While some might debate his sanity and others might dwell on his imposing legacy, The Upsetter himself stays focused on creating something new.
Ask a lot of people both inside and outside of Jamaica about Lee “Scratch” Perry and they’ll tell you he’s a crazy man. Even if they acknowledge that the Grammy winning producer and reggae artist has made important musical contributions, the main thing is that he’s out of his mind. It’s hard to blame people for taking this view. The now scrawny, wizened 76 year-old from Kendal, Jamaica certainly seems crazy. He delights in saying wildly nonsensical (often rhyming) things in interviews and he dyes his beard pink a lot.
For his defenders and fans, he’s a beloved mad genius, though they might prefer the term “eccentric.” Perry even owned the “madman” label in 1986 with the song “I Am a Madman,” but he has his own take on the subject. “A lot of the people think I’m crazy. I’m modern: modern phrases, modern energy, modern things. So, actually I’m the mad doctor. I’m a mad actor and a mad doctor,” he says over the phone from his home in Switzerland. He’s just ahead of his time, see.
Indeed, he’s been ahead of his time several times over. Rainford Hugh Perry started writing and recording his own material in the late ’60s with his backing band The Upsetters. He called himself The Upsetter and that tag has proven powerfully prophetic time and again.
His first single “People Funny Boy,” is widely regarded as the first reggae song. That is, it was the first one to use the distinctive reggae rhythm. What’s more, if you listen to the tracks he wrote and produced for Bob Marley, it becomes clear that without Perry The Wailers would have been just another bar band.
Emch is an American producer who has worked with Perry on recordings and recently completed a US tour backing the legend up with his collective, Subatomic Sound System. He tells the Marley/Perry tale this way: “Bob Marley was living in Lee Perry’s house for awhile. Perry was a little bit of a father figure to him and really shaped his style and got him away from doing more of the typical ska dance party soul vibes and into mysticism,” the producer relates. Perry has never worn dreadlocks but his personal beliefs are a blend of Rastafarianism and what Emch describes very accurately as his own “natural mysticism.”
In that sense, Scratch’s cultural influence runs quite deep in Jamaican music. Take the U-Roy song “Rightful Ruler,” produced by Perry. “It was a Rastafarian theme. People don’t realize this now, because of Bob Marley, it all seems very cool and Jamaican, but the upper class Jamaicans at the time, they wouldn’t let the music be played on the radio or anything, so that was controversial,” Emch explains.
From reggae, Perry moved on to help invent dub, along with producers like King Tubby. Perry worked with King Tubby on one of the first original dub albums, 1973′s Blackboard Jungle. In the ’70s, reggae producers started experimenting with the instrumental versions they put on the B-sides of 45s. “A lot of guys like Coxsone Dodd were experimenting with these B-sides, but Perry emerged as the guy who was doing these extreme things with the reverb bombs and the echo, so people kind of think of him as the inventor of what would come to be known as dub,” says Emch.
Perry’s versioning of the story is typically poetic. “We had too many reggae and I wanted to make a change. So, I said I’m gonna make dub. Because I love dub. Dub was like the main center of the old movement. The bass is your brain and the drums, boom, boom, boom, is your heart. Then you build it up with the piano and the guitar, but you can also build it down,” he expounds, summing up the building blocks of not only dub, but all electronic dance music and even hip-hop. This is his inescapable influence.
The submerged bass lines on albums like Enter the Dragon prefigured the sub bass of dubstep and Perry was among the first, if not the first, to produce recordings that used sampling, remixing and chatting, that is, speaking instead of singing over music. Chatting or toasting caught on in Jamaica and, through the filter of the South Bronx, became rap in the US.
And dub was the first genre to put the producers front and center as artists their own right. “He and other dub producers like King Tubby were the first producers to really put out albums with their names on it instead of the artist. That just wasn’t done before,” says Emch.
Perry’s extant body of work establishes him as one of the great music producers. Influence aside, his music itself has aged very well. His sound swampy, spooky sound remains as uncanny and mesmerizing today as it was in the ’70s. It’s that irreducible sound that began to attract artists from all over the world to his home studio the Black Ark, including Paul McCartney and Johnny Rotten. Perry even went to England to produce for The Clash. His swift embrace of punk stands as another example of his prescience. While in England, he wrote the affectionate “Punky Reggae Party” with Bob Marley who recorded it with The Wailers.
It was around the time that his famous studio burned down that Perry earned his reputation for lunacy. He was at the height of his musical powers and the studio had become a kind of Camelot and temple in Jerusalem rolled into one. He claims to have burned it down himself to exorcise the negative influence of some of the people who were around him at the time.
During that period, his first wife left him. After the destruction of his temple he left his family behind and moved to England, isolating himself from almost everyone he knew. If the ’70s were his heyday, the ’80s were the closest thing he’s had to a dead period, but he never stopped creating. Indeed, it was then that musician started painting. Eventually, Perry married a Swiss woman named Mireille. Today he lives with her and their two children in a small Swiss hamlet. He certainly doesn’t roll like a crazy man. At this point, his game is looking more like a blueprint for how to stay awesome well after some people give up on solid food.
Looking back now, Perry was a hit maker in the ’60s, a DIY revolutionary in the ’70s and, ever since then, a living legend who does what the heck he wants. And what he wants has included making music with everyone from the Beastie Boys to Keith Richards and George Clinton. His guest turn on the Beastie’s 1998 album Hello Nasty reintroduced him to the mainstream consciousness.
Lately, he works from a home studio in his garage. “Downstairs, I have a dirty, messy room where I make my voodoo. My voodoo is coming from Africa, Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. I am terrible messy. When you come into my studio it looks like garbage,” The Upsetter says with a rare hint of self-deprecation.
Though he won a long overdue Grammy for his album Jamaican E.T., one could make the case that he is still under-appreciated. This is partly because it’s hard to over value what he has done. It’s also because it has taken the rest of the world some time to catch up to him.
If he is under-appreciated, he’s still far from forgotten. People tell him all the time that his music has been important to them. But Perry isn’t easily impressed by words. “Oh, yeah, some people do that when I go on a show and the show is over. They’ll tell me what my music and my word has done for them. They give me tongues,” Perry says dismissively, sounding suspicious of their motives.
Anyway, he’s too busy being a working musician to be much interested in reflecting on his legacy anyway. Even after 50 years as an artist, he still loves touring. “I’m a tour person. People talk about my tour forever and it makes them happy,” he brags with glee.
And he still puts on a show. Emch recalls his recent experiences sharing the stage with Lee Perry: “We played a show in Poland for, like, 10,000 people and it was a lot of young kids and I kind of expected these kids to be staring blankly at this guy. But the crowd went wild when we were playing with him. There were kids crowd surfing and they were just riveted by him. He has this magnetic personality, almost like a religious leader kind of vibe.”
He keeps up on current music too. He loves dubstep and expresses admiration for Vybz Kartel, the dancehall star who was breaking out to an international audience when he was arrested and charged with murder in 2011. Still, Perry finds something is missing from music today.
“They are missing the spiritual part of it. It’s like business now. The rapping is about business now, or they talk about being gangsta. They need more spiritual music, like something to do with god and the creation, god and nature,” he diagnoses.
He is particularly critical of current dancehall and reggae: “If they are not singing something spiritual, they will not teach. They ought to sing something for children to learn who do not go to school. They joke about girls and wining. It look a little bit unrighteous. Reggae isn’t only for bedwork. Reggae is also for spiritual healing.”
Emch is one of those who thinks Perry knows exactly what he’s doing. “I felt like Luke Skywalker going to study with Yoda, because he speaks in these metaphors like a kung fu master. He just drops these little tidbits on you that you have to meditate on to unlock the secrets,” he says of working with Perry.
The American artist’s reverence comes in part from his admiration of Perry’s boundless creativity. “Less than trying to keep up with the current sound, he just wants to push his sound. A theme in his music is kung fu, so I was asking him one time about kung fu and he said ‘music and kung fu have so much in common, they both require a quick mind and anticipation of the next move of the people around you. You always want to push your style so that people don’t know what you are going to do next.’ We’re doing these classic songs of his and he still wants to flip it up and do something different,” he says.
On the most recent tour, Subatomic Sound System remixed Perry’s classic songs live with analog accompaniment on drums, bass, horns and melodica. Perry sang, triggered samples, and essentially conducted the proceedings. “With some of his songs, I pushed a little more into dubstep beats and more electronic sounds and I didn’t know how he would take to it, but he loved it. In fact, the last night I asked him if he wanted to do anything different and he asked me if I could play the remix of his song I did “Underground Roots,” which to me was like a really cool affirmation that he was digging what we were doing,” Emch crows.
Perry himself will tell you he is one hundred percent on board with the newer mutations of beats and bass and relishes any opportunity to innovate: “I like to touch things and make things different. I love electronic music. I love young people. You can learn a lot from young people. They walk different, they talk different and their minds are electronic, the electronic brain cells, the electronic power. They love the music, they love to dance.”
His ambitions aren’t receding with age either. “I make plans to do something new. I think I will do something more in Jamaica. Make something more like spiritual reggae. Change the ragamuffin thing that goes on now,” he intimates.
There could be more upsetting in store yet. After all, Perry has music on his side. “Can you tell me one thing that music cannot make possible?,” he asks, before improvising some of his gospel. “Music alone shall live. Have no sin. Music alone shall live. Have no stress. For with music there is nothing that is not possible under the sky. There is nothing that music cannot do under the firmament. With music everything is possible and without music nothing is possible,”Perry intones. Trust the man with the pink beard.
For more perspective on this icon watch the mini-documentary from Subatomic Sound System about the Blackboard Jungle remix project with Dubblestandart and Jahdan Blakkamoore: