Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: How the Late Producer Changed the Direction of Music

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From his inventive use of sampling on an early reggae single to the tough, hypnotic roots sound he brought to The Wailers’ music to his groundbreaking sonic experimentation as a creator of dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died at 85 on Sunday (Aug. 29), brought numerous innovations to Jamaica’s music that continue to impact production and recording techniques in multiple genres far beyond the island’s shores.

The tests conducted by the legendary, eccentric producer in his fabled Black Ark studio in Kingston (which he built in 1973 and reportedly burned down in 1979) were so advanced, it’s impossible to imagine the course of popular music without his contributions. Not only reggae and dub, but also hip-hop, rock and every strain of electronic music have been touched by his visionary studio wizardry.

“Scratch did his own writing, producing, ran his own label and studio, was involved in every aspect of his music and in many ways, he shaped the role of a producer that we see today with guys like Kanye West and Timbaland,” observed Emch, co-founder of Subatomic Sound System, in a 2017 interview with Billboard. Subatomic, a collective of musicians combining roots and dub reggae with electronic music and hip-hop, began touring with Scratch in 2010; in 2017 they reimagined Scratch’s 1976 classic dub album Super Ape as Super Ape Returns to Conquer, adding in a rendition of Max Romeo’s “Chase The Devil,” which Scratch produced and co-wrote with Romeo as an imaginative take on good triumphing over evil. “It’s interesting that Kanye sampled ‘Chase the Devil’ [on Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” in 2003] because, in many ways, he’s the realization of a blueprint that existed in Scratch’s work back then,” Emch told Billboard in 2017. “Scratch did amazing remixes. He is supposedly the first person to have recorded a Jamaican emcee, U-Roy, talking over a record, which planted the seed of hip-hop culture right there.”

Perry’s career began inauspiciously as a handy man/janitor working for three top Kingston producers, Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, in Jamaica’s 1960s ska era. Before long, he was scouting talent, arranging, producing, writing and even singing. The first song Perry recorded was a ska ditty called “Chicken Scratch,” named after a popular dance of the era.

One of Perry’s earliest hits as a vocalist was “People Funny Boy,” from 1968, which took aim at another producer he worked with, Joe Gibbs. “People Funny Boy” is one of the first songs to utilize a reggae tempo, as Jamaican music transitioned out of its brief rocksteady period, and is also noteworthy for Scratch’s prescient use of a sample of a crying baby.

Scratch first worked with The Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston) at Coxsone’s Studio One (in 1966 they sang backup on Perry’s salacious “Pussy Galore”). The Wailers’ decision to record with Scratch as a producer — backed by The Upsetters, Scratch’s studio band (also a nickname for Scratch after the title of his diss record aimed at Coxsone) — in 1970 would transform the trio’s sound and, by extension, reggae itself. The Wailers’ Perry-produced albums Soul Rebel and Soul Revolution were landmarks; Perry’s deft production precisely framed the trio’s exquisite harmonies and the intricate, soulful grooves of the musicians, anchored in the forceful drum and bass, respectively, of brothers Carlton and Aston Barrett. When the Wailers left Scratch because the money he promised them was never paid, the Barrett brothers exited too and formed the core of the backing band that would later become Bob Marley and The Wailers. Nonetheless, Scratch would go on to collaborate with Marley later in the decade, which included co-writing “Punky Reggae Party,” celebrating London’s punk rock scene, which Scratch strongly identified with as the prototypical Afropunk.

Scratch released several influential roots reggae albums throughout the 1970s including Max Romeo’s acclaimed War Ina Babylon and The Congos’ mystical Heart of the Congos, the latter considered Scratch’s masterpiece of the Black Ark era. There were many milestone singles, including “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin (later covered by iconic punk band The Clash, who were greatly impacted by Scratch’s work), The Heptones’ “Party Time” and Perry’s “Dreadlocks In Moonlight,” which he originally wrote for Marley, but Island Records founder Chris Blackwell told him to keep for himself.

“I spent a lot of time over the years in recording studios and I learned more from watching Scratch than I did from anybody, just watching how he encouraged the musicians, how he operated; he created his own sound with the simplest of equipment,” Chris Blackwell told Billboard after Perry’s passing. Scratch’s visionary productions reportedly involved mixing down his four-track reel to reel tapes to stereo, feeding that tape to another four-track recorder, which resulted in extra available tracks to add to the recordings; Scratch would repeat the process until he achieved his desired multi layered sound. (Blackwell says Scratch made his classic works on three tracks.) “He always had a tape running, besides the tape that he was recording on, so when it came to mixing, he used elements from the second tape, which gave the songs something totally unique,” Blackwell continued. “He was so precise and fastidious in the studio. You might think he was disorganized because he gave off a vibe that he was a crazy guy, but he was absolutely on top of everything and wasn’t crazy at all — he was a genius.”

Other than the late Jamaican engineer/dub principal King Tubby, no one did more to advance that art form than Scratch. His production on The Upsetters’ 1973’s Blackboard Jungle and especially Super Ape were essential in establishing dub as an international phenomenon, particularly in Europe where numerous festivals are devoted to the Jamaican genre. Dub is essentially the rearranging of elements within an existing recording, through the isolation or distortion of vocal and individual instrumental tracks, to establish a new recording that emphasizes the drum and bass; Scratch’s fearless experimentation in pulling tracks apart and refashioning them into more compelling musical statements helped spawn numerous subgenres, including dubstep and drum and bass, and has directly impacted all electronic music forms. EDM DJs manipulating their tracks while playing live sets, Auto-Tune in trap and remixes of pop hits are all present-day manifestations of the advances Scratch developed decades ago.

“Lee Scratch Perry was a catalyst for creativity, and an upsetter of sounds, he broke them down and beautifully built them back,” states Kevin Bourke, cofounder with Andrew Christoforou of TmrwTday, the only festival in Jamaica that highlights dub and its connection to EDM by showcasing DJs from both genres. In its initial 2017 staging, TmrwTday received an unexpected endorsement when Scratch touched the mic at several events. “I had met him a few months before and told him about our festival but trying to reach him after that was tricky, but then he just showed up,” Bourke added. “He joined the young lions of dub, (Jamaican selectors/producers) Teflon and Yaadcore, who were playing back-to-back sets. Scratch went in the middle and performed, like he was passing the torch to them. He had a completely different perspective on music and to be able to communicate that in a style that is loved around the world makes him a true genius.”

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