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The Magic Of Lee 'Scratch' Perry

Reggae artist Lee "Scratch" Perry, who died on Aug. 29, had an immeasurable impact on Jamaican music and its worldwide profile.
Universal Images Group via Getty
Reggae artist Lee "Scratch" Perry, who died on Aug. 29, had an immeasurable impact on Jamaican music and its worldwide profile.

It's hard to believe that Lee "Scratch" Perry, the mixing-board maestro who brought reggae into rootsy shape and developed the "dub" production techniques that have become today's stock digital presets, is no longer with us. Perry died not far from where he was born in northwestern Jamaica, resettling there in January after four decades abroad. His music echoes on. Prolific and active into his eighty-fifth year on Earth and sixth decade in the music business, Perry leaves a massive legacy in the form of a seemingly bottomless archive — much of it stellar, some of it interstellar — and a resounding influence spanning reggae, rock, hip-hop, dubstep and remix culture writ large. At the dawn of the multitrack era, Perry reimagined what a mix could be – timbrally, formally, metaphysically – knitting together the past and the future, tradition and tricknology, and imbuing his most inspired music (and there's a lot of it) with eternal currency.

Perry departs us at a moment of critical consensus about his importance. Although highly regarded during a stunning run from the late '60s to late '70s, a dark turn around 1980 sent Perry into exile and detoured his creative trajectory. Since the mid-'90s, however, Perry gathered laurels and enjoyed some victory laps around the bases (or bass bins) as an elder statesman – one with brightly dyed hair and beard, adorned in mirrors, and eager to play trickster to generations of adoring, indulgent fans.

The producer's influence extends via the legions who have taken up his groundbreaking use of audio samples and reinvention of the role of studio engineer. While some techniques Perry employed – bewildering echo and woozy phasing, the magic of multitracking, "found sound" – can be heard in the work of contemporaries from King Tubby to George Martin to Karlheinz Stockhausen, those producers operated largely in "post" mode, after the playing was done. Scratch did it live, as vividly captured in the 1977 documentary Roots Rock Reggae. Behind the glass and the boards, Perry was another musician in the ensemble, a realtime accompanist and creative agent in the making of the music, molding and modulating sounds as he recorded them.

Bringing the sensibilities of a dancer and drummer to the console, Perry played his simple four-track and effects modules like instruments, joyfully and intuitively, adding effects and edits on the fly. When he wanted to insert the non-diegetic sound of a baby crying, a cow mooing, or a thunderous cymbal crash, he didn't get out the razor blades, he played the sounds live to tape, from a cassette. If the music itself didn't remind you of its own surreal construction, Scratch would assist, his close-miked croak breaking the fourth wall: "Do you read me? Loud and clear?"

Ironically, Perry's rural upbringing prepared him to reshape Jamaican popular music, still strongly guided in the early '60s by an infatuation with rhythm & blues, into more deeply resonant, locally legible forms for Kingston's working-class dancehalls. Perry moved to Kingston in his mid-twenties, at the beginning of the 1960s. Jamaica was poised to achieve independence and ska was ascendant. Starting as a general fixer, he spent the first half of the '60s assisting Clement "Coxsone" Dodd with his leading Downbeat Sound System and its counterpart, Studio One. Perry wore various hats at the label: talent scout and record plugger, auditioner and songwriter, percussionist and vocalist. His first singles as a recording artist for Dodd trade in over-the-top innuendo ("Roast Duck") and insults of Coxsone's rivals ("Mad Head") over the upbeat, brassy backing of the Studio One house band. Some were big local hits, like "Chicken Scratch," which also resulted in Perry's most enduring nickname. A 12-bar-blues shuffle, "Chicken Scratch" sounds more like Jamaican music's past than its future, but Scratch is right in the pocket.

Ultimately, the portfolio of skills cultivated at Studio One enabled Perry to play a more holistic role than the average producer. As the decade progressed Scratch moved out from under producers such as Dodd and Joe Gibbs, taking the recordings into his own hands beginning in 1966. Their sound shifted accordingly: Heralding a broader turn from the uptempo shuffle of ska toward reggae's bubbling "one-drop," Perry's hit 1968 single, "People Funny Boy," sounds like the shape of Jamaican music to come. The song's loping pace allows the guitar and keyboard to lift up the two-chord form and to fill out its texture. The electric bass outlines a bouncy melodic line, while the drums accent the backbeat with thumping kicks and syncopated rimshots. It's reggae in all but name at this point, including the righteous grievance at its core. To top it off, the production foreshadows Perry's embrace of samples with a recurring clip of a wailing infant, sonically teasing the "crybaby" taunt at the heart of the song. Issued on his own imprint, the local hit afforded Perry the ability to launch his own label, Upsetter, an enduring and apt sobriquet.

The Upsetters performing in the studio in an early, but undated, photograph.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Getty Images
The Upsetters performing in the studio in an early, but undated, photograph.

Assembling a flexible cast of Kingston's top studio players as The Upsetters, Perry produced a crop of catchy, organ-driven instrumentals in the late '60s, such as "Return of Django," that helped to consolidate the reggae sound. Maybe most consequentially, Perry's collaborations with the Wailers — Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Neville "Bunny Wailer" Livingston — in '70 and '71 stand as foundational both to roots reggae in general and to the genre's most successful proponents. Buoyed by the Upsetters' tight, propulsive rhythms, songs like "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conquerer" draw on old-time proverbs, Biblical resonances and angelic falsetto harmonies to levy threats against evil forces, including those in the local music business.

Compare some of these songs, released on the album African Herbsman in 1973, with the alternate versions Marley recorded in London for Island Records, and the aesthetic differences are striking. Perry was producing, first and foremost, for Jamaican sound systems; Island's Chris Blackwell was producing for college students' hi-fi sets. In partnership with Perry, Marley's sound and style cohered into those of the Legend posterboy that Blackwell would market so spectacularly. (Marley even hired away the brilliant drum-and-bass combo of Carlton and Aston "Family Man" Barrett from the Upsetters when he formed a band of his own.)

Perry's singular vision really came into focus, however, when he built his own studio, the storied Black Ark, in his Kingston yard in 1973. Small and modest by some measures, the Black Ark provided Perry a room of his own, and Perry made the most of the spartan rig. With just a four-track recorder and a couple effects units (specifically, a Mutron phase-shifter and a Roland "Space Echo"), the Black Ark allowed Perry to endlessly indulge his love of dubbing (i.e., "doubling") the recordings that The Upsetters made for him, mutating copies of inspired performances and bringing them into startling new shapes. The opening of the Black Ark coincides with the emergence of dub reggae as its own marketable art, and 1973's Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle is a contender for the first dub album (and a good one, too). Over the next five years, nestled in the Ark, Perry produced an astounding number of masterworks, including the high-watermark dub excursion Super Ape (1976) and classic albums like Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon (1976), the Heptones' Party Time (1977), and Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves (1977), whose title track was quickly covered by the Clash. All four were released internationally by Island Records, giving Perry wider distribution than ever.

Listen closely to "War Ina Babylon," a warning about fissures in Jamaican society, and appreciate the sonic details supporting Romeo's captivating performance. Hear the multitrack magic: how Perry creates texture through the manipulation of sonic space and rhythmic echoes; how he sculpts each instrument by favoring certain frequencies over others. Bass and drums are front and center, punchy and present. But the bass – which doubles Romeo's lead melody, or is it the other way around? — seems to be coming directly to us, teleported from another dimension, while the cymbals ring out in their own simulated space. Guitar and keyboard blend together on another track while chording on the upbeats, a phaser effect subtly modulating the color of each stroke, making the song's two chords more engrossing. Romeo gets his own clear channel in the middle, a little reverb thickening his voice, while the backup singers have more echo added, giving them a gauzy, otherworldly quality. When Romeo gets to the lyric, "I-man satta on the mountaintop / watching Babylon burning red hot," Perry pulls the rug out, foregrounding the couplet with a sudden break in the beat — a "punchline" technique now ubiquitous in rap.

If you thought that was something, flip the 7-inch over to the B-side as listeners did back in '77 (or just click here) and get a whiff of "Revelation Dub," Perry's deconstructive remix. The title implies that a dub can reveal new meaning by peeling back layers, and the mix does too. The voices are nearly completely absent, save for sudden, truncated outbursts — fragments to ponder anew. The opening verse offers up uncluttered drum and bass for several meditative measures. From there, Perry improvises his way through the song by alternately muting the individual tracks and applying extreme effects to fleeting appearances of guitars and vocals. A common practice for Perry, the timing of the echoes is set to produce a 3:2 polyrhythm, spinning the sounds all the way back to Africa and out into space.

Despite this winning run for Island Records in '76 and '77, the label suddenly passed on three projects now considered among Perry's greatest: the trippy dub showcase Return of the Super Ape; an inspired set of Perry singing (and dubbing) his own quirky songs, Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread; and maybe his magnum opus, The Heart of the Congos, an album of reggae hymns about solid foundations and fishermen feeding hungry children. These devotional dubs were perhaps too religious sounding for the pop marketplace; the eccentricities which have become some of Perry's most endearing qualities may have seemed commercially risky during Bob Marley's reign. The Upsetter released them himself.

Perry's story forks at this point in the late '70s, and while the details get murky, Return of the Super Ape was the last major project recorded at the Black Ark. Perry grew paranoid and erratic. Even from his perch in the hills, Kingston had become a "City Too Hot" to bear. In his own telling (see, e.g., this 2008 documentary), Perry says he wanted to drive away the demons, the police and the thieves, the innumerable hangers-on with bad energy. Torching the Black Ark was a last-ditch attempt to cleanse and reset. A destructive chapter, Perry withdrew from making music, alienated friends and family, and embarked on a self-imposed exile that would last nearly the rest of his life.

Even as Perry's work behind the boards crawled to a halt, his acolytes and accolades have only grown in number. During the '80s and '90s, Scratch alternately disappeared from the music world and popped back up — in London, Amsterdam, Zurich — with various collaborators and newfangled personas. Perry's overseas admirers—such as U.K.-based dub wizards Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood — continued to invite him to collaborate as a revered mentor and unpredictable, nonpareil vocalist. His most effective champions may have been the Beastie Boys, who interpolated the delirious "Soul Fire" on "Time for Livin' " (from 1992's Check Your Head), gave Perry a cover feature in their Grand Royal magazine in '94, took him on tour to Japan in '96 and included him as an honorific toaster, "Dr. Lee, PhD," on 1998's Hello Nasty. Their extensive homage helped spur a broader critical reappraisal, which in turn triggered a slew of re-releases and compilations. In 2003, Perry was awarded his first Grammy, for the album Jamaican ET; nowhere near his best work, it marked a lifetime of achievement. But the Upsetter wasn't done yet.

His last two decades proved a remarkably productive period for Perry; his twenty-first century work will not endure the way the Black Ark repertoire has, but there are exceptions. Closing with a riddling autobiographical account from the man himself, 2019's Rainford, produced by Adrian Sherwood in the spirit of Rick Rubin's collaboration with Johnny Cash, is a sweet swan song, if we must have one. Likewise, Perry's collaboration with Brooklyn's Subatomic Sound System offered up a fitting tribute. Remixing Scratch classics for dubstep-era ears, Super Ape Returns to Conquer (2017) aimed to give Perry the platform he had long earned, putting the octogenarian on tour once again and letting him play Rumpelstiltskin on the microphone for hours on end.

I had the good fortune of catching Perry with Subatomic Sound System a couple times at the Middle East club in Cambridge, Mass. The space was small enough to feel surprisingly intimate, the speakers massive enough to create a church-like feeling of shared vibration. In addition to electronic bass and drums engineered to Black Ark specs, there were live musicians — a couple horn players and the great Larry McDonald on congas — whose performances were processed in real time, subject to Perry-esque echo, reverb, and phasing. Burning bright under the lights, Scratch presided over the affair as an indefatigable master-of-ceremonies, rattling off hours of his trademark, cryptic word-sound-power. They had to turn the system off to make him stop.

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Wayne Marshall