Jamaican soul of reggae Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry dies aged 85

Lee Scratch Perry
Lee “Scratch” Perry

The legendary Jamaican singer and music producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has died at the age of 85. He died in hospital in Lucea, north-west Jamaica, local media reported.

Perry is known for his pioneering experiments in dub, which revolutionized not only reggae, but also hip hop, dance and other genres. Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness paid tribute to an “unforgettable” Perry on Twitter, praising his “sterling contribution” to music.

Perry was born in rural Jamaica in 1936 and moved to the capital Kingston in the early 1960s. In a 1984 interview with NME magazine, he said: “My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school… I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature.”

He started his music career in the 1950s as an assistant at a reggae music label, before moving up to becoming a recording artist with the same label. Over the next seven decades Perry went on to work with a number of fellow music legends, including Bob Marley and the Beastie Boys.

Lee Scratch Perry

He also won a Grammy in 2002, was nominated four other times – in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2014 – and received a Jamaican national honour, the Order of Distinction. In a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone, Keith Richards described Perry as “the Salvador Dali of music”.

“He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen,” Richards said. “More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the artist’s soul.” Mike D, from the Beastie Boys, paid tribute to Perry on Instagram with photos of the time they spent working together.

“We send the most love and respect we can to Lee Perry who passed today, to his family and loved ones and the many he influenced with his pioneering spirit and work,” Mike D wrote. “We are truly grateful to have been inspired by, worked with and collaborated with this true legend. Let us all listen to his deep catalogue in tribute.”

If Bob Marley was the face and voice of reggae, Lee “Scratch” Perry was its soul.

He was a towering figure despite his diminutive stature and eccentric appearance, but his influence was much deeper than most reggae fans realize. Much like Nile Rodgers, he was the producer and brains behind many songs more famously sung by other people. And it was his spirit that converted Marley’s band – The Wailers – from a rocksteady and ska trio to a much more bass-fuelled, political and spiritual group, a process later accelerated by Chris Blackwell.

Shamanistic and reliably stoned, “Scratch” nevertheless had a remarkable work ethic. He fell out with many of his collaborators, including the great Studio One boss Coxsone Dodd, and indeed The Wailers, though he and Marley would later reconcile. But by coming to the height of his powers in late 1960s and 1970s Jamaica, he was a charismatic engineer and catalyst for the group of artists who produced much of the best music of the 20th century.

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