Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, 1936-2021: eccentric, brilliant dub legend who heard what we couldn’t

The hugely influential, legendarily idiosyncratic and vastly quotable music icon has sadly died at the age of 85. RIP

“You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music,” the Rolling StonesKeith Richards said in 2010. He compared the Jamaican singer and producer to the now disgraced but unquestionably influential Phil Spector. “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. 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.”

Few would disagree. Perry, who has now died aged 85 (though he once told an interviewer he was 75,000 years old and came from the planet Sirius), collaborated with and produced few-more-notable names such as Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Beastie Boys, The Clash and George Clinton.

He was born Rainford Hugh Perry in 1936, and his career lasted seven decades, inspiring Mods, punks, rude boys and skinheads across the passage of time. Jeremy Collingwood’s ‘Kiss Me Neck’, a compendium of every record produced in Perry’s legendary Black Ark Studio, runs over 300 pages. Without him, the rock, reggae, dance and hip-hop genres sound different to how they now do – perhaps they don’t even exist at all. “It was Lee Perry’s sound and the Jamaican toasters that inspired us to start hip-hop,” once said hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa (sadly another disgraced pop pioneer).

“The word ‘maverick’ is short thrift for Perry”

The word ‘maverick’ seems short thrift for the dub legend. You got the impression that what Perry could see, hear and think was different to anything that you or I could. Most commonly known as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (though he’d sometimes go as Lee, Little, King, The Upsetter, Pipecock Jackson, Super Ape, Ringo, Emmanuel, The Rockstone, Small Axe… and more) onstage and off he could be found dressed head to toe in jewellery and trinkets. He might wear a crown, or a native American headdress. Sometimes his hair would be dyed the colour of the Jamaican flag, green foliage, sometimes even seaweed extruding, the fug of ganja following him wherever he went.

“My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields,” he told NME in 1984 of his plaintive childhood in Kendal, Jamaica. “We were very poor. I went to school… I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature…” He would credit his days playing dominos with his future success. “This is how I learned to read the minds of others,” he said.

But it didn’t take the young Rainford long to arrive in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, where he interned at the legendary Studio One. Here he worked for the owner and producer Clement Coxsone Dodd. He did a bit of this, a lot of that. Here he wrote and recorded the song ‘Chicken Scratch’, which birthed him a nickname. The pair fell out. He then moved to Joe Gibb’s Amalgamated Records. Again, he fell out with his new paymaster. Then he decided to go it alone; his label Upsetter Records was established in 1968.

His first hit, ‘People Funny Boy’ – a wry dig at Gibbs – quickly followed. It is, perhaps, the first reggae song (though Toots and the Maytals ‘Do The Reggay’ from the same year is the first song to reference the genre). A deal with Trojan followed and in 1969 Perry scored his first UK hit; the superb ‘Return Of Django’.

But Perry wanted his own studio. His own space. His own ark, which he began construction on in 1973. This was a place of experimentation; of innovation, much of which came via collaboration with Osbourne ‘King Tubby’ Ruddock and resulted in the creation of dub. No object being banged, smashed or thrown – and recorded – was off limits. The Black Ark was built on fertile soil.

One day, Perry heard the then unknown Junior Murvin strumming and singing his song ‘Police and Thieves’ in a nearby yard. He was promptly dragged into Perry’s studio, and a reggae (and via, The Clash’s inclusion of the song on their 1977 debut) classic was born. The eighties were neither kind or especially successful, but a union with Mad Professor, the 1997’s compilation ‘Arkology’ and a decision to abstain from alcohol and cannabis, resulted in a renewed interest in his work. He was rewarded with a Grammy for his album ‘Jamaican E.T.’ in 2004.

There was a deep spirituality to Perry. He once claimed that he lived inside The Bible. “The secret to a long and happy life is a belief in God,” he once told this writer. “I believe in God. I believe in life. I believe in hearing. I believe in smelling. I believe in tasting. I believe in writing. I believe in singing. I believe in my larder. I believe in my garden. I believe in my good feelings. And don’t eat meat. Amen.”

He also once claimed that “God is black”, adding: “The black record plastic can prove that to you! Look at the sun when it casts a shadow. That’s the spirit. The spirit is black!” For all Perry’s contributions to ska and rocksteady music he claimed his music actually was neither. “My music,” he said, “is a spiritual force from the Holy Trinity.”

“There was a deep spirituality to Perry”

After a much-publicised breakdown in 1979, he never really came back. It was this year in which he set fire to his legendary Black Ark. His first wife had left him. He’d spent years working 18-hour days and smoking the island’s strongest spliff – he was fried, and accidentally shot himself in the foot. But perhaps something else tipped him over the edge. “I woke up that morning with turmoil in my heart,” he once recalled, “and went to the studio. I love kids’ rubber balls – they are air-trapped. I had one favourite from America on the mixing desk. Someone had taken it when I got to the studio, so I destroyed the studio. Burnt it down. Over.”

He would then attempt to rebuild the Black Ark, yet give up after becoming distracted digging a duck pond in the vocal booth. (Years later, in 2015, his studio in his new home of Switzerland burnt down. This time it was an accident. “I forgot to put out a candle. My wife is mad at me.”)

He once claimed he was “the internet” (and “the winternet!”), and that his records had picked up transmissions from extra-terrestrial craft. But such eccentricities shouldn’t distract from Perry’s musical brilliance. His production technique might be described as one of deconstruction. Dub is often called ‘X-ray music’. Space is as important as instrumentation – perhaps even more – and Perry would painstakingly cut away, splice, and replenish the tracks he recorded and produced until the sound replicated the perfect mix in his mind. Bass and drums were an ever-constant.

Lee Scratch Perry
Jamaican reggae musician, singer and producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry performs at Poppodium De Flux, Zaandam, Netherlands, 8th April 2018. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

“Everyone who started dub music must have heart,” he once explained. “Your heart goes boop boop, boop-boop; that’s the beat of the drum. A brain goes tick-tick, tick tick; that’s the bass. Your brain is your bass and your heart is your drum. So make sure your heart is not corrupted because what you send out comes back to your heart.”

Where ‘Scratch’ Perry’s soul now resides, is a question that has no answer. But it’s undoubtedly somewhere weird and totally brilliant.

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