Lee "Scratch" Perry"I am the Upsetter. I upset everything which is not right . . ."
Mr. Rainford Hugh "Scratch" "Pipecock Jaxxson" "The Upsetter" Perry is on many missions at once. Just one of them is "to criticize all tax collectors and...to execute all thief, all liars and vampires, mentally. . ."
Jamaica's most famous producer, recording artist, performance artist and shaman/trance channeler's vast and important life has had a more than a passing impact on not only Reggae but numerous other trends in popular music, from rap and hip-hop to electronica. Like Sun Ra, Stockhausen and Hendrix, Lee does not use ordinary means to achieve his goals . . . "I'm the best magician in the Universe. I'm the best Miracle Man, and I'm the best scientist. I am three-in-one and all in heart. I be anything I want to be. I'm a dreadlocks, I'm a baldhead, I'm everything. All at the same time. Check it out."
Born circa 1936 in the parish of Westmoreland, West Jamaica, Scratch grew up with music, coming to Kingston in the early sixties, another "country boy" come to town to look for work. Before long he found himself working for Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and his Downbeat sound system as gofer and runner.
An early glimpse into Scratch's character can be seen when Scratch pranked Coxsone's arch-rival Duke Reid the Trojan into thinking that some hot American R&B 78s could be obtained that could be potent cannon fodder in Duke's on-going sound system battles with Coxsone: "We put it about that so and so had some dread sides. Fire sides on a blank label. Duke run to see the man. But when he got the records, he found they was old stuff--duds!"
When Coxsone opened the doors of his recording studio, Studio One, in 1964, Perry moved up to A&R man, running auditions and taking masters to the pressing plant. A few years later, Perry was a recording artist on the Studio One label, cutting his own tunes, often humorous and sometimes downright raunchy. It was at this time that Scratch became acquainted with the Wailers, who were already big stars on Studio One.
After Ska gave way top Rock Steady in 1966, Lee ceased working exclusively for Coxsone. In early 1967, he became Amalgamated Radio and TV owner/repairman Joel "Joe Gibbs" Gibson's right hand when Gibbs decided to get into the recording business. Perry coordinated talent, supervised sessions, and essentially launched Gibbs' fledgling "Amalgamated" label. Shortly thereafter, Scratch delivered a salvo straight to Coxsone's head and a possible caveat for then-present employer Gibbs: "I am the Upsetter/You will never run away with me. . ." His nom-de-feisty, The Upsetter, had now firmly been established in the minds of the listening (and non-listening) public. (Perry was probably inspired to christen himself thusly through Little Richard's house band, the Upsetters.)
Around this time he also became attached to West Indies Recording Limited, where he continued to record, challenging (for example) Prince Buster's "Judge Dread" and his 400-year sentences for rude boys with his own "Set Them Free," where Scratch takes on the role of defense attorney for the accused hooligans: He asks Judge Dread (Buster) to "give them a chance to mend their mistake. . . as your Honour knows, a hungry mob is an angry one." Ironically, Scratch played one of the accused rudies on "Judge Dread."
At West Indies Recording, Lee's innate talent developed and would soon set off explosions in the Kingston recording scene. He became an in-house producer at WIRL, and, with a little help from engineer Lynford "Andy Capp" Anderson, his knack for experimenting, his predilection towards the bizarre and his sheer audacity became explosively (and entertainingly) apparent.
In 1968, Scratch had a falling out with Gibbs and in the process of committing his feelings to wax ended up detonating another musical bomb: People Funny Boy. This record, which started off with a baby crying, was this time straight to Gibbs' head and musically way ahead of its time. Its new punchy, jerky beat was one a handful of records coming from WIRL to make the transition from Rock Steady to Reggae.
People Funny Boy, emerging on Scratch's own Upsetter Records, would eventually sell 50,000 copies and put enough cash in Scratch's pocket to jump-start his epic career from soul man to sorcerer.
In 1969, Scratch had become one of the leading upstart producers, and was beginning to gather a crowd. Perry formed a band, The Upsetters, consisting of future Wailers rhythm section Aston and Carlton Barrett, with Alva "Reggie" Lewis on guitar and Glen Adams on organ. The direction for the Upsetters was in the vein of the Meters. Much of the Upsetters' material is raw, stripped down and chugging Jamaican soul. The Upsetters hit with a series of chunky, mostly organ-led instrumentals which were tributes to the bloody Italian "spaghetti" Westerns which would splatter across humid Kingston screens: "The Return of Django," "Django Shoots First," "For a Few Dollars More." Scratch continued with his A&R prowess by selecting great singers to cut great vocal tracks, sometimes blistering covers of American soul tunes, and frequently a serious challenge to the original. The same year saw a tour to the UK, and in that country Scratch signed licensing deals with Trojan and Pama records for the UK release of his Jamaican productions.
More history would soon be made: three singers named Peter, Bunny, and Bob, came to Scratch hoping to get some product out, the success of which would hopefully be commensurate with their immense talents. Scratch's production and direction of Bob Marley and the Wailers completely renewed and reoriented their then-ambiguous careers. It was truly a revolution, and a soulful one at that. When Soul Revolution was released both in Jamaica and the UK, it put the Wailers back on the musical map, where they belonged. Within two years, Bob and the Wailers would have an contract with Island Records. The Wailers' Upsetter recordings are still beholden by many as a musical pinnacle.
The early seventies saw more brilliant production from Perry, and his launching of another label, Justice League, revealed his fondness for comic books. Junior Byles' stunning first album, Beat Down Babylon (1972) and the Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub (1973) were just two examples of genius production, and, like so many Upsetter productions, totally ahead of their time. Blackboard Jungle Dub is generally considered to be the very first dub album ever. Depending on how one adjusted the stereo balance control on the album, one could get four different mixes out of it. In the UK, Trojan released the brilliant, various-artist LPs Africa's Blood and Double Seven.
In 1974, Scratch turned a garage in his residence in the Washington Gardens suburb of Kingston into a 4-track recording studio. The name he chose for it was apt given the number of talented individuals who set foot in it and its extreme solidity, music wise: The Black Ark. With this, Lee would lay the groundwork for "ancient scrolls" to be recorded. As Perry characterized: "It's not only the Ark, it is the power plant of Righteousness."
In the Ark, Scratch got a flanged, nicely distorted and gigantic sound somewhat analogous to what happens when one is molecularized on board the Enterprise. His direction of the cream of the crop of Kingston's reggae session men was equally as original and consistently provocative. He also made use of the great King Tubby's newly set-up studio to further future dub ex-Perrymentation.
By the middle of the seventies, Mr. Perry's sophistication in producing and recording had grown to the point where he now had an impressive artist roster, and Island Records signed Scratch to a multi-album deal, allowing talented Jamaicans the Heptones, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, George Faith, Prince Jazzbo and Scratch himself access to a wider listening audience, which would now include rock critics.
But in the darkest recesses of Kingston and London, the massive bass that only Scratch could squeeze out of 1/4" of tape boomed both at Trenchtown dances and West Indian shebeens. In the words of Heptone Leroy Sibbles: "a dis a sufferer's time." In the UK, Upsetter singles rapidly became cult collector's items. Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves was a huge hit amongst Jamaicans in London and elsewhere.
Perry also continued to work with Marley for Island material, co-writing and composing with him on such great tracks as "Jah Live," numerous tracks on the Rastaman Vibration album, and "Punky Reggae Party, " a vibrant nod of approval to English punk and New Wave bands. Incidentally, the Upsetter sound was not lost on the Clash, who would work with Lee in a few year's time.
Instrumentals (Scratch's preference) and dub material were assembled for "Super Ape" and "Return of The Super Ape"--wild, late-night dub forays into parallel universes. One dub album prepared for Island was so avant-garde that even then-cutting-edge Island records decided to pass.
Scratch had always been eccentric, planting 45s in his flower boxes, blowing ganja smoke across the heads of his recording deck, and charming those around him with his off-the-wall humor. Later, his burgeoning shamanic mysticism expanded to his writing on every conceivable surface on the grounds of his house, including the rocks outside, and an ever-increasing pre-occupation with the elements and historical and biblical figures.
He explains: "I am a Piscean, and in my world, before I became a human being I was a fish. I am an element of the sea and the water, and all my energy comes from the sea, the water, the air, and the rain."
David Fricke of Rolling Stone observed: "At Black Ark, Perry definitely operated on the crumbling margins of sanity; his own "Soul Fire" is anguished, hallucinatory dub, the sound of a man driven to terror and incoherence. But for the most part, Perry was crazy like George Clinton, drawing dynamic performances from a fluid cast of singers and sidemen and camouflaging his calls for social change and spiritual retribution in cool licks and cartoonish mysticism. . . ." Rightly, Fricke also noted that "Perry was trying to cut hits."
The great DJ I Roy has commented that Scratch's "madness" is simply an act, to keep away "the Karaokes and the joiners." Says I Roy, "No, man. Scratch cyaan' mad. 'Im have too much IQ!"
Like most producers and artists, Scratch had always been ripped off over the years, and this, combined with his acute sensitivity, intelligence and penchant for social justice, did not hold up well when assaulted with Island's refusal of recent work, the dangerous social and political climate of Kingston, the constant loiterers around the and rumored demands of protection money from the notorious gang the Spanglers. Fueled by sun, humidity, and copious amounts of strong herb, rum, and Tia Maria, the invariable result was psychological meltdown. As Scratch went down, the Black Ark went up, in flames. The truth of what really happened lies somewhere in the middle of a dense cloud of ganja smoke: Scratch claimed it was faulty wiring, others say he set fire to the Ark but was unable to douse the blaze as they had turned off the water in Kingston that afternoon.
Some time before the Ark burned down in 1979, Island records' Chris Blackwell lent Scratch funds to revamp the Ark which was falling into a state of disrepair and install new equipment, but for whatever reason, if only for sheer subversion, Scratch never returned to Kingston--a shopping trip to Cartier in New York was in order, resulting in the purchase of a considerable amount of jewelry and silverware. Blackwell said, "He was finally thrown out when he was caught re-painting the elevator."
After the break with Island, Scratch moved to Amsterdam where a short-lived label, Black Art, was set up. In 1982 he fronted some U.S. dates with an American reggae band called the Terrorists. Residents living near one show's promoter called the police at 6 AM to report a half-naked man with a machete jogging through the neighborhood. It was Scratch. Said Lee about the band, "They are the Terrorists and I am Dr. Sea bat here to bless the good and to curse the evil."
More solo albums emerged in the 1980s, although with few succeeding in capturing the wild and mysterious magic of the Ark. Moving to Switzerland as a permanent base, Scratch continued to record numerous albums for other producers such as Adrian Sherwood of On-U Sound. In Switzerland, Scratch was excited by the possibility of controlling the world's banks and monetary supply.
In the early '90s Scratch began touring Europe to rave reviews, and finally the way was made for the Upsetter to descend onto American shores. He provides further insight: "The only reason I am coming to tour America is to prove to the president of America that he is not the right president, that I am the right president. I am coming to prove that I am in full command, and full control, of the international monetary foundation."
Long-time Upsetter fans The Beastie Boys devoted an entire issue of their magazine Grand Royal to Lee, forming the definitive Upsetter guide to date. For the Boys' Hello Nasty, the Beasties again asked Scratch to come and voice a track on the CD. "Dr. Lee" has since blown people's minds coast to coast with U.S. performances with the Robotics band, frequently under the mixing supervision of UK dub wizard Mad Professor. On stage, Scratch conjures fire and water as he . . . I'll let him speak for himself:
"People who are coming to my shows are the few who have been chosen to be healed--spiritually, physically, and mentally. They must get it in their heads that I, E.T., will be at the controls, in charge of all the human brain cells. E.T. will pick them all up when the show starts and take them into the sky, and after the show has finished E.T. will land them back on the Earth."
This is Scratch's first outdoor appearance on the West Coast.