When I moved to Kingston, Jamaica, in 2003 for a job, it was in the month that Lee “Scratch” Perry won the best reggae album Grammy for Jamaican ET, a record that, in true Scratch style, contained everything including the kitchen sink. I remember tuning in to a call-in radio programme during which Jamaicans were wondering who this guy was. It was not entirely surprising – Perry, though arguably the most influential Jamaican artist (and therefore arguably one of the most influential artists ever), is most renowned for his work as producer rather than frontman.
In truth, Perry – who has died aged 85 – was astoundingly skilled and prolific in both roles, and so it would be laughable to attempt any comprehensive “best of” or representative listing of Perry’s work (though you could turn to this good primer by David Katz, author of the exhaustive and essential 2000 biography People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry). The music he created seems to expand – perhaps explode – all notions of what music can be, so it is more prudent to pick some standouts that demonstrate his breadth and depth than a definitive greatest hits.
Though Perry’s career reaches back to the 1960s, and his first single People Funny Boy, it might be best to start with Bob Marley. Reggae and dancehall scholar Sonjah Stanley Niaah was clear when I asked about Perry’s best songs: “Scratch was such an influence that my favourite is not about a particular song but the body of material, especially the Bob Marley and the Wailers material which he was instrumental in producing.” As Perry put it, he “gave Bob Marley reggae as a present”.
If Perry gave away reggae, it’s because he had dub up his sleeve. The track often referred to as Black Panta, on the album Upsetters Dub 14 Blackboard Jungle, first released in 1973 in Jamaica, is exemplary of the genre. With the studio as his instrument, alongside the Upsetters band, he was able to construct thickly layered tracks that contain sounds and textures that throb and pulse.
It’s impossible to speak of Perry without referencing the Black Ark, his not particularly technologically advanced studio, where he was able to act as, in his words, a “miracle man”. Tussen 1973 en 1978, he produced work that is nothing short of magical. Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon, the Heptones’s Party Time and Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves are the canonical records of this period. The latter sounds like it exists on a different plane, revolutionising the sound of reggae.
Perry was also a master of ambience. The whole of 1977’s Heart of the Congos is a masterpiece, but Children Crying (complete with mooing cow, thanks to the use of a children’s toy) is stunningly, dazzlingly beautiful: bouncing rhythm and vocals that sound as though they are floating through the bluest of blue skies over the greenest of hills.
From a dub perspective, explore 1976’s Super Ape and 1978’s Return of the Super Ape, both featuring the Upsetters. The first is absolute genius from beginning to end; the second has the dubious distinction of being the last Upsetters release before Perry destroyed his Black Ark studio after a period of eccentric and erratic behaviour. This being said, even when reportedly struggling, Perry was able to produce something as relaxed as Tell Me Something Good, sampling Rufus and Chaka Khan.
Though Perry is not known primarily as a vocalist, he often creates sublime music when he gets behind the mic. On 1978’s Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Corn Bread – his first solo album – his subject matter is varied: Curly Locks is a Rastafari love song (and cover of a much smoother Perry-produced recording of Junior Byles van 1974), while Throw Some Water In is an ode to healthy living, and Evil Tongues calls out false friends.
The post-Black Ark period is widely considered to be uneven, but that’s expected from someone as prolific as Scratch. The 1980s brought forth the LSD-fueled Return of Pipecock Jackxon, and also saw Perry spend time in the UK, meeting English dub/reggae producer Adrian Sherwood and guitarist Mark Downie – the latter connection producing Battle of Armagideon (Millionaire Liquidator) in 1986, the first track of which offers a reintroduction to Scratch for those who aren’t already aware.
Perry also began working with Neil “Mad Professor” Fraser in the 80s, but their 1995 collaboration Super Ape Inna Jungle is particularly memorable. The track I’m Not a Human Being not only provides further insight into Perry’s persona, but also demonstrates the direct link between Perry and the wider universe of electronic dance music that can trace its roots back to dub production techniques: in this case, jungle.
Scratch worked with a huge range of not-so-reggae collaborators – from the Clash in the 1970s aan the Beastie Boys in the 1990s, to more recent collaborations with folks such as Andrew WK, Keith Richards en Brian Eno. (Apparently there also exists an unreleased project with Mouse on Mars.) Perry’s self-identification as extraterrestrial puts him firmly alongside such Afrofuturist luminaries as Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic, so Headz Gonna Roll, a funky hip-hop track made alongside George Clinton, is particularly apt.
In April of this year, at the height of the second wave of the pandemic, where each socially distanced day was just like the last, I had the opportunity to listen to Jamaican scholar Isis Semaj Hall discuss Perry’s sense of time. Taking a deep dive into African Hitchiker [sic], found on 1990’s From the Secret Laboratory (another collaboration with Adrian Sherwood), Semaj Hall explained how Perry presents himself as hitchhiking from life event to life event, “diverging from a linear western time and returning to an African sense of time, one that is built on a long past that is always evolving into a present.”
As we all consider the idea of a post-Covid future, maybe we need to turn to Scratch for advice. He can, according to Semaj Hall, “help us make new sense – decolonial sense – of time and the various events that are unfolding all at once. Maybe we can find new freedoms and new pathways to self preservation, maybe we can hitchhike our way and upset time.” We just need to listen. Na alles, as Scratch himself said, 'music is magic”.