I Am The Upsetter

Lee "Scratch" Perry

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 Phil Spector created. More often than not, the eccentric persona that Perry created years ago has tended to overshadow the outstanding music he produced.

It's hard to know where to begin when discussing Lee Perry. For years, he was just as famous for his outlandish outfits and bizarre behaviour as he was for his music. He was 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 smoked too much ganja at your own risk. The fact that this mad scientist was still performing and creating music in his 80s, 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.

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 nascent Jamaican music scene, and eventually – after years of trials and errors that informed his music – became a producer. In doing so, Perry was one of several young men who changed the face of reggae – and in due time popular music around the world.

As the years went on, Perry went from success to success as a producer and business man. He began to experiment behind the mixing desk, manipulating his tapes like a musician plays an instrument. He recorded falling rain, broke glass, ran tapes backwards, and sampled soul records decades before any hip-hop producers, creating music that was eccentric, totally distinctive, and years ahead of its time.

In 1973, he began constructing his own studio, The Black Ark. At first, his colleagues were amused 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 singers and players. Eventually, musicians and journalists from around the world started making pilgrimages to Perry's concrete castle, intrigued by the outer space sound and the deep, moody vibes of the music being recorded there. He used strange methods such as cleaning the tape heads with his t-shirt and blowing ganja smoke onto the master tapes as they rolled, ensuring that the music recorded in the Black Ark would have a dirty, magical quality to it that would never be surpassed. 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 20th century music.

The Black Ark became a magnet for all of Jamaica's top singers and players.

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 demanding 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 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 an atmosphere of disintegration and despair. Reggae carried on, but Perry found himself on the fringes of the music he helped to create.

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 during this period: strange, eccentric works that vary wildly in quality and often confound his reputation.

Art may imitate life, but for Perry there was no difference between the two.

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 resonated with a new generation of reggae fans and ensured that his legacy would not be forgotten. Perry's work has been incredibly influential on modern dub, hip-hop, dance music, and electronica. For a time, he was regarded as an elder statesman in modern music, albeit a statesman with pink hair and enough bling to make most rappers jealous. And yet despite these accolades, Lee Perry had no real interest in the past, likening it to a mean dog that wanted to bite him. Rather than resting on his laurels and appearing at the Holiday Inn to sing a medley of his old hits, he was always working on something new right up until his death. His eccentric charisma attracted younger collaborators such as the Beastie Boys, Bill Laswell, Roots Manuva, and The Orb, all of whom were anxious to touch the hem of his garment.

Lee Perry's musical universe is one of angels and vampires, flying saucers and scatology, mortal enemies and cartoon characters. Art may imitate life, but for Perry there was no difference between the two. He literally painted, wrote on, and sang about everything he encountered. His infamous strangeness was designed to delight his fans and confuse the ignorant. Scratch may have visited Earth from time to time, but he lived in his own world.

Lee Perry once sang "I am a magician. Yes! A magician should do his magic and then disappear!" If any one phrase from his vast body of work can serve as his philosophy, perhaps that's it. As fascinating as Lee Perry the man was, it is his amazing music that really takes center stage in the story of his life. All we have to do is listen and learn.