LEE SCRATCH PERRY OBITUARY

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

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DJ ISURU

DJ ISURU

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, the next party will be on Octo­ber 2nd at Pop­lar Uni­on. Tick­ets — https://poplarunion.com/event/mishti-dance‑7/

About DJ ISURU

DJ ISURU
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, the next party will be on October 2nd at Poplar Union. Tickets - https://poplarunion.com/event/mishti-dance-7/