with Dodd, Perry joined Joe Gibbs’ rival label, Amalgamated Records, where Perry continued to produce in addition to pursuing his own recording career as a lead artist. The disagreements between the irascible Perry and Gibbs led “Scratch” to finally form his own label Upsetter Records – a nod to Perry’s proclamation “I am the Upsetter” – in 1968.
Thanks to his popularity in Jamaica and the UK – where his 1968 single ‘People Funny Boy’, a Gibbs slam, became a Top Five hit – in 1973, Perry was able to build his own studio in Kingston, which ‘he named’ the Black Ark. Here, Perry’s artistic efforts led him to push the limits of the recording studio’s relatively archaic abilities to create his “versions.” As a remixed sound architect, Perry layered (or layered) his own beats and riddims with repeating vocal hooks from other songs – providing the template for sampling in other genres – as well as deep bass and reverberating, wandering sound effects and disembodied horn melodies, all simmered together.
“The bass is the brain and the drum is the heart,” Perry said. Rolling stone in 2010. “I listen to my body to find the rhythm. From there, it’s just a matter of experiencing the sounds of the animals in the ark.
With his seasoned backing band The Upsetters – a nod to Perry’s proclamation “I’m the Upsetter” – Perry has conducted dub masterpieces like the 1973s Jungle blackboard, the emblem of the Upsetters 1976 LP Great sing and that of Perry Roast Fish Collie Weed & Cornbread.
Perry and his backing band marketed the dub sound as a producer on many acclaimed mid-1970s reggae records – Max Romeo’s War in Babylon, les Heptones’ Time to party, the Congolese Heart of Congo and Junior Murvin Policemen and thieves – who helped make Jamaican music an international art form and power. Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”, co-written by Perry, was covered by the Clashes on their self-titled 1977 debut album; the reggae-indebted punk group also recruited Perry – who was in London to record Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party”, itself a tribute to Murvin’s cover of The Clash – to produce their single “Complete Control” later during this year. (As Perry once joked about his attraction to the punk movement, “If I wanna spit here, I spit here. If I wanna piss there, I piss there. I’m punk.”)
“Perry was using a 4 track at the Black Ark studio, but he could bounce a hundred other tracks using rocks, water, cooking utensils and whatever was available,” Romeo said. Rolling stone. “He makes his money by being crazy, but he’s no crazier than me.” All geniuses are crazy. I remember Chris Blackwell in Black Ark sitting on a couch and saying, ‘Scratch, the tape is overflowing. You can not do this !’ Scratch just said: ‘The album is called Great sing, and therefore I need a Super Tape! ‘ He is a wizard, there is no one else like him.
However, following the publication of the Upsetters’ The return of the super monkey in 1978 – and after artists like Paul and Linda McCartney (“Mister Sandman”) searched for Perry in his home studio – the Black Ark era began to slowly erode when Perry suffered a nervous breakdown. The property fell into disrepair as a paranoid Perry curtailed his music output and scribbled all over the studio surfaces with a marker; Perry, according to legend, finally burned down the studio in 1983.
“I needed to be forgiven of my sin,” said Perry Rolling stone. “I created my sin, and I burned my sin, and I was born again. “
After the Black Ark era, Perry moved to England and the United States before eventually residing in Switzerland with his family. He would remain prolific for the next three decades, releasing new albums on his own at an annual rate, working with longtime fans like the Beastie Boys (hello nasty‘s “Dr. Lee PhD”) as well as frequent collaborations with Mad Professor, the Orb and Adrian Sherwood. In 2019, Perry released his LP twins Rainford (his birth name) and Heavy rain, the latter featuring guests like Brian Eno, who once hailed Perry as “one of the geniuses of recorded music.”
As Mike D of the Beastie Boys said in Perry’s biography People Funny Boy, “The three of us are really inspired and influenced by the music and production of Lee Perry. I think of this in terms of opening up truly endless sonic and musical possibilities, manipulating the sounds using the mixer and every external effect and every potential tape speed to get the sounds you might have in your head, to make it a reality. “
Scratch’s son, Sean Perry, said of his eccentric father in People Funny Boy, ” Sir. Perry is an enigma, but trust me, he’s ahead of his time; it is we who must try to catch up with him.