11 Great Lee “Scratch” Perry Recordings: A Musical History

“My name is Rainford Hugh Perry,” said the man with bright red hair, matching beard, and fire in his eyes after stepping off stage in New York City many years ago. “My music name thunder and lightning.” Known to one and all as Lee “Scratch” Perry, he had a way of getting straight to the point and pressing that point to one’s neck before breaking into hysterical laughter.

The visionary producer, performer, and provocateur shaped and reshaped the sound of Jamaican music in the 60s and 70s, creating magical, culture-shifting records with a galaxy of stars from Bob Marley and the Wailers to The Clash and the Beastie Boys—to name but a few. He was as incendiary as he was influential.

Spanning more than half a century, Scratch’s rich catalog of recordings was by turns tender, rebellious, rude, lewd, and sonically revolutionary. He collaborated, innovated, and often fell out with most of the important music makers in Jamaican history—including such late great legends as Coxsone Dodd, Joe Gibbs, King Tubby, and Bunny Lee—as he pushed the evolution of the island’s sound from ska to rock steady to reggae, dub, punk rock, hip hop, jungle, and beyond. Some of his most memorable songs were diss tracks directed at former partners like “Run for Cover,” “I Am The Upsetter,” and “Chris Blackwell is a Vampire.”

Renowned as the mad genius of reggae, he crafted many of his greatest recordings at the Black Ark, a quirky four-track home studio in a residential neighborhood in Kingston, which he infamously set ablaze one day in 1979—an incident that has prompted much speculation over the years. “Not even me can wipe out the Black Ark,” he told filmmaker Reshma B in 2014. “It produce rain, whirlwind, hurricane, tidal wave, lightning, thunder, hailstone, earthquake… And it preserve life and it kill. It cripple, cramp, and paralyze.”

Perry’s passing was met with worldwide sadness and disbelief—not only because Scratch had contributed so much to world culture, but because he seemed somehow immortal. “He always said ‘I conquer death,’” said Emch of Subatomic Sound System, who toured and recorded extensively with Scratch over the past decade. “Never thought he would keep going as long as he did, but then started to believe he would never stop.”

Over the past month, Scratch’s official Instagram included posts about a new collaboration with a producer in Brooklyn, a November gig in Camden, Englamd, and plans to develop a commune and healing center in Hanover, Jamaica with his wife of thirty-plus years Mireille Campbell-Ruegg.

A 1995 cover story in the Beasties’ fabled Grand Royal magazine described Scratch as “the man, the myth, the Merlin whom many consider to be the greatest record producer ever.” That’s a big claim, but here are some of the records that back it up.

1. Lee Perry “People Funny Boy,” 1968

“Now that you reach the top and you turn big shot,” Scratch sings on this passionate diss record targeting his former partner Joe Gibbs, “All I’ve done for you, you not remember that.” The song’s melody is reminiscent of “Longshot Kick De Bucket,” a Scratch production for Gibbs’ Amalgamated label that became a worldwide smash, leading to financial disagreements that inspired the tune. But this record is memorable for more than its rancor. The crying baby that sets the mood on the intro was pulled from a radio jingle in what may be the first instance of sampling in recorded music. And the muscular rhythm broke with the smooth rock steady style that was ruling Jamaica at the time, ushering in a fresh sound that led some critics to call this the first reggae song.

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