Artist and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, a reggae pioneer, inventor of dub music, whose use of recording techniques also made significant gains for hip-hop, dance and rock music, died Sunday at 85 in his home country of Jamaica.
His passing, first reported by the Jamaican Observer, was mourned by the many artists with whom Perry has worked over a career that has spanned seven decades. He was a prolific solo artist, as well as a collaborator and producer, making more than 1,000 recordings in that time.
Born to working class parents in rural Jamaica, Rainford Hugh “Lee” Perry moved to Kingston in the ’60s and got a job at Studio One recording studios where he produced several dozen songs for Downbeat Sound System records. From there, he went on to Amalgamated Records, producing records and honing his own skills as an artist. He formed his own label, Upsetter Records, in 1968.
Many record producers think of themselves as musical stenographers, whose job it is to faithfully capture the sound of a band in the studio.
Perry, on the other hand, pioneered the use of the studio as another instrument in his sonic array. Perry’s remix techniques laid the foundation for the Beastie Boys’ legendary sonic collages on their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Perry’s vocals even graced the track “Dr. Lee, PhD” from their 1998 album, Hello Nasty.
“We are truly grateful to have been inspired by, worked with and collaborated with this true legend. Let us all listen to his deep catalog in tribute,” the Beastie Boys’ Mike D said on social media.
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Perry and his band popularized Jamaican music in the ’70s, and he was a producer on records like The Heptones’ Party Time and Junior Murvin’s Police & Thieves. Murvin’s “Police & Thieves,” which Perry cowrote, was covered by the Clash on its 1977 debut album. The Clash then got him to produce “Complete Control” the same year. Perry was already in London at the time, working with Bob Marley.
A ceaseless musical experimenter, Perry mystified listeners with his use of found sound and experimental recording techniques. Perry buried a microphone at the base of a palm tree to capture an elusive thump, and would often blow smoke into the microphone, supposedly so the cannabis would get into the song.
Perry’s home-built backyard studio, The Black Ark, built in Jamaica in 1973, served as a kind of mission control for his musical collaborations with artists like Bob Marley and the Whalers and Junior Murvin. Perry eventually left his home island and spent time in England, the United States and Switzerland at various points in his life.
He continued to release records frequently, most recently Heavy Rain and Rainford (for his birth name) in 2019.
His passing elicited memories and praise not only from fellow artists, but Jamaicans like Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
“Undoubtedly, Lee Scratch Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace,” Holness tweeted on Sunday.
My deep condolences to the family, friends, and fans of legendary record producer and singer, Rainford Hugh Perry OD, affectionately known as “Lee Scratch” Perry. pic.twitter.com/Eec2MEd6yC
— Andrew Holness (@AndrewHolnessJM) August 29, 2021
His home country honored him with its national honor, the Order of Distinction at the rank of Officer. Perry was nominated for Grammy awards five times, winning one for Best Reggae Album in 2003 for Jamaican E.T.