Lunatic, genius, chancer, innovator, these and many other colourful epithets have been used to describe reggae legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – known also variously as The Upsetter, Scratch, Pipecock Jackxon, Super Ape, Small Axe and of course by his real name name Rainford Hugh Perry – and in truth Perry is all of these things and so much more. Cutting his first record as far back as 1959 Perry actually began his musical career working for another legendary reggae figure producer Coxsone Dodd helping to organise recording sessions, and supervise auditions at Dodd's record shop in Orange Street, Kingston and by 1963 had also chalked up production and songwriting credits for Delroy Wilson and the Maytals.
Two such towering ego’s were however unlikely to remain close for long and by the mid ‘60s Perry and Dodd fell out prompting Perry to release the Dodd baiting 'I Am The Upsetter' – and earning Perry a walloping from the imposing impresario in the process (although they did reconcile before Dodds death). Perry then began working with Joe Gibbs, for whom he wrote songs and produced artists such as Errol Dunkley and the Pioneers before also parting company with Gibbs and going on to release a dig at his latest ex-employer on the early classic Perry cut 'People Funny Boy' in 1968. In the same year Perry set up his own Upsetter label with help from Clancy Eccles and immediately began having hits securing a contract with Trojan – who released his records in the UK - along the way.
Perry’s next step on the road to immortality was assured when he then began working with The Wailers (as well as having his own UK hit in 1969 with 'Return Of Django') producing such classic Wailer moments as 'Small Axe' and 'Duppy Conqueror' – far better versions incidentally than the later, better known, Island mixes. Over 100 singles were released on the Upsetter label between 1969 and 1974 including a series of lunatic instrumentals where Perry began to seriously experiment and push the limitations of the studio to it’s furthest limits. What followed would be held up by some (not least Perry himself) as the first ever dub album, something fans of King Tubby, Clive Chin and various others refute, and if the facts tend more towards an ongoing bouncing of ideas back and forth between all the main players of the era there is little doubt Perry’s input was of immense importance and is heard to best effect on the mighty Blackboard Jungle album (1973), which if not the first dub album was bloody close, and some insist, the best.
Later the following year Perry opened his own Black Ark studio at 5 Cardiff Crescent, Kingston and began to use studio technology in the most remarkable and innovative way employing phase shifters and rudimentary drum machines, and even using primitive samples from television creating sounds all the more remarkable for the fact that it was achieved in a very basic four-track studio housed in little more than a garden shed. He immediately scored a big Jamaican hit with Junior Byles' 'Curly Locks' and in 1975 his production of Susan Cadogan's lovers rock classic, 'Hurt So Good', found him back in the UK charts. This period of successful activity however also saw the more erratic side of his nature given more leeway and in 1983 the Black Ark studio was destroyed, some believe by Perry himself, others that he was caught in the middle of local gang problems, but whatever the truth - and Perry will happily offer a different opinion on the subject every time he is asked - the prolific reggae innovator cut and ran, first to the UK and the US, then the Netherlands and finally Switzerland - where he would go on to marry Mireille a Swiss millionaires with whom he has two children (not so barmy then).
Away from home and feeling adrift he continued to release albums (at the last count well in excess of fifty), but these were often patchy – including some less than essential link ups with Simply Red and Paul and Linda McCartney - until in the late 1980s he began work with Adrian Sherwood and Neil ‘Mad Professor’ Fraser both of whom helped him rediscover his muse (although knocking the booze and jazz-fags on the head probably helped matters no end) and a guest slot on the Beastie Boys Hello Nasty album also did wonders for his profile. He has since picked up a Grammy In 2003 (for Jamaican E.T.) recorded an album with Andrew W.K. (Repentance 2006), reunited with Adrian Sherwood on The Mighty Upsetter (2008) worked with Keith Richards, Bill Laswell, Mark Stewart and George Clinton, been sampled by Animal Collective, features as the DJ on the radio station Blue Ark in Grand Theft Auto V, had his first ever solo art exhibition in Los Angeles (2010) and in 2011 was the subject of a fine film narrated by Benicio Del Toro. Then in 2012 Perry teamed up with The Orb to produce the excellent before it was announced he would received Jamaica's sixth highest honour, the Order of Distinction, Commander Class (which we fervently hope comes with a daft hat of some description).
Bringing things bang up to date Perry has been working with producer Daniel Boyle who, keen to hark back to the Black Ark days, has reintroduced the raw, vintage ‘Scratch style’ recording techniques using the most basic studio set-up and a whole raft of original vintage pieces of equipment from Lee’s production heyday and a few vintage extras (Grampian and Fisher reverbs, tape delays, the Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, reel-to-reel tape machines, old compressors, valve amplifiers, vintage filters, and a large analogue mixing desk). Perhaps even more importantly Boyle ensured Perry was involved in the tracking, mixing and dubbing sessions, hands firmly back on the controls, clattering around the effects units, and the mixing desk to maximum effect. He may be getting on but we're pretty sure that the man once described by Bob Marley as ‘a genius’ has more yet to contribute to the history of reggae, and whatever happens his position as a producer, arranger, writer, innovator and guiding force throughout some of the most exciting periods of Jamaican music is unquestionable.
Back On The Controls is out next month on Upsetter Records and you can find out more by toddling along to the page which helped fund the release, sneaky previews can also be heard at the Rolling Lion Studio's Page.