Fly Away: Lee “Scratch” Perry (March 20, 1936 – August 29, 2021)

Brilliant Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry left this world today for mystical pastures elsewhere and beyond, leaving an incredibly rich and influential body of creative work behind him. His Discogs entry cites 2,846 recorded appearances over the course of his long career, and I suspect that actually under-estimates the total number of discs that he produced, wrote, sang or performed on, given the dodgy record-keeping and dubious release (and re-release) practices of his earlier professional years.

Perry’s career began in the late-1950s, when the mystical maestro-in-making cut his teeth in the studio and on the business side of the music industry with influential Jamaican producers Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Joe Gibbs. The difficult-to-irascible sides of his personality resulted in Scratch falling out with both of those mentors, and he eventually established his own label, Upsetter Records, in 1968. (Two of his earliest single successes, “Run for Cover” and “People Funny Boy,” were lightly-veiled attacks on Dodd and Gibbs respectively). Perry’s work was a cornerstone in establishing the standard traits and tricks of what we now call “reggae” music, adapting and refining elements of the ska and rock-steady beats that had come before; The Wailers (still featuring Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer at the time) were among the early beneficiaries of his production and marketing mastery.

Perry established his own studio, The Black Ark, in 1973, continuing to shepherd some of the greatest and most-lasting moments of reggae’s maturation period through the mid-to-late-1970s. His Black Ark era is where he most fully developed and honed his masterful “dub” techniques, which typically adapted existing songs into new versions by stripping the vocals out, beefing up the drum n’ bass “riddims,” and slathering the remaining tracks with echo, reverb, chorus, samples, and other production tricks, creating spacious soundscapes that, in their turn, went on to heavily influence the evolution of the electronica, hip-hop, and modern R&B genres. While Perry wasn’t a prominently vocal proponent of the Rastafarian religion and culture, he certainly embraced its use of marijuana as a creative and spiritual sacrament, and he was known to blow cannabis smoke into his studio microphones as part of his special studio session seasoning. No surprise that listening to a classic Lee “Scratch” Perry dub version is probably the most accurate way to capture in audio the experience of being really, really high, becoming one with the music in the process, actual weed optional, though helpful.

Perry was struggling a bit creatively and personally around the dawn of the 1980s, but his stock was significantly revalued when his music and his production approaches were embraced by the nascent punk rock and post-punk scenes; the Clash most notably advanced his cause with their cover of Junior Murvin’s Perry-penned hit, “Police and Thieves,” while The Beastie Boys pimped his cause with their “Dr. Lee, PhD,” which also featured Scratch on vocals. Perry’s vintage dub and reggae cuts have been heavily sampled as hip-hop has emerged as a global lingua franca, and he remained prolific with original releases and productions right up until his passing.  The latest cut of his that I acquired was the outstanding “Here Come The Warm Dreads,” which featured equally game-changing producers Brian Eno and Adrian Sherwood in an epic dub-meets-electronica melt-down that’s as trippy as it is dance-worthy.

Given his insanely large catalog, it’s hard to capture and present a snapshot of Lee Perry’s career; just poking around online this morning for lists of his most notable works, I’ve found multiple sites with fine setlists that are mostly mutually exclusive one to the other, given the richness of his recorded work. I’ll offer my own little capture today as a memorial to the great music man with a new installment of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series below; these are the five songs in Perry’s immense catalog that have won the most spins about my own living spaces over the years, and if you like these, then, well, there’s a whole world of wonders out there for you to dig as follow-up. Let me know if you’ve got a personal Perry favorite in the comments; I might have heard it, but then again, I might not have, and if that’s the case, then I sure might need to.

“Fly Away,” from Musical Bones (1975), credited to Lee Perry and the Upsetters

“Mr. Brown,” from “Mr. Brown/Dracula” single (1970), credited to The Wailers

“Police and Thieves,” from Police and Thieves (1977), credited to Junior Murvin

“Chase The Devil,” from War Ina Babylon (1976), credited to Max Romeo and the Upsetters

“Party Time,” from Party Time (1977), credited to The Heptones

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