Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Reggae Giant and Dub Pioneer, Dead at 85
Prolific reggae singer, producer and studio wizard who reinvented the genre and pushed the boundaries of Jamaican music died Sunday
Lee “Scratch” Perry, the monumental reggae singer, producer and studio wizard who pushed the boundaries of Jamaican music — and as a byproduct, rock, hip-hop and dance — with his explorations into dub, has died at the age of 85.
The Jamaican Observer reports that Perry died Sunday at the Noel Holmes Hospital in western Jamaica. Cause of death was unknown at press time.
Andrew Holness, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, tweeted Sunday, “My deep 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 with and produced for various artistes, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and many others. Undoubtedly, Lee Scratch Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace.”
Over a career spanning seven decades, Perry was one of music’s most prolific artists; Kiss Me Neck, a book that lists Perry’s entire recording output through the early 2000s, runs over 300 pages.
“You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stone in 2010. “He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen. More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the artist’s soul. Like Phil Spector, he has a gift of not only hearing sounds that come from nowhere else, but also translating those sounds to the musicians. Scratch is a shaman.”
“It was Lee Perry’s sound and the Jamaican toasters that inspired us to start hip-hop,” Afrika Bambaataa said.
Born in rural Jamaica in 1936, the scrappy Rainford Hugh “Lee” Perry moved to Kingston in the early Sixties. “My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school… I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature,” Perry told NME in 1984. “When I left school there was nothing to do except field work. Hard, hard labor. I didn’t fancy that. So I started playing dominoes. Through dominoes I practiced my mind and learned to read the minds of others. This has proved eternally useful to me.”
Perry’s career in music began in the late Fifties when he was employed to sell records for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Downbeat Sound System; by the early Sixties, Dodd opened his famed Studio One, where Perry — nicknamed “Little” at the time, due to his 4’11″ stature — got his first experience in the recording studio, producing a few dozens song for the label.
“Coxsone never wanted to give a country boy a chance. No way. He took my songs and gave them to people like Delroy Wilson. I got no credit, certainly no money. I was being screwed.”
After falling out with Dodd, Perry jumped over to Joe Gibbs’ rival label Amalgamated Records, where Perry continued to produce in addition to furthering his own recording career as lead artist. Disagreements between the irascible Perry and Gibbs resulted in “Scratch” finally forming 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 U.K. — where his 1968 single “People Funny Boy,” a slam at Gibbs, became a Top Five hit — in 1973, Perry was able to build his own backyard studio in Kingston, which he named “the Black Ark.” Here, Perry’s artistic endeavors led him to push the limits of the recording studio’s relatively antiquated capabilities to create his “versions.” As the architect of the remixed sound, Perry would layer (or overdub) his own rhythms and riddims with repetitive vocal hooks lifted from other songs — providing the blueprint for sampling in other genres — along with deep, reverberating bass, errant sound effects and disembodied horn melodies, all stewed together.
“The bass is the brain, and the drum is the heart,” Perry told Rolling Stone in 2010. “I listen to my body to find the beat. From there, it’s just experimenting with the sounds of the animals in the ark.”
With his seasoned backing band the Upsetters — a nod to Perry’s proclamation “I am the Upsetter” — Perry shepherded dub masterpieces like 1973’s Blackboard Jungle, the Upsetters’ landmark 1976 LP Super Ape and Perry’s own Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread.
Perry and his backing band commercially weaponized the dub sound as producer on numerous acclaimed mid-Seventies reggae records — Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon, the Heptones’ Party Time, the Congos’ Heart of the Congos and Junior Murvin’s Police & Thieves — that helped establish Jamaican music as an international art form and powerhouse. Murvin’s “Police & Thieves,” co-written by Perry, was covered by the Clash on their self-titled 1977 debut album; the reggae-indebted punk band also recruited Perry — who was in London to record Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party,” itself a tribute to the Clash’s Murvin cover — to produce their single “Complete Control” later that year. (As Perry once quipped about his appeal to the punk movement, “If I want to spit here, I spit here. If I want to piss there, I piss there. I am punk.”)
“Perry was using a 4-track at the Black Ark studio, but he could get about a hundred other tracks bouncing in and out of there by using stones, water, kitchen utensils and whatever else was available,” Romeo told Rolling Stone. “He makes his money by being crazy, but he’s no crazier than I am. All geniuses are mad. I remember Chris Blackwell at Black Ark sitting on a couch and saying, ‘Scratch, the tape is spilling over. You can’t do that!’ Scratch just said, ‘The album is called Super Ape, and so I need a Super Tape!’ He is a wizard, there is nobody else like him.”
However, following the release of the Upsetters’ Return of the Super Ape in 1978 — and after artists like Paul and Linda McCartney (“Mister Sandman“) sought out Perry at his home studio — the Black Ark era began its slow erosion when Perry suffered a mental breakdown. The property fell into disrepair as a paranoid Perry lessened his musical output and scrawled all over the studio’s surfaces with a marker; Perry, according to legend, ultimately burned down the studio in 1983.
“I needed to be forgiven of my sin,” Perry told Rolling Stone. “I created my sin, and I burned my sin, and I am born again.”
Following the Black Ark era, Perry moved to England and the U.S. before ultimately residing in Switzerland with his family. He would remain prolific for the next three decades, releasing new albums on his own at a yearly pace, 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 twin LPs 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.”
“It’s the most intimate album Lee has ever made,” producer Sherwood said of Rainford at the time. “But at the same time the musical ideas are very fresh. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve come up as a piece of work.”
As Beastie Boys’ Mike D said in the Perry biography People Funny Boy, “All three of us are all really inspired and influenced by Lee Perry’s music and production. I think of it in terms of opening up truly infinite possibilities of sound and music, by manipulating sounds through using the mixing board and every outboard effect and every potential tape speed to achieve sounds you might have in your head, to make those a reality.”