How Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry ‘Forever Changed the Sound of Music Everywhere’
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in 1977 London when I popped in to visit the already-legendary dub creator Lee “Scratch” Perry to get his reaction to a new version by the Clash of his song about corruption “Police and Thieves.” I was curious – Joe Strummer’s rasp was so different from the angelic falsetto of the original singer, a policeman from Port Antonio named Junior Murvin. How would Scratch react?
I was surprised to find Bob Marley sitting with him; Scratch was staying in an apartment over the studio where Marley, a fugitive after an attempt on his life in Kingston, was recording Exodus; and everyone in the room knew that Bob might not be the international superstar he already was had it not been for Scratch. For it was the visionary Scratch — impish, zany, forever keeping you guessing — who really pushed their sound forward in the 1960s, when the Wailers were a hot local ska trio. Just hear “Mr. Brown,” the most edgy, eerie Wailers’ song. Once heard, his dub productions’ space-bending textures, defying logic, would alter a listeners’ concept of sound for always.
But though I had covered Marley for a while (and very briefly, done his PR), I had never found the two together, or seen Bob so gleeful to be with anyone. Clearly, the reggae master was thrilled to be reunited with his own early mentor. Both men were elated, as if rediscovering a long-lost part of themselves. And the Clash? Startled at first, it only took a couple of bars for them both to dig it. Scratch nodded, beaming. “Me like how dem feel it.” Next thing you know, Scratch was producing Bob on “Punky Reggae Party” and the Clash’s “Complete Control.” And till the last, Scratch dyed his hair a la punk.
People always said Scratch was nuts, because he did things like stick a symbolic toaster up in a tree when he got sick of Rasta reggae DJs — called “toasters” — and dreadlocks in general. Once past his own Rasta phase, Scratch called them deadlocks and banned them from the Black Ark. At the same time, re-naming himself Pipecock Jackson, (one among a host of personae) he graffiti’d the entire studio with esoteric symbols, giving the compound the feel of an obeah shrine. Eventually, disillusioned beyond words with the industry and what he then saw as a phony Rasta paradigm for Jamaican music, he torched the place.
“His dub productions’ space-bending textures, defying logic, would alter a listeners’ concept of sound for always.”
Equally, Scratch would spin a hallucinatory argument that both bananas and coconuts were god. After being drenched in his meteor shower of trippy imagery and wordplay explaining how they contained everything necessary for both nutrition and shelter, one could only agree. When I told him in 1980 that everybody was saying he’d completely lost it, he answered with a sly laugh, “They all think I’m mad, don’t they? But they’re gonna burn up, baby! It’s Scratch’s time to laugh.”
But everyone agreed that when it came to sound, he was spot-on. In finessing rhythms, isolating bits of a track, muting others, and stirring it all up with some chilling found sounds, Scratch was laying the foundation for the next four decades of popular dance and electronica. Featuring those infamous DJ/toasters on the mike, Scratch led his generation in enabling all of hip-hop. You can hear Scratch in Hank Shocklee’s production for Public Enemy. The remix – that’s Scratch. There would be no reggaeton, no rave – or not as we know it – without his restless creativity. Apart from those he actually worked with in the non-Jamaican community, artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, Beastie Boys and the Slits’ Ari Up – he pioneered and expanded the use of the studio as an instrument in itself, which forever changed the sound of music everywhere.
When he came to Kingston as a teenager, Scratch had quickly become a primo fixer and selecter for the mighty Coxsone Dodd’s sound system (whose Studio One label had also released many early Wailers’ hits.) Then, with his Upsetters band, Scratch invaded the UK with hit spaghetti Western themed ska instrumentals like “Return of Django,” launching an ocean of global ska waves that’s still rocking.
When Scratch was able to go independent, he built The Black Ark studio. The fake-fur lined room set behind his bungalow on a busy main road, was a conveyor belt of reggae hits in the mid-1970s glory days. He would take a fine singer like Max Romeo, or a harmony trio like the Heptones or the Congos, and, doing a dervish dance with his 4-track TEAC tape machine, sprinkle his audio glitter on them and make them majestic.
In a long, stormy career, with Scratch often battling the industry, trying to get his own “Complete Control,” Scratch always worked. He continued to gig and record with dub descendants like Subatomic Sound System, Adrian Sherwood, the Mad Professor and the Orb (A posthumous album entitled Butterfly Sky is now being completed by Martin “Youth” Glover of the Orb and Killing Joke.)
But in my last hang with Scratch, in 2016, I caught perhaps the most dazzling surprise twist of a stupefying career. Having re-located to Switzerland some years before with his second wife, Mireille, he had re-invented himself yet again, and was now a successful conceptual performance artist; yet another fresh identity, and one that would endure alongside the music till the end.
Re-inventing his personal space was what Scratch did everywhere he went; a posh Manhattan hotel once asked him to leave for writing all over his walls.
Now, in a minimalist downtown LA art gallery, while the trendy set looked on, awed, Scratch was busy scribbling and coloring on pages torn from a child’s outline drawing book. Seemingly randomly pinning them to the walls, Scratch was joyous, looking as much in his element as he had back in the old Black Ark, as he turned the concrete box into a gaudy, fluttery wonderland.
Enjoying his transformation flashed me back to the Kingston studio in 1976. After the success of “Police and Thieves,” Scratch had decided to cut another version with Murvin, and I happened to be at the Black Ark. The singer stumbled over a line, and instead of “No-one wants to lend… ” he kept singing “Nobody.” Perfectionist that he was, Scratch made him do it over, crisply instructing, “No ONE, not nobody, Junior! ‘Body’s a dead t’ing, mon, you put it in da freezer!”
Physically, Scratch may be dead. But his work will never be stuck at the back of the freezer. As the earth gets hotter, Scratch’s revelatory sounds will only get cooler.