Learning From Scratch

Inside the twisted mind of dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry.

It's 3:30 a.m. in Paris, and Lee "Scratch" Perry is living up to his reputation as one of reggae's most colorful--and least stable--characters. "My real name is Death Before Dishonor," he announces in a gruff, wizened voice. "There is nothing I cannot do. That's the name of my sword: Excalibur. Also, I have a genie lamp as well, and genie rings. I believe in genie. And my genie is ganja, collie weed, marijuana, lamb's bread, sinsemilla."

Obviously, Perry and his genie have spent a lot of quality time together over the years. But to discount Perry's efforts as a singer, producer, engineer and talent scout because of his obsession with Jamaica's favorite export, or for any of his abundant idiosyncrasies, would be as screwy as one of Perry's own rants. It's quite possible that he's raving, barking mad, but as folks such as Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Van Gogh have demonstrated, lunacy is not always an impediment to artistic greatness. That's true in Perry's case, at least. Upsetter in Dub, a brilliant compilation from Heartbeat Records, and Arkology, a generous boxed set of Perry's mid-Seventies productions issued by Island Jamaica/Chronicles, make a strong argument in favor of declaring him one of reggae's true innovators--and yet they survey only a small portion of his remarkable oeuvre.

What's more, Perry's a hell of a nice guy. His tendency to answer in sweeping, often confusing parables can test the patience of even the most sympathetic journalist, but it's also part of his charm. Perry frequently rhymes his response or suddenly breaks into song or laughter. But even when he's thundering Old Testament-style threats and pronouncements, there's always a thread, however cryptic, that can be traced back to his story and to the music that's made him a legend.

Scratch was born Rainford Hugh Perry in the northwestern Jamaican parish of Hanover in 1936. By the time he reached his teens, he had developed a love for the music played at the blues dances that were in vogue during the Fifties. Around this time, he moved to Kingston, the hub of the island's music scene, and landed a job as a record spotter with Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, owner and operator of the Downbeat sound system and later the man behind Studio One, where many of reggae's finest sounds were conceived. In this position, Perry was charged with scouring stores for American rhythm-and-blues albums to spin at Downbeat dances. But his real ambition was to become a vocalist. "Tried to sing with Dodd, but he didn't like my style of singing," he recalls. "He think it wasn't good enough. He never really paid me much mind."

Perhaps not, but Perry soon began to climb the Jamaican music ladder anyhow. As Dodd's Downbeat enterprise grew to encompass more than one rig, Scratch was given his own mobile sound system to operate. His ability to identify the next smash (or, as he puts it, "me knowin' what would drop") paid dividends when he started churning out chart-toppers of his own. One of them--1965's "Chicken Scratch"--provided a nickname that fits him perfectly.

Perry left Dodd's employ in 1966. It was the first of his many volatile breakups with producers and artists. "I was with him long time, 'nuff time," he says about the split. "Now I'm going to do my own thing my own way. I wanted to do something different from what Coxsone was doing. He was makin' rock steady and ska--and I didn't want to make rock steady and ska. I wanted to make soul-rock-disco-pop-techno. Everything all in one." He also felt that Dodd didn't want him to become a producer in his own right.

In the years that followed, Scratch teamed with Joe Gibbs, Clancy Eccles and Prince Buster, his onetime nemesis. Each of these collaborations ended badly, with Scratch angry over a lack of money and recognition, but because of his burgeoning talents, top artists still kept showing up at his door. Bob Marley was one of them.

Marley and his group, the Wailers, enjoyed numerous ska successes during the mid-Sixties, including "Simmer Down" and "Love and Affection." But because the players received few of the royalty payments they were due, they broke up in 1966, with Marley moving to Delaware and taking a job at a Chrysler factory. Before the decade's end, Marley returned to his homeland and reunited with the Wailers, but they soon became disenchanted with Dodd, their former producer, and turned to Perry for help.

The timing for this pairing was fortuitous. Perry shared the Wailers' frustration with Jamaica's political and musical climate, as well as their sense that Rastafarianism provided the best hope for black Jamaicans. Furthermore, he realized what the group needed to reclaim its rightful position atop Jamaican playlists. To wit, Perry mated the Wailers with his studio band, the Upsetters, and completely revamped their sound. Under his tutelage, the Wailers abandoned their traditional ska/rock-steady harmonizing in favor of lead vocals by Marley and back-up crooning by Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer that accentuated the songs' refrains and underlined Marley's staunch Rastafarian lyrics. Perry also did away with horns, a musical element that he viewed as outdated and too celebratory when heard in the context of the Wailers' Rasta rectitude.

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