Shfl Guide: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Most discussions of Rainford Hugh Perry (a.k.a. Lee “Scratch” Perry, 1936-2021) proceed from the foundational assumption that he was certifiably crazy. The stories are legion, and are mostly pretty well documented: accounts of Perry in the studio praying to bananas, or drinking gasoline, or claiming to be a space alien, or explaining that he was able to create such dense and complex mixes using a crappy 4-track TEAC tape machine because although there were only four tracks on the machine, he was getting twenty additional tracks “from the extraterrestrial squad.” 

And make no mistake, Perry loved to play up his reputation. Pictures of him later in life invariably portray a tiny, wizened old man with hair dyed bright red, wearing clothing and accessories that look like they were fashioned from random items found in a junkyard. His solo work features songs with titles like “I Am a Madman” and “Secret Laboratory.”

But weirdness is not the defining feature of Lee Perry’s life or career. Perry was a genuine musical genius, one of very few reggae producers who managed to create a sound that was completely and immediately recognizable as his own, and under whose tutelage artists like the Heptones, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo, and even Bob Marley and the Wailers made some of their best records. 

Perry got his start working in the famed Studio One under the supervision of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, in the 1950s. Later he jumped ship and joined up with Joe Gibbs at Almagamated Records, but by the early 1970s he was ready to move out on his own. He put together a studio band called the Upsetters and made a string of excellent rock steady and early reggae albums with them, many of them consisting largely of instrumental tracks. In 1973 he built a small studio, which he called the Black Ark, and there he crafted a sound that was entirely distinctive: wet, splashy, and dark, characterized by heavy echo and reverb and odd sound effects. Perry didn’t invent dub (the art of radically remixing reggae tracks, dropping voices and instruments into and out of the mix), but he took it to places that not even adventurous colleagues like Augustus Pablo and the mighty King Tubby had thought of. And his production techniques tended to deepen and intensify the moods and flavors that were already inherent in the work of artists he produced: listen to albums like Max Romeo’s War ina Babylon and, perhaps most notably, the Congos’ Heart of the Congos and you hear Perry amplifying their roots-and-culture messages and dread worldviews through sound in a way that no other producer of the time could have done.

Ten years after building the Black Ark, Perry seems to have had a mental breakdown; the studio burned, and it’s generally believed that Perry himself torched the studio in an effort to expunge it of bad energy. His career then plateaued. No longer particularly concerned with producing others’ work, he made a long string of solo albums on which he mostly declaimed bizarre and often scatological lyrics over rhythm tracks assembled by his admirers. Some marvelous music was made during this long latter period of his career, especially with the brilliant producer Adrian Sherwood (of On-U Sound Records) and his house band Dub Syndicate, and then later with London-based Danny Boyle. He made some genuinely terrible music as well. (Some of the best and also some of the worst music he recorded in his later career was made at Ariwa Studios with Mad Professor.) But Perry’s real legacy remains the music he made while leading the Upsetters and, especially, behind the board in the cramped control room of the Black Ark. Those singles and albums remain among the most distinctive and impressive releases of reggae’s golden period in the 1970s.

Public Jestering cover

Public Jestering is a collection of early tracks recorded at the Black Ark studio under the supervision of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. It features several great performances by Perry himself (including the novelty number that sees Perry being put on trial for the title offense), but the best material here is by others. There’s a fairly consistent focus on dark and serious roots-and-culture lyrics: Truth Fact & Correct deliver the very dread “Babylon Deh Pon Fire” (presented in “showcase” style, alongside Perry’s dub version), but the star of the show is Leo Graham. Graham’s singing voice is startlingly similar to Perry’s, and his reedy, warbly delivery on “Black Candle” and “Doctor Demand” is a delight.

Back on the Controls cover

During the latter decades of his life, Lee “Scratch” Perry worked with a wide variety of producers — some of whom approached the projects with appropriate respect and musicianship, and some of whom were clearly looking for a quick novelty buck. Daniel Boyle is head and shoulders above the vast majority of them. In preparation for this collaboration with Perry, he equipped his Roaring Lion studio with genuine vintage equipment and effects, in order to best approximate the dark, wet, and echoey sound of the original Black Ark. Then he assembled an A-list roster of studio musicians, and he and Perry wrote and recorded a generous selection of new songs. And for the first time in years, Perry himself contributed production, especially on the dub versions. The result was not only one of the two or three best albums of Perry’s later years, but honestly one of the best Perry albums ever.

Double Seven cover

It’s credited to the Upsetters, but the guy on the cover is producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Which is fitting, because the Upsetters were his creation and their sound was defined almost entirely by Perry’s approach to production in his Black Ark studio. On this album you get a mix of instrumental tracks, deejay cuts featuring the likes of I Roy and U Roy (including the brilliant “Double Six”), and straight-up weirdness: “Waap You Waa” sounds unlike any other reggae tune you’ve ever heard, and the album-opening “Kentucky Skank” consists of Perry extolling the pleasures of Kentucky Fried Chicken over a tensile Upsetters groove (pull quote: “A whole box of chickens/Keeps the drums kickin’”). Newcomers shouldn’t start here — that’s what Arkology is for — but for those already familiar with the unique charms of Lee “Scratch” Perry, this album is a must.

Words of My Mouth cover

The market is saturated with various-artist compilations produced by the great Lee “Scratch” Perry, and it can be hard to know where to start. The reality is that there are lots of good places to begin, and this is one of them. It features some of the earliest tracks recorded at Perry’s Black Ark studio, and shows his signature sound developing: Junior Byles’ “Curly Locks” is a gentle love song from a conscious Rasta to a girl whose father doesn’t want her hanging out with him; “Words of My Mouth” is the Gatherers’ plea to a God whom they love but also clearly fear; “Stay Dread” is Perry’s warning to the people of the covenant not to let Babylonian blandishments lure them away from the true path. And “Bathroom Skank” finds Perry encouraging good personal hygiene (“Take a towel/An’ scrub you bowel”). Everywhere the Upsetters deliver rock-solid rhythms, and the inimitable Black Ark sound blankets everything in dank, echoey vibes.

Time Boom X De Devil Dead cover

Reggae producer and On-U Sound honcho Adrian Sherwood has never made any secret of his debt to the legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and on Time Boom X de Devil Dead he began paying that debt back, a process that continued with From My Secret Laboratory and, many years later, Rainford. On Time Boom, Sherwood enlists his house band, Dub Syndicate, to provide instrumental tracks over which Perry could declaim his typically unhinged pronouncements. Then Sherwood dubbed everything up in fine style, creating dark and brooding soundscapes from the raw material of Dub Syndicate’s rhythms and Perry’s incantations. Three separate mixes of “Jungle” was maybe a bit much, but honestly, which one would you jettison? And “Allergic to Lies” is undeniable. The whole album is a trip, and an enjoyable if occasionally scary one.

Wonderman Years cover

Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry released lots of singles on the Justice League label in the 1970s, working with a variety of A-list artists: Junior Byles, Dennis Alcapone, Augustus Pablo, even Bob Marley and the Wailers (who ended up stealing the bassist and drummer from Perry’s house band, the Upsetters). This generously packed two-disc set brings together 49 tracks from that period, quite a bit of which appears on other compilations as well; fans will probably already own multiple copies of the Gatherers’ “Words of My Mouth,” Junior Byles’ hair-raising version of “Fever,” and other tunes. But there are lots of relatively obscure tracks here as well, and most of them are outstanding — even Chenley Duffus’ fairly cheesy “Good Night My Love” and “At the End of the Rainbow” are given a certain weight and density by Perry’s unique production style. This collection is a must for all Perry fans.

Heart of the Congos cover

The Congos were a harmony duo consisting of Roydel Johnson and falsettist Cedric Myton. In 1976 they entered the legendary Black Ark studio of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and proceeded to create one of the true monuments of reggae’s roots-and-culture period. It’s hard to overstate either the uniqueness or the brilliance of this album; from the eerily exalted “Congoman” to the transcendent “Ark of the Covenant,” the Congos conveyed a spiritual vision that seemed to sum up the whole Rastafarian worldview, and Perry’s wild, dark, and crazily creative production enhanced the Congos’ delivery immeasurably. Until recently, the definitive issue of this album was a two-disc set on the (now sadly defunct) Blood & Fire label; it has now been superseded by a three-disc version on VP’s 17 North Parade imprint. An essential item for every reggae collection.

Ape-ology cover

This two-disc set compiles three of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s wildest and most experimental reggae albums: Scratch the Super Ape (later released in the US as Super Ape); Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Corn Bread; and Return of the Super Ape (along with a handful of bonus tracks). In context, that’s a strong claim; Perry was both famous and notorious for his experimentation in the studio and the uniqueness of his production sound. Working with his regular house band the Upsetters, he delivers both classic solo performances like “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Throw Some Water In” and tracks that feature the Heptones (“Zion Blood,” “Dread Lion”), the brilliant vocal ensemble Full Experience (“Underground Root,” “Dyon-Anasaw”), and deejay Prince Jazzbo (“Croaking Lizard”). Crazy as it is, this set is actually a great introduction to one of reggae’s most unique talents.

Police & Thieves cover

Junior Murvin was a falsetto singer who worked with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry at his Black Ark studio off and on during the 1970s. One result of his efforts was this outstanding roots reggae document, one that had a surprising impact in other genres as well — it’s worth noting that the title track was covered by the Clash on their debut album. Murvin’s voice is a combination of ethereal beauty and declamatory power: when he takes Babylon to task on tracks like “Rescue Jah Children” and “Lucifer,” or asserts his spiritual bona fides on “I Was Appointed,” it’s impossible not to pay attention. His musical vision and prophetic posture are only intensified by Perry’s unique production style.

Open the Gate cover

When it comes to the production work of the legendary/infamous Lee “Scratch” Perry, it can be hard to know where to start — he produced so much stellar work by so many top-tier reggae artists. So let me help you out: start here, with this world-class two-disc set of singles (presented in “showcase” style, alongside their dub mixes) recorded in the 1970s at Perry’s Black Ark studio. It doesn’t get much dreader than this: Junior Delgado’s “Sons of Slaves,” Devon Irons’ spooky “Vampire,” Junior Murvin’s dire warnings on “Bad Weed.” The legendary Black Ark sound is in full effect here: ghostly echoes, a wet and swampy drum sound, a generally otherworldly vibe. These productions represent Perry at his absolute best.

Blackboard Jungle Dub cover

Lee “Scratch” Perry was not only a world-changing producer — he was also a very able bandleader. The Upsetters were his studio band, and in their early years they backed up Bob Marley and the Wailers. Eventually their bass-and-drums duo, Aston and Carlton Barrett, would join the Wailers full time and help to shape the sound of modern reggae. While they were Upsetters, though, they made piles and piles of funky, tensile instrumental rock steady, reggae, and dub albums. Blackboard Jungle is one of their best efforts, and one of the first albums ever dedicated entirely to the dub version. Perry isn’t playing an instrument, but he shapes (often aggressively) every aspect of the album’s sound.

Arkology cover

Arkology is the definitive overview of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s pre-1990 work as a producer and as a solo artist. Unlike most best-ofs, this one is a beautifully curated mix of tracks both familiar and obscure, and it comes accompanied by outstanding liner notes. Here you’ll encounter Max Romeo’s very dread “One Step Forward” (followed immediately by its dub version), the Heptones’ “Mr President,” and the Meditations’ “No Peace,” along with deeper vault cuts like the Upsetters’ “Bird in Hand” and the dub version of Perry’s own “Roots Fish and Cornbread.” All of this material was recorded and mixed at Perry’s Black Ark studio (hence the title) and partakes of that studio’s uniquely weird and swampy ambience.

War Ina Babylon cover

Although he made his name on the Jamaican charts with a silly and bawdy novelty song called “Wet Dream,” Max Romeo was always a roots-and-culture guy at heart. And on this, his best-ever album, he had two major things going for him: the backing of the mighty Upsetters band, and the even mightier Lee “Scratch” Perry behind the mixing board at the Black Ark studio. The trademark Black Ark sound — murky, echoey, splashy — is in full effect here, and it creates a slightly incongruous but thoroughly effective sonic environment for Romeo’s rich, sweet voice. Lyrically, the album title and cover tell you exactly what to expect: songs of suffering, conflict, and godless oppression. And Romeo makes you feel every crack of Babylon’s whip.

Rainford cover

Adrian Sherwood (of the mighty On-U Sound label) and Lee “Scratch” Perry (of the legendary Black Ark studio) is a match made in heaven — assuming that your idea of heaven is a place where reggae music gets stripped to its essentials and then radically remixed. Released only a couple of years prior to Perry’s death at age 85, Rainford was their final collaborative project, and definitely one of the best. The instrumental backing tracks that Sherwood provides partake of his typically dark and heavyweight sound but also incorporate samples from Perry’s deep vault of recordings from the Black Ark. Perry declaims and chats, while the rhythms roar and skank. (And don’t miss Heavy Rain, the dub version of this album.)

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