NYT Obituary: Lee (Scratch) Perry, Bob Marley Mentor and Reggae Innovator, Dies at 85

With a four-track tape recorder in his Jamaican home studio, he opened surreal sonic vistas and cultivated the image of a mad genius.

An obituary by Jon Pareles for The New York Times.

Lee (Scratch) Perry, the innovative Jamaican producer who mentored Bob Marley and pushed reggae into the sonic avant-garde with his dub productions, died on Sunday in Lucca, Jamaica. He was 85.

His death, at a hospital, was reported by Jamaican Observer and other Jamaican media; no cause was given. Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica tweeted condolences and praised Mr. Perry’s “sterling contribution to the musical fraternity.”

Mr. Perry wrote songs, led the studio session band the Upsetters and produced leading Jamaican acts in the 1960s and ’70s. He went on to collaborate internationally with the Clash, Paul and Linda McCartney, the Beastie Boys and many others. George Clinton and Keith Richards were guests on his albums.

Mr. Perry recorded dozens of albums under his own name and with the Upsetters; he also produced hundreds of songs for other performers. “All my records are angels,” he told Uncut magazine in 2018. “They are not flesh and blood, they are spirits.”

As a singer and frontman, he reveled in the image of a mad genius. He gave himself numerous nicknames — the Upsetter, the Super-Ape, Inspector Gadget, the Firmament Computer — and spoke about blowing marijuana smoke on his master tapes to improve their sound, or dousing them with blood or whiskey. He once boasted, “I am the creator of the alien race globally.”

In a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone, he said: “Being a madman is good thing! It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don’t come around and take your energy.”

Mr. Perry vastly expanded the possibilities of dub reggae in the 1970s, creating radical remixes that stripped songs down to their rhythm tracks and rebuilt them with samples (animal sounds, breaking glass, explosions) along with surreal echo and phasing effects to create hallucinatory aural spaces.

Albums like the Upsetters’ “Blackboard Jungle Dub” (1973) and “Super Ape” (1976) were as dizzying as they were danceable. One of Mr. Perry’s most exploratory albums, “Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Corn Bread,” released in 1978, was rejected by his international distributor at the time, Island Records, leading to a lasting rift.

Mr. Perry brought his dub techniques to the production of new songs on albums that would become reggae milestones. The recordings he concocted using minimal equipment — a four-track Teac tape recorder — would decisively influence hip-hop, post-punk, electronica and all sorts of other studio-tweaked music.

“The studio must be like a living thing, a life itself,” he once explained. “The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine perform reality. Invisible thought waves — you put them into the machine by sending them through the controls.”

Rainford Hugh Perry was born on March 20, 1936, in Kendal, in rural western Jamaica. His parents, Hugh Perry and Ina Davis, were laborers, and one of Lee’s early jobs was driving a tractor in the building of a road that would bring tourists to the western seaside town of Negril. He moved to Kingston, the capital, and started working for the producer and sound system owner Clement (Coxsone) Dodd in 1961, first as a gofer and record vendor and eventually as a talent scout, engineer and producer for Dodd’s Studio One, a Jamaican hit factory in the early 1960s.

Feeling exploited by Mr. Dodd, Mr. Perry joined a competitor, Joe Gibbs, at Amalgamated Records. He released “I Am the Upsetter,” a complaint aimed at Mr. Dodd, and continued to produce Jamaican hits. But he broke away from Mr. Gibbs as well.

Mr. Perry started his own label, Upset Records (soon renamed Upsetter), and its first release, in 1968, was a song attacking Mr. Gibbs, “People Funny Boy.” It became a hit in Jamaica and Great Britain. Presaging Mr. Perry’s later productions, it also featured the sound of a crying baby, and it was an early example of the midtempo rhythm that would soon define roots reggae.

Bob Marley and the Wailers had recorded with Mr. Dodd but went to work with Upsetter Records and Mr. Perry to make the albums “Soul Rebels” (1970) and “Soul Revolution” (1971). Mr. Perry encouraged Mr. Marley to explore spiritual and political themes, and songs like “Small Axe,” “Kaya” and “Duppy Conqueror” established the direction that would make Mr. Marley an international star.

But there were disputes over money. Mr. Perry sold rights to the Wailers albums to an English label, and Mr. Marley and the Wailers accused Mr. Perry of withholding royalties. “I pirated their music to expose them,” Mr. Perry claimed in a 2008 documentary, “The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry.” In 2010, the percussionist and singer-songwriter Bunny Wailer, a member of the band, told Rolling Stone: “He screwed us. We never saw a dime from those albums we did with him.”

Mr. Perry in 2001 outside the studio he built in his backyard in Kingston, Jamaica. He called it the Black Ark. 
Mr. Perry in 2001 outside the studio he built in his backyard in Kingston, Jamaica. He called it the Black Ark. 

Mr. Marley hired the Upsetters’ rhythm section, the brothers Aston and Carlton Barrett on bass and drums, and they became the foundation of the Wailers’ live band. Yet Mr. Marley and Mr. Perry didn’t stay estranged; in 1977, Mr. Marley enlisted him to produce the single “Punky Reggae Party.”

Living in the Washington Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, Mr. Perry built his own small studio, the Black Ark, in his backyard in 1973. He named it after the Ark of the Covenant and considered it a spiritual place. There he could record at any time and in any way he chose.

“Scratch dances with the board while he produces,” Vivien Goldman wrote in 1976 for the magazine Sounds. “Flicking switches with a twist of the hips, after a particularly elaborate movement he might spin round twice and clap his hands and be back in position for the next pull of a slide control. He’s aware of his studio audience, but dances in spite, not because of them.”

At the Black Ark, Mr. Perry stacked up layers of sound with multiple overdubs on each track of his four-track recorder; tape hiss only added depth and mystery to his mixes.

“One of his phrases was, ‘He had four tracks on the board and eight tracks in his head,’ ” Max Romeo, one of the singers Mr. Perry produced, told Mojo magazine in 2019. Among the enduring reggae albums that Mr. Perry made at the Black Ark were the Congos’ “Heart of the Congos,” Max Romeo’s “War Ina Babylon,” the Heptones’ “Party Time” and Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”— albums suffused with righteousness, compassion, determination and experimentation.

In the early days of English punk-rock, the Clash remade “Police and Thieves,” and when Mr. Perry visited England in 1977, he produced a Clash single, “Complete Control.” Paul and Linda McCartney built two songs on Mr. Perry’s tracks for Linda McCartney’s solo debut album.

But under the strains of constant recording, his marijuana and alcohol use, gang violence and political turmoil in Jamaica as well as extortion threats and his divorce from his first wife, Pauline Morrison, in 1979, Mr. Perry’s mental state grew troubled. In 1983, the Black Ark burned down.

There were various explanations, including faulty wiring. But to Mr. Perry “the studio had been polluted with unholy spirits,” as he put it in “The Upsetter” documentary.

“I was mixing good and evil spirits together in the Ark,” he said, “and then I had to burn it down to get rid of what I created.”

Mr. Perry in 2018. Over the years he was nominated for five Grammy Awards for best reggae album and won one for “Jamaican E.T.,” released in 2002.
Mr. Perry in 2018. Over the years he was nominated for five Grammy Awards for best reggae album and won one for “Jamaican E.T.,” released in 2002.

He moved to London in 1984 and resumed a copious, scattershot recording and performing career. Onstage, leading assorted lineups of the Upsetters and interspersing songs with free-associative speechifying, he stepped forward as a gaudily costumed wizard-jester-sage-extraterrestrial figure, like Sun Ra or George Clinton.

In the studio, he collaborated with producers who had been inspired by his 1970s dubs, making albums with Adrian Sherwood, Bill Laswell and, extensively, the British-Guyanese producer Mad Professor. On Sunday, Mad Professor posted on Facebook that they had enough material recorded for 20 more albums together and added: “What a character! Totally ageless! Extremely creative, with a memory as sharp as a tape machine! A brain as accurate as a computer!”

In 1989 Mr. Perry married Mireille Rüegg, a record-store owner who became his manager, and moved with her to Switzerland, where they lived until relocating to Jamaica in 2020. In addition to her, his survivors include their two children, Gabriel and Shiva, and four children from his first marriage: Cleopatra, Marsha, Omar and Marvin (Sean) Perry.

Recognition continued to grow for Mr. Perry through the decades. In 1998, the Beastie Boys featured him on their album “Hello Nasty,” employing his vocals and lyrics on “Dr. Lee, PhD.”

Mr. Perry was nominated five times for a Grammy Award for best reggae album. His album “Jamaican E.T.” (2002) won the award.

In 2018, he told Uncut magazine: “The reality is, all that craziness, all that madness, I made it work, because it’s nature. It’s natural grace. In nature we have the big space overhead, the big sky, the orbit. Nature is crazy! I want my records to sound as crazy as nature.”

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