Learning From Scratch

The history of reggae, dub, soul, and "meggae," as told by Lee "Scratch" Perry

It's 3:30 a.m. in Paris, and Lee "Scratch" Perry is living up to his reputation as one of reggae's most colorful, and least stable, characters. "My real name is Death Before Dishonor," he announces over the phone in a gruff, wizened voice. "There is nothing I cannot do. That's the name of my sword -- Excalibur. Also, I have a genie lamp as well, and genie rings. I believe in genie. And my genie is ganja, collie weed, marijuana, lamb's bread, sensimillia."

Obviously, Perry and his genie have spent a lot of quality time together over the years. But to discount Perry's efforts as a singer, producer, engineer, and talent scout because of his obsession with Jamaica's favorite export, or for any of his abundant idiosyncrasies, would be as screwy as one of Perry's own rants. It's quite possible that he's raving, barking mad, but as folks like Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Van Gogh have demonstrated, lunacy is not always an impediment to artistic greatness. That's true in Perry's case, at least. Island Jamaica/Chronicles recently issued Arkology, a generous box set of Perry's mid-'70s productions that makes a strong argument in favor of declaring him one of reggae's true innovators -- and yet it surveys only a small portion of his remarkable oeuvre.

Perry's tendency to answer in sweeping, often confusing parables can test the patience of even the most sympathetic journalist, but it's also part of his charm. Perry frequently rhymes his response or suddenly breaks into song or laughter. But even when he's thundering Old Testament-style threats and pronouncements, there's always a thread, however cryptic, that can be traced back to his story, and to the music that's made him a legend.

He was born Rainford Hugh Perry in the northwestern Jamaican parish of Hanover in 1936. By the time he reached his teens, he had developed a love for the music played at the blues dances that were in vogue during the '50s. Around this time, he moved to Kingston, the hub of the island's music scene, and landed a job as a record spotter with Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, owner and operator of the Downbeat sound system and later the man behind Studio One, where many of reggae's finest sounds -- the Wailers, Burning Spear, and the Skatalites -- were conceived. In this position, Perry was charged with scouring stores for American rhythm-and-blues albums to spin at Downbeat dances. But his real ambition was to become a vocalist. "Tried to sing with Dodd, but he didn't like my style of singing," he recalls. "He think it wasn't good enough. He never really paid me much mind."

Perhaps not, but Perry launched a successful career in Jamaican music anyhow. As Dodd's Downbeat enterprise grew to encompass more than one rig, Scratch was given his own mobile sound system to operate. His ability to identify the next smash (or, as he puts it, "me knowin' what would drop") paid off when he started singing chart-toppers of his own. One ska hit from that era -- 1965's "Chicken Scratch" -- provided his most enduring nickname.

Perry broke with Dodd, unamicably, in 1966. It was the first of his many volatile breakups with producers and artists. "I was with him long time, 'nuff time," he says about the split. "Now I'm going to do my own thing my own way. I wanted to do something different from what Coxsone was doing. He was makin' rock steady and ska -- and I didn't want to make rock steady and ska. I wanted to make soul-rock-disco-pop-techno. Everything all in one." He also felt that Dodd didn't want him to become a producer in his own right.

In the years that followed, Scratch teamed with Joe Gibbs, Clancy Eccles, and Prince Buster, a one-time rival from the days when Perry took musical potshots from his mobile DJ unit. Each of these collaborations ended badly, with Scratch angry over a lack of money and recognition, but because of his burgeoning talents, top artists still kept showing up at his door. Bob Marley was one of them.

Marley and his group, the Wailers, enjoyed numerous ska successes during the mid-'60s, including the Dodd-produced Studio One smashes "Simmer Down" and "Love and Affection." But because the players received few of the royalty payments they were due, they broke up in 1966, with Marley moving to the States and taking a job at a Chrysler factory in Delaware. A few months later, Marley returned to his homeland and reunited with the Wailers, but they soon became disenchanted with Dodd, their former producer, and turned to Perry for help.

Perry shared the Wailers' frustration with Jamaica's political and musical climate, as well as their sense that Rastafarianism provided the best hope for black Jamaicans. He was also committed to helping the group reclaim its rightful position atop Jamaican playlists.

His visionary plan: Perry mated the Wailers with his studio band, the Upsetters, and completely revamped their sound. The Wailers' traditional ska/rock-steady harmonizing was ditched in favor of lead vocals by Marley and backup crooning by Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Perry did away with horns -- which he viewed as outdated and too celebra-tory in the context of the Wailers' rectitude -- and accentuated the songs' refrains, underlining Marley's staunch Rastafarian lyrics.

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