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Lee "Scratch" Perry, Reggae Pioneer, Set to Burn the Mother Down 

Lee Didn't Start the Fire

The man, the myth, the spiritual pyro

Photo by Manfred Werner

The man, the myth, the spiritual pyro

Lee "Scratch" Perry is eccentric. Not like your rich uncle who exclusively wears periwinkle blue track suits to brunch every Sunday. No, Perry's eccentricities are more organic than that, rooted in decades of building the foundation of what we now know as reggae and dub music.

Born Rainford Hugh Perry, the 80-year-old Kendal, Jamaica native has managed to do something few musicians get to do during their careers: Pioneer a new sound, produce monumental tracks that propel it to soaring heights and then burn said sound to the ground.

Back in the early '70s, after over 15 years of working in the newly christened reggae industry, Perry built a recording studio in the backyard of his Kingston, Jamaica home that would ultimately change the future of the movement. The infamous Black Ark Studios was, for all intents and purposes, a Rasta shack that slowly seeped smoke from under its feeble walls whilst the thumping of deep dub beats permeated throughout its surroundings. The four-walled palace of pot helped shape the careers of legendary reggae sound-masters like The Heptones, Junior Byles, Max Romeo, Augustus Pablo and most notably, Bob Marley and the Wailers. Perry was behind the board for all of these sessions, using his inherent skills to overdub various layers of music while creating a unique sound which would eventually evolve into dub.

Perry's style was so influential and one-of-a-kind that musicians like Paul McCartney and The Clash traveled to Jamaica to seek his musical wisdom. Some of his more notable production techniques included burying a drum at the bottom of a palm tree to get a more bass-ed sound, employing the vocal stylings of crying babies on his tracks and surrounding his boards with things like chicken wire, broken bottles and cutlery. All of these effects contributed to the success and legacy of the Black Ark studio and Perry.

But by the end of the decade, Perry was disenchanted with the once profound empire he had built. Citing stress from the constant rigmarole of having to turn his creativity on and off, Perry felt that the vibe and spirit of the studio had changed. Rumors were afoot at the time that prominent Jamaican gangsters and politicos were trying to cheat him of every last dime. Others say that Perry's sometimes flamboyant and outlandish behavior contributed to his downfall. Whatever the case may be, Perry eventually burned the studio down less than a decade after he had built it. And he burned down another one in late 2015, except this time it was an accidental fire started by a candle left unnoticed.

While the Grammy-winning sound-smith may have had worse luck with fires than most of us will have with sunburns in our lives, you can't feel bad for the man. His legacy is one that will carry on long after his last dub performance leaves you feeling oh-so irie and high-re.

Known as the "godfather of dub" by many, a documentary called The Upsetter (his infamous nickname), detailing the life of Perry, was theatrically released after a successful showcase at SXSW in 2008. In it, you see a man who had a desire to leave a cannabis-shaped footprint on the music industry from an early age, a man who many might say is crazy, but is never lazy and, most importantly, a man who has learned to embrace and accept change while still keeping his peripheral eye on his past life.

The most impressive thing about Perry, however, is that he's still writing, recording and performing. Most musicians who were active at a time when Led Zeppelin and The Who were still putting out their bests are either resolutely docile or are enjoying the fruits of their past labors. These days, you can find Perry performing with the Subatomic Sound System and using his chops to influence a myriad of newer electronic musicians. The candle that lit his musical career, purpose and dub roots has never burnt out, and it's inarguably Lee "Scratch" Perry's creative fire that has been the most important one to spark in his lifetime.


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