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- Posted on Sep 19th 2008 5:00PM by Gaylord Fields
A wildly eccentric studio sorcerer who was on hand at the creation of reggae and dub music, Lee "Scratch" Perry helped shape Bob Marley's mature sound and indoctrinated the Clash into international music. Though it was Perry's early ska hit 'Chicken Scratch' that would give him his most enduring nickname, he has accumulated plenty of them over the years – the Upsetter, Super Ape, Pipecock Jackxon. At the height of his career he was, as the musical explorer David Toop once wrote, a combination of "electronic wizard, evangelist, gossip columnist and Dr. Frankenstein."
As a young man, Perry apprenticed at Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One, the breeding ground for Jamaican ska. By the mid-1970s, the cramped concrete studio he'd built in the yard of his Kingston home was ground zero for the island's feverish advances in sound recording. Years before hip-hop, Perry was using a crude four-track tape machine to create hallucinatory, bass-heavy remixes known as dubs. Fueled by rum and cannabis and covered in posters, murals and graffiti, the studio was a cauldron of creativity. "It was like a spacecraft," Perry would recall. "Something there was like a holy vibration and a godly sensation."
But fierce competition in the Jamaican music industry and the bad vibes of Kingston's criminal underground eventually pushed the obsessive producer to the brink of sanity. First he covered every inch of the walls of Black Ark in lettering. ("You had to have a lot of discipline to do that," recalled one amazed visitor.) Then he stopped recording, removed much of the equipment, and let the building fall into disrepair. Neighbors reported seeing the strange little man walking backward, pounding the ground with a hammer.
In the depths of his breakdown, a sudden blaze engulfed the Black Ark, destroying it. Though some family members have blamed the incident on an electrical fire, Perry himself has often insinuated that he set fire to the studio to cleanse it of its evil spirits.
He soon left his native country, collaborating with dub and techno acts in the United States and Europe and eventually settling with his family in Switzerland. The Beastie Boys helped orchestrate a campaign of renewed appreciation for Perry in the mid-1990s, putting him on the cover of their Grand Royal magazine and featuring him on a 'Hello Nasty' track ('Dr. Lee, Ph.D.'). Perry's latest release, 'Repentance,' finds him in an unlikely match with Andrew W.K., who produced. Now in his 70s, this dub-reggae mastermind revels more than ever in his well-earned reputation for weirdness, wearing homemade crowns and lighting more matches under musical convention.