Lee Scratch Perry the Upsetter Across Time:

Gone, Never Forgotten


Black Rockers United are humbled and hurt about this wonderful elder’s earthly end. Lee Scratch Perry earned multiple monikers, names that express his unique flair since younger years. So a trip to Jamaica’s past can reveal some amazing facts about Rainford Hugh, AKA Lee Scratch Perry.

Lee Scratch Perry was born either in Kendal or secluded St. Mary. Even his exact birthdate is debatable today: 1936, or ‘39? One interesting truth bonds Lee Scratch Perry with Black American rockers. He and Sister Rosetta Tharpe share the same day, 21 years apart…March 20th. Some coincidences bring a smile to your face.

MMusic elevated Lee’s spirits while bringing his eccentric greatness to more audiences around town. Lee performed unsuccessfully for a few auditions in teen-hood, although his time awaited soon. The seminal DJ attended school till high school, then voraciously pursued dancehall at 15.

No one could tell him ‘impossible’. His life was hard work, planning a future of entertainment and freedom. Jamaica just ceased to be a colony under England. Revolution was personal and political.

Marcus Garvey's repatriation efforts were reaching to our motherland, setting sights on Ethiopia. The new emperor Selassie symbolized a struggling attempt to establish Black spiritual superiority through bloodline as a living god. Jamaicans saw him as hope. This revisionism developed into Rastafarianism: Lee Scratch Perry's fiercely defended belief even as Selassie is no longer around.

"Those days things were really nice, boogie woogie and blues, and jazz and all them things." Rainford/Lee had few options to live leisurely since he began construction work right after dropping out. One day he fatefully struck two rocks and they reverberated. The message sent Perry to Kingston.

His initial foray, a Studio One stint, was selling vinyl records and scouting talent such as Toots & The Maytals. His boss Clement "Coxsone" Dodd had high hopes but shallow pockets for Perry. Any songs were primarily uncredited if he had a hand in them. Undeniably this job provided the necessary space for crafting personal material.

Did you know that Lee Scratch Perry’s first jams were officially released in 1959 ('Old For New'), before reggae became a worldwide phenomenon? Welcome to his first vocal recording via Studio One.

Lee Scratch Perry crossed paths with Jamaican recording giant Joe Gibbs (born Joel Gibson) when Dodd could not keep up, and took an offer to co-pilot Amalgamated Records. His monumental productions enraptured listeners. 'Chicken Scratch' (Perry) and 'Long Shot' by The Pioneers utilized atypical riddims for contemporary sound. The Maytals embraced this as something new: reggae!

We love the musical foundation, a prototypical timeline that led to hardcore, ska. Skankin’ chords, moshing, even some shuffles. So what did Lee do as these budding scenes rose from local sound systems?

He rode the cultural wave. Naturally some aspiring musicians envied Perry’s stand-out appeal and sharp skills. Even former colleagues weren’t supportive of his self-ownership.

Creative shifts and rivalries rippled through Jamaica. Each one seemed to be wrestling for top selecter.  Lee Scratch Perry layered live effects and vocals over perfectly discordant reggae instrumentation (dub style), an emcee’s flow throughout his controlled chaos. Deeply driving percussion throws back to his mother's Ettu ceremonies and ancestral spirits, the island's West African past. He remembered.

Lee Scratch Perry's mad science combined intricate wirings between loop machines, drum processors, mixing console and his trusty Teac four-track recorder. Lee parodied animosity through well-known songs  'People Funny Boy' and 'I Am The Upsetter'.

Once more we are shown modern rap’s heritage in Perry’s home island. Reggae/rocksteady performers definitely held a similar swagger plus cadence when they sang. And these aspects Lee Scratch would adopt, mischievously exaggerate.

Audiences grew more curious. Who was the Upsetter?

"I Am The Upsetter!"

Enter Lee Scratch Perry's label est. 1969, and dub/reggae’s synthesis inside the infamous Black Ark Studio. The Upsetters followed as Perry’s multi-genre ensemble of other talented Jamaican artists.

The Upsetters are altogether: Lee Scratch Perry, keyboardist Glen Adams, bassist Aston Barrett, his percussionist brother Carlton, Alva Lewis (guitarist) and vanguard vocalist Max Romeo! This seven-member supergroup made history by gifting us with a dozen+ albums.

Countless re-imaginings/mixes graced airwaves by Perry, of course. Soon others flocked under Black Ark’s wing. Junior Murvin's unforgettable 'Police & Thieves', Max Romeo's 'War in a Babylon' are just some Black Ark treasures. Lee Scratch Perry alchemized raw demos into audible gold. Mentor had slowly replaced his role as student years ago.

Bob Marley and the Wailers spent formative sessions here with Lee Scratch, by the way. They embellished raw tracks for a more polished album. 'Duppy Conqueror', 'Small Axe', 'Sun Is Shining', and 'Jah Love' are all Perry-approved. Now you may not know the notorious feud between Perry and Marley.

But Island Records erased any applicable credit in an exclusive contract. Resentment preceded parting ways with Bob Marley, and the band also diverged to do their own thing. Eventually the studio burned by 1983. Find rare gems from this era here.

We include King Tubby too as a fellow Jamaican pioneer and powerhouse of innovative tunes. He DJ’ed prolifically alongside Lee Scratch Perry who recorded at their studio. Lee left the country subsequently for Switzerland and his healing, personal journey in 1989: the same year that Tubby died.

Lee Scratch Perry found community among the worlds post-punk/new wave/rock scene completely. The Clash are part of his legacy. They gladly worked with his experimental style on their very first album. One specific song confronts label authoritarianism, something Lee Scratch Perry would reject himself. Remember this?

'Complete Control' is a saga about creative power and finding your own way. 'Remote Control' unfairly snuck onto music charts despite their decision. The Clash made some personal edits with Perry's help.

"They said we’d be ‘artistically free’ when we signed that bit of paper/They meant: ‘let’s make a lotta money–and worry about it later!"  He was onboard, genuinely enjoyed their previous 'Police & Thieves' cover and happened to be in London with The Wailers.

John Martyn also got the spark, and Ariane Forster (The Slits) who appeared on Repentance (2008). Andrew W.K. co-produced that one. Terence Trent D'Arby collabed back in the 1990's too. Imagine!

Lee "Scratch" noticeably arrives in The Prodigy’s industrial-dub ‘Out of Space’ too. This jungle beat deviates little from the OG. Dubstep and liquid funk sample Caribbean artists who sample their own stuff. Wow.

Lee poured the world into his favorite genre and infused futuristic concepts, sounds that still boggle anyone's mind! “Come Home Dub“ is diasporic stream-of-consciousness on living abroad...and redefinition. How do we know ourselves away from home?

Hip-hop’s affiliation is unquestionable too. Lil’ Wayne paid homage by Americanizing the 1995 drum and bass anthem for 2008–and adding heavy guitar chords. Not out of place for him or the originator, Lee Scratch Perry.

The Beastie Boys just paid homage to a real legend. His oddball antics are on Hello Nasty's' 'Dr. Lee, phD' if you recall. And they organized a concert for Tibetan freedom with Lee on the bill during Beastie heyday.

Lee Scratch Perry toured like no tomorrow and shared stages with aforementioned Ari Up (SummerStage), The Beastie Boys, the Flying Vipers, Subatomic Sound System. He rocked Coachella, Central Park, Cali Fest, so much more to list.

We do not exaggerate in saying that music would differ if you removed Perry from any picture—let alone a Caribbean-derived scene like rude boy, punk, reggae and ska. We hear The Slits, The Clash, Sioux, The English Beat. There he is. We bump electronica from Kraftwerk-era till 2021. There’s his mark again.

"What a man, what a music, what a life, what a genius! I am incredibly saddened by his passing, but I will continue to celebrate his genius and the body of work he’s given us," said Culture Minister Olivia Grange. He received Jamaica's Order of Distinction and Musgrave Medal as of 2021.

A truly luminous person passed away. We remember them as a dreaming genius, turntable wizard, madman, The Upsetter.


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