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Reggae Legends

Lee 'Scratch' Perry

Lee "Scratch" Perry

By David Katz
Published September 9, 2005

Lee “Scratch” Perry's contribution to Jamaican music is immeasurable. His ceaseless creativity has resulted in some of the most startling and original sounds ever recorded, and the uniqueness of his vision has found resonance in music forms around the world.

Lee “Scratch” Perry is a mass of contradictions. A devout Rastafarian who believes in extraterrestrials, he has proclaimed his children “angels” in the biblical sense, and advocates black supremacy while living with his wealthy European wife in Switzerland. He also truly deserves the title of living legend, and his contribution to Jamaican music is immeasurable. Perry’s ceaseless creativity has resulted in some of the most startling and original sounds ever recorded, and the uniqueness of his vision has found resonance in music forms around the world.

Perry was actively involved in every major change of style on the island from the pre-ska days before independence to the “golden age” of roots reggae after spending lengthy periods abroad. Later projects recorded in Jamaica and elsewhere have continued to be marked by the individualism that has always set his material apart, through Perry’s focus has largely shifted from the determined logos of the production sphere to the arcane chaos of performance and spectacle. Scratch’s singular and atypical trajectory has been motivated by a burning desire to create unique and inspiring music, and parallel journey has given rise to a limitless effort to elevate the Almighty, a savior Perry seeks to perpetually serve through his art.

A survey of his career reveals incredible achievements. He was a talent scout and vocalist at Studio One in the ska years, a freelancer who collaborated with Prince Buster in rocksteady, and an independent producer who helped give birth to reggae by producing what many feel were Bob Marley’s best works in 1970-71. Perry was among the first to collaborate with dub pioneer King Tubby, and he created some of the heaviest roots material in his legendary Black Ark studio later in the decade. After nomadic wanderings in the 1980s, a series of high-profile collaborations with Adrian Sherwood, Simply Red and the Beastie Boys brought Scratch back into the limelight, boosted by recordings and world tours with creative partner Mad Professor. Much of his rare early work continues to be anthologized on CD; one of the best recent collections is Motion Records—Born In The Sky: Upsetter At The Controls 1969-75.

          Now that Perry is in his late sixties, the world has finally given him belated accolades, yet Scratch is often overlooked in his native land. “Jamaican people never like my music until foreign people start to like it,” he recounts grudgingly. Despite this general lack of recognition, Lee “Scratch” Perry continues to spend much time in the land of his birth, and still speaks of plans to rebuild his studio Kingston.