To Another Dimension: The Influential Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry

❉ John Rivers pays tribute to Dr Lee PhD’s influence across the music scene as a whole from the ‘70s and beyond.

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry © Adrian Boot/Urbanimage Music Photographic Archive:

This week Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry died in hospital in Lucea, Jamaica. He was 85. Over the last fifty years Perry pioneered as one of the most influential reggae and dub producers ever known. His dedication to the music, ability to push rudimentary studio technology to its fullest and creative eccentricity manifested itself in some of the best music to ever come out of the Jamaican scene and beyond.

This article isn’t about recounting Perry’s life – there are many more well-informed commentators and documentaries about that – instead I’ve chosen to focus on a number of instances where Perry has had an influence on and directly collaborated with artists in the US and UK.

To understand how Perry became so influential, it’s important to understand what set him apart, not only from his contemporaries in reggae, but across the music scene as a whole. A good earlier example of his spirit is in The Wailers track Mr Brown (1970).

Recorded by Perry with The Wailers, later to become Bob Marley and the Wailers, Mr Brown recounts the rumour of a Duppy, a Caribbean word for ghost. The production plays with its spooky subject matter, creating a soundscape of eeriness, creeping dread. It demonstrates Perry’s creativity, his willingness to incorporate other sounds to create atmosphere and take reggae in new directions.

Perry’s relationship with The Wailers and Bob especially was a productive one. According to an interview with Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Wailers bass player, in Lloyd Bradley’s excellent examination of Reggae, Bass Culture, the connection between Perry and Marley was due to their upbringing in the country:

“Scratch know that in Jamaica there’s a vibe you get from growing up in the country that is so different to the city.You appreciate things on a much more spiritual level and can see more than just making songs to get play at the dance… Scratch know that Bob have that vibe and that together they can take music to another dimension.”

It’s difficult not to agree with that assertion if you listen to one of Bob’s more famous tracks produced by Perry from the album Soul Revolution (1971), The Sun is Shining

The track was not one of the more popular songs for Marley during his lifetime. It was only when Danish producer Funkstar De Luxe (real name: Martin Aulkjær Ottesen) picked up the track and produced a house mix in 1999 that it gained wider recognition.

By 1973 Perry had built his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, outside his house in Kingston, Jamaica. Although a lot of the kit was older and sub-standard, Perry seemed to make magic from it, with a control of timing and musical skill that pushed basic 4 track recording to its limits. But it went further than that.

Michael Veal in his book Dub Soundscapes and Shattered Songs explains some of the other techniques employed by Perry:

“Perry often ‘blessed’ his recording equipment with mystical invocations… Perry was also known to blow ganja smoke onto the tapes while recording, to clean the heads of his tape machine with the sleeve of his t-shirt, to bury unprotected tapes in the soil outside his studio, and to spray them with a variety of liquids including whiskey, blood and urine, ostensibly to enhance their spiritual properties”

Perry’s Black Ark work proved to be his most productive and pioneering period. Not only did Perry continue to work with Marley and the Wailers, he also found ample work for his own backing band The Upsetters. One notable collaboration occurred with reggae singer Max Romeo for the album War ina Babylon (1976), perhaps the most famous track being the seminal Chase the Devil.

It was, of course, suitably sampled by The Prodigy for their rave classic Out of Space.

As the success of Black Ark’s output grew, Perry found himself in demand from artists outside of Jamaica and reggae. In 1977 Paul and Linda McCartney visited, recording two cover versions which would eventually end up on Linda’s posthumous Wide Prairie album (1998). The first, Sugartime, made most famous by the McGuire Sisters and secondly Mr Sandman by the Chordettes.

Perry remained supportive of the McCartney’s, even writing a letter to the Japanese authorities in 1980, asking them to be lenient with any sentence Paul may receive for possessing marijuana.

Thanks to the documentary Roots, Rock and Reggae (1977) there is footage of Perry in action working at Black Ark, clearly proud of his achievements and showing how basic the recording set-up was.

Behind Perry’s mixing desk there are number of photos of acts that Perry had worked with or revered. The only white act to ever grace the wall was The Clash, who had recorded a cover of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves in 1977 which Perry had produced for Murvin the previous year. Compare and contrast:

Perry took The Clash’s cover as a great tribute and when the band learned that they had made Perry’s studio wall the stage was set for a collaboration. In July 1977 The Clash learned that Perry was in London, producing for Bob Marley & the Wailers, they invited him to produce their next single. Perry agreed. Whether or not it is true that Perry managed to blow out a studio mixing board while trying to get a deep bass sound out of Paul Simonon’s guitar remains to be seen, what is true is that Perry’s echoes and dub skills were stripped back for the single release.

As the seventies became the eighties Perry’s relentless producing schedule slowed down and the equipment at Black Ark was left to go faulty. Perry claims he set fire to the equipment himself in 1983.

Perry’s influence continued to reverberate through the generations. He worked in the UK on collaborations with reggae dub artists such as Adrian Sherwood and the Mad Professor while in 1998 he found himself performing on and the subject of one of the year’s biggest albums, The Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty (1998).

Throughout the 2000s collaborations and festival appearances continued. In later years one of the most notable partnerships came with techno dub dance legends The Orb who worked on an album with Perry, recording in Berlin, The Orbserver in the Star House (2012). The Orb made extensive use of Perry’s vocals, which suited the band’s commitment to surreal, if often funny, juxtapositions of sound and sample. Golden Clouds invited Perry to talk about his childhood while clearly paying tribute to one of The Orb’s biggest hits.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here on Perry’s contributions to dub and reggae and I recommend checking out some of his amazing albums such as Super Ape (1976) or Voodooism (1996). Hopefully though I’ve shown how Perry’s influence spread to rock and pop across the ‘70s, well into the ‘90s and beyond.

As a parting shot, here is an interview with Perry from 2015 for Channel 4 news. An admittedly patient, Krishnan Guru-Murthy listens to Perry talk about his love for music, God and how reggae was his gift to Bob Marley.

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – 20 March 1936 – 29 August 2021.

❉ Notable texts: ‘Bass Culture: When Reggae was King’ by Lloyd Bradley – buy from Amazon | ‘Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae’ by Michael Veal – buy from Amazon.

❉ John Rivers has been a contributor to We Are Cult since the site’s launch in September 2016.

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