Lee “Scratch” Perry, the eccentric, revolutionary Jamaican producer, songwriter and performer whose influence extended far beyond his historic role in the development of reggae music, died Sunday at a hospital in Lucea, Jamaica at age 85. No cause of death was immediately given.
The news was confirmed in a tweet from Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness.
“My deep condolences to the family, friends, and fans of legendary record producer and singer, Rainford Hugh Perry OD, affectionately known as ‘Lee Scratch’ Perry,” Holness wrote. “Perry was a pioneer in the 1970s’ development of dub music with his early adoption of studio effects to create new instrumentals of existing reggae tracks. He has worked with and produced for various artistes, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and many others. Undoubtedly, Lee Scratch Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace.”
Perry made his name in the late 1960s and ’70s for producing some of the most cutting-edge reggae artists, with his Upsetter label helping establish many of the genre’s greats, like the Wailers. As a performer, he won the Grammy for best reggae album in 2003 for his recording “Jamaican E.T.”
Musicians from many genres quickly began weighing in on Perry’s importance. “Few more important figures in the music of the 20th century,” tweeted the band the Mountain Goats. “He expanded the vocabulary of studio sound, lived a long life & leaves a lasting legacy. Play his music for your kids, see how instantly they love it. It’s universal. Safe travels home to God.”
Keith Richards is among the rockers who has weighed in on Perry over the years, telling Rolling Stone in 2010, “You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music. 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. Like Phil Spector, 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.”
Perry had little doubt of his own significance in the music world. “I am the best record producer that Jamaica has seen. Many say that l am the best in the world!” he said in 1984.
Even in a form that has some eccentrics, Perry particularly stood out. “Being a madman is good thing!” Perry told Rolling Stone in a 2010 profile. “It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don’t come around and take your energy, making you weak. I am the Upsetter!” he said, alluding back to his 1968 single of that name.
Active professionally from 1961 to the end of his days, Perry was known internationally by his nicknames “Scratch” (drawn from “Chicken Scratch,” the title of an early song cut for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label) and “the Upsetter” (springing off the 1967 single “I Am the Upsetter,” a stinging slap at his former boss Dodd).
After a long apprenticeship working for Dodd and the prominent producer Joe Gibbs, Perry stepped out on his own in 1968. One of the first releases on his fledgling label Upset (later Upsetter) was “People Funny Boy.” The song, a sharp put-down of Gibbs, rode a slow, heavily accented rhythm (sparked by music Perry heard at a local “Pocomania” church) that was new to the island’s popular music, then still dominated by the up-tempo sounds of ska and rocksteady. A local sensation that reached the charts in England after its release there by Trojan Records, it is considered one of the very first reggae recordings.
He broke further into the international market with a series of ska-influenced instrumentals released under the Upsetters handle with spaghetti Western-inspired titles. The biggest of these was “The Return of Django,” which climbed the British charts on the back of its use in a TV spot for Cadbury chocolate bars.
Perry’s most productive creative alliance came in 1970, when he reconvened with a vocal trio he had worked with at Studio One: the Wailers. On their sessions he produced for Perry’s Upsetter imprint, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer hardened their sound, and they became one of the first Jamaican groups to outspokenly champion Rastafarian beliefs.
Though the association lasted only a couple of years, the Wailers’ recordings for Perry proved to be the foundation of the group’s repertoire; those compositions (some of them written with or refined by Perry) included “Small Axe,” “Keep On Moving,” “Trenchtown Rock,” “Concrete Jungle,” “400 Years” and “Kaya,” all of which would be re-recorded by Island Records.
In “The Rough Guide to Reggae,” historian Steve Barrow noted that the Upsetter sides “confirmed not only the full fruition of the Wailers’ songwriting and interpretive powers, but also a new stance in Jamaican music: unmistakably tougher, yet simultaneously spiritual.”
Marley and Perry maintained a close yet highly volatile professional and personal relationship until the reggae superstar’s death from cancer in 1981. The pair collaborated on such later songs as “Jah Live” (a posthumous tribute to Emperor Haile Selassie, the icon of Rastafarianism) and the cross-genre celebration “Punky Reggae Party.”
Perry racked up significant U.K. hits in the early ‘70s with stunning productions for the gifted, troubled vocalist Junior Byles (“Beat Down Babylon,” “A Place Called Africa,” “Curley Locks”) and singer Susan Cadogan (a chart-topping cover of Millie Jackson’s “Hurt So Good”).
He also was a crucial figure in the development of the homegrown art form of dub, which involved the stripping of vocals from previously released recordings and treating the instrumental beds with a variety of otherworldly effects. Perry serviced dozens of unique “dub plates” to Jamaican sound system dancehalls. “Upsetter 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle,” a 1973 collaboration with renowned mixer King Tubby, was one of the first stand-alone dub LPs, and it helped ignite a sub-genre of its own.
In 1974, Perry established his own fabled studio, wired up by Tubby, in his home at 5 Cardiff Crescent in the middle-class Kingston suburb of Washington Gardens. The Black Ark’s four-track board, Echoplex delay and Roland echo/phaser combo created a wealth of outré sounds in the producer’s skilled hands.
In his reggae history “Bass Culture,” Lloyd Bradley wrote, “Unfettered by time or expense, Lee Perry could literally do what he liked, and his almost perpetual rhythm-building, tune deconstructing or extending of an original idea often went way past the point at which logic tells most people to stop, into a place where the instrumentation took on ethereal qualities.”
Perry told British critic and musician David Toop, “The studio must be like a living thing. The machine must be live and intelligent….When I making music I think of life, creating life, and I want it to live. I want it to feel good and taste good.”
In 1976-77, Perry produced some of the most original reggae albums ever cut (which were released by Island in the U.K. and U.S.): Max Romeo’s “War Ina Babylon,” the Heptones’ “Party Time,” Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (the topical title track of which was swiftly covered by the English punk band the Clash), George Faith’s “To Be a Lover” and Perry’s own unclassifiable combination of vocals and dub “Super Ape.”
The world began beating a path to his door: During the ‘70s, Paul and Linda McCartney, Robert Palmer and John Martyn recorded at the Black Ark, and the Clash flew Perry to London to produce their single “Complete Control.”
However, by 1978 Perry was showing signs of serious mental instability, some of it fueled by the heavy abuse of potent ganja and white rum. He was living a pressurized existence: Local gangsters were dunning him for protection money, and an unwelcome cult of Nyabinghi (devout Rastafarians) had started squatting on his property.
Important relationships dissolved. He broke sharply with Island after label chief Chris Blackwell refused to issue the Congos’ “Heart of the Congos” (now considered the producer’s masterwork) and two of Perry’s solo albums. In 1979, his common-law wife Pauline Morrison left him for a member of the vocal group the Meditations, which he had produced.
Several years of globetrotting and aberrant behavior climaxed with Perry’s incremental defacement and destruction of the Black Ark, which finally burned to the ground in 1983. He would later tell both his biographer David Katz and Lloyd Bradley that he himself had torched the studio. “It burned. Now I am free again. I have never regretted that moment,” he told Variety contributor A.D. Amorosi. “I would not have ever been free. No wicked spirits. I have to stay away from vampires.”
Yet Perry proved unstoppable. He still displayed a continuing propensity to create music industry feuds: He attacked Chris Blackwell, who had released his 1984 album “History, Mystery & Prophecy,” in a libelous 1985 single, “Judgement in a Babylon.” (Of his association with Bob Marley, Perry told NME, “We worked like brothers ‘til Chris Blackwell saw it was something great and came like a big hawk and grab Bob Marley up.”)
Collaborators flocked to him during a five-year sojourn in England, and his life gained some stability after his Swiss wife-to-be Mireille Campbell weaned him off marijuana and alcohol in the late ‘80s.
His second act proved nearly as prolific as his first. He recorded with such acolytes as British producers Mad Professor (Neil Fraser), Adrian Sherwood and Daniel Boyle, Americans Bill Laswell and Andrew W.K., the U.K. electronic duo the Orb, the Brooklyn collective Subatomic Sound System and even old Jamaican contemporaries Niney and Bulwackie. In 2003, he received his only Grammy out of five nominations, as the self-produced “Jamaican E.T.” was named best reggae album.
Though he toured internationally into his 80s, scatting wildly, cutting a mad figure in bespoke, glittering costumes and often flashing a colorfully dyed beard, Perry is best remembered for his voluminous catalog of recordings.
A 2010 discography ran to nearly 300 large-format pages. He issued more than 70 studio and live albums under his own name, and his early work was mined heavily for reissues from Trojan, Pressure Sounds, Heartbeat, Island, Blood & Fire and Doctor Bird. The market was also flooded with illegitimate releases bearing the Upsetter name. In 2019 alone, he released six new albums.
He was born Rainford Hugh Perry on March 20, 1936, in Kendal, Hanover Parish, in northwestern Jamaica. His mother bestowed the pet name Lee on him. An indifferent student who disliked manual labor, he left school in his teens. His love of dancing at the local country dancehall fired a fixation with music and led him to escape Kendal for the southern coastal town of Kingston, the hub of the island’s burgeoning record business, in 1960.
In his first years in the industry – which got a boost after Jamaican independence from British rule was declared in 1962 – Perry worked among its pioneers: Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Clancy Eccles, Byron Lee, Bunny Lee. He spent half a decade with Coxsone Dodd, who employed him as a go-fer, sound system security man, record hawker, arranger and ultimately vocal talent. But Dodd was fond of neither Scratch’s singing voice nor Rastafarianism, and that ultimately hastened his departure from the Studio One fold. His time with Gibbs was brief.
As an independent, Perry worked with a cross-section of superior Jamaican musicians. He recorded DJ toasters like U-Roy, Dillinger, Doctor Alimantado, Prince Jazzbo and Dennis Alcapone; gifted singers like Eric Donaldson, Keith Rowe, Junior Delgado and Jimmy Riley; and instrumental aces like trombonist Vin Gordon and melodica wizard Augustus Pablo. His house bands sported some of the island’s top talent: The sibling rhythm section of bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and drummer Carlton Barrett were purloined by the Wailers.
It is in Perry’s Black Ark sound – a distinctive, murky mass of echo, phasing and off-the-wall effects (like the mooing cow that graces several memorable ‘70s tracks) — where Perry’s most enduring impact is heard. His atmospheric style was adapted by acts working in electronica, trip-hop, dubstep, and modern reggae, dub and dancehall. His catalog was heavily sampled by such rap artists as Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Jay Z and Busta Rhymes; the Beastie Boys, avowed fans, featured him on “Dr. Lee PhD,” a track on their 1998 album “Hello Nasty.” Even his own latter-day albums have sometimes featured samples from his earlier work.
“It was great, great fun,” he recalled of the collaboration. “They were nice Jewish boys and they were clean inside. Very lovely. They called me ‘Dr. Lee, PhD’ because they could feel that I loved them. They were very good boys, wonderful.” He had similar words for the Clash, saying, “They were listening and wanted to learn and I could teach them what they wanted to learn. They were happy working; they were all good boys.”
Paul McCartney spoke of how he ended up enlisting Perry to work on solo material by Linda eventually released on the “Wide Prairie” album, speaking to the impact the producer had on artists from far afield. “We loved early reggae and I had the ‘Tighten Up’ albums – ‘Tighten Up’ volumes I and II,” McCartney said. “We were hooked on reggae and we went to Jamaica. … We knew Lee Perry from all of that. We knew he was one of the great local guys and there used to be this fantastic little record shop called ‘Tony’s’ in Montego Bay – and you’d go in and it would just be records, records, records… I remember one of them being ‘Lick the Pipe’ and I’ve still got that!… We loved it so much that we asked Lee Perry if he would (record with us)… and he did.”
Beyond the magic spell he wove for other artists, it is Perry’s own solo albums that remain his most engaging, mysterious offerings to music, reggae and beyond.
While many of Perry’s most mesmerizing moments were in his creepy, soul-strewn instrumental workouts (like 1969’s “Return of Django”) and his haunting, hypnotic dub efforts (1975’s “Revolution Dub”), Perry’s vocal recordings are often doubly intriguing. While he started singing in the late ’60s (humorously lending a country twang to his voice on tracks as “Tackoo”), starting with 1978’s “Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread” — the first album to feature Perry as lead vocalist on every cut — he was confident enough to mix his nasal whine high in front of the funky, punky reggae.
Moving into the 21st century and albums such as “Techno Party,” the dub master found a fresh way to vocalize over trip-hop and jungle-based rhythms. By the time, Perry got to 2016’s “Must Be Free,” he saw himself as much as a healer as artist. “The people look for good vibes, good feelings… They want a cure and I cure them,” he told Amorosi while touring behind that album. ”God has used me as an instrument. God went to my mother and made it rain and sent her the Holy Spirit for me to know dub – the Holy Dove. Have you ever heard a bird coo? ‘Akoo. Akoo. Akoo. Make Holy Dub. Akoo.”
He saw working with computers as an almost spiritual enterprise. “The computer is like my brother,” he said. “I put my brain in the computer… I blow ganja into the computer. Why not?”
Though Perry’s ultimate relocation to semi-permanent quarters in Switzerland in the ‘80s and his marriage to Campbell in 1991 brought a modicum of peace to the musician’s tempestuous life, it was not free of calamity, some of it chillingly familiar. In 2015, he left a candle burning in his home studio, the Secret Laboratory, and it was gutted by fire, destroying his unreleased masters and stage wardrobe.
A documentary, “The Upsetter,” narrated by Benicio Del Toro, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2008 and was released in theaters three years later. A second documentary, “Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise,” came out in 2015. Still another doc came out in 2019: “The Revelation of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.”
Ask five years ago what it meant to be 80, Perry told Amorosi that he considered himself “Jesus’ black brother.” He added, “If I put in nothing but good into my body, I expect to be perfect — an explosion of righteousness. “
Perry was an eccentric to the end, telling Tapeop.com in one of his last interviews in 2020: “The music is perfect. I’m sure the music is perfect. I am a mystic. I am a fish. I am a chicken.”
Perry is survived by his wife, their two children and five children from previous relationships.
A.D. Amorosi contributed to this story.