Lee “Scratch” Perry (1936–2021)

Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died last week at the age of 85, wasn’t just a sonic genius — he was also a politicized producer whose work was full of demands for justice.

Lee “Scratch” Perry in Munich, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

“When people get Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry records, they are getting education from the past, education from the present, and education from the future.” There’s a webpage that just lists quotes from Lee Perry interviews — most of them given in the decades when he’d effectively retired, and just went round the world playing gigs and recording the occasional album.

Many will know Perry more as an eccentric old dude who appeared at festivals rather than the producer who created literally hundreds, possibly thousands of brilliant records in Jamaica during the 1960s and 1970s, but that quote pins down a lot about Perry. His records could combine time periods in one side of a 7″ single, ancient, futuristic, and contemporary, inspired by the Bible, outer space, and what was going on at that moment outside in the street (another quote: “I believe in the Bible, because I live in the Bible”).

Perry contained multitudes — rural and futuristic, a science fiction traveler, a Biblical literalist, a postcolonial prophet, and a bawdy, cheesy comedian, often on the same record — but a lot of what made him so remarkable was an ability to make apparently impossible things work.

To call Perry a genius is one thing — he clearly was — but people like him weren’t supposed to become experimenters in sound. Perry was born into a family of laborers in rural Jamaica — born, in fact, when it was a ruthlessly exploited sugar-producing colony of the British Empire. The particular genius he had came in part from a skill in making a virtue of necessity.

Remarkably, given its tiny population, more musical innovations probably came from post-independence Jamaica than anywhere else on earth in the late twentieth century — sound systems, rap, remixing, all have their roots here. The latter two came out of the need to put out records without having to pay for extra studio time (and to have to pay the musicians twice), so the same basic track was “versioned” again and again, with either a “talkover” by an MC or with sound effects applied to the basic rhythm. Perry specialized in this sort of creative reuse — you could fill an album with versions of the Psalms-derived “Words of my Mouth” for the Gatherers. He had a genuinely alchemic ability to turn shit into gold.

Obituaries for Perry concentrate on his early ’70s work with Bob Marley — essentially turning him from a minor Jamaican pop star into a politicizedexperimental rocker, on two albums and half a dozen singles that were by far the best of his career — and rightly, on the Black Ark, the tiny shed of a studio with its Marcus Garvey–derived name where Perry made his most famous work. Most of what a Jamaican studio did in the ’70s was churn out a vast quantity of 7″ singles — dozens of compilations since the 1980s have chased up and rereleased these, with a seemingly infinite supply — but Perry combined this with a series of albums that are as serious, as thoughtful, as political, and far more musically adventurous than anything being made in New York, Los Angeles, or London at the same time.

Producing, arranging and often cowriting Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon and Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, both in 1976, Perry made music that was futuristic, militant, and always tightly coherent. These two would enthuse punk rockers for their Biblically-infused, strident politics, but they could equally be taken as pure sound, something Perry delved into on the electrical storm of his own Super Ape; they could be straight-up soul records, gorgeous and delicate, like George Faith’s To Be a Lover or the Heptones’ Party Time; while some of the most enduringly powerful records he produced at this point were pure religious music, most famously the Congos’ earthy, unearthly, and devoutly Rastafarian Heart of the Congos.

But there’s more than experimentation for its own sake here. You can hear an entire political history of Jamaica in the records Lee Perry “produced and directed” from the late 1960s until the late 1970s. As in so many countries in the Americas, the 1970s was a period in which an attempt to break from neocolonialism met the heavy hand of the CIA. In 1972, the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party was defeated in a landslide by the left-wing populist People’s National Party (PNP), led by Michael Manley, with a democratic socialist program that was strongly supported by many reggae artists. When the PNP was reelected in 1976, a US-aided destabilization program led to a wave of murders and political violence, ending only when the Jamaica Labour Party was elected in 1980.

There were a few very committed socialists in reggae production in the ’70s — Channel One’s house band were known as the Revolutionaries for a reason, and singers like Max Romeo were forthright about where they stood. Perry was a sharp businessman and not one to be pinned down, but you can still hear this shift from revolutionary optimism into disillusion and finally despair in his voluminous mid-late ’70s output.

Early ’70s records like the Upsetters’ “Justice for the People” or Junior Byles’s “Beat Down Babylon” are both as hopeful as they are angry, but a lot of that 1976–77 golden period registers the descent into chaos that happened as the violence increased — War Ina Babylon and Police and Thieves are full of disappointment, and lectures at those backsliding. By 1978, the confusion and dread as the country was made ungovernable is registered in something like Perry’s desperate “City Too Hot,” or the thunderous “Open the Gate” for Watty Burnett, where the only way out is escape — a route that Perry himself took when he (allegedly) burned down the Black Ark and moved to Switzerland, to enjoy a richly deserved four-decade retirement.

But it’s not just about subject matter, it’s about sound. War Ina Babylon’s political parables are sung over clipped, tight rhythms and heavily treated, phased horns and guitars, which by Police and Thieves and Super Ape have developed into a flowing, psychedelic “river of sound” — something taken literally in one of his most stunning singles. By Heart of the Congos or “City too Hot,” he’s taken the notoriously rudimentary four-track mixing desk as far as it could possibly go, with a mesh of sounds ranging from mooing cows, sudden thunderclaps, immense basslines, thickets of percussion and eerie synthesizer string melodies.

This last, particularly experimental, period was also as far as the music industry would go with him. Island Records rejected his follow-up album with the Upsetters, Return of the Super Ape, which ranged from the haunting and sublime to the deliberately ridiculous, and to Perry’s chagrin, rejected his first album under his own name, Roast Fish Collie Weed and Corn Bread. These 1978 records are often very strange indeed, but they aspire more than anything else to contain everything Perry was about — psychedeliaslightly out-of-tune sweet soul, funny-serious throwdowns.

There’s a lesson in their rejection. It was OK for a reggae artist to be weird, but not too weird. Bizarre, eccentric, personal albums like these were for white rock musicians to make, and the Clash wasn’t going to be covering anything on Roast Fish Collie Weed and Corn Bread. This way of looking at working-class music like reggae still exists, and more to the point, so does this way of looking at music made by working-class people like Perry. It was fine to do testimony, to make political statements and make folksy pronouncements, but you weren’t meant to be psychedelic, paradoxical, futuristic, or “self-indulgent.”

Perry was special. But the (in some ways still ongoing) explosion of working-class creativity that he was the center of still proves that a future where everyone can make their own work of art — or at least a 7″ single — will not be boring.