Obituaries: Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Jamaican reggae singer who created dub sound

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry OD, reggae producer and musician. Born: 20 March, 1936 in Kendal, Jamaica. Died: 29 August, 2021 in Lucea, Jamaica, aged 85

Lee "Scratch" Perry onstage at the 2013 Coachella Valley Festival in Indio, California. (Picture: Karl Walter/Getty Images)
Lee "Scratch" Perry onstage at the 2013 Coachella Valley Festival in Indio, California. (Picture: Karl Walter/Getty Images)

In the words of his own 1986 track, the legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry reckoned I Am A Madman. Years later, as he hit his eighties, he refined the sentiment, telling a BBC interviewer “I’m 100 per cent crazy. I’m not lazy.”

It might be going too far to say there was method in his madness but there was definitely industry and creativity. Although he was infamous for his eccentricities, the music and wider world would not be mourning the passing of this elfin figure with his trademark crimson beard and customised cap and jacket were it not for his trailblazing production work in a tiny tumbledown backyard studio in Jamaica. Comparing him to fellow oddball visionary Phil Spector, Keith Richards hailed him “the Salvador Dali of music… Scratch is a shaman.”

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Lee “Scratch” Perry, who has died aged 85, was one of the most idiosyncratic characters to emerge from the fertile musical landscape of Jamaica, working with the cream of the island’s talent, including a young Bob Marley, as well as international stars such as Paul McCartney. The Beastie Boys conferred scholastic status on him when he guested on their 1998 track Dr Lee PhD but he was also true to his nickname The Upsetter, falling out regularly with collaborators over financial and creative credit.

Fuelled by copious clouds of cannabis, he danced to the beat of his own rhythm, but the rest of the world soon caught on to his reggae vibrations. Where Spector created a patented Wall of Sound, Perry knocked chunks out of traditional reggae production, slowed the tempo right down to a virtually horizontal skank, looped and sampled vocals from existing reggae tracks and applied lashings of echo and reverb to create the sonorous sound of dub which resonated through not just reggae but also punk, hip-hop, dance and ambient music in the decades to come.

Although anti-establishment in his approach, he received the Jamaican Order of Distinction in 2012 and was hailed on his passing by the country’s prime minister Andrew Holness as “a pioneer”.

While this much is hard to dispute, the circumstances of his early life are a little more slippery. Rainford Hugh Perry may or may not have been born in 1936 in the small western Jamaican town of Kendal. According to Perry, school was not much of an attraction; neither was the field labour which habitually followed, so he undertook an eclectic mix of casual work as a dancer, driver and dominoes player, gaining the first of several nicknames “The Neat Little Thing”.

He moved to the metropolis of Kingston in 1960, where he ran errands for sound system owner Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. This led to jobs as a studio assistant, talent scout and songwriter at Dodd’s legendary Studio One, the ground zero for Jamaican music. From here it was a natural transition to recording in his own right, taking the name Lee “Scratch” Perry from his 1965 ska track Chicken Scratch.

He broke with Dodd over royalties, then his subsequent gig with Joe Gibb at Amalgamated Records went the same way. Perry targeted both former employers on diss tracks, respectively I Am the Upsetter and People Funny Boy. The former spawned backing band The Upsetters and his Upsetter Records label and shop, while the latter brought him to the attention of respectedLondon-based reggae label, Trojan Records.

Artistic independence suited Perry. In 1973, he set up a tiny four-track studio space in his back yard. This was the fabled Black Ark studio where necessity (plus a certain amount of herbal stimulation) was the mother of invention. What Perry lacked in hardware, he made up for in eccentric experimentation, which extended to mic-ing up a palm tree and blowing marijuana smoke on the equipment for that little extra juju.

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Throughout the 1970s, Perry worked with reggae’s finest and most soulful practitioners, including Max Romeo, The Congos, Junior Murvin and, crucially, Bob Marley and the Wailers. Perry helped develop the group’s roots reggae sound before the inevitable dispute over money. He and Marley were later reconciled and worked together on the single Punky Reggae Party, recorded in response to The Clash’s cover of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves. The Clash reciprocated by using Perry as producer on their track Complete Control.

Paul and Linda McCartney also sampled the wares at Black Ark, recording a cover of Mister Sandman. When Paul was subsequently busted for bringing marijuana into Tokyo, Perry offered his inimitable mediation skills. In a letter to the Japanese Minister of Justice, he wrote, “herbs is his Majesty’s. All singers positive directions and liberty irrations. Please do not consider the amount of herbs involved excessive. Master Paul McCartney’s intentions are positive.” McCartney was released and deported after nine days in jail. Coincidence? Probably.

Perry did not have his own troubles to seek. Black Ark burned down in 1983. He was arrested on arson charges, but released due to lack of evidence. Later, he would claim he had torched his studio, believing it was possessed by evil spirits.

He moved to Europe, living in Amsterdam, London and Switzerland, and his career flourished again, with no shortage of artists queuing up to work with this diminutive titan. British dub producer Adrian Sherwood brought fellow far-out freaks George Clinton and Keith Richards into his recording orbit. His 2003 album Jamaican E.T. received Grammy recognition as Best Reggae Album and, more recently, he appeared on an album with director David Lynch and gave Brian Eno the Perry treatment on the punning Here Come the Warm Dreads.

Lee “Scratch” Perry may have avoided hard labour as a young man but he remained an industrious player until returning to Jamaica last year, and he is still doling out the wizened wisdom from beyond the grave. His forthcoming album collaboration with stoner rock band New Age Doom, Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Guide to the Universe, is slated for release at the start of November, and features such pearls of sagacity as “don’t be pushed by your problems, but led by your dreams”.

He is survived by his wife Mireille Ruegg and six children.

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