Reggae Pioneer, Creator of Dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry Dies, 85

“My heart makes music magic. My heart makes magic music. Me heart write it. They call it reggae. Reggae is magic.” — Lee “Scratch” Perry, American Songwriter, 2020

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Lee “Scratch” Perry, the reggae pioneer, who laid the groundwork of electronic music and hip-hop as the creator of dub, collaborated with Bob Marley and produced countless other artists across genres, died on August 29 at the Noel Holmes Hospital in Lucea, Jamaica near his home in Negril. He was 85. There is no cause of death at this time. 

Credited with crafting dub, the sub-genre of reggae that began emerging in the late 1960s, Perry was a prolific force, having produced Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Junior Murvin (“Police and Thieves”), Paul McCartney, the Beastie Boys, The Slits’ Ari Up, and The Clash, throughout his more than 60-year career.

Perry always moved beyond his roots, most recently working with longtime collaborator Adrian Sherwood, who worked with Perry for more than 30 years, producing his 1987 album Time Boom X De Devil Dead and The Mighty Upsetter’s dub version Dub Setter in 2009. Recently, the two untied for Perry’s 2019 release Heavy Rain, a dub companion to his previous album Rainford, the latter title, an ode to his birth name.

Producer and musician Brian Eno, also collaborated with Perry on Heavy Rain track “Makumba Rock” a dub version of “Here Come the Warm Dreads,” originally off Perry’s previous album Rainford. Wailers trombonist Vin Gordon, who began working with Perry during his earlier Upsetter days, and his game-changing dub album Super Ape in 1976, also joined Perry on Heavy Rain.

Born Rainford Hugh Perry in Kendal, Jamaica on March 20, 1936, Perry dropped out of school by the time he was 15 to pursue music in Kingston, working as a record seller in the 1950s and releasing his first piece of music, “Chicken Scratch,” the song which earned him the nickname “Scratch.” Working with The Upsetters, Perry formed Upsetter Records in 1968—another moniker (“The Upsetter”) that would stick with him throughout his career—releasing a debut a year later.

By 1973, Perry started building his own Black Ark Studios in the backyard of his home in Kingston. There, he would produce some of the most pivotal reggae albums by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo, Junior Byles, The Heptones, Mighty Diamonds, and many others before a fire destroyed the space in 1979. In a strange coincidence, Perry’s “Secret Laboratory” studio in Switzerland was also damaged by a fire in 2015, which destroyed stage gear and many of his unreleased recordings.

A master of sound creation and improvisation, stories often emerged of his unorthodox “rituals” of burying microphones in the dirt and “blessing” tapes by blowing ganja smoke on them while recording.

Following the Black Ark fire, Perry moved around, to the U.S., London, Amsterdam, and Switzerland, where he married Mireille Campbell-Rüegg in 1991. Throughout the past 30 years, Perry has continued recording and releasing music out of his home studios in Negril, Jamaica, and Zurich, Switzerland. In 2003, Perry picked up the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for Jamaican E.T. (2002).

Lee “Scratch” Perry (Photo: Lea Jobson)

Prior to his death, Perry was scheduled to perform at the La Tamanoir in Gennevilliers, France on Oct. 8 with several additional dates in the UK throughout November 2021.

Following Perry’s death on Sunday, Andre Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica, issued the following statement:

“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. Perry was a pioneer in the 1970s’ development of dub music with his early adoption of studio effects to create new instrumentals of existing reggae tracks… Undoubtedly, Lee Scratch Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace.”

Splitting his time between his homes in Jamaica and Switzerland throughout the years with Mireille, when the pandemic hit in 2020, Perry journeyed back home to Jamaica, where he remained until his death. 

Perry is survived by his wife Mireille and their two children, Shiva and Gabriel, and his other four children Marsha Perry, Omar Perry, Cleopatra Perry, and Marvin (Sean) Perry. 

“What comes to the mind is what comes out. And the mind is a confuser, so it connects to the heart,” Perry told American Songwriter in a 2020 interview. “The heart go buff, buff. So it’s a heartbeat connector. My heartbeat go boom boom. I’m not a human being, but I’m a machine.”

Read Perry’s full interview with American Songwriter in 2020 here.

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