Dub Pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry Dies at 85

Reggae visionary and eccentric dub pioneer, Lee “Scratch” Perry has passed away at the age of 85. Perry died on the 29th of August, 2021 at the Noel Holmes Hospital in Lucea, Jamaica. Although the cause of death is still unspecified, Perry’s wife, Mireille, stated on a social media post that her husband’s death was “totally unexpected and unbelievable! Lee Scratch Perry was not sick!” Promising to get justice for Perry’s untimely passing, Mireille also stressed in her post that Perry’s death was caused by people’s “money greed”, hinting at possible foul play.

According to the same post, Lee was looking forward to getting back on tour by October and establishing his £$P (LSP) Paradise community for music and art in western Jamaica. The day before his passing, the experimental reggae innovator posted a video of himself along with details laying out his plans to build his Paradise community, asking volunteers — “including permaculturists” — to help prepare the land. In classic Lee “Scratch” Perry style, the short video features the space dub genius in his ever so colorful and brightly chaotic get-up, chanting a prayer of introduction and blessings for his online followers and fans. To honor his legendary work, Perry’s wife vows to build the £$P Paradise community “in the exact way that he dreamt about.”

Born Rainford Hugh Perry on the 20th of March 1936 in Kendal, Jamaica, Lee Perry got his nickname “Scratch” from one of his earlier recordings in 1965 of a track called, “Chicken Scratch”. As a teenager, Perry was only interested in playing dominoes and “learning to read the minds of others”. He eventually moved to Kingston after experiencing a mystic revelation in connection with stones. “Kingston means ‘King’s Stone’, ‘The Son of the King’…the stone that I was throwing in Negril send me to King Stone for my Graduation,” Perry explained. He later found himself working at Studio One. He was hired by the studio’s head, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd as an apprentice at first, then worked his way through the ranks, in the end becoming one of the studio’s most important recording artists.

Scratch’s musical career started in the late 1950’s through his employment at Studio One, recording almost 30 songs under the label. But because of disagreements and financial conflicts, he would find himself jumping ship to Joe Gibbs’ Amalgamated Records, only to once again, reach a point of falling-out through financial issues.

After calling it quits with Joe Gibbs in 1968, he decided to set up his own label, Upsetter Records. He formed his own studio band, “The Upsetters”, recording, producing and releasing the most innovative and ground-breaking Jamaican music from 1968 to 1972. He wrote and released a couple of songs with taunting lyrics directed at his former producers, including “People Funny Boy”. The song mockingly starts its intro with a sample of a crying baby. It was a hit in Jamaica, selling 60,000 copies in the country and is considered as one of the earliest emergence of the “reggae” sound.

Lee Perry is known for his experimental approach to recording. He would include eerie samples of his voice over the music and various samples of random sounds, like clucking chickens, thunder, gunshots, and even the sound of marijuana smoke being blown into the microphone. His unique sound is also characterised by his liberal use of various studio effects and echo, giving the songs cosmic, ethereal and spacious textures. In one album alone, he unapologetically blends the rugged, earthy sounds of the old with the hi-tech and cosmic soundscapes of the new.

He is also known as the pioneering genius behind the simplistic and minimal, yet eccentric, approach to dub versions of pre-existing reggae songs, taking away most — if not all — of the vocal tracks, leaving only the drum and bass tracks as foundation, then sprinkling hints of melodic instruments and vocals all along the song, behaving as samples with exaggerated studio effects and dynamic auditory movements.

In 1973, he built his own independent studio in his backyard, “The Black Ark”, to have even more control over his sound and production process. He continued to work with notable names in reggae such as Bob Marley and The Wailers, The Heptones, The Congos, Junior Murvin (Police and Thieves) and Max Romeo among others. Those years of Perry’s production and mixing behind the desk at The Black Ark would later be considered as a very significant and important period in the history of reggae music. In 1983, The Black Ark era ended as Lee Perry himself set the studio ablaze, alleging that it was possessed by evil spirits.

After The Black Ark, Lee kept moving forward with his musical career, collaborating with artists in the UK and the US. He received a Grammy award for Best Reggae Album for the record Jamaican E.T. He went on to continue his life in music through the years with various live performances, collaborative recordings and productions, appearances on live radio and DJ shows, more musical award nominations and biographical documentaries about his life story.

Just like his music, Lee Perry’s colorful and striking dress sense is a reflection of his timeless and everlasting youthful presence. Here is a quote from the great sound innovator’s seemingly endless library of written and spoken chants: “I am an alien from another world, from outer space…I live in space — I’m only a visitor here. Some people are only here to collect property. I am here with my suitcase to collect only the good brains.”

If you would like to pay tribute to the “Eternal Thunder” that is Lee “Scratch” Perry OD (1936-2021), you can volunteer to help build his Paradise community or simply add one of his albums to your record collection. You can always book a courier service to deliver your purchase. You’ll be flying through space with “The Upsetter” in no time.