Like Sun Ra, King Tubby and George Clinton, Lee “Scratch” Perry is known as much for his eccentric personality and flamboyant sartorial style as his musical innovations. One of reggae and dub's undisputed pioneers, Perry helped shape Bob Marley and The Wailers' early sound. He was also among the first to use sampling techniques long before samplers were invented.
Born Rainford Hugh Perry in 1936, Perry moved from a small Jamaican village to the big city of Kingston, where he was hired as a runner, bouncer, talent scout and uncredited songwriter and arranger at Clement “Coxsone” Dodd's legendary Studio One. Perry earned his nickname from his first hit single, 1965's “Chicken Scratch,” which was released almost six years after his first record, Old for New (1959).
In 1966, Perry left Dodd for Joe Gibb's Amalgamated label, promptly releasing “I Am the Upsetter,” which dissed Dodd and earned Perry yet another nickname: The Upsetter. At Amalgamated, Perry, with the aid of Clancy Eccles, created the loping, bass-heavy “riddim” that is reggae's signature (as opposed to the frenetic ska rhythms popular at the time). Those loaded riddims, which redefined Jamaican music, first appeared on Perry-produced tracks such as The Pioneers' “Long Shot.” Perry described this sound as “stepping in glue.”
In 1968, Perry left Amalgamated and founded Black Ark studios, the Upsetter label and a band of the same name. His first release, 1968's People Funny Boy (which used tape loop “samples” of The Pioneers' “Long Shot”), took aim at Gibb and established Perry as a unique force in Jamaican music. When his song “Return of the Django” hit the British charts in '69, Perry and The Upsetters became the first reggae band to tour the UK, taking reggae out of Jamaica and into the world.
At Black Ark in the '70s, recording on a Teac 4-track, Perry developed Marley's distinctive rootsy sound and produced classics such as 1976's War Ina Babylon (Mango) by Max Romeo and The Upsetters, 1977's Police and Thieves (Mango) by Junior Murvin (which The Clash covered on their first album that same year) and The Congos' Heart of the Congos (Blood and Fire, 1977). The studio was also the womb from which Perry's classic LPs Super Ape (Island, 1976) and Blackboard Jungle Dub (Clock Tower, 1980) were born.
Under increasing pressure, Perry reportedly burned down his studio in 1979, leading to claims that he'd flipped his lid. He relocated to Europe and went on to record Time Boom X De Devil Dead (On U Sound,1987) with Adrian Sherwood, and to collaborate with Mad Professor. This year, he released Jamaican E.T. (Sanctuary/Trojan).
Bob Marley called Perry a genius, and the influence of his groundbreaking recordings continues to this day. Genius or madman, Perry and his densely layered sounds, eccentric and hilarious samples, and constant search for novelty created the sound that has influenced generations of reggae, dub and electronic artists.