Obituary: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, whose dense stew of sound changed music forever

Died: August 29, 2021.

LEE ‘Scratch’ Perry, who has died aged 85, was a musical pioneer whose free-spirited use of the recording studio as an instrument created some of the most innovative music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Using his first-hand experience of Jamaican sound systems, his innovations saw some of the earliest uses of sampling, when the sound of a crying baby was used on his song, People Funny Boy (1968).

Perry moved Jamaican music forward, beyond ska towards reggae, and then to dub. The latter subverted existing recordings through use of echo, reverb and other electronic effects to create radically reinvented new versions of the material.

Perry’s sonic collages were chopped out on primitive four-track equipment in his back-yard studio, creating a dense stew of sound that changed music forever.

While much has been made of Perry’s eccentric appearance and dervish-like persona, the truth is probably more complex. Copious marijuana use undoubtedly affected how he operated in such a maverick and liberated fashion, but his at times unhinged genius also reflected the chaos of his volatile homeland.

The result was a sonic revolution. Perry’s cut-up creations were made to be played loud in big rooms, where the physical force of his bass-blasting deconstructions could be heard to full discombobulating effect.

His extensive back catalogue pointed the way for remixing, hip-hop, techno and club culture as we now know it. His influence on music remains seismic.

Along the way, he set Bob Marley and the Wailers on the road to global success, and produced The Clash, the London rock group, before latterly working with some of those who picked up his mercurial baton. Collaborators included The Beastie Boys, Adrian Sherwood, The Mad Professor, and The Orb.

Today, Perry’s influence is embedded into popular culture, and his records sound both timeless and other worldly.

Rainford Hugh Perry was born in Kendal, Jamaica (different dates have been given for his birth), the third of four children to Ina Davis and Henry Perry, who earned an at times precarious living as a sugar-cane labourer. As a teen, Perry was attracted to the local dance halls, and was dubbed ‘Neat Little Man’ for his championship moves.

His mystical inclinations were inherent from early on, when he moved to Kingston after claiming to have experienced a spiritual connection to stones while working on a building site.

In the late 1950s, he began working at Clement Coxsone Dodd’s sound system and Studio One recording studio, where his single, Chicken Scratch, (1965), gave him his nickname.

Following a fall-out over money, Perry moved to Joe Gibbs’s Amalgamated Records, where he cut I Am the Upsetter. A dispute with Gibbs saw Perry found his own Upsetter Records, and release People Funny Boy, a barb aimed at Gibbs.

In the early 1970s, Perry built Black Ark, his home-based studio where he worked round the clock with such Jamaican artists as Max Romeo and The Congos,

With his house band, The Upsetters, Perry made some of his defining work at the studio, including 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle (1973), Revolution Dub (1975), and Super Ape (1976). He also produced Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves (1976), and The Heart of the Congos (1977). By this time, Perry had produced two albums by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Soul Rebel (1970), and Soul Revolution (1971), which took reggae beyond Jamaica.

As Perry’s innovations trickled outwards, Black Ark became a magnet for the likes of such noted British musicians as Robert Palmer, John Martyn and Paul McCartney.

In the UK, The Clash covered Police and Thieves (1977), before Perry went on to oversee the first-generation rebel punk band’s single, Complete Control (1977). Reunited with Marley, Perry captured the spirit of the times with his production of Marley’s Punky Reggae Party (1977) single.

Black Ark was eventually destroyed by fire, taking away its much-used analogue equipment that was housed inside graffiti-overed walls. Perry said he started the blaze himself, purging the demons he claimed to have infested it in a seemingly self-destructive act that nevertheless freed him to move on.

He ended up in London, where a new generation of post-punk and reggae musicians had fallen under his spell.

He worked with Adrian Sherwood and Dub Syndicate on Time Boom x De Devil Dead (1987), and recorded Mystic Warrior (1989) with Neil Fraser, aka Mad Professor. In 1998, he provided vocals for the Beastie Boys’ track, Dr Lee, PhD. Numerous solo albums followed, and in 2003, he won a Grammy for best reggae album with Jamaican E.T.

The same year, he curated the Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London, overseeing a programme of fellow travellers that included Michael Franti and Spearhead, DJ Spooky and Sun Ra’s Arkestra. In 2012, he worked with The Orb on their album, The Observer in the Star House.

Having moved to Zurich with his wife Mireille, Perry continued to tour, usually wearing a mirror-bedecked outfit, with his hair and beard coloured red. In 2015, in a fateful echo of Black Ark, his Swiss-based studio, the Secret Laboratory, was destroyed in a fire.

Perry continued to release music at a prolific rate, with a posthumous album, Butterfly Sky, being completed by producer and bassist Martin Glover, aka Youth.

He is survived by his wife Mireille and their two children, Gabriel and Shiva, and four other children, Cleopatra, Marsha, Omar and Marvin (Sean).

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992