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The Upsetter: The Life and Legacy of Lee “Scratch” Perry

by Bret Love Nov 10, 2011
Before there was dubstep, before there was drum ‘n’ bass or trip-hop, before hip-hop emerged from the Boogie Down Bronx, there was Lee “Scratch” Perry.

And while it might be a stretch to suggest that the Jamaican legend invented these genres, it’s likely that they wouldn’t exist without him.

Born Rainford Hugh Perry in 1936 in the tiny Jamaican town of Kendal, the man has always been what you might call eccentric. But, like most mad scientists, he’s also proven himself to be endlessly inventive, approaching the mixing board like his own sonic laboratory.

He started out in the late ‘50s working sound systems (trucks loaded up with generators, turntables and huge speakers, which would rock lively Jamaican street parties) for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, eventually cutting more than 30 rocksteady and ska records for Dodd’s legendary Studio One label. After a financial conflict led to personal problems– a recurring theme throughout Perry’s career– he found a new home with the equally influential Joe Gibbs’ Amalgamated Records.

But by 1968 Perry had struck out on his own, forming the Upsetter label and releasing a hit single called “People Funny Boy.” The record was a direct insult of Gibbs, and was noteworthy both for its innovative use of a sample of a crying baby and for its laid-back rhythm– a sound that would soon come to be known as reggae.

“People Funny Boy”:

For the next four years Perry worked with his studio band The Upsetters, recording crucial reggae tracks such as “I Am The Upsetter” (a dismissal of Perry’s former boss Clement Dodd), “Chicken Scratch,” and “Return of Django,” with the latter reaching #5 on the UK singles chart.

Word of Perry’s studio wizardry began to spread, and his marijuana-fueled mixing board experiments led to the creation of the trippy, beat-centered sound of dub music. Jamaican party DJs would “toast” over these largely instrumental sides, trying to hype the crowd up and giving shout-outs to their friends, and a guy named DJ Kool Herc would eventually take the sound to America and create a movement called hip-hop.

During this era Perry recorded dozens of albums, both for himself and other artists. In 1970 and 1971, he recorded the LPs Soul Rebels and Soul Revolution with an up ‘n’ coming Jamaican trio called The Wailers, the Upsetters serving as the backing band for three future reggae superstars: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer.

The Wailers’ “Soul Rebel”:

Perry built the famous Black Ark studio in his backyard, where he worked with notable talents like The Congos, The Heptones, Junior Byles, and Junior Murvin. For a decade, Perry was arguably among the most influential musical masterminds in Jamaica.

But then, in the late ‘70s, a funny thing happened: Perry went batshit crazy. A combination of stress, excessive drug and alcohol consumption, and pervasive negative outside influences drove him beyond the brink, and legend has it he burned the Black Ark to the ground himself in a fit of rage. His musical output over the next decade became increasingly erratic, and many wrote him off as a has-been. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s, when he collaborated with a pair of British dub wunderkinds– Dub Syndicate’s Adrian Sherwood and Neil “Mad Professor” Fraser – that Scratch seemed to get his mojo back.

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Super Ape Inna Jungle”:

By the mid ‘90s, the rise in popularity of ambient, dub and drum ‘n’ bass sounds made Lee “Scratch” Perry hip again. Hip-hop fans discovered him via the Beastie Boys, who referenced Perry in the lyrics to their 1994 hit “Sure Shot,” featured an interview with the Jamaican legend as the cover story of the second issue of their Grand Royal Magazine, and recorded the song “Dr. Lee PhD” with him for 1998’s Hello Nasty.

In the liner notes of Beastie Boys Anthology: Sounds of Science, Mike D wrote, “We had all been influenced by Lee Perry’s productions. We were into how on reggae recordings there would often be a dub version on the b-side of a single– a practice that got co-opted by a few punk and early hip-hop singles as well.”

In the years since, Lee “Scratch” Perry’s status as a bona-fide music legend has been firmly cemented. He won a Best Reggae Album Grammy in 2003 for Jamaican E.T. In 2004, Rolling Stone listed him among their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. There are two movies being made about his life and work, including the excellent documentary The Upsetter by filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough.

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Wake The Dead”:

Despite his advanced age, Perry is still actively recording and touring, releasing Rise Again (recorded with Bill Laswell, P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, and Sly Dunbar) and playing the Animal Collective-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2011. With his trademark mirrored hat, colorfully dyed hair and beard, enough jewelry to make Mr. T jealous, and clothes that make him look like some sort of insane street corner prophet, the 75-year-old is a spectacular character. But, after over 50 years in the business, his contributions to the modern music scene are no joke.

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