Lee "Scratch" Perry (NPR Story - listen in)
Updated and revised from Reggae
(Schirmer Books, 1997)
With a man as legendary, mysterious, and eccentric as Lee Perry, the story of his life is a mix of fact and fiction, newspaper clippings and ghost stories. Much of what we know about Perry is open to conjecture, point of view, bad ganja, and grains of salt the size of golf balls. None of this is made up, but I make no apologies for taking artistic license in telling Scratch's story.
came, I saw, and I conquered."
Perry's early life mirrors many of Jamaica's musical super stars: he was born
poor in a small village, earned an early reputation as a wise guy, came to
Kingston in the 1950s, heard the music, learned the moves, got the groove. His
first job was with pioneering record producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd
at his soon to be legendary Studio One: errand boy, handy man, bouncer, spy,
talent scout, uncredited songwriter, arranger, and - eventually - performer.
Perry cut his first record, "Old For New" in 1959; "Chicken
Scratch" was his first bonafide hit in 1965, but it was a drop in the
Studio One bucket.
In 1966, after almost seven years with Studio One, Perry left in a flash of lightning, pissed off at Coxsone for not giving him enough money or recognition over the years. He crossed the street and joined forces with greenhorn producer Joe Gibbs, cutting his first signature tune, the sinister "I Am The Upsetter", as a warning to Coxsone and anyone else who might try to screw him. Gibbs wasn't really a producer at first, just a hustler with a lot of cash and an ear for music. He quickly realized that Perry had the groove, so in 1967 he hired Perry to run his new Amalgamated label for him. Perry wasted no time, and produced a string of hits for Gibbs, including The Pioneers' "Long Shot", which was the first song to use a new rhythm in Jamaican music - it didn't have a name at the time, but a year later someone christened the beat "reggae". "Long Shot" and other Perry works from this time are therefore evidence for those who claim that he actually invented reggae.
Perry's productions mashed up the place, but since Gibbs wanted a "silent" partner, he was asking for trouble when he decided to put Perry on the elbow list. Furious once again for being slighted, he split from Amalgamated with a mighty roar and retaliated with "People Funny Boy", which was another "screw you" song aimed straight to Gibbs' head. Ironic, since Perry's big hit for Gibbs had been "Upsetter", which was a "screw you" song aimed at Coxsone!
By 1968, Perry decided that since he couldn't work with any of Jamaica's producers without furniture being broken, he would do it himself. His first move was to hire the best guns he could to help him take over the world. Perry named his new band after his current nickname and his new record label: The Upsetters.
The Upsetters used to hang out with Perry all day on the hot streets of Kingston, heading off to the movies in the afternoon to watch as many spaghetti westerns as they could before heading back to the studio for an all night session. Galvanized by the shoot 'em ups, they cut violent, spooky instrumentals like "Kill Them All", "The Vampire", "Dig Your Grave", and what became their signature tune, "Return Of Django". Alongside the funky Upsetter instrumentals, Perry scored hits with soulful numbers from some of Jamaica's top vocalists, such as David Isaacs, The Silvertones, and Slim Smith. When "Django" became a hit in England, Perry and his crew went on a six week tour of Britain - a first for a reggae band.
Riding a wave, the ambitious Perry opened up his own store, the Upsetter Record Shop, located at 36 Charles Street, premises once owned by his buddy Prince Buster. The Shop not only sold the latest and kinkiest Upsetter singles, but cranked out groovy music all day and acted as Perry's base of operations, not to mention rehearsal room, bar, and herb counter. The Upsetter Shop played an important role in waking the town and telling the people about the Upsetter's sound, which was becoming more distinct with each release. The popularity of Perry's productions also enabled him to sponsor a weekly program on the JBC, where the latest Upsetter records were spun by enthusiastic DJ Winston "The Whip" Williams. While most of the early Upsetter singles were straightforward, soul inspired reggae, occasionally Perry would throw people for a loop with a bizarre B-side or strange vocal effects. The Upsetter was beginning to upset.
One day a young roughneck named Bob Marley came to visit the Upsetter Record Shop. His band The Wailers had been very successful a few years earlier with Coxsone, but at the moment they were struggling. The Wailers needed to jump start their sound or die trying. Young producers like Perry were creating new and exciting sounds that would pull the rug out from under the feet of the "old men" of the Jamaican music scene. Bob Marley and his friends Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were amazed that The Upsetters had been so popular overseas. Once The Upsetters returned from Britain, they were rather vex with Perry, who - ironically, given his past dealings with Coxsone and Gibbs - apparently had taken the lion's share of the cash from the tour. Before long, Bob Marley realized that a collaboration between them and The Wailers could be an unstoppable combo. After a few rehearsals and jam sessions together, Marley talked The Upsetters into abandoning Perry's ship and joining The Wailers.
When Perry found out that Marley had stolen his crack musicians from him, he was understandably furious. He actually threatened to kill Bob. The two of them met one day to have it out, and judging from the volume of their voices, everyone around thought that it would end up with someone's head being broken. Instead, they emerged from behind closed doors hours later, all smiles and slapping each other on the back. The Upsetters were still joining The Wailers, but their exclusive producer was to be - of course - Lee Perry.
The way that Lee Perry describes his decision to work with Marley is unexpectedly charming. When Marley came to Perry and told him that Scratch had the sound that he wanted for the Wailers, Perry wasn't swayed. He didn't want to work with singers, he was concentrating on the deadly instrumentals that the Upsetters had become famous for. When Bob Marley sang the words to "My Cup" to Perry, it touched a nerve. "My cup is running over and I don't know what to do..." The Upsetter knew that he was hearing an artist's confession, that Marley's artistic cup was running over and he didn't know where to turn. Perry decided that a duppy (an evil spirit) was responsible for Marley's troubles, and wrote "Duppy Conqueror" for him. With the duppies conquered and the cups under control, The Wailers, The Upsetters, and Lee Perry headed for the studio.
Perry pounded his fist at the mixing desk and turned the two bands into killers. The Upsetters laid down rhythms that flowed like blue and orange water at high tide, and The Wailers sang like never before. The mix of Bob Marley's streetwise sensibilities, combined with Perry's sense of adventure and mysticism, proved to be a turning point not only in their careers but in the history of reggae. The chemistry between Perry, Marley, The Wailers, and The Upsetters proved to be phenomenal. Together, they produced classic songs like "Small Axe", "Duppy Conqueror", "Fussing And Fighting", and many others that changed the course of reggae and laid the foundation for Bob Marley's subsequent success. Many of the songs were re-recorded later on in Marley's career, but the magic of the Perry sessions has never been surpassed.
Success - and a lot of fantastic music - continued through 1969 and 1970. By 1971, however, The Wailers / Upsetters' honeymoon was over. Dynamic as their personalities were, it was only natural that Perry and Marley would share a love / hate relationship. Tosh and Wailer, on the other hand, resented Perry's aggressive approach to producing their music. Upsetting, and not in the good way. Arguments over chart success and credit where credit was due led to a final bust-up. With the Upsetters' rhythm section in tow, The Wailers formed a new band, and, after signing to Island Records in 1973, became reggae superstars. The Upsetters went their separate ways, but Perry kept the name to refer to the floating band of killer musicians that played for him over the years. (See the Upsetters biography for more details).
Since it was recorded, the Perry-produced Wailers material has become the most heavily bootlegged music in the band's career. When they entered their collaboration, Perry and Marley had a handshake agreement that all the swag would be equally shared; once the music was delivered to Trojan Records in London, Perry took all of the money and told The Wailers they would only get royalties, a greedy and highly hypocritical move considering the alleged robbery that other producers had subjected him to. At a time when The Wailers were looking to advance their career after years of struggling, to be stabbed in the back by an apparent ally like Perry was too much for them to take. To this day, the copyrights to this incredible music have remained up in the air, resulting in dozens of crummy compilations that neither Marley's family nor Perry receive any money for. The words to "People Funny Boy" seem to boomerang in Perry's direction over this one...
Perry began to expand on many of the musical experiments that he had introduced to Jamaican music while still working with other producers. Twenty years before anyone had ever used the term "alternative" music, Perry shot pistols, broke glass, ran tapes backwards, and used samples of crying babies, falling rain, and animal sounds in his unique productions. With wild songs such as "Cane River Rock" (featuring traffic and motorcycle noise throughout), and "Headquarters" (featuring a phone call from a child as an introduction), the Upsetter was certainly living up to his nickname.
By 1973, Perry began to feel the squeeze of having to rely on commercial studios for his unique work. Most of his work had been recorded at Randy's Studio 17 or Dynamic Sound, and having to keep an eye on the clock while working his musical voodoo was a definite distraction. He and his family had moved into Washington Gardens, a posh Kingston suburb, a few years earlier, and while napping under a tree in his backyard, Perry had a dream where he heard music. When he awoke, he took the dream as a sign and began building his own studio on the exact spot. When it was completed in 1974, he painted the words BLACK ARK above the door, for it was here that Perry reckoned that he would lay down the Ten Commandments of reggae. For any other producer this would be an eccentric boast; in retrospective, Perry was being modest. The music that was recorded at the Black Ark over the next five years was absolute magic from one of reggae's most radical sorcerers.
Ras John checks out Lee Perry & The Robotics Band LIVE in MinneapolisIt was a balmy, tropical night in Minneapolis, MN at the famous First Avenue Club. So, what's Ras John doing in MN? I mon here for a BIG event! The stage here has hosted just about every major name in Rock music and it was the launch pad for Prince (there was an artist named that wasn't there?) Anyway, it wasn't Rock or Funk Sunday, August 22, 1998...It was driving, pushing the frontiers REGGAE.
There's a quote on the show poster saying "Lee Perry is Jamaica's most eccentric and innovative producer." That's a reasonable statement and he and a spectacular three man Robotiks Band with (you want to hear a KILLER Mix??) none other than The Mad Professor at the controls of the mixing board, proved Lee lives up to the quote just as well LIVE as in the studio. Including Roots classics like "Roast Fish and Cornbread" everything in the set was fresh and new with Lee's croaking and occasionally melodic voice backed up sizzling, pounding, pulsing dub packed Reggae. With Mad Professor twirling and sliding the mixing board controls Lee and The Robotics created a set that would awe anyone from Miles Davis to your most hard core punk rocker. I met a great guy by the name of Brad and the two of us traded looks of amazement song after song. Throughout, Lee pranced around the stage show with trays and bowls of fresh fruit that he periodically tossed out to the crowd or balanced on top of the aluminum foil helmet he had on his head. This was not a night of classics...this was a night of cutting edge, new music...if you get a chance to see Lee, don't miss it!