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Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Visionary Reggae Producer, Dies At 85

Lee "Scratch" Perry performs in Australia in 2007.
Paul Kane
Getty Images
Lee "Scratch" Perry performs in Australia in 2007.

In an industry filled with boundary-breaking visionaries and spectacularly accomplished eccentrics, Lee "Scratch" Perry stood out. The legendary producer of reggae and dub music has died at the age of 85. No cause of death was given; Jamaican media reported that Perry died in a hospital in Lucea, in the northwestern part of the country. His passing today was confirmed in a series of tweets from from Jamaican prime minister Andrew Holness.

He was born Rainford Hugh Perry in 1936, during the height of labor unrest against the British colonial government. Although he dropped out of school as a youngster, Perry would become a global repository of knowledge about music. (His memorable nickname derives from a 1965 song, "Chicken Scratch.") At Perry's storied Black Ark studio in Kingston, located behind his family's home, Perry worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Heptones, Junior Murvin, and many more, crafting some of their most well-known songs. But Perry fell out with nearly as many people as he promoted and made famous.

"It was clear early on that he was best off as his own boss," reported Christopher Johnson in an NPR profile from 2006 that looked back on the producer's career and is well worth listening to in its entirety. "He created a record label and formed a band called The Upsetters. He wrote songs that dissed his old mentors, and those tunes became hits in Jamaica."

Perry also, Johnson notes, secretly sold the Wailers' tapes to another label and kept the money. As legendary for his otherwordly fashion and esoteric spiritual practices as for his occasionally questionable ethics, Perry translated his aural innovations into rock and rap in his work with Clash, Paul McCartney and the Beastie Boys. More than anything, though, Perry helped synthesize some of the most fundamental musical building blocks many of us listen to today, said the Chicago-area DJ Rikshaw. "He was experimenting with things that people still to this day are inspired by," he commented in that 2006 NPR piece. "He was doing remixes before the term even really existed with these 12-inch dub plays, disco mixes that would splice together different songs, different rhythms and effects."

Perry's flamboyance manifested in various ways in his long, accomplished and idiosyncratic life. He was suspected of burning down the Black Ark studio in 1983 after a breakdown, having covered nearly every available surface in scribbled black marker. "I needed to be forgiven of my sin," Perry told Rolling Stone. "I created my sin, and I burned my sin, and I am born again." He moved to Switzerland temporarily after the fire, in part, he said in an interview with the Guardian, because he was part elf and needed cold weather.

"I tire of the trope that genius rides shotgun with madness, but few people were as weird or cast as long a shadow as Lee Perry," tweeted producer Steve Albini.

"His records were shocking and became talismans for anybody who ever tried to manifest the sound in their head. Requiescat."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.