"Starting From Scratch"
Black Music (October 1977)
By Chris May
Some artists approach interviews like Mussolini strutting onto a balcony to deliver
a speech - puffed up little bumpkins deigning to do the world a favour. Others,
equally boring and repulsive, are cringing and obsequious and usually say nothing
worth printing. When you're lucky you come across someone genuinely interested
in selling their story. If you're very lucky they even tell the truth.
Then you have Lee Perry. In a class of his own - Scratch The Upsetter, interviewee
extraordinaire. Well, not exactly an interviewee - schpieler hits nearer the
mark. You proffer a cassette, point him in the direction you want to go . . .
and stand back. Immediately he's spritzing like Lenny Bruce on methedrine, words
jammed together in the tumble to get out. Unable to sit in one place for more
than three minutes straight, he keeps bouncing up and down, stalking round the
room - and you're schlepping along behind trying to keep in mike range. All five
foot of him exploding with energy, self-confidence and a much used, infectiously
irie cackle which instantly destroys any suspicion of egomania some of his more
outrageous claims might induce.
Scratch first shattered the heads of British reggae fans back in 68 with "The
Upsetter". Since then he's proved himself to be one of Jamaica's most brilliant
- and erratic - producers. Of the hundreds of sides he's released there's been
a considerable quantity of routine dreck, but there's also been a steady, heady
stream of peerless, 24-carat magic. At his best Scratch is arguably Jamaica's
most inspired producer, composing and engineering music which dances in the mind
like no-one else's. Optimal heavyness combined with spacey agility - Tchaikovsky's
Sugar Plum Fairy in dub boots is about as near as you can get to it in words.
The roll-call of artists Scratch has worked with over the years is staggering:
Delroy Wilson, Clancy Eccles, Errol Dunkley, Max Romeo, The Wailers, The Heptones,
The Diamonds, Junior Byles, U Roy, I Roy, Prince Jazzbo, Dennis Alcapone, Big
Youth, Jah Lion, Junior Murvin, Junior Delgado, Zap Pow, Dillinger, Dr Alimantado,
and more. The list runs on and on - unknowns Scratch moulded and made famous,
established stars brought on to peaks of yet to be surpassed artistry.
And always there's The Upsetters, the studio band who've matched Scratch's writing
and production genius high for high since 68, used by him as the name band on
some of his greatest hits whilst also providing the rhythm tracks for all his
work with other artists. An unfailingly wicked and sprightly outfit through which
just about every ace JA session man, from the Barrett brothers to Horsemouth
Wallace, has passed though considering its lifespan the lineup has been remarkably
stable. For around three years now the group has centred on ten main men: Boris
Gardner (bass), Keith Stirling (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Mikey Boo and
Sly Dunbar (drums), Chinna Smith and Ernest Ranglin (guitars), Dave Madden (trumpet),
Glen DaCauseta (sax) and Vin Gordon (trombone).
Sadly The Upsetters have never toured the UK - the line-up who gigged here
in 69 was little more than a grab-bag of available musicians hurriedly thrown
together to exploit the chart success of "Return Of Django". But
when I spoke to Scratch during his recent visit to London he told me that tentative
arrangements were being made to bring the band over next year. If it happens
it won't be before time either.
But that's getting ahead of the story... In the beginning there was Clement "Downbeat" Dodd.
And Downbeat begat Studio One. Which begat ska. In which Scratch hatched.
Downbeat Picks Up A Little Lee...
Scratch claims to have written his first song
(for Delroy Wilson) when he was only fourteen years old, "but
to call out name of the tune now a hard thing cause from since time
more things just take up the space".
That he was a near-foetal prodigy however is indisputable. In '55, at
the tender age of 16 , Scratch was working for Downbeat's sound system
then battling for supremacy with rival outfits run by Duke Reid, King
Edward and Prince Buster. The minikin Scratch (then aptly nicknamed "Little")
began work as a "go-for" (go for coffee, go for my car) but
around 57 became a fulltime scout for the system, responsible for searching
out cream sounds.
"Start time we was definitely the smallest of the systems. Duke had some
big bad guys operating for him. So my job was to fight down this, go out and
find the best sound. We go out and find them and really upset Duke and them others.
It come up we start to have top record all the while and sometime we meet other
systems in a club, slug it out toe for toe. Soon we a top shape."
Then, as now, the battle between competing systems was fierce as fire, the
various operators resorting to all sorts of devious scams in the effort to
keep one step ahead of each other. "All of them would go to the States
to buy rare R&B records, and then scratch off the labels -- cause you always
had a lot of spies from other sounds who come up and try a check the turntable
fe see what record you playing. And when he look there you don't want him running
give him boss the right record name. Downbeat him often stick on wrong label
on records he import from States, to trick them others into going there to
search it for themself too. One time we put it about so and so have some real
dread sides, fire sides on a white labels, and Duke run to the man fe buy them.
Such a hurry, him didn't even play fe check them. And they all old stuff, duds!
But that more a joke than a trick you understand. All the man try these things
but them never work long."
By the late 50s the systems were no longer relying on imports for their sides.
Stocks of heavy, obscure R&B records were becoming exhausted and - partly
out of necessity, partly out of creative inevitability - the operators started
cutting their own tunes, primal boogies out of which ska developed. "Jamaica
had roots thing from long time, but being so close to America we a slumber.
Then something come and wake we up and we take these things and make them more
powerful. We take control, and start get more powerful than America in soul
It was now that Scratch moved up once again in the Downbeat hierarchy, auditioning
artists and co-producing sessions with Downbeat and Jackie Mittoo. "From
since 59 coming up 60 me start audition singers in Downbeat's little shop down
Orange Street. Any artist me feel good enough me say Downbeat select this one
fe session, record him'. And him listen, cause he spot me as a man with talent
and he loved to work with people with talent. Him always believe in the people
I choose and always give me a free hand. Like Toots come for audition, and
I the man force Downbeat take on Toots fe work. We go to the studio and he
give 'Six And Seven Books Of Moses' and rip it up!"
"Six And Seven", which Scratch claims to have produced unaided by Downbeat
or Jackie Mittoo, was a hit, but of the three systems operators who first started
cutting their own sides (Downbeat, Duke and Buster) it was Buster who led the
field first off.
"Buster come out the strongest, him control the scene for about a year or
two. Carolina', Bad Minded People', all them kind of things. So it's then we
stop and look and see it's him alone a wail and me and Downbeat get more tighter
now. Downbeat decide him better make something heavy fe himself too! For Buster
beating down hard! And this is when me come in on Downbeat side and rescue him,
cause me work for Duke and Buster too before. But Downbeat a nicer man, liked
more younger men, him saw a talent him not throw it away. What is due to a man
him give to him. So most of us younger guys link with him, get a more tight with
"And that's how he moved up now. We young guys would go along and write
songs to counteract Buster's sounds, songs like me write for Delroy Wilson: I
Shall Never Remove' and Spit In The Sky'. And we a killing off Buster backwards!
We're beating him with words and good songs and Downbeat now on top, cause him
have all the people with the talent to back him. We come on the line now, strong!"
"Soon anytime a guy start to think about go fe sing, he not thinking about
going anywhere else than Downbeat. Downbeat him never had to go out to find artist,
them come to him all time. So now him have all the singers with the new feelings
and him start to make a different beat, a more sweeter beat than what make everybody
else. And every man gwan start try sound like us."
As a singer, Scratch reputedly cut stacks of records for Studio One at this
time, but in the discographer's nightmare that is early JA electric music (a
scenario not assisted by the collie clouded heads of the artists themselves)
it's a well-nigh impossible task to track these fledgling efforts down. Many
early JA releases carried no composer or artist credits and the only tunes
from the period known for certain to have been performed by Scratch (under
the name King Perry) are "Roast Duck", "Trials And Crosses" and "Rub
...And Gets Bitten
Scratch continued working for Downbeat till about mid 68, but by 67 he had
be come to feel hard done by, believing with some justice that the meager pay
he was receiving came close to daylight robbery. The parting was acrimonious
in the extreme. Scratch expressed his anger with virulent, sarcastic releases
like "Run For Cover", "The Upsetter" and "Return Of
Django". Now, however, he can afford to feel more philosophical about
"Downbeat a rip me true, and if everyday you beat a donkey one day it will
surely kick you. But most of them will rip you. So me no really want to press
pon that, that play no part in rile now. But maybe if he treated me generously,
I'd still be working with him. Delroy sing a song in a early days which him never
understand, cause him sing A King On A Empty Throne'. Dig it? You see what happen?
Downbeat might have fault business wise, but for personal deals him a nice man.
And you gotta pay to learn, right? Studio One for me was like going to college,
an apprenticeship. You born with talent, you have it, but the actual thing have
no meat pon it yet! Is stages of life - you go through this one to know it and
leave it and you go through all a them fe pick up knowledge on the way. Nothing
in you one time, you have to pick it up. Then come up and put it together so
the puzzle fit. Just like when Jesus reach his stage, things start to happen."
That Scratch did split from Downbeat however is something we can all give
praises for. Charged up by his new independence, he let fly exploding salvos
of music which changed the face of the Jamaican scene. Indeed, many people
name his "People
Funny Boy" as the record which gave birth to the reggae beat. So does
Scratch. "Of course it was," he says with characteristic modesty, "cause
I am the appointed one!"
But how did the beat come about? "From touring the night. See at them
time me used to go out town and stay late, drink one or two little beer, thing
like that. And one night me walking past a Pocomania (revivalist) church and
hear the people inside a wail. And me catch the vibrations and say boy, let's
make a sound fe catch the vibration of them people! Them was in spirit and
them tune me spiritually. That's where the thing come from, cause them Poco
people getting sweet!"
"And same time of course me want to upset Downbeat, upset him technically.
And all the others too. Cause they were doing something the same all the way
man, all of them a just go ska-aska-aska . And when the people hear
what I man do, them hear a different: beat, a slower beat, a waxy beat, like
you stepping in glue. Them hear a different bass, a rebel bass, coming at you
like sticking a gun."
The new brew matured in late 69, when Scratch began producing The Wailers
for his Upsetter label. It was a meeting of talents which created some of
the strongest reggae music ever. It sounds as spellbinding and moving today
as they were almost a decade ago, all-time monsters like "More Axe", "Duppy
Conqueror", "Downpressor" and "Mr. Brown". 
The importance of Scratch's Svengali-like role in the partnership would be
hard to overestimate. "Me knew Wailers from Downbeat days of course (in
the mid 60s the group had recorded for Studio One), for when them come a see
Downbeat, they a come and see me. But me never play an extra part in them days,
it was all together: me, Downbeat and Jackie Mittoo. But when Bob drop into
my hands him really take on the power of music now. Bob re-birth, it was a
different level, a different thing than with Downbeat completely. As Bob a
come out of my section was when him roots manners start, because my rhythm
fresh, a harder type of thing, and nothing else could carry Wailers more than
them kind of beat and that kind of feeling. I the right man to go with their
kind of soul. Is there me show them see what to sing, and is there them go
One question which continues to abort the print-outs of fact n' info fetishists
is just who wrote "More Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror". The
original releases named Scratch as composer; later re-issues have credited
Marley. It will probably always remain a mystery, for everyone involved tells
a thoroughly convincing and totally contradictory story. The most likely answer
of course is that the songs were collaborations, but just to add to the
confusion I asked Scratch for his version.
"That part now me no wanna discuss. Cause we have work to perform and me
and him live too close like a brother. These are minor problem, something between
me and him, and I don't think anyone should get involved in that. Is a me and
him problem - let we solve it." (So that's cleared up at last.)
Scratch and The Wailers formally parted company in the early 70s. Precisely
when is another vexatious question for the archivists. Perhaps Scratch could
help? "It was 19... 19... 19 something." (Remember, you read it here
Continue to part two »