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One of the most important figures in the history of reggae music is Lee “Scratch” Perry. As a songwriter, a performer and especially a producer, Perry has been at the forefront of reggae music since the late 50's ska movement. Practically the inventor of both dubs reggae (he produced one of the earliest all-dub albums, Blackboard Jungle, in 1974) and the “scratch” turntable effect used by DJ’s (his production of Charlie Ace’s “Cow Theory Skank” in 1973 became the first recording to use the “scratch” effect), Perry’s studio innovations have influenced not only reggae but also rock, punk, pop and dance music. Yet, at 70 years old, Perry, with his new album “Panic In Babylon” (Narnack) to be released in August 2006, proves to be more relevant than ever.
“Panic In Babylon” originally released in Switzerland and available on CD and vinyl LP, follows on the heels of Perry’s Grammy award for Best Reggae Album. Drenched in Perry’s signature dub-echo style, the album is musically hypnotic with an uncluttered instrumental simplicity. The lyrics explore global fears, political corruption and narrative; with Perry boldly declaring on the title cut “I am the Upsetter.” From the bawdy “Pussy Man” to “Inspector Gadget 2004," Perry leavens his more political and spiritual songs with lyrics that expose his fun, human and instinctual side. The album comes with a bonus disc that features a Dave Sitek/TV on the Radio Remix of the title tracks and a DJ Spooky Remix of “Purity Rock,” illustrating Perry’s cross-over appeal and spotlighting hip-hop artists paying back the musical debt they owe Perry. Encapsulating Perry’s entire long astonishing career is difficult at best. Chronicling his recordings as a solo artist and as the leader of various groups, along with his overflowing catalogue of productions, all released on a myriad of labels, could fill a book.
Perry was born Rainford Hugh Perry in the small town of Kendall, part of the Hanover section of northwest Jamaica on March 28, 1936. A dancer and domino player of renown when he was young, Perry began his musical apprenticeship on the Kingston, Jamaica music scene of the 1950's as part of Duke Reid’s Trojan sound system. From there he became involved with celebrated producer Coxsone Dodd and his Downbeat sound system. He subsequently worked as an A&R man at Dodd’s influential Studio One, eventually supervising the famed Sunday afternoon auditions held at Dodd’s Orange Street record store. In 1959, Perry cut two singles that launched his career, “Old or New” and the song from which his nickname is derived, “Chicken Scratch.” In the early 60's, Perry’s reputation as a songwriter and producer exploded with recordings for the likes of Delroy Wilson, the Maytals and the Wailers, while he continued to record himself, sometimes under such pseudonyms as King Perry.
In 1966 Perry left Studio One under a cloud of acrimony. He was so upset with Dodd that he wrote a song called “The Upsetter,” an attack on Dodd that became the name of Perry’s band the Upsetters. It also became the name of his label and of his Charles Street record store. In 1969 he released “Return To Django,” which shot up to number five on the U.K. charts; he followed the success of the song with a highly successful U.K. tour. In 1973 Perry opened his famed Black Ark studios in Washington Gardens, a suburb of Kingston. It was there that Perry’s abilities as a groundbreaking producer became fully formed. Using only a TEAC 4-track recorder (the heads of which he would clean with his t-shirt), a Soundcraft mixing board and an Echoplex tape delay, Perry established himself as reggae’s premier record producer through innovation, alchemy and a mysterious ability to take even the most moribund song and performances and create magic.
In the small, 12-foot studio that was filled with his beloved small rubber balls and thick with ganja smoke, the Perry legend grew and he was the first reggae producer to experiment with drum machines and phasers. Some of the Perry-produced recordings that followed became the seminal releases of 70's reggae, including Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (later covered by the Clash), Max Romeo’s “War In Babylon,” and other recordings by the Heptones, Mikey Dread and Augustus Pablo. It was around this time that Chris Blackwell began licensing much of Perry’s output and releasing it on his label Island Records. From 1977 on, Perry not only worked with Bob Marley on various productions and released perhaps the first 12-inch reggae single, Carlton Jackson’s “History,” but he also produced such non-reggae artists as the Clash, John Martyn, Robert Palmer and even Linda McCartney.
In the late 70's and early 80's Perry fell on hard times. Island refused to release two of his albums and his studio fell into disrepair. In the summer of 1983, the studio burned to the ground, possibly of arson which forced Perry to relocate, this time to the U.S.A. Soon after he returned to Island Records and relocated once again, moving across the Atlantic to Britain. By the start of the 90's, he had buried the hatchet with Coxsone Dodd, relocated to the Netherlands, then on to Zurich Switzerland, where he eventually married Swiss millionairess Mirielle Campbell in a Hare Krishna temple. They have two children and the family still lives in Zurich.
In recent years, Perry has continued to work as a songwriter and a producer, but more importantly, he has continued to record himself, making fresh, new music while maintaining his mastery of the recording studio.
Biography by Steve Matteo
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