Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, master of reggae, dies aged 85

Written by on August 29, 2021

Producer and performer who worked with Bob Marley and pioneered both dub and roots reggae styles dies in hospital in Jamaica

Lee “Scratch” Perry, whose pioneering work with roots reggae and dub opened up profound new depths in Jamaican music, has died aged 85.

Jamaican media reported the news that he died in hospital in Lucea, northern Jamaica. No cause of death has yet been given. Andrew Holness, the country’s prime minister, sent “deep condolences” to Perry’s family.

The loping tempos of his work established the roots reggae sound that Bob Marley made world famous, while his dub production, with its haunting use of space and echo, would have a profound influence on post-punk, hip-hop, dance music and other genres. Along with his gnomic pronouncements and mystical air, he became one of Jamaica’s most unusual and esteemed artists. Keith Richards once described him as “the Salvador Dalí of music. He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen.”

Perry was born Rainford Hugh Perry in the Hanover parish of north-west Jamaica in 1936, and left school when he was young: “There was nothing to do except field work, so I started playing dominoes and learned to read the minds of others,” he said. He was hired by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, head of reggae studio and label Studio One, as an assistant, then as a talent scout, DJ, store manager and eventually a recording artist. He earned his “Scratch” nickname from an early recording, The Chicken Scratch, in 1965.

In the first of the many spats that dotted his career, Perry split with Dodd and began working with the producer and label head Joe Gibbs, who in turn was cast aside by Perry. He became increasingly independent, forming his own backing band the Upsetters, with a string of early releases fixated on spaghetti westerns: Return of Django, Clint Eastwood, The Good, the Bad and the Upsetters, and more.

In 1973, he built his own studio, the renowned Black Ark. He experimented with drum machines and the potential of studio equipment. As well as firing guns, breaking glass and sampling animal noises, he also blew marijuana smoke on to master tapes to supposedly enhance the recordings. He pioneered the technique of dub versions of reggae tracks, with the bass emphasised, vocals sometimes removed, and reverb added to create an eerie, echoing sonic space. “I see the studio must be like a living thing, a life itself,” he said. “The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine perform reality.”

The Upsetters backed Max Romeo for the Perry-produced album War Ina Babylon, part of the wave of politicised reggae in the mid-1970s and featuring one of the genre’s biggest anthems in Chase the Devil. Other classics that Perry produced include the Congos’ cosmic masterpiece Heart of the Congos, the Heptones’ Dylan-covering Party Time, and Junior Murvin’s hit Police and Thieves, which protested against police brutality and was later covered by the Clash. Perry later produced the Clash’s 1977 single Complete Control.

The same year, Paul and Linda McCartney travelled to Black Ark and recorded two songs there. In 1980, Perry sent a letter to the Japanese minister of justice after McCartney was arrested for carrying 7.7 ounces of marijuana in his luggage, arguing: “Please do not consider the amount of herbs involved excessive. Master Paul McCartney’s intentions are positive.”

Before Black Ark, Perry also worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers, who had incorporated members of the Upsetters. Their recordings in 1970 and 1971 are much admired; Marley’s son Ziggy has said: “Scratch helped my father look deeper into himself … [he] was instrumental in my father’s career.”

The collaboration ended in acrimony, though, with Bunny Wailer later saying: “He just sat there in the studio while we played our music, and then he screwed us. We never saw a dime from those albums we did with him … Lee Perry’s ignorance cost us a lot of money, and I never forgave him.”

Perry burned down the Black Ark in 1983, convinced it was possessed by evil spirits, but he steadily continued to record throughout the rest of his life. He won a Grammy award for the 2003 album Jamaican ET; further collaborators included George Clinton, Moby, the Orb, the Slits’ Ari Up and the Beastie Boys: “They were nice Jewish boys and they were clean inside. Very lovely,” he said of the latter, who honoured him in the track Dr Lee PhD. He also collaborated with British dub producers Adrian Sherwood and Mad Professor. A documentary about his life, The Upsetter, was narrated by Benicio Del Toro and released in 2008.

Perry was married twice, first to Paulette Perry, from whom he divorced in 1979, and then to Mireille Ruegg, whom he met in 1989. He later moved to Switzerland to live with Ruegg, with whom he had two children, later reasoning to the Guardian about his new home: “I’m part elf – it’s too warm for me sometimes, I need somewhere cold.”

As well as his music, he was known for his eternally youthful and chaotic dress sense, and his mythical statements about himself. “I am an alien from the other world,” he has claimed. “I live in space – I’m only a visitor here.” He was also devoutly religious, telling the Guardian in 2016: “God is the teacher, the high priest, the coach, where we are coming from,” and in 2015: “There is no better teacher than Christ … Christ’s words are perfect.”

Among those paying tribute to Perry was novelist Hari Kunzru, who described him as “one of the greatest artists in any medium of the last 50 years. Much of our lives (whether we know it or not) are lived in sound worlds he created”. Producer Flying Lotus wrote: “Blessed journey into the infinite.”

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