By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
There are several figures in music who, despite their significant impact establishing genres, styles, and mythologies, still aren't household names. Lee "Scratch" Perry is one of those important instigators lacking mainstream kudos. He's a Jamaican producer, songwriter, mixologist, and performer who's catalyzed so much music around the world that it's a wonder the nations of this planet haven't given him his own postage stamp.
As a lad, Perry born in Jamaica in 1936 got into the biz on the ground floor. He sold the records of ska giant Prince Buster and served apprenticeships with ska/rocksteady mini-magnates-to-be Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Joe Gibbs. Soon the student began chafing at his professors' restrictions, though, and Perry went into business for himself.
The debut record on Perry's label Upsetter, People Funny Boy, circa 1968, is considered the first Jamaican release to have the identifiable reggae "riddim," that lazily undulating, languorous, tug-at-you beat that was markedly different from the ultra-caffeinated ska upbeat. He established his own studio, too, christening it Black Ark, where a young Bob Marley would make his earliest recordings. It was to be an Ark in more ways than one. Inspired by the sonic wizardry of King Tubby likely the very first human to use the mixing board as an instrument to remodel music already extant Lee "Scratch" Perry would become the prime mover in this sub-genre known as dub. With little or no knowledge of the Summer of Love, Perry would create surreal, eerie, psychedelic tapestries that'd make the Dead and the Airplane at their trippiest sound like Air Supply. Every DJ mix-master, dweeb electronica purveyor, and composer with a concept redolent of deconstruction owes a debt to Lee Perry.
Under various pseudonyms, including Jah Lion, Super Ape, the Upsetter, and Scratch (an old Anglo-American term for Satan), Perry had major hits in Jamaica and the U.K. Black Ark had a house band, the Upsetters, that worked with almost every Jamaican singer. Jamaican music ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dub was not only more popular in Britain than in the U.S., it was also a serious cultural force. Its outsider mythos held great appeal for disenchanted youth, many of whom went on to form bands such as the Clash, Ruts DC, Basement 5 (remnants of which formed Big Audio Dynamite with ex-Clash Mick Jones), and Public Image Limited. (One of the early American bands significantly influenced by reggae and dub was Ohio's Pere Ubu.) The Clash covered the Junior Murvin Perry-produced classic "Police & Thieves," and Perry himself produced a few tracks for the group.
Of course, Lee "Scratch" Perry's life had its share of roller-coaster ups 'n' downs. The Black Ark was burglarized, with tapes of Perry's and others stolen, winding up on the market as bootlegs presented as "new" product. The Ark caught fire in 1983 most likely set by Perry himself utterly destroying the legendary studio and its contents. Things got bad, worse, and then there was change for the better. Perry relocated to Switzerland in 1990, got rested and recharged, and connected with Swiss reggae combo White Belly Rats, with whom he recorded his finest disc in years, Panic in Babylon (released in America last year on Narnack). Though the album doesn't feature much dub, it contains compelling reggae grooves with Perry ranting, raving, and testifying over the music. Devotees are calling the disc a return to form, while Perry just calls it "spiritual music." Whilst panic may reign in Babylon, once-lost, now-found explorer Perry has achieved a measure of serenity.