Happy Birthday Lee “Scratch” Perry, Reggae’s Wickedest Octogenarian
Building studios and burning them down
There aren’t many living legends who are still touring and rocking stages in their 80s. By the time those golden years roll around, it’s usually about sitting back with the fam, writing memoirs or just some serious chill time. But for Lee “Scratch Perry” it’s business as usual. (Check out his 2017 tour dates here.) Although the visionary producer/engineer/performer celebrates his 81st birthday today, he still travels the globe touring and giving his fans a run for their money. He may arguably be the only reggae artist at his age with a successful career.
Grammy-winner Toots Hibbert, the man who recorded the song “Do The Reggay” with the Maytals, is also doing live gigs—he plays Coachella this year—but Toots is still in his late 70s. A spring chicken compared to Scratch aka The Upsetter, aka Super Ape, aka Pipecock Jackson.
Rainford Hugh Perry was born 81 years ago today in the rural Jamaican parish of Manchester. When he moved to Kingston he began working with pioneering sound system operator and producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd who established the legendary Studio One.
While Coxsone gave Scratch his start, he ended up falling out with Coxone. “I was giving Coxsone a lot of ideas. And most of the ideas he give it to, like, Delroy Wilson to sing. And I did want to sing myself but him think my voice wasn’t good enough to sing. So I say ‘OK, I’m gonna teach him a lesson,’” he told me a couple years ago when Perry invited me to sit down with him in a grand old English guest house in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, where he’d just gotten through performing at the UK Lakefest music festival.
When Scratch left Studio One to do his own thing, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer would continue to work with him at other studios such as Studio 17 in North Parade. After they began working there, the studio was upgraded which apparently upset The Upsetter. The sound of the studio had changed so he left to establish his own studio “The Black Ark,” which became the hub of his experimental sounds.
“I made the Black Ark to make a revenge on Coxsone. To bring Coxsone down to nothing and to make him know that I can sing. Him say me can’t sing. So me going to prove me can sing. So me build the Black Ark so that he can’t tell me that me can’t sing. And when me finished with him, he was nothing. When I finished with him he couldn’t walk anymore. He was crippled.”
(Fact Check: The late Sir Coxsone Dodd, O.M. was never physically crippled at any point during his long and distinguished career. Perhaps Scratch is taking poetic license, speaking metaphorically as it were. Or maybe he really is a madman, as many people claim.)
The Black Ark was where he and the Wailers created the seminal recordings collected on the immortal album African Herbsman. Among these were songs like “Mr Brown” which describes a “Duppy”—or ghost — whose bizarre exploits were written up in the Jamaican newspapers. He also made the record “Chris Blackwell is a Vampire,” a pointed attack at the Island Records founder who signed Marley to a record deal and also put out many of Scratch’s productions.
You may be noticing a pattern here: Scratch truly did not give a fuck. He soon became known as a “mad genius” whose talent could not be squashed, and who was liable to speak out on anything and everything on his mind.
“Mr. Brown” and “Vampire Chris” were not the only duppies that Scratch dealt with in his musical career. He is famous for his many creative rituals, which include blessing the studio with some sprinkles of white rum before he gets to work on the dub controls. “The duppies love white rum very much,” he told me. “And the duppies love giving you trouble. So you give them some white rum and they don’t give you no more trouble.”
Using such unorthodox methods, Scratch would go on to produce such worldwide hits as Jr. Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” which The Clash would cover on their debut album, and Max Romeo’s War Inna Babylon album, which was sampled by Kanye West for the Jay Z track “Lucifer.”
Eventually Scratch burned down his Black Ark Studio and relocated to Europe. “Not even me can wipe out the Black Ark,” he explained when asked about this strange decision. “Because why it is black? No care how white you are, your shadow is black. And no matter how pink you look, your shadow is black. You understand me? If you are Indian or Chiney, or a negro or a white man, your shadow must be black. So the power of black is very serious. But the black man don’t know that him powerful. They can’t make him know yunno. Because he will kill the judge and kill the barrister them too, and kill the jury.”
Here’s how Scratch gets down in the studio and what rituals he thinks are important to produce fly sounds.
Never one to hold his tongue scratch speaks on why he parted ways from Coxone Dodd and why he eventually burned down his studio.