In the wake of his unexpected passing at age 85, we celebrate the life of Jamaican music legend Lee “Scratch” Perry and his bottomless well of recordings
Lee “Scratch” Perry has died after suffering a stroke, silencing one of the most brilliant and imaginary minds in Jamaican music.
“The eccentric artiste/producer died in the Noel Holmes Hospital in Lucea on Sunday morning,” reported the Jamaica Observer this morning. “He was 85.”
Bob Marley might have introduced me to reggae, but it was the bottomless output of Lee Perry and The Upsetters that tattooed the sound onto my soul. Some of my older colleagues may cite Scratch’s historic 1977 recording sessions with The Clash as their gateway into the artistry within Perry’s Black Ark Studio.
VIDEO: The Clash “Complete Control”
For me, it was Beastie Boys who put me on when they first sampled “Dub Revolution” for the Ill Communication cut “Flute Loop,” but not before Mike D name checked him on the album’s opening track “Sure Shot.” Then they put him on the cover of Grand Royal Magazine in 1995. So by the time I read Rob Michaels’ glowing review of the classic box set Arkology in the August 1997 issue of SPIN, I was ready to take the plunge and invest in the set. Which meant I traded in whatever I could and used the credit to make the score.
Listening to Arkology was so crucial to my education in Jamaican music from that point forward. It has served as an incredible primer for going deep down the seemingly bottomless wellspring of albums, singles and compilations Perry has worked on since the late 1960’s. Descending down the Scratch rabbit hole let me to the works of such reggae greats as Max Romeo, Errol Walker, Augustus Pablo, The Congos, The Heptones, Junior Marvin, Junior Byles and countless other acts. Lee Perry helped me see Bob Marley and the Wailers in a different light, moving beyond the Island catalog to discover albums like Soul Rebels and African Herbsman with Scratch at the controls.
Even within the last 20 years, Perry has remained an omnipresence in the music industry, not only working with the Beasties but a wide spectrum of artists including Andrew WK, The Orb, Mad Professor and Subatomic Sound System among others. He’s also released some of his best solo work of his career in recent years. Namely 2019’s Rainford, which is titled after his birth name and was produced by one of Perry’s longtime associates Adrian Sherwood of African Head Charge, and has been hailed as the most intimate and personal record of his career.
VIDEO: Lee “Scratch” Perry “Let It Rain”
Truth be told, you are never going to live long enough to hear everything Lee “Scratch” Perry has recorded, produced, curated and dubbed out over the last 50-odd years. Yet that’s the magic of the Upsetter, right? Arkology was such an essential guide for me to get into the legend of Lee. But since it was released in the summer of ’97, there has been a ton more collections that have come after it that are also well worth your attention; the most recent of which is the newly released Black Art From The Black Ark on the Pressure Sounds label.
To honor the legacy of the man the Beasties lovingly christened “Dr. Lee, PhD,” please check out this playlist of my favorite Scratch classics. I hope it serves you well if you are looking to get into the brilliant, extraterrestrial mind of Rainford Hugh Perry.