No Majesty Music Profiles: Lee Scratch Perry – The Godfather of Reggae

Dan Cody

When you listen to reggae, and when you listen to dub, in some way you can be sure you are listening to Lee Scratch Perry.

When enthusiasts talk of the ‘roots’ of a genre, they usually pick from the same handful of names. Rock and roll is Chuck Berry, and Hip Hop began with DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata. Because the origin of any genre is the first sound, and Lee Scratch Perry is the mad scientist who created the sound of Reggae music in the 1960s.

Perry started his career with a series of turbulent relationships with the producers he worked with. Starting out in the late 50s working with Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, who was responsible for songs by Toots and Maytals, the Skatalites, and other emerging artists, Scratch recorded a vast collection of songs which he was uncredited for, over 30 songs in which he took various roles. Disagreements led to the relationship ending prematurely, and Perry moved on to Joe Gibbs’ Amalgamated Records. This too proved to be a relationship not built to last, and Scratch’s time at Amalgamated records ended bitterly in the late 60s.

In 1968, Scratch founded Upsetter Records, his own label from which he launched his first single, ‘People Funny Boy’. This first record is groundbreaking for many reasons. Most noticeably, the record is an unashamed message to Joe Gibbs, who Scratch targets with crystal clear lyrics “All I’ve done for you, you don’t remember that.” Now we live in the time of ‘diss’ tracks and subtle digs between artists, but Scratch wore his heart on his sleeve. He was hurt, and these scars from Perry’s working relationships are something that crop up in his music, and interviews, time and time again. The song’s underlying sound, however, is what makes it so important to the nature of Jamaican music today. In the song Scratch includes a sample of a crying baby, both an insult towards Gibbs, and one of the first uses of sampling in music in this way. The beat under the record has the jumping rhythm which is essential to Reggae music today.

Over the next few years, Scratch would experiment with a range of different, and often unorthodox techniques, to create Reggae’s sound. Most famously these included burying microphones underneath a tree, and playing music into the ground, and even blowing marijuana smoke into the microphone. Scratch’s larger than life personality helped gain the respect of several Jamaican artists, with whom he would experiment freely in the studio to create new recordings that were innovative and genre defining.

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Perry’s discography spans five decades.

Now that Scratch had the sound, that sound needed a home. In 1973, he built his own record studio, the Black Ark, in his backyard. With the most basic recording equipment, he created a space that would house such Reggae legends as Junior Murvin, Max Romeo, and Bob Marley. Scratch’s relationship with Marley was also one with turbulence, but together they created some of his greatest hits, including ‘Soul Rebel’, ‘Duppy Conqueror’ and ‘Sun is Shining’. Marley and Perry grew more and more distant towards the end of the young singer’s life, but his legacy has followed Perry wherever he goes. As two of the biggest influences on Reggae music, Scratch insists that he let Marley take the path of a Reggae artist, whilst he modified his own sound yet again, and created something new. This new sound, molded by Scratch in the Black Ark, would later be called Dub.

Dub music, now an essential part of underground music around the world, especially in the UK, was made popular mostly by Scratch’s interest in remixing Reggae tracks, overdubbing them with vocals from a variety of singers, and continuing to experiment within his world. Perry and his band, the Upsetters, set a new standard in Jamaican music. Today, the dub scene, especially in London, where Perry would travel to often during this period, regards Perry as a legend.

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Scratch’s penchant for innovation often leads to him destroying what he sees as holding him back, or simply no longer needed. In the late 70s, many artists who Perry have described as bad influences were making regular appearances at the Black Ark, with rumours circulating that Scratch may have been extorted for money by criminals in the local area. In 1978, the studio was burned to the ground, and to this day Scratch claims this was done by him, because of the unwanted ‘spirits’ inside the studio.

Musicians in Pop, and Rock and Roll, also revere Scratch, and have collaborated with him since the very beginning. Time spent in England in the 80s saw him collaborate with English producers such as Mark Downie, and Neil Fraser, better known as Mad Professor, with whom he has produced several successful records. In recent years, he has also produced records featuring The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.      

Scratch turned 80 in March of this year, yet he continues to push boundaries within reggae music. His latest album ‘Must Be Free’, released in September, sees a dub sound meeting an unpredictable array of sounds that could be described as either cosmic, mystical, out of this world, or all of the above. Scratch also has a keen interest in painting, which has run throughout his career. His various recording studios have always had paintings over the walls, and now he has collaborated with artist Peter Harris, to create a series of abstract paintings they are calling the Higher Powers Bible. He has also created a series of hand painted vinyls, tying in with a record produced by Richard Russell called ‘I am paint’. 250 versions of the hand painted vinyls were created by the pair, who gave them to fans in return for their own inventive creations send to them.

This year, the biographical film ‘Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise’ was released. In it, German director Volker Schaner shows Scratch over the course of 15 years of filming him, hearing stories from his unparalleled career, and seeing the different projects and pursuits that take up his time. Scratch talks at length around his own unique philosophy, pivotal moments in Jamaican history, and how these have influenced his music.

Scratch continues to tour, primarily in the UK, to an ever enthusiastic crowd of fans, and he remains the unpredictable force that he has always been. At his shows, audience participation is a staple, and improvised vocals are of course, always a feature. The crowds that who come to these shows are not just fans of Scratch, but of his discography that spans across five decades, dozens of groundbreaking artists, and some of the most influential records the music world has ever seen.

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