Certainly eccentric, possibly mad (even his record company bio acknowledges it!), Lee “Scratch” Perry is reggae’s most influential producer, with a career that spans the entire history of the music. He started at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label, first as a talent scout, then as producer. Moving on to other labels, he recorded hit after hit for Jamaican artists, assembling the original Wailers and producing their earliest — some say best — tracks. Perry has also done extensive solo work, composing, arranging and singing his own records. With the help of a studio band, the Upsetters (named for one of his aliases), Perry has forged a style that’s idiosyncratic and revolutionary — full of shifting, echoey rhythms and weird sound effects. His characteristic sound is unique — extended grooves layered like fog, with odd vocals and percussion shimmering in the dense mist.
Perry became an Island house producer in the ’70s and a major influence on new wave bands with an affinity for reggae. (The Clash covered “Police and Thieves,” a tune he co-wrote with Junior Murvin, on their first LP; Perry later did some production for the band.)
Perry’s early work as both producer and performer is well chronicled. Some of the Best contains many fine recordings, including “People Funny Boy” and others that make plain American R&B’s essential link to reggae. The Upsetter Collection has “Return of Django,” a UK hit, and the Gatherers’ “Words of My Mouth,” the rhythm track of which Perry has used again and again. Chapter One features a dub of Junior Byles’ “Curly Locks,” Ricky and Bunny’s “Bush Wed Corn Trash” and others co-produced with Brad Osbourne. All three compilations are lively, vital and consistent.
Perry’s Island releases are also notable. Colombia Colly (billing him as Jah Lion) is one of the best, showing him in stylistic transition and getting weirder, with a cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and one cut that features a creaking door. Super Ape, from the same year, is more conventional, a dub LP that emphasizes the Upsetters’ playing. Perry’s personality is evident, though subdued. The number of engineers credited on History, Mystery and Prophecy, Perry’s last Island LP, suggests the label might have been attempting to smooth out the roughness. The sound is too clean, static and unexciting.
Perry’s Island years also yielded two almost identical compilations — Scratch on the Wire and Reggae Greats. Both feature Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” as well as his own “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Soul Fire” (from the brilliant Jamaican-only Roast Fish Collie Weed and Corn Bread LP), but neither is essential.
His other LPs vary in quality. The Return of Pipecock Jackxon derives from Dutch sessions during which Perry reportedly experimented with LSD and destroyed the studio. Needless to say, it’s brilliant. So is Mystic Miracle Star, which he made with the Majestics. Surprisingly straightforward, with few sound effects, it’s still filled with his characteristic production signatures. Less impressive are the two so-so volumes of Heart of the Ark (compilations of Perry-produced singers); worse, the two Megaton Dub volumes are so lackluster that one authority wondered in print whether Perry had actually produced them.
Two notable ’85 releases: on “Judgment in a Babylon,” a startling Jamaican 12-inch, Perry accuses Island Records boss Chris Blackwell of being a vampire who killed Bob Marley. Although libelous and crazy, it must be heard. In a more historical vein, The Upsetter Box makes three classic out-of-print LPs (African Blood, Rhythm Shower and Double 7) available again. Pricey but worthwhile, the set features appearances by U-Roy, I-Roy and others, and marks Perry’s return to Trojan.
His next release for the label, Battle of Armagideon, is a collection of new tracks recorded in London. A return to form of sorts, the LP is full of his characteristically dense production (which sounds thoroughly contemporary) and lots of cryptic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. (On one song, “I Am a Madman,” he even celebrates his lunatic persona.) Perry’s time in London also resulted in Time Boom X De Devil Dead, a collaboration with British dubmeister Adrian Sherwood. Influenced by Perry in the past, co-producer Sherwood provides a steadying hand, so the music is consistent, even if Perry’s personality — he does all the singing — seems restrained. While perhaps lacking the eccentric edge of Perry’s own work, the LP is still weird and wonderful, a sample of some of the best avant-garde groove music being made today.
In 1988, Trojan released Give Me Power, another compilation of tracks Perry wrote and produced for other artists. Superbly sequenced and annotated, it’s one of the best and most representative collections of the producer’s past work. Don’t miss it.
Produced by Coxsone Dodd during Perry’s 1964-’66 heyday, most of the tracks on Chicken Scratch have been unavailable for over 20 years, and some are previously unreleased. All of the cuts are performed by the peerless Skatalites, and many include the female vocals of either the Soulettes (Rita Marley’s first group) or the Dynamites. This is Lee Perry in his pre-Upsetter days, before his artistically and commercially fruitful collaboration with the Wailers. Songs like “Man to Man” (featuring Marley, Tosh and Bunny Wailer), “Cruma,” “Takcoo,” “Roast Duck” and the title track (which provided one of Perry’s many aliases) make Chicken Scratch a time capsule of Jamaica’s ska era.
Way beyond weirdness, the world of Lee “Scratch” Perry is one where people wear umbrellas on their heads, where the bass is the place, where space constantly shifts, where age does not whither, where reason sleeps and the dub quivers, and where avant-garde sonic formalism and mindless fun are bedmates. The madman who for years has continually pushed the frontiers of dub with his heavy sounds, surprising tricks and unorthodox methods, currently resides on a mountaintop in Switzerland. And he keeps making records, seemingly more than ever.
From the Secret Laboratory is Perry’s second co-production with Adrian Sherwood. The Dub Syndicate and Jamaica’s veteran Roots Radics underpin Perry’s free-form word associations and social commentaries on “Secret Laboratory (Scientific Dancehall),” “You Thought I Was Dead” and the crowning “Seven Devils Dead.”
With such signature tunes as “Run for Cover” and “Water Pump,” All the Hits covers Perry’s rock steady era.
Mystic Warrior, the collaboration between reggae’s preeminent techno-wiz geniuses, doubles your madmen-cum-musical visionaries pleasure. The Mad Professor (Neal Fraser) is a Guyana-born producer-engineer who rules over the cutting edge of Britain’s avant-garde reggae scene and runs the Ariwa Sounds label. Mystic Warrior is an awesomely imaginative display of effects and far-ranging musical references.
Trojan Records has mined Perry’s incredible backlog of hard-to-find ’70s productions with three recent compilations: Version Like Rain is a brilliant collection of sixteen tracks taken from three popular Upsetter rhythms, while the three-LP/two-CD Build the Ark box set features eighteen mid-’70s tracks (and their dubs): Scratch at his production peak.