Born Rainford Hugh Perry on March 20, 1936, in Hanover, Jamaica; married Paulette Perry (divorced,1979); married Mireille Ruegg, c. 1989. Addresses: Record company--Island Records, 4 Columbus Circle, 5th Fl., New York, NY 10019.

Lee "Scratch" Perry is a world-music figure of near-mythic status. He has been credited with inventing the form of music that became known as reggae, its stripped-down offshoot called "dub," and the reincarnations of both decades later as drum-and-bass and other dance-club genres. Perry makes records awash in "echoes and distortions, sudden noises and disorienting absences, and they have influenced not only reggae but hip-hop, rock and all sorts of dance music," wrote Jon Pareles of the New York Times. Since the 1960s he has enjoyed success as a producer and a recording artist, but is probably better known for his wildly eccentric persona and famously bizarre pronouncements to the press. "I am an alien from the other world, from outer space, I don't have no land, no estate, no property, no house. Not on this earth. I live in space---I'm only a visitor here," Perry once reportedly said, according to a website devoted to him. "Some people are only here to collect property. I am here with my suitcase to collect only the good brains."

Perry was born in Hanover, Jamaica, in 1936. Like many rural black Jamaicans of the era, he grew up poor. "I quit school," he recalled, according to the Perry website. "I learned nothing at all. There was nothing to do except field work, so I started playing dominoes and learned to read the minds of others. This has proved eternally useful to me." As a young man, he moved to the island's capital, Kingston, in the 1950s to find work. He was hired by Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, a well-known figure in the Kingston music scene who ran a label called Studio One. Perry began as an assistant, and worked his way up to a talent scout job. At one point he ran the label's store. Coxsone also made him a "selecter," or disk jockey, at organized ska parties; Perry's style often packed the house. Yet the music scene in Jamaica was a fierce one, and on occasion Perry and his colleagues had to battle thugs employed by Coxsone's rivals who tried to shut down the parties by force.

Perry made his first records for Studio One in the early 1960s. His backing band was the Skatalites, and he had his first hit with "Chicken Scratch" in 1965. Other tracks were done with the Soulettes, a group fronted by Bob Marley's wife, Rita Marley. These first records, which included "Prince in the Pack" and "Mad Head" among others, noted the author of an essay on Perry in the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, "featured a bluesy, declamatory vocal style" that became Perry's trademark. His lyrics, moreover, addressed certain issues in Jamaican life, such as political violence and social injustice. They also contained occasional sexual innuendos and scathing diatribes against his competitors in the Jamaican music scene, all themes that reappeared in his music throughout the rest of his career.

Perry Became the "Upsetter"

Perry left Coxsone and Studio One in 1966 after disagreements over songwriting credits and finances. He began working on his own with a young producer named Joe Gibbs and with him put out his first single, the somewhat threatening "I Am the Upsetter"---a reference to Coxsone. The "Upsetter" tag would become one of Perry's aliases. Gibbs had started a label called Amalgamated, and he hired Perry to run it. As the house producer, Perry engineered a number of hits for Jamaican acts on Amalgamated, including a song by the Pioneers called "Long Shot." "Long Shot," according to website author Mick Sleeper's biography on Perry, which he adapted from the book Reggae, Rasta, Revolution, edited by Christ Potash, "was the first song to use a new rhythm in Jamaican music." "It didn't have a name at the time," Sleeper explained, "but a year later someone christened the beat 'Reggae.'"

Perry's relationship with Gibbs broke down after a few years over questions of rights and royalties, and in 1968 he left Amalgamated and teamed with a backing band called the Hippy Boys. Perry rechristened them the Upsetters, and their first hit, "People Funny Boy," was a lyrical attack on Gibbs. By now a major player in the Jamaican music scene, Perry was able to start his own label, Upsetter Records, and on it issued around a hundred singles with both the Upsetters and other acts in only a few short years. Perry and the band loved to spend afternoons in Kingston movie houses watching spaghetti westerns, and spend all night in the recording studio. His tracks with the Upsetters reflect the on-screen violence in their titles: "Kill Them All," "The Vampire," and "Dig Your Grave," were but a few; another from this era, "Return of Django," became Perry's first top ten hit in England in 1969.

Because of "Return of Django," Perry and the Upsetters became the first reggae act to tour England. Soon, however, Bob Marley lured the Upsetters away from Perry and folded them into the Wailers, his backing band. This ignited a war of words between Marley and Perry, but Perry was mollified when Marley signed a deal for Perry to produce for the band. The resulting work from this period epitomized the reggae sound. "Although it will probably never be known who influenced who, the chemistry between Perry, Marley, the Wailers, and the Upsetters proved to be phenomenal," according to the website biography. It was a short-lived collaboration, however, dissolving in 1971 over issues of songwriting credit and money. Perry and Marley had an alleged deal between themselves to split all profits, but Perry supposedly took off with everything. This resulted in copyright lawsuits and legal problems that persisted well past Marley's death in 1981.

Began Experimenting in the Black Ark

By this time Perry had moved to a nice section of Kingston called Washington Gardens, and at his house there built a recording studio. Finished in 1974, Perry named it "Black Ark," and it quickly became a tour-de-force in the Jamaican music scene. Breaking away from straight reggae, Perry began to head away toward far more unusual creative avenues. Much of this came from his production techniques. "Perry shot pistols, broke glass, ran tapes backwards, and used samples of crying babies, falling rain, and animal sounds," according to his biography. "Innovation and experimentation became Black Ark trademarks.... He used eccentric methods such as cleaning the tape heads with his t-shirt and blowing ganja smoke onto the master tapes as they rolled, ensuring that the music recorded in the Black Ark would have a dirty, magical quality to it that would never be surpassed."

Most astonishing to music afficionados was that much of the Black Art label recordings were done on a simple four-track mixing board (most studios are 32-track). Perry often ran several tapes at once through each one of the tracks. It resulted in "a dense, multi-layered mixing style that is instantly recognizable," noted the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Others recognized its unique style, and Perry was signed to Island Records in 1975, a label founded by Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican of British descent. Perry recorded for them as a solo artist, but also worked as their house producer. From this came a number of hit singles for other acts, such as Max Romeo's "War in a Babylon," Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves," and "Party Time" from the Heptones. Later, the English ska/punk band the Clash covered "Police and Thieves," and Perry did some studio work with them. He also began recording with King Tubby, considered the primary force behind the birth of dub music.

Eccentricities Came to Forefront

Perry also continued his own experiments as a recording artist. Many of his songs from this era reflected the turbulent political situation in Jamaica, such as "City Too Hot" and other explicit anti-violence messages. Some tracks were released by Island in 1976 under aliases such as Jah Lion and Super Ape. Yet Perry's personal life took a turn for the worse in 1979, when his wife Paulette left him and took their children with her. In response, Perry set the Black Ark studio afire, completely destroying it. It was a breakdown from which he never seemed to fully recover, and with it came the onset of his famous eccentric personality. He covered the site with graffiti and small crosses, and "journalists arrived at the Black Ark to find Perry worshipping bananas, eating money, and baptizing visitors with a garden hose," his website biography noted.

Escaping Jamaica, Perry moved to Amsterdam and began recording there. He also began performing live, touring North America in 1981 with a white reggae band, the Terrorists, and the following year with another such act, the Majestics. With the latter he recorded his first album in several years, Mystic Miracle Star, released on Heartbeat in 1982. Returning to Island, Perry put out History, Mystery, and Prophecy, in 1984, but it did not do well.

In 1985 Perry once again split with his employer when he put out "Judgment in Babylon," a recording that accused his boss of various evils. "Perry's already shaky deal with the label crumbled when he swore that Island head Chris Blackwell was a vampire and responsible for Bob Marley's death," declared his biography. The accusations only intensified the legend surrounding Perry, and during these years he became a cult figure across Europe. He signed with the Trojan label, and for them released Battle of Armagideon in 1986. That same year a compilation of his earliest works was released on Heartbeat, Some of the Best (1968-1974). It featured numerous classic reggae tracks and Perry standards that helped connect American rhythm and blues with Jamaican reggae.

In 1987 Perry teamed with English producer Adrian Sherwood to make Time Boom X De Devil Dead, recorded with Sherwood's house band, Dub Syndicate. Sherwood had been greatly influenced by early Perry tracks, and the collaboration was a successful one and produced an avant-garde compilation. Perry relocated to Zurich, Switzerland in 1989 with his new wife, a Swiss woman named Mireille Ruegg who also became his manager. He also began building a studio there that he named Blue Ark. That year Heartbeat released another compilation of his early works, Chicken Scratch. The record contained tracks done with Rita Marley and the Soulettes as well as with the Wailers. Some of them had not been released in over two decades, while others had never been released at all. One track, "Man to Man," featured Perry with the legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh singing together.

"Super Art, Super Mind"

Perry grew increasingly eccentric in his middle age. He is known for his unusual pronouncements: he once said that God is black, since the vinyl LP is made of black plastic. "I am the black culture man, super art, super tart, super mind," Perry told Doug Wendt from Beat magazine in one interview. "Didn't you hear the words flying like peas?" he said later. Once, he put a microphone in a palm tree to capture what he said was the "living African heartbeat," according to Pareles in the New York Times. Perry also renewed his ties with Clement Coxsone Dodd and recorded in New York, but the result, The Upsetter & The Beat, was plagued by legal problems.

Perry has continued to make his own records. As a solo artist, "his songs are cagey, cranky rants," wrote the New York Times's Pareles. "They're full of advice, messianic pronouncements, come-ons and doggerel, with lucid nuggets surrounded by malarkey." The one exception to this may be his fruitful collaborations with the English producer known as the Mad Professor, which began in the late 1980s. The Mad Professor, a Briton of Guyanan heritage named Neal Fraser and fellow studio genius, runs the Ariwa label. With him Perry has released three records, beginning with Mystic Warrior in 1989.

Perry remains a legendary figure in music. The Beastie Boys released a Lee Perry retrospective on their Grand Royal label in 1996, and in the spring of 1997 he signed on with the band's Tibetan Freedom Concert to appear in the New York benefit show. Perry's sold-out shows in San Francisco, held just prior to the Tibetan Freedom Concert, were his first American appearances in over a decade. Afterward, he embarked upon an extensive tour. A three-CD compilation released in 1997 on Island, Arkology, featured much of his successful production work for other bands in the 1970s as well as numerous unreleased tracks.

The most recent collection of Perry's works, Dub-Triptych, appeared on the Sanctuary label in 2004. This three album compilation consists of works recorded at the infamous Black Ark studio between 1973 and 1979: Cloak and Dagger, Black Board Jungle Dub, and Revolution Dub. Originally, exposure to these early works was extremely limited. With the release of Dub-Triptych, however, a larger audience is introduced to Perry's early experimentation with the dub sound he is often credited with creating. The collection showcases Perry's production talents, overshadowing the eccentricities that have marked his career.

by Carol Brennan

Lee "Scratch" Perry's Career

Worked as an assistant, talent scout, and retail manager for the Kingston, Jamaica label "Studio One" before putting out his first solo records for them in the 1960s; later became a producer of other early reggae acts; affiliated with Amalgamated label, late 1960s; began own label, Upsetter Records, c. 1969; signed with Island Records, 1975; collaborated with a number of other artists over the years, including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Adrian Sherwood, and the Mad Professor.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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