Lee "Scratch" Perry - The Reggae Icon
by Sheree-Anita Shearer | Associate Writer
Some names are synonymous with Reggae and the success of the genre. Lee "Scratch Perry" is one such name. Perry dedicated all his adult life to Reggae music and is responsible for many of the great songs we all enjoy today. Let’s take a look at the eccentric soul:
Let’s take a deeper look at the life of Scratch Perry.
Who was Lee "Scratch" Perry?
Rainford Hugh Perry OD, was born on March 20, 1936, in the rural community of Kendal located in Hanover, Jamaica. He is the third of five children for Ina Davis and Henry Perry. Lee was always been deeply in tune with his ancestry and culture, which is the doing of his mother who was a member of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, West Africa. As a young boy, he was drawn to pop music (Yakety Yak by the Coasters). He was not a scholar, neither was he known for his adhering to rules and so he dropped out of a formal education institution at the age of 15. His learning did not stop there though as he credits a lot of his knowledge to real-life experiences. One example is his self-proclaimed ability to read people well which according to him is a trait he got from playing dominoes with members of his community in Kendal, Hanover. In the 1950s he moved to Clarendon and was a worker on the construction of the Kingston to Negril main road.
While he was always a fan of pop music he credited the scenery at the construction site for his musical awakening. In an interview, he stated, “When the stones clash, I hear like the thunder clash... and I hear words...”. this eventually led him to be an apprentice (and sometimes janitor) at what could only be described as the “Motown of Jamaica”, Studio 1 founded by Sir Clement “Coxsone” Dodd (1932-2004). His musical life had humble beginnings as he was employed by other producers such as Duke Reid before he went on to work with music greats, both nationally and internationally and even built his own Black Ark Studios.
He has been married three times, first to Ruby Williams in the early 60s. He then married Pauline Morrison but they divorced in 1979. Some 10 years later he met Myreille Ruegg who attended one of his concerts in Switzerland (where Myreille is from) in 1989 they began a relationship and then got married in 1991. They have 2 children together and an additional 4 from Perry’s previous relationships.
He continued making music in his “Secret Laboratory” in Switzerland.
His Musical Career
Going from simply a worker in a studio to arguably the creator of Reggae and without a question, the creator of the Dub was by no means an easy feat. Starting at the age of 22, Lee Perry had a career that would span 63 years. His beginnings with Studio 1 and Coxsone Dodd himself proved to be a great training ground for Perry. As a relationship with Dodd formed, his musical talents were realized and so he went on the record countless songs under the Studio 1 umbrella. He also got a chance to see the production side of music creation and took a liking to it as well. His song Chicken Scratch
, made for Studio 1 earned him his nickname “Scratch”. After over a decade he severed ties with Dodd and Studio 1 and found a new learning ground and teacher in Joe Gibbs at Amalgamated Records.
This relationship was short-lived and in 1968, he created Upsetter Records
. This was a fitting name for the studio as Perry himself was nicknamed The Upsetter.
He released the single People Funny Boy
that same year which was directed at Gibbs amidst their now severed relationship. The song which is famous for its sampling of a crying baby at the beginning of the track was made on a fast-paced beat quite dissimilar from what was heard at the time. This distinct sound is now identifiable all over the world as Reggae music. This song did well for Perry and 60,000 copies were sold in just Jamaica alone.
His former mentor Dodd was not forgotten and his 1967 single Run for Cover
was a jab at the producer. His innovative production and his eccentric character made him well known throughout Jamaica and the United Kingdom. He continued to work at his studio with the Upsetters band until 1972.
Producing for Bob Marley and the Wailers
His relationship with Reggae Icons Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer began with the production of the 1970 single Mr Brown. His unique approach to creating music led to a long relationship between him and the group. He went on to produce both the Soul Rebel
and Soul Revolution
albums for them. He also produced the singles Small Axe, Duppy Conqueror, Jah Live, Punky Reggae Party
and Rastaman Live Up
Along with the countless musical talents he has worked with from Jamaica, he has also worked with international acts such as The Clash, the Beastie Boys (Dr Lee, Ph.D), George Clinton (Heads Gonna Roll), Keith Richards (Once There’s a Will There’s a Way and Heavy Voodoo).
The Black Ark Studio
Having only been in operation for 6 years (1973-1979). The Black Ark Studio has held its place as one of the most famous studios in Jamaica. The studio was built in Scratch’s backyard at Cardiff Crescent in Kingston, giving him all the creative freedom he needed. His strange production methods only increased with him creating beats and background sounds from broken glass, animal sounds and the sound of gunfire. He even embedded microphones in the ground to create the deep, eerie sounds that the studio became known for.
He produced many songs from the studio for both himself and countless other musicians. He believed blowing ganja smoke over his records would help the records to do better commercially. It was at this same studio that Scratch came up with the Dub art form. His vast catalogue is heavily sampled by the likes of Busta Rhymes, Jay Z, Kanye West among others.
His enlightenment led to a change in lifestyle, so Perry burnt down his home studio, stopped drinking, smoking and consuming meat. This was a far cry from the usual happenings at the Black Ark. This fire was a new beginning for Scratch.
Scratch Perry's Accolades
- He received the Order of Distinction in 2014 with the rank of Officer from the Jamaican Government for his contributions to Reggae Music and Jamaican Culture.
- Scratch is not a stranger to winning awards for his many contributions to Reggae music. He won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2002 for his album Jamaican E.T. He described this moment as when he truly felt his music was truly appreciated. He has been nominated four other times in recent years.
- In 2019 he released the Heavy Rain project. The 12 track compilation debuted at #1 on the Billboard Reggae Album charts! This was the Upsetter’s first number 1 album and this made him the oldest musician to reach the coveted number one spot on the charts.
- Known for his peculiar sense of style he is no stranger to working with various international fashion houses throughout his career. In 2011 he collaborated with Supreme on two shirts that featured lyrics from his songs and his original artwork. In 2019 he was a model for Adidas’ DON’T ASSUME campaign. Even as recently as last year, he was featured on Kaleidoscope Magazine’s October Issue wearing an ensemble from Italian fashion house Gucci.
The Upsetter Passes On
News of the passing of the legend shocked Jamaica and the rest of the world on August 29th 2021. The singer had recently moved back to Jamaica (after his 3-decade sojourn in Switzerland), to enjoy the warmth and sunshine of the island. There were no signs of the artiste slowing down anytime as he was preparing to go on tour later this year.
Tributes began pouring from all over the world. His fans as well as many musicians shared their love for the icon. In an interview, Ziggy Marley, son of famed reggae legend Bob Marley, credited the musician and producer for many of his father’s greatest hits. Prime Minister Andrew Holness also shared his thoughts on social media lauding the artiste for his contributions to the culture and expressing condolences to his family and fans. The Grammy, BBC News and the Sun, The Guardian, Rolling Stones, were also sharing in the grief felt by his passing. Tributes came from artistes such as Shaun Paul, Shaggy, The Beastie Boys, Maxi Priest and Bounty Killer. One fan credited Perry’s music with helping him to overcome times of disillusionment and depression.
His is a loss that will be felt for years to come. One with his musical prowess, eccentric style and flamboyant personality is not seen often and his contributions have shaped the musical genre we all have come to know and love so dearly.
He is survived by his wife and 6 children.
I also recommend you read Did Reggae Music Originate In Jamaica?
- “Reggae Legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry Dies at 85", Variety, https://variety.com/2021/music/obituaries-people-news/lee-scratch-perry-dead-reggae-dub-jamaican-pioneer-1235051300/
- "Beastie Boys Get Nasty", Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/beastie-boys-get-nasty-102274/
- “Remembering Reggae Legend Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Dub Afrofuturist”,Grammys, https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/remembering-reggae-legend-lee-scratch-perry-obituary-dub-afrofuturist
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