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R.I.P. Lee “Scratch” Perry, Reggae Pioneer Dead at 85

Jamaica's prime minister confirmed news of Perry's passing on Sunday

Lee "Scratch" Perry
Lee “Scratch” Perry, photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns
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    Lee “Scratch” Perry, the pioneering reggae and dub music producer and singer, has died at the age of 85.

    Andrew Holness, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, announced news of Perry’s passing 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,” Prime Minister Holness wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “[Perry] has worked with and produced for various artistes, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and many others. Undoubtedly, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace.”

    The Jamaica Observer reports that Perry passed away Sunday (August 29th) at the Noel Holmes Hospital in western Jamaica. A cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

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    A native of Kendal, Jamaica, Rainford Hugh Perry was the son of Henry Perry, a professional dancer, and Ina Davis, a laborer who instilled her Yoruba African ancestry on to her three children. Perry dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and, after experiencing a mystical connection to stones, was inspired to move to Kingston to pursue a career in music. He soon found himself working at Clement Coxsone Dodd’s sound system, and then Joe Gibbs’s Amalgamated Records.

    In 1968, Perry formed his own label, Upsetter Records, and released his first major single, “People Funny Boy,” which went on to sell 60,000 copies in Jamaica. The song was notable for its fast, chugging beat and sampling of a crying baby, an early instance of a style of reggae known as dub music.

    In 1973, Perry constructed a studio in his back yard called Black Ark, where he would produce records for the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Junior Byles, and Junior Murvin, with whom he wrote “Police and Thieves” (a song later famously covered by The Clash). At the same time, Perry also recorded many of his own classic albums with his band The Upsetters, including 1973’s Blackboard Jungle, 1976’s Super Ape, and 1978’s Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread. On many of these records, Perry took existing songs and stripped them down to the stems, remixing the vocals or instrumentals, and incorporating various studio effects to create entirely new recordings. These innovative techniques would later be adopted in hip-hop and electronic dance music.

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    By 1978, however, stress and the emergences of unwanted outside influences led Perry to abandon the Black Ark. He relocated in the UK, quit drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis, and began working with British producers Adrian Sherwood and Neil Fraser, a.k.a. Mad Professor, which led to a renewed interest in Perry’s music.

    In 1998, Perry collaborated with Beastie Boys on “Dr. Lee, PhD” from their album Hello Nasty. Five years later in 2003, Perry’s record Jamaican E.T. won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album.

    In his later years, Perry collaborated with an array of musicians, from Animal Collective and Andrew W.K. to George Clinton and Keith Richards. He earned several more Grammy nominations, as 2008’s End of an American Dream, 2010’s Revelation, and 2014’s Lee “Scratch” Perry – Back on the Controls all received consideration in the Best Reggae Album category.

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    Perry remained active up until his death, releasing over 10 albums in just the last three years. All told, his  recorded output exceeded well over 80 albums spanning seven decades, and to this day continues to influence musicians across a variety of genres.

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