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