Lee "Scratch" Perry in 2018
Photo: Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images
Remembering Reggae Legend Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Dub Afrofuturist
The reggae world is in mourning after the passing of innovative Jamaican producer, songwriter and multi-hyphenate artist Lee "Scratch" Perry, who died at 85 at Noel Holmes Hospital in Lucea, Jamaica yesterday, Sunday, Aug. 29. At the time of writing, his cause of death is unknown. Many artists, fans and even Jamaica's prime minister, Andrew Holness, have honored Perry on social media.
Born Rainford Hugh "Lee" Perry in 1936 in rural Kendal, Jamaica, the musician became a pioneer in '60s and '70s dub music, credited with a visionary roots sound that reached crossover appeal through the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Congos, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear. Knowing no bounds, Perry's fearless style consisted of experimentation through echo, space and limitless Afrofuturism on wax—before the term was coined.
Perry relocated to Kingston, Jamaica in the early-60s, where he got a taste of production at Studio One recording studio, founded by influential ska and reggae producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. He received his nickname "Scratch" from early Studio One song "Chicken Scratch," and was fascinated with creating cutting-edge music.
He later formed the Upsetter Records label in 1968. The imprint was named after his proclamation "I am the upsetter" after a number of spats with local reggae artists, including Dodd, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer. As an independent artist, Perry's early projects on Upsetter Records were largely influenced by spaghetti westerns, including albums Return of Django, Clint Eastwood and The Good, the Bad and The Upsetters.
In 1973, Perry took his independent streak a step further by building his own backyard studio, Black Ark. Eschewing the go-to sounds of traditional reggae music, Perry relished in his eccentric appeal through samplings of gunshots, breaking glass and blowing smoke on master tapes as sound enhancement. As Black Ark became world-renowned, the studio received a visit in 1977 from Linda and Paul McCartney who recorded two songs there, including the single "Mister Sandman."
After a period of mental health issues at the tail-end of the '70s, in 1983 Perry burned down Black Ark, convinced that the recording studio was possessed by evil spirits. Despite Perry's enigma, his musical influence was wide-ranging, releasing more than 70 live and studio albums combined during his lifetime and a distinctive production that has been heard in music by JAY-Z, Kanye West and the Beastie Boys, the latter who honored Perry on their 1998 track "Dr. Lee, PhD."
During his illustrious, deeply impactful career, he received five GRAMMY nominations in the Best Reggae Album category, taking home a win at the 45th GRAMMY Awards in 2003 for Jamaican E.T.
The sound of Lee "Scratch" Perry was limitless, knowing no bounds through Jamaican roots music and Perry's "explosion of righteousness."