Reggae innovator Lee “Scratch” Perry dies at 85


Lee “Scratch” Perry, 2009 (Photo credit – Marco Annunziata)

On August 29, reggae innovator Lee “Scratch” Perry died at Noel Holmes Hospital in the coastal town of Lucea, Jamaica, at the age of 85.

Perry’s recording and performing career spanned more than six decades. He was best known for his behind-the-scenes work as a pioneering record producer and sound engineer, and for being one of the musical creators of the reggae “dub” sound. He has worked with, influenced and produced for a wide variety of artists, including the Congos, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Junior Murvin, The Clash, Paul McCartney and even the Beastie Boys.

Indicating Perry’s continued impact, Kanye West used resung samples from Perry to produce “Lucifer” for Jay Z’s The black album (2003). In 2011, electronic artist dubstep Mala of Digital Mystikz remixed “Like the Way You Should” by Perry. The reggae performer / producer spoke as a DJ for Blue Ark radio station in Grand Theft Auto V (2013).

Rainford Hugh Perry was born in 1936 in the rural Jamaican town of Kendal in the parish of Hanover. It takes its nickname from its 1965 song, influenced by rhythm and blues, “Chicken Scratch”. Although he dropped out of school in his youth, he made his debut in music when he arrived in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, as a teenager. He interned there and was a DJ for the famous Clement “Coxsone” Dodd sound system in the 1950s. When Dodd opened his famous Studio One in Kingston in the early 1960s, Perry produced several songs for the label, learning to record in an innovative way with minimal equipment.

Lee’s first big hit came in 1968 with the song “People Funny Boy”. The song was essentially a “diss” track against his former employer, producer Joe Gibbs from Amalgamated Records, whom he joined after leaving Dodd. It was a major success, including sampling a crying baby and using a catchy, jerky rhythm that was one of the earliest musical models in reggae music. Creative sampling was also an early use of a technique that would later be used in electronic music and hip hop.

After leaving Gibbs in 1968, Perry formed a band called The Upsetters, named after his clashes with his former bosses in the music industry. Music became popular in the UK for early reggae and ska instrumentals like “Return of Django”.

The upsetting, 1969

Perry was a key figure in a group of artists who would create a sound unique to Jamaica called reggae and its “dub” reggae subgenre. Jamaican artists combined elements of popular music from the 1950s and early 1960s – rhythm and blues, rocksteady, ska, jazz brass sections, and West African drums – to deliver a new sound. separate.

This culturally rich and artistically innovative period was inextricably linked with the evolution of the political situation, especially with the independence of Jamaica from Great Britain in 1962. As the WSWS pointed out in its Toots Hibbert of September 19, 2020 :

“Resistance and hostility to British imperialism was channeled behind a bourgeois nationalist movement which had to agree on a mutually acceptable platform of independence with Westminster. A renewed national pride that accompanied the liberation from colonial rule finds expression in the arrogance and self-confidence of the popular music of the time.

One of the major innovations in the rise of reggae was Perry’s production technique. He began to remix existing reggae songs to create new instrumental or vocal versions of tracks by expanding the rhythm section, adding a bass line, and adding different sound effects and samples. This process, combined with the implementation of studio techniques such as delay and reverb, developed a new melodic subgenre of reggae known as ‘dub’ music.

He began to create long “disco” mixes that would put different songs together, incorporating altered sounds that made the existing music more alive, vibrant and surreal. The spaced textures of the studio effects gave the remix more energy than some of the original songs.

Perry’s talents as a record producer reached an artistic peak in 1973, when he produced and managed the Black Ark studio in Kingston, located behind his family’s home. There he developed and refined his leading studio techniques and worked with most of Jamaica’s notable artists. He has produced for Bob Marley and the Wailers, Junior Murvin (“Police and Thieves”), the Congos and many other notable artists.

A remarkable aspect of Perry’s “far-out” sound was that it produced and performed audio with relatively minimal studio equipment. For most of his recordings, he only used a Teac 4-track recorder, a Soundcraft mixer, an Echoplex delay unit, and two different effects units. With this equipment, he often mixed 4- to 2-track tracks to produce his distinctive “swirling” sounds that set his studio production apart from other Jamaican studios.

A standout example of his unique production style was his dub remix of The Congos “.” Perry’s studio manipulation gives the song a vibrant sound quality.

Perry was also known for producing two of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ memorable debut albums, Rebellious souls (1970) and Soul revolution (1971). Its production contributed to the group’s artistic turn towards a more “rebellious” image and a more confident reggae sound. Prior to 1970, Marley was best known for his Motown-influenced love songs. Along with Perry, the group began to openly promote their Rastafarian religious beliefs, which Perry also shared, and sang more about poverty and social tensions in Jamaica.

Rebellious souls (1970), Bob Marley and the Wailers

Although it may be a volatile artistic relationship, Marley and Perry continued to collaborate until the first death of cancer in 1981. Much of their work centered on their Rastafarian religious beliefs and a kind of pan-African nationalism. They collaborated on later songs such as “”, a tribute to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and a cross-genre celebration song “”.

Perry’s artistic career began to stagnate in the late 1970s. In 1978, stress, depression, and lack of creative control over his work began to take its toll on his career, to the point where he apparently burned down his own studio in a fit of rage.

His character is notoriously difficult to decipher. He often seemed intentionally difficult to understand, sometimes speaking in riddles and coded aphorisms in interviews and even in concert. He was very protective of his work and quarreled with many artists and producers he worked with.

Even in a lot of his lyrics, it might be hard to tell if his weird imagery was meant as an act of artistic defiance against conformity, as part of a joke, or maybe even related to mental instability. Perry once recorded a song called “” and said Rolling stone magazine that “being a fool is a good thing. … It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don’t come and take your energy, making you weak. I am the upsetting!

His music was generally not notable for his solid knowledge of social or political reality, but he was known as a generous collaborator, well known for training young artists in studio production and encouraging musical creativity.

Although he hit a creative wall in the 1980s, Perry experienced a resurgence later in his life. He has managed to stay relevant by touring the United States and Europe on a regular basis. He moved to Switzerland with his wife and family and began to relaunch his career in the 1990s. In addition to producing for others, he has produced over 50 albums himself, including 15 after the age of 80 years old.

He has worked with groups such as the Beastie Boys, performing the 1998 song “” and collaborated with British dub music producer Mad Professor. In 2002, Perry’s album AND Jamaican won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album and was nominated four more times.

Perry has succeeded in inspiring music producers and songwriters of many genres across the world. His innovation in remixing, remastering and reworking songs has had a significant impact on the development of electronic music, hip-hop, punk and dance music. His music itself is heavily sampled by a wide range of artists each year.

Marley’s son Ziggy Marley once said of his relationship with Perry: “It was always a unique experience to be with him. … He opened minds with his creativity and his personality. Some people thought it was madness, but I recognized it was genius, uniqueness, courage and freedom.


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