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It's hard to know where to begin when discussing the Upsetter

Lee Perry

The following article was written as a script for a profile of Lee Perry on the CBC program Radio Active when Scratch was scheduled to play in my hometown of Edmonton in September 2008. When Scratch cancelled his Canadian dates at the last minute, the profile was abandoned.

Lee Perry. Scratch. The Upsetter. One of the true legends of 20th century music.

Whether by snobbery or cultural indifference, reggae has never been taken that seriously by the music world and journalists. Time and time again, we are told that the best albums in the world were made by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. When reggae is mentioned in rock journalism, it's usually a token Bob Marley album. And yet, even a casual listen to the work of Lee Perry reveals that his productions are every bit as lush, experimental and sonically brilliant as anything that Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney came up with.

It's hard to know where to begin when discussing Lee Perry. These days he is just as famous for his outlandish outfits and bizarre behaviour as he is for his music. He has been known to speak in riddles, drop his pants at press conferences and place curses on record companies and heads of state. And yet, you can write off Lee Perry as a kooky old man who has smoked too much ganja at your own risk. The fact that this 72-year old mad scientist is still performing and creating music, following his muse and trying to get his message to the world should command your respect.

Lee Perry chose a path of non-conformity at an early age. Born in a poor part of rural Jamaica, he rejected the life of hard labour that many of his friends and family were destined for. He drifted into Kingston, got involved with the rough and tumble Jamaican music scene and eventually became a producer. In doing so, he was one of several young men who changed the face of reggae – and eventually popular music around the world.

Lee Perry chose a path of non-comformity at an early age.

As the years went on, Lee Perry began to experiment behind the mixing desk. He recorded falling rain, broke glass, ran tapes backwards, sampled soul records decades before any hip-hop producers tried it, and created music that was years ahead of its time. In 1973, he began constructing his own studio, The Black Ark. At first, his colleagues laughed at Perry’s new project, as the equipment being used was very rudimentary compared to other studios. Once the tapes started rolling, however, nobody was laughing any more. Through sonic sleight of hand, Lee Perry made his small 4-track studio sound totally unique. Within a few years, the Black Ark became a magnet for all of Jamaica’s top musicians and singers. Eventually, musicians and journalists from around the world started making pilgrimages to Perry's concrete castle, intrigued by the sound and the mood of the music that was being recorded there. For the five magic years that the studio was in operation, a steady stream of singles and albums flowed out of the Black Ark that represent a zenith in not only reggae, but in modern music.

After many years of the proverbial wine, women and song – not to mention a lot of ganja – things began to fall apart for Lee Perry. His personal life with his family began to crumble, local gangsters were hitting him up for protection money and the Black Ark began to attract some rather dubious characters. Island Records rejected some of his most powerful and personal productions. By 1979, Perry’s life, studio and perhaps his sanity were in shambles. It was the end of an era not only for Lee Perry, but for reggae and Jamaica. The death of Bob Marley in 1981, coupled with an increase in political violence, economic hardship and drug trafficking in Jamaica created a general burn out. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Perry drifted between Jamaica, the United States and Britain, turning his back on producing other artists and instead concentrating on his own music. He recorded more than a dozen albums — strange, eccentric works that vary wildly in quality.

By the late 1990s, the music that Lee Perry created two decades earlier started finding new audiences. A series of excellent re-releases of his music from the glory days of the Black Ark ensured that his legacy would not be forgotten. His work has been incredibly influential on modern dub, hip-hop, dance music, and electronica. He is now regarded as an elder statesman in modern music, albeit a statesman with pink hair and enough bling to make 50 Cent jealous. And yet, Lee Perry has no real interest in the past, likening it to a mean dog that wants to bite him. Rather than resting on his laurels and appearing at the Holiday Inn to sing a medley of his old hits, he is always working on something new. His eccentric charisma has attracted younger collaborators such as the Beastie Boys, who are all anxious to touch the hem of his garment.

Lee Perry once sang "I am a magician. A magician should do his magic and then disappear!" Although his fans hope he won't be disappearing any time soon, it's clear that Perry wants to continue performing his unique brand of musical magic.

December 2008