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Lee Perry (1936 - )

Related: Black Ark Studio - black science fiction - Lee Perry and Bob Marley - eccentric - Jamaican music - music producer - reggae - remix - early sampling artist - dub

Recently released: I Am the Upsetter: The Story of Lee "Scratch" Perry: Golden Years (2005) - Lee "Scratch" Perry
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Inspired by: spaghetti westerns - kung fu films

Albums: Super Ape (1976)

Connoisseurs: Beastie Boys - David Katz - Mick Sleeper

Lee 'Scratch' Perry (photo credit David Corio)

Also known as Scratch, the great Lee Perry, whose daring at the mix controls was beyond compare during the period (mid-to late 70s) when he was making dub albums such as Blackboard Jungle and Super Ape. Unlike many other dub mixers, Scratch disrupted his more commercial songs with dub effects - "Cow Thief Skank", "Bathroom Skank", "Police And Thieves" - and made whole albums with singers that throbbed and groaned in a bizarre counterpoint to their efforts. Always an eccentric (he once torched his legendary Kingston Black Ark studios to the ground), his recent music has seen him descend into self-parody and (possibly) actual (as opposed to sonic) madness. --The A to Z of Dub David Toop, 1994

Having abandoned the Jamaican tropics for the snowy peaks of Switzerland, the legendary reggae producer Lee Perry—aka Scratch, the Upsetter, the Super-Ape, Pipecock Jackson, Inspector Gadget, the Firmament Computer, and a cornucopia of other monikers and aliases—now makes his home in one of the quietest corners of Europe. It's an odd but somehow fitting environment for Perry—not because precision clocks and banks have much to do with the intense, spooky, and profoundly playful records he's known for, but because Lee Perry had always been something of a stranger in a strange land. --Erik Davis, 1997 via http://www.techgnosis.com/dub.html [Nov 2006]

The Beastie Boys devoted an informed championing of Perry in their Grand Royal 1995 magazine which was responsible for a reappraisal of Lee Perry in recent years. [Aug 2006]

Like Sun Ra and George Clinton, Lee "Scratch" Perry grew up in a community where black people inhabited an otherized zone: they developed the black science fictions of the Afro-futurist diaspora.

"I see the studio must be like a living thing, a life itself. 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 and the knobs or you jack it into the jack panel. The jack panel is the brain itself, so you got to patch up the brain and make the brain a living man, that the brain can take what you sending into it and live." --Lee Perry


Lee "Scratch" Perry (born Rainford Hugh Perry March 20, 1936) is one of the most influential people in the development of reggae and dub music in Jamaica.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Perry's musical career first involved working with Clement Coxsone Dodd's sound system. He eventually performed a variety of important tasks at Studio One as well as recording about 30 songs, but the pair eventually stopped working together due to personality and financial conflicts.

Working with Joe Gibbs, Perry continued his recording career, but once again, financial problems caused conflict. Perry broke ranks with Gibbs and formed his own label, Upsetter, in 1968 (see 1968 in music). His first single "People Funny Boy", which was an insult directed at Gibbs, sold very well. It is notable for its innovative use of a sample (a crying baby) as well as a fast, chugging beat that would soon become identifiable as "reggae" (the new sound did not really have a name at this time). During the 1970s, Perry released numerous recordings on a variety of record labels that he controlled, and many of his songs were popular in both Jamaica and the UK. He soon became known for his innovative production techniques as well as his eccentric character.

In the early 1970s, Perry was one of the producers whose mixing board experiments resulted in the creation of dub. In 1973, Perry built a studio in his back yard, The Black Ark, to have more control over his productions and continued to produce notable musicians such as Bob Marley & the Wailers, Junior Byles, The Heptones, and Max Romeo. With his own studio at his disposal, Perry's productions became more lavish, as the energetic producer was able to spend as much time as he wanted on the music he produced. It is important to note that virtually everything Perry recorded in The Black Ark was done using rather basic recording equipment; through sonic sleight-of-hand, Perry made it sound completely unique. Perry remained behind the mixing desk for many years, producing songs and albums that stand out as a high point in reggae history. By 1978, stress and unwanted outside influences began to take their toll: both Perry and The Black Ark quickly fell into a state of disrepair. Eventually, the studio burned to the ground. Perry has constantly insisted that he burned the Black Ark himself in a fit of rage, but it was most likely an accident due to faulty wiring. After the demise of the Black Ark in the early 1980s, Perry spent time in England and the United States, performing live and making erratic records with a variety of collaborators. It was not until the late 1980s that Perry's career began to get back on solid ground again, after working with British producers Adrian Sherwood and Neil Fraser, better known as Mad Professor.

Perry now lives in Switzerland with his wife Mireille and two children. Although he celebrated his 70th birthday in 2006, he continues recording and performing to enthusiastic audiences in Europe and North America. His modern music is a far cry from his reggae days in Jamaica; many now see Perry as more of a performance artist in several respects. In 2003, Perry won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album with the album Jamaican ET. More recently, he teamed up with a group of Swiss musicians and performed under the name Lee Perry and the White Belly Rats, and made a brief visit to the United States using the New York City based group Dub Is A Weapon as his backing band. The definitive feature length film about his life story entitled "The Upsetter" is currently being made by filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Scratch_Perry [Aug 2006]

The Upsetters

The Upsetters were a young quartet of guitarist Alva Lewis, organist Glen Adams and brothers Aston 'Family Man' Barrett and Carlton Barrett, on bass and drums respectively. The group also recorded as The Hippy Boys. From 1968 untill 1972 they were the houseband of Lee Perry. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Upsetters [Aug 2006]

Recording history

Perry has made thousands of recordings, both under his own name and, like many reggae artistes, a variety of aliases. However, his solo output needs treating with caution. Reggae is a notoriously documentation-free environment, with such arcane notions as copyright barely getting a look-in (the usual trick is to credit a covered song as ‘adapted’ to avoid paying copyright fees), and conflicting accounts of who recorded what, where, with and for whom. Therefore the market is flooded with dubious quality recordings claiming to be by Perry, while his real connection is that he walked past the studio. Once.

For the uninitiated, the best way to approach Lee Perry/Scratch/The Upsetter is to check out Super Ape, a set from 1976, or track down a copy of Arkology, a box-set from 3 years back which, while exhaustive, contains my own Perry fave ‘Words’, by Perry and Anthony ‘Sangie’ Davis. Until you know you like the taste, best to avoid his late 80’s/90’s work, from what I call his ‘Permanent Red-Eye’ period. -- Paul Marko Paul Marko via http://www.punk77.co.uk/punkhistory/reggaepart2artists.htm [Jun 2005]

Kentucky Skank

[...] Perry was probably the first producer in Jamaica to overdub synthesizers in his 1974 "Double Seven" LP ("Kentucky Skank", "Double Six" "Soul Man"). Killer tracks include "Kentucky Skank", Perry's homage to KFC complete with deep frying sound effects [...] www.upsetter.net

Chronology by Sasha Frere-Jones

There's no one with a history in Jamaican music like Hugh Rainford Perry, born in 1936. Roughly speaking, there are four major phases of his career:

(1) 1963 to 1973: Perry interns with the legendary Coxsone Dodd, scouting talent like the Maytals, and helping record acts at Dodd s Studio One as the music evolves from mento to ska to rock steady to reggae. Eventually falling out with Dodd, Perry goes on to work with rival producer Joe Gibbs, forming the first versions of his own Upsetters house band and starting the Upsetter label. Perry s 1968 jab at Gibbs, People Funny Boy, slows down the beat of ska to create what Perry alleges is the beginning of reggae, but he'll have to joust with Toots about that one.

(2) 1969 to 1978: Perry teams up with the pre-Island Bob Marley and the Wailers, recording some of the most staggering roots reggae ever. Aston and Carlton Barrett abandon the Upsetters to join the Wailers full-time and Perry begins to work with excellent vocalists like Junior Byles, the Congos, and the Meditations. With King Tubby, Perry helps create dub, which he stretches to the breaking point in the next phase.

(3) 1974 to 1979: Perry builds the Black Ark studio in the yard of his home in Washington Gardens, one of the most mythologized locations in popular music, variously attributed with X-Files powers, unusual smells, invisible engineering attributes, and a palm tree with an audible heartbeat. Amid controversy, most of the Ark burns down in 1979 while Perry grows increasingly paranoid.

(4) 1980 to present: Records a hodgepodge of solo albums as a vocalist with various backing bands in New York, Kingston, New Jersey, London, and points elsewhere.--Sasha Frere-Jones

A Brief History of Scratch by Mick Sleeper

The amount of work that Scratch has been involved with over a 35 year career is nothing short of staggering. Scratch's story is more or less the story of Jamaican music: from humble beginnings, the groove takes root, grows strong and wide, and contains many branches. From the ska era to the first wave of reggae and the magnificence of the 1970s, Scratch was there all the way. Yet, there seems to be some confusion about Scratch's career by people who aren't hip to all of the periods he's done work in. Most people know him for his Black Ark masterpieces, others only know his later, more eccentric work, and some have never heard his early ska scorchers. As a reggaeologist, I started thinking about all of the distinct periods in Scratch's career, and therefore present the following seven eras for your consideration:

1. The Ska Era (1959 - 1966)
Mainly working behind the scenes for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, Scratch didn't get behind the microphone as much as he wanted, but when he did the results were usually solid. His music from the ska era does nothing to suggest that the young "King" Perry would one day become The Mighty Upsetter, yet many of his ska songs established a thematic cornerstone that he would use for the rest of his career.
Best examples: Pussy Galore, Chicken Scratch, Help The Weak, What A Good Woodman.

2. The First Wave Era (1967 - 1970)
Although Scratch is best known for his more innovative works, many of his productions are straightforward rock and soul inspired first wave reggae. However, considering that Scratch more or less invented the new reggae beat, his sound from this era is killer. With a few wild exceptions such as "Kimble", "People Funny Boy" and "The Tackro", there still wasn't a lot to suggest that Perry would soon live up to his Upsetter nickname. With a solid base of popular artists such as David Isaacs, The Bleechers, Dennis Alcapone, and The Shadows, Scratch mashed up the place with some of the catchiest tunes ever.
Best examples: Return Of Django, Live Injection, Medical Operation (The Upsetters), Tighten Up (The Untouchables), Leaving On A Jet Plane (David Isaacs), Prisoner Of Love (Dave Barker).

3. Proto Black Ark (1970 - 1974)
The first truly upsetting era, as Scratch's work began to take on a deadlier, weirder quality. Scratch's collaboration with Bob Marley was - of course - not only a turning point in both of their careers, but in the history of reggae. The new technique of dub entered Scratch's arsenal, as well as new technology such as synthesizers and special effects units. Many of the songs from this era foreshadow his Black Ark work.
Best examples: Mr. Brown, Fussing & Fighting, Duppy Conqueror (The Wailers), Cow Thief Skank (Lee Perry & Charlie Ace), Kentucky Skank (Lee Perry), Cane River Rock, Sipreano (The Upsetters).

4. Early Black Ark Era (1974 - 1976)
Now in command of his own studio, Scratch now could exercise complete control over everything from auditions to the final mix. One gets the feeling that for the first couple of years, Scratch was making a final set of test flights before blasting off for real - many of these first Black Ark tracks sound as if they were recorded earlier, at another studio. The "dirty" sound of the Black Ark hadn't emerged quite yet, but was just around the corner...
Best examples: Talk About It (The Diamonds), Yagga Yagga (Lee & Jimmy), Public Jestering (Judge Winchester), Cross Over (Junior Murvin), Brotherly Love (The Jolly Brothers).

5. The Black Ark Era (1976 - 1979)
Dreader than dread, dis ya one heavier than lead. During this time, Jamaica's most magnificent and memorable music was being made, and Scratch was responsible for much of it. The trademark "hissing / falling rain / chains in the dungeon" sound that the Black Ark is famous for finally emerges. Now at the height of his craft, Scratch ensures that the Black Ark was the cornerstone of the deadliest music in reggae.
Best examples: Police & Thieves, Roots Train (Junior Murvin), War Ina Babylon, Norman, Uptown Babies Don't Cry (Max Romeo), Children Crying, Ark Of The Covenant, Congoman (The Congos), Dreadlocks In Moonlight, Roast Fish & Cornbread (Lee Perry), Zion's Blood (The Upsetters), Vibrate On (Augustus Pablo).

6. Judgement Ina Babylon Era (1981 - 1987)
After the torching of the Black Ark in 1979 and his subsequent breakdown, Scratch drifted for several years. Gone were the days of producing other artists as the Upsetter concentrated on his own volatile songs, many of them aimed straight to the head of his (perceived) enemies. While most of his works from this period are quite wild, the complete "stream of consciousness" approach had not taken shape quite yet.
Best examples: Judgement Ina Babylon, Bed Jammin', Bafflin' Smoke Signal, Holy Moses, Eradication Squad.

7. Secret Laboratory Era (1987 - present)
With the magnificent Time Boom X De Devil Dead album (1987), Scratch more or less laid down a blueprint for all of his subsequent work: hard, fast, crazed lyrics delivered over electronic rhythm tracks with strange happenings around every corner. Scratch's famous "word salads" began to get tossed, as songs stopped having definite coherence and went off on wild tangents along the way. In this period, Scratch really stopped being a singer/musician per se and instead became more or less a performance artist. Art may imitate life, but for Scratch there's no difference between the two, as he uses water, fruit, paint, crazy clothes, and other things to create a mood and a vibe rather than just music.
Best examples: Kiss The Champion, Jungle, I Am A Madman, all of From The Secret Laboratory, Thank You, Heads Of Government, Train To Doomsville.
(copyright http://www.upsetter.net/scratch Mick Sleeper on Eternal Thunder )

External links

  • http://www.furious.com/perfect/leeperry
  • http://www.smokeyroom.net Smokey Room, nice pictures, and a useful discography, especially of Lee's twelve inches
  • http://www.upsetter.net Eternal Thunder by Mick Sleeper

    I Am the Upsetter (2005) - Lee "Scratch" Perry

    For the first time ever Lee Perry's golden years - from his groundbreaking 1968 single "I Am The Upsetter" to the final tracks that emerged from his fabled Black Ark studio - are documented, in this lavishly illustrated four disc set. Three of the discs focus on productions from 1968 to 1971, from 1972 to 1974, and 1975 to 1978 with the fourth disc focusing on dub and instrumental recordings from 1974 to 1978. Each disc features the top tunes from that period and include little known gems that have previously been the preserve of the serious collector. 88 tracks in all from such artists as U Roy, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romero, Augustus Pablo, Dillinger, The Mighty Diamonds, and many more. --from the publisher

    More albums

    Albums: Super Ape (1976)

    1. The Ultimate Collection - Lee "Scratch" Perry [Amazon US]
      1. Enter the Dragon 2. War Ina Babylon - Max Romeo & the Upsetters 3. Small Axe 4. Roots Train - Junior Murvin 5. Vibrate On 6. To Be a Lover (Have Some Mercy) - George Faith 7. Dupy Conqueror 8. Curly Locks - Junior Byles 9. Neckodeemus 10. Three in One 11. Congoman 12. Mr. President - Jah Lion 13. Dread Lion 14. Police & Thieves - Junior Murvin 15. Roast Fish and Cornbread [Extended Mix] - Lee "Scratch" Perry

      Ultimate Collection may be more aptly titled "Essential Collection" as it provides a definitive overview of the career of this notoriously peculiar Jamaican producer and artist. Lee "Scratch" Perry got his start in the legendary Studio One before making his musical mark on the greatest groups of 1970s Jamaica. This collection spans the length of the producer's fertile career, starting in the late 1960s with the molding of the then vocal group the Wailers into a reggae group with "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conquerer" before concluding with an extended mix of "Roast Fish and Corn Bread" from Perry's own repertoire of originals. The album is doused in the magical concoctions the eccentric "Ape" stirred up in his legendary Black Ark studio: listeners bear witness to the launching of Max Romeo's career with "War ina Babylon," the dub fruits of collaborations with Augustus Pablo ("Vibrate On"), and snippets of the prolific relationship with unknown vocal duo the Congos. With a mixed grab bag of historically important songs from the experimental dub master, Ultimate Collection is an essential starter CD for those interested in the mad genius that was Lee "Scratch" Perry. --Karen K. Hugg for Amazon.com

    2. Police and Thieves - Junior Murvin - Lee Perry production [Amazon US]
      1. Roots Train 2. Police & Thieves 3. Solomon 4. Rescue Jah Children 5. Tedious 6. False Teachin' 7. Easy Task 8. Lucifer 9. Workin' in the Cornfield 10. I Was Appointed A terrific slice of roots reggae, and one of the greatest works to come out of the Black Ark. At first, the rest of the album seems overshadowed by two giant tunes, "Police & Thieves" and "Roots Train", but you soon realize that most - if not all - of the album is equally strong. Junior's unearthly falsetto voice rides high on top of Perry's thick and smoky rythyms. Killers include "Police & Thieves" (surely one of the greatest and most poignant reggae songs ever), the stand up and sing "Roots Train", and the deadly "Lucifer". --Mick Sleeper

    3. Heart of the Congos - Congos - Lee Perry [Amazon US]
      Track Listings Disc: 1 1. Fisherman 2. Congoman 3. Open up the Gate 4. Children Crying 5. La Bam-Bam 6. Can't Come In 7. Sodom and Gomorrow 8. Wrong Thing 9. Ark of the Covenant 10. Solid Foundation 11. At the Feast 12. Nicodemus Disc: 2 1. Congoman [12" Mix] [12" Mix] 2. Congoman Chant 3. Bring the Mackaback 4. Noah Sugar Pan 5. Solid Foundation [Disco Cork Mix] [Disco Cork Mix] While I don't know if this album "makes a collection" or what not, it is certainly one of my faves to session with and is also super-strong, musically speaking. Excellent production (by the Congos)and of course the Lee Perry/The Scientist synthesis on mixing are simply sublime. It is a shame the Congos specifically and reggae in general is relegated to such a subsecondary position of interest in the musical world. This music and the amenities that go with it are truly the healing of the nations. spliffasaurus for amazon.com

    4. Return of the Super Ape (1978) - Lee Scratch Perry & Upsetters [1 CD, Amazon US]
      1. Dyon-Anaswa 2. Return Of The Super Ape 3. Tell Me Something Good 4. Bird In Hand 5. Crab Yars 6. Jah Jah Ah Natty Dread 7. Psyche & Trim 8. The Lion 9. Huzza A Hana 10. High Rankin Sammy
      This is perhaps the spookiest Upsetters album (the horrific cover art should tip you off). Jammed with violent sound effects, jazz riffs, and a menacing, brooding atmosphere, this album is a must. The LP version of Return Of The Super Ape might be okay, but the CD version was apparently mastered from poor quality vinyl. A better choice is Original Super Ape, which combines all of these songs plus five dynamite bonus tracks. --Mick Sleeper

    5. Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread (1976) - Lee "Scratch" Perry [1 CD, Amazon US]
      1. Soul Fire 2. Throw Some Water In 3. Evil Tongues 4. Curly Locks 5. Ghetto Sidewalk 6. Favorite Dish 7. Free Up The Weed 8. Big Neck Police 9. Yu Squeeze My Panhandle 10. Roast Fish & Cornbread This mouth-watering recipe may be the tastiest to come out of Perry's Black Ark kitchen-studio. Is the aging Upsetter truly mad these days, or just playing it his way? All one can say for sure is that he's working it and definitely getting paid. Most fans, though, prefer classic treats like this reissued early set, with the pre-hip hop music giant in relatively sound mind, freestyling his unique brand of uninhibited mind-science and down home rules for clean living over tracks of his own creation. Lee Perry is the original B-boy, one of the first to mic-toast over a dub track at a sound system dance. After he decided to come indoors and put it all down on wax, he was the first to scratch a record and press the sounds of daily life--ringing bells, barking dogs--into service of his muse. --Elena Oumano for amazon.com

    6. Arkology - Lee Scratch Perry [3 CD, Amazon US]
      The nearly four hours of astounding music encoded on these three discs merely scratch the surface of the highly personal sonic universe created by this legendarily eccentric, yet ridiculously prolific, dub-reggae producer. It's still the best source of entry into Lee "Scratch" Perry's world, though, a place defined by homemade avant-garde production techniques applied to the wittiest, angriest, sexiest, and most soulful reggae tunes ever written. Perry was born in 1936, and his career spans the history of Jamaican music. These 52 tracks, however, derive mainly from the late 1970s, when he was at the height of his considerable powers and recording hits like Max Romeo's "War in a Babylon" and Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" for Island. Helpfully annotated, with a healthy handful of unreleased tracks, Arkology is a beginner's banquet of tracks that sound increasingly deep, daring, and downright frightening as the depth of Perry's talent is plumbed. --Richard Gehr

    People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry (2001) - David Katz, Rainford Hugh Lee Perry

    1. People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry (2001) - David Katz, Rainford Hugh Lee Perry [Amazon US]
      In reggae music, only Bob Marley rivals Lee "Scratch" Perry in importance. Scratch collaborated on some of the Wailers' best early stuff, and indeed, Marley's "career was largely shaped by creative interaction with Perry." Katz spent years sifting Perry's true story from the legends about him. Confusion about his birth date is to be expected, for public record keeping has not been a high priority in Jamaica, but Perry further muddled matters by claiming to hail from Jupiter, the sky, and Africa, as well. And then, "it is worth noting that the regular use of ganja . . . result[s] in short- and long-term memory loss." Ganja is, of course, a leitmotif of Perry's biography, and fans of Timothy White's Bob Marley book, Catch a Fire (rev. ed., 1995), will appreciate Katz's further exploration of the ganja-permeated world of reggae. Collections serving world music and pop music fans should consider this piece of reggae history absolutely essential. Mike Tribby for American Library Association

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