Lee "Scratch" Perry's death is a massive loss on many levels, but perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of it is realizing how much a single person can transform music on the whole. There have been numerous books, films, and other media documenting the Jamaican producer's biographical information, so I'll keep that to a minimum, but for those unaware; Lee Perry was born Rainford Hugh Perry in Kendal, Jamaica in 1936. By his teenage years he had left school and started recording reggae and ska tracks for various labels, eventually launching his own label, studio, and solo career by the late ‘60s. Perry, nicknamed "Scratch," or "The Upsetter," developed a one-of-a-kind production sound that graced not just a wide swath of landmark reggae records, but also breathed weird life into productions from rock and punk acts. He was active without stopping for for over sixty years, and before he died at age 85 on August 29, 2021, his boundless creative approach helped lay the foundation for many tangents of reggae, as well as what germinated into hip hop, electronic music, post-punk, noise, and much more. Modern pop production is still catching up to ideas Perry played with decades earlier. Even if you've never heard a note of music Lee Perry was involved with, the odds are good that you're a fan of something that stems from ground he broke.
It's easy to overstate the importance of an artist immediately after they die, but without exaggeration, Lee Perry simply never sounded like anyone else. His production style had a specific blur to it that was simultaneously bright and deteriorating. Psychedelic rock bands and modern composers of the ‘60s were running wild with backwards guitar solos and reassembled tape cut ups, but Perry went further, burnishing the lines of where song and production met. There's ongoing debate as to whether it was Perry or King Tubby who should be credited with inventing dub, the practice of reimagining a reggae song by bringing various elements in and out of the mix and applying healthy amounts of delay and reverb to the splinters of sound. Both producers pioneered the craft in the late ‘60s, but regardless of who did it first, Perry's dub vision saturated everything he touched. Where other producers used dub mixes to unravel otherwise straightforward songs, Perry's versions could sometimes be tamer renderings of his original mixes. His psychedelia lived in the details of everything he made, and even with literally thousands of tracks to choose from, you'd be hard pressed to find one without something remarkable or pleasantly shocking about the production.
The very essence of studio experimentalism changed because of Perry's work. Sounds that showed up first in his dub versions of reggae tracks slowly morphed into remixes and extended instrumentals of ‘80s dance tracks, which in turn informed much of the house and electronic music scenes that followed. Perry was one of the most precise early examples of using the studio as an additional instrument, turning basic arrangements inside out by layering percussion, dousing the instruments with reverb, or adding jarring sound effects at will. Perry's use of sound effects began to qualify as rudimentary sampling as early as his 1968 solo debut "People Funny Boy," which kicked off with the sound of a baby crying in rhythm with the backing track. Other productions throughout the early ‘70s included rhythms that interlocked with non-musical sounds, and even some proto-rap toasting from Perry that other Jamaican deejays like U-Roy and Dennis Alcapone were getting into at the time. It all eventually filtered into what became hip hop, with the more adventurous producers echoing Perry's unbridled rule-breaking as the years went on. If the Sugarhill Gang walked so the Wu-Tang Clan could run, Lee Perry overdubbed the sound of mooing cows on otherwise poignant and mysterious songs so Timbaland could build a top 40 R&B hit around a sample of a gurgling baby.
Oozing color and intensity from his language, wardrobe, and every other facet of his public image Perry somehow embodied the trope of the eccentric musical genius while also outpacing it. He buried master tapes in the ground after blowing ganja smoke all over them, gave interviews that sounded like fragmented riddles and prophecies, and he allegedly burned down not one but two of his studios; first his legendary Jamaican sound lab Black Ark in 1979 which he long claimed to have torched in a blind rage, and then a studio in Switzerland that was destroyed in 2015 when Scratch apparently left a candle burning. Perry wore the persona of the mad scientist (not to be confused with other notable dub practitioner Mad Professor, or mild-mannered Jamaican dub superhero Scientist) loudly and garishly, and it might have felt more like self-mythologizing or performative bluster if he hadn't backed it up with a superhuman work ethic and music that consistently sounded like it came from another planet. A lot of costumed weirdo genius types make a solid private press record and spend decades coasting on its legacy. Scratch had a hand in so much music his discography became unmanageable and sprouted weeds in the form of bootleg compilations and illegitimate releases. The scale of his output hit me recently when I was scolded in the comments of a review I wrote for AllMusic by a reader pointing out that the album in question wasn't even authentically Perry's work, and I wasn't versed in his output well enough to know the difference. The commenter suggested fans check out a website that exhaustively laid out Perry's winding discography, including a section on fake releases bearing his name. The commenter was right! I had been a super fan of Perry's work for over 20 years and still completely out of my depth when it came to grasping just how much he'd created. He worked non-stop from the late ‘50s until right up to the time of his death, performing concerts into his 80s and working with everyone from Bob Marley to the Clash to Paul McCartney while churning out volumes of genre-defining work of his own under the Upsetters banner. In 2021 alone he was connected to at least five new albums. Perry left behind a nearly unfathomable ocean of music, and that's just the stuff that got a proper release. A friend of mine befriended Perry a few years ago when he was traveling through Jamaica, and Perry sent him home with a gift of a duffel bag filled with sun-baked cassette tapes of miscellaneous unreleased music that had been sitting dormant since the mid-'80s. It would take a special kind of madness just to maintain the level of unflagging creative drive Perry did, effortlessly, for his entire life.
Like many people my age who grew up in the Midwestern U.S., I discovered Lee "Scratch" Perry when he was the subject of a lengthy profile in the second issue of the Beastie Boys' short-lived print magazine Grand Royal. Information circulated at a different speed then, so even though the magazine was published in 1995, it took a little over a year before I got my hands on a borrowed copy and began absorbing the massive amount of well-researched information on this curious figure I'd never heard of before. At that point I was just about to turn 20 and anything but a reggae fan. I'd just recently branched out from strictly listening to punk and aggressive, noisy rock bands when a friend had played me Guided by Voices and something in their perpetually fading melodies struck me in a softer, but equally powerful way. In fact, I might have glossed over learning about Perry completely if I hadn't been fascinated by a section in the article that illuminated his production method of working with only four tracks and repeatedly bouncing tracks down as he did his mixes on the fly. As a fledgling musician writing songs on a four track in my bedroom, this caught my interest, but when I finally tracked down something to listen to in the form of the Perry-produced masterpiece Heart of the Congos, I was floored in a way that changed everything for me from that point forward. On a technical level, I couldn't wrap my mind around how the music was made. I understood there was a dramatic difference between the sounds Perry got out of his weighty studio gear and cosmic tape echo units and what I could get out of my cheap cassette Portastudio and pawn shop delay pedal, but it wasn't even a matter of comparison. I had simply never heard, or felt, music like this before. It went deep on so many levels at once in a way that felt completely fluid and second nature while excitedly contradicting itself at every turn. The songs were mournful and sunny, playful and foreboding, uplifting and decaying, and all threaded together by Perry's supernatural ability to reshape the sounds being made by mere mortals playing together in a room into something mystifying. It was bigger than music.
On a personal level, taking on the never ending task of trying to understand how Perry did what he did opened my life up in ways that I might not have found otherwise. On top of the standard awkwardness and insecurity a lot of people grapple with in their early 20s, I spent about two years dealing with some scary and confusing health issues that were abnormal for someone my age. Repeated experiences with shrugging doctors and painful tests kept me in a state of hanging dread and exhaustion. While I waited for something to change with my health, I became anxious and neurotic, living a muted life indoors while I watched my friends having what looked like amazingly fun and formative times without me. Listening to Lee Perry activated a new perspective for me. His records were otherworldly, sometimes even menacing, but almost never felt heavy. There was a lightness in even the most chaotic moments. Even as the sound of explosions crashed through the mix and demonic screeching arrived out of nowhere to upset the rhythms, there was still a sense of friendliness and kindness, even if it was accompanied by a mischievous grin. In a time where nothing felt certain or safe for me, it was extremely freeing to hear music that seemed to reassure me that I could withstand the unknown, that it might even be fun and necessary to relinquish control and see where life took me. At the time I had also been getting a lot out of the cold catharsis of Wire and Joy Division, but getting into The Upsetter helped me tap into a way of looking at the world that I desperately needed, and wasn't finding in the rigid lines of post-punk. My weird illness eventually vanished in the same nebulous way as it had arrived, but in the process, listening to Lee Perry gave me the strength to believe I could get through it without having to understand it. I've carried that feeling or some extension of it with me ever since.
Much as his music sent me down a personal path that can't be backtracked, Perry's life of ceaseless work and singular artistry opened countless gates that can never be closed. More than just a visionary producer or a colorful personality, Perry dedicated himself to making art that challenged and at times even toyed devilishly with the accepted parameters of what music could be. A massive discography full of sonic innovation and unprecedented experimentation at every turn is no small feat, but again, what Perry left behind is quietly larger than music. The totality of his work indirectly communicates the idea that there is always something beyond the known. There are always unseen possibilities, always worlds beyond, always a different version of reality waiting to be explored. Perry's artistry gleefully exhibited that mindset for decades, and the lifetime of amazing music he left behind serves as a reminder that we, too, can look beyond what's in front of us. That we're capable of finding new ways to open the gates.