It’s 2006–7 and from read­ing album liner notes and online FAQs by the Asi­an Dub Found­a­tion I was intro­duced to not only the Dub genre but an enig­mat­ic fig­ure known as Lee “Scratch” Perry. A pion­eer­ing Dub pro­du­cer who in 1979, dis­sat­is­fied with his work, delib­er­ately burned down his stu­dio ‘Black Ark’. This story added to the artist’s myth­os and I went to the Reg­gae stall at my loc­al car boot sale and enquired about the man. I was told that no com­pil­a­tions that covered his whole career exis­ted and I was instead handed a copy of the 1973 album ‘Double Sev­en’ (On CD as the so called vinyl reviv­al was still a long dis­tance away).

I will be hon­est and say that at the time I was dis­ap­poin­ted. My music tastes then (The Prodigy etc) could not appre­ci­ate warmth and sub­tlety (With the excep­tion of Aphex Twin’s ambi­ent music). I expec­ted expli­cit exper­i­ment­a­tion and pump­ing Dub bass­lines, instead I heard what seemed to be vanilla Reg­gae. I wondered if I had bought the wrong disc (the stall hold­er that day also offered to sell me a rel­at­ively expens­ive copy of a Black Ark box set.) but one track on the album really stood out to me “Double Six” with vocals by U‑roy (who also sadly passed away in Feb­ru­ary this year). The track was a dreamy elec­tron­ic sound­scape that soundtracked my under­gradu­ate days, some­thing about the play between U‑roy’s lyr­ics and deliv­ery and the instru­ment­al clicked with me, this was elec­tron­ic dub with heart.

Lee “Scratch” Perry was born in 1936. He worked for Stu­dio One, Cox­sonne and Joe Gibbs before set­ting up his own label ‘Upset­ter Records’ in 1968. He pro­duced many of The Wail­ers’ singles. A favour­ite of mine being “Mr Brown.” [Weird case of syn­chron­icity but a funer­al car­riage just passed my win­dow as I typed that]. A track that I would term a Reg­gae ghost song (Check out Scientist’s ‘Corpse Rises’ for anoth­er example among many). To shame­lessly quote Wikipedia’s art­icle on the song (because the story is too good not to);

“The theme of the song relates to a rumour that was spread­ing through Jamaica that a duppy, or ghost, had been spot­ted in numer­ous loc­a­tions speed­ing through the land on a three-wheeled coffin, perched upon which were three John crows, or buz­zards, one of which could talk and was ask­ing for a Mr. Brown. Glen Adams wrote the lyr­ics after hear­ing the story, and after Lee Perry­’s sug­ges­tion, was sung by The Wail­ers.” [Dav­id Katz’s 2006 bio­graphy of Lee Perry People Funny Boy: The Geni­us of Lee Scratch Perry is cited as the source of this story.]

In 1976, Lee Perry pro­duced ‘Super Ape’ which is argu­ably his most icon­ic album. 1976 also saw the release of ‘War Ina Babylon’ by Max Romeo and The Upset­ters. A clas­sic track with a refrain that was fam­ously sampled by The Prodigy in 1992 for their single Out of Space, “I’m gonna send him to Out­er Space to Find anoth­er race”. Being a Prodigy fan and from Essex, this track was every­where grow­ing up.

In 1977 he pro­duced what has been described as the greatest Dub album of all time, The Con­gos’ ‘Heart of the Con­gos’. Tracks such as ‘Chil­dren Cry­ing’ are spir­itu­al and polit­ic­al with the dis­tinc­tions blurred (or made irrel­ev­ant in that they are in fact one and the same) in a bliss­ful elec­tron­ic sound­scape, the key chor­us line being Jah Jah Hmm…The Hungry must be fed, so there’ll be no more sufferation”.

The legend of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry was how­ever some­what over­shad­owed by his eccent­ric beha­viour, often described as a men­tal break­down which was said to have cul­min­ated in the stu­dio burn­ing incid­ent. Dav­id Rodigan’s auto­bi­o­graphy ‘My life in Reg­gae’ of 2017 addressed the pos­sib­il­ity of Perry in fact being a sham­an whose inco­her­ent ram­blings were actu­ally enig­mat­ic state­ments designed to first test and then enlight­en the listen­er. Rod­igan states that if one actu­ally listens then Perry’s state­ments make a lot of sense.

2008, saw the release of the album Repent­ance with the single P*m P*m, co pro­duced by Andrew WK. Crit­ics claimed that Perry had lost his magic here and instead made songs which cel­eb­rated th e mater­i­al­ism and excess of Babylon, how­ever ref­er­ences to the power of Christ with­in the single sug­gest that there is more to it than at what it at first seems.

In 2012, Perry made his first album with the ambi­ent elec­tron­ic group The Orb titled ‘The Observ­er In Star House’. The single ‘Golden Clouds’ fea­tures Perry’s vocals over an instru­ment­al that pays homage to The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds and is a must listen.

In 2018, Dr Edward George of Flowmotion/Hallucinator played me ‘Bird in Hand’ from Perry’s 1978 album Return of the Super Ape. This track blew my mind. A cov­er of the Hindi song ‘Milte Hi Ankhen’ from 1950. The sing­er Sam Carty did not speak Hindi and instead learned the song phon­et­ic­ally after hear­ing it. This is one of the most unique songs I have ever heard, think Clas­sic­al Bol­ly­wood meets Dub and I am yet to find any­thing sim­il­ar to it if such a thing even exists. This also in a way links back to my dis­cov­ery of Perry through the Asi­an Dub Foundation.

In Novem­ber 2019, I saw Lee Perry per­form at the Jazz Café. A sur­real moment was when the legend brushed passed my shoulder (I felt the power!) as he and his entour­age walked through the crowd into the back­stage area just as the war­mup DJ played a ‘Bird in Hand’.  I was sup­posed to write a review of the con­cert but I found it totally bizarre and couldn’t even begin to write about it. Perry took to the stage and made ram­bling philo­soph­ic­al pro­nounce­ments on life, death, the uni­verse, ali­ens, his c*ck size and excre­ment, through­out a set based around his greatest hits. His rendi­tion of Bob Marley’s Kaya (which he had pro­duced) brought the house down.  It was inter­est­ing to see him as a vocal per­former here, a part of his career that tends to be over­shad­owed by his stand­ing as a producer.

On Sunday 29th August 2021, the news of Perry’s death trickled through vari­ous Face­book posts and hit hard. Artist friends were post­ing their favour­ite tracks, vin­tage inter­view clips and pho­tos of meet­ings they had with Perry. A great sense of sad­ness per­meated the rest of the bank hol­i­day week­end. In trib­ute I pos­ted vari­ous Lee Perry/Upsetters tracks on Ins­tagram. The sheer volume of my favour­ite tracks and the vari­ety of artists that Perry pro­duced for and gues­ted on really hit me, the word pro­lif­ic here would be an understatement.

A recent Face­book post by Jazz War­ri­ors’ Clev­e­land Watkiss lam­basted the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of Grime artists stat­ing that only a single one men­tioned the passing of the legend, high­light­ing the strange dis­con­nect that Grime artists have with Dub/Roots. I have to agree with his sentiment.

Rest in Power – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry — 20 March 1936 — 29 August 2021 (There are cur­rently rumours of a duppy speed­ing around in a coffin through Jamaica as we speak…)

By DJ Isuru

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.


DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground. www.mishtidance.com


DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground. www.mishtidance.com