1936 to 1954
Rainford Hugh Perry is born in Kendal, a small village in rural Jamaica (though some reports have him born three years later in St. Mary's in a different parish the man's a bit of a mystery). His mother works in the fields while his father builds roads. Perry leaves school at 15 but is not interested in manual labour. He prefers dominoes, becoming a champion. He also digs dancing and becomes a champion at that, too. The awestruck crowds dub him Neat Little Man, because he stands a mere 5'4". This is his initial introduction to music not just the blues and boogie-woogie floating over from America, but a new kind of music that combines American R&B with traditional African rhythms. At the time it is simply called "roots music." Perry also claims to have learned how to read minds, something he describes as "eternally useful."
1954 to 1957
After a brief job as a bulldozer driver, Perry moves to Kingston to break into the music business. He faces his first rejection from Duke Reid, a former cop-turned-Sound System lord, before getting a gig as a gopher for Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. These three men will eventually become the key players in the evolution of Jamaican music from ska to rock-steady and eventually reggae. Soon, "Little" Perry takes charge of Coxsone's Downbeat Sound System as well as scouting out the hottest new R&B records. The Sound System battles turn ugly when Duke's boys rush a Downbeat dance and Perry gets slightly injured, but is saved by Prince Buster.
With American R&B on a downswing, Coxsone begins recording local artists, including Buster, whose hit version of "Oh Carolina" brings in enough bucks for Coxsone to open Studio One, which quickly becomes the nucleus of Jamaican music at the time. Perry becomes talent scout, studio engineer, songwriter and producer.
Jamaica achieves independence and Perry releases his first singles, none of which impact as much as his co-production and writing duties for Delroy Wilson and Toots and the Maytals.
Among a dozen tracks released this year, Perry nails his first hit with "Chicken Scratch" a ska track that leaves an indelible mark by providing Perry with his most enduring nickname. He also records his first collaboration with the Wailers, who sing back-up on "Man to Man."
Following a falling-out with Coxsone over money, power and respect (you know, "juice"), Perry records with Prince Buster and Sir J.J. before taking a job with Joe Gibbs. He records his Coxsone-dissing classic ska tune "I Am The Upsetter," as well as demonstrating his pop-culture obsession with "Kimble," a little ditty about TV's The Fugitive. But his relationship with Gibbs is short-lived as it becomes increasingly evident that Perry simply does not work well with others. Meanwhile, a heat wave precipitates a slowing down of ska into the more soulful rock-steady beat, which Perry, along with the island's other producers, capitalise on.
Free at last, Perry starts up his own label, Upsetter, and releases another diss record, "People Funny Boy," that decimates Gibbs while selling a reputed 60,000 copies. Its influence can be heard in contemporary tracks such as Dr. Dre's Eazy E-mocking "Fuck Wit Dre Day" as well as its pioneering use of found-sound sampling as he expresses his dismay through the sounds of crying children. But the record's real long-term impact is its use of a laconic, bass-heavy beat. Inspired by the spiritually-infused rhythms emanating from a Pocomania revivalist church (an Afro-European hybrid religion that appropriately translates as "little madness") Perry tries to create "a waxy beat like you stepping in glue" that almost single-handedly takes Jamaican music into the riddims of what we now know as reggae.
1969 to 1970
Pulling a move Moby would later break big with, Perry sells "Return of Django" one of a series of instrumentals that includes "Clint Eastwood" and "Vampire," inspired by the American spaghetti Westerns for a British TV advert. The record sneaks up to number five on the UK charts, becoming one the best-selling reggae releases ever. He tours the UK for the first time, but his concerts are panned by the music press and when he returns home most of his "Upsetters" band quit to join the Wailers, who have left Studio One and are becoming heavily involved in Rastafarianism. Perry angrily confronts Bob Marley about the defections, but despite threatening to kill Bob they decide to collaborate. Perry becomes the Wailers' exclusive producer despite the instrumental-loving Perry's reluctance to use singers "'cuz them was behaving so stink and so rude that I just didn't want to get involved." With the Upsetters rhythm section on-board, the sessions result in classic tunes like "Duppy Conqueror," "Keep on Moving," and "Mr. Brown." He also opens the Upsetter Record Shop, which becomes an immediate Kingston hangout with its non-stop music and freshly-pressed Perry singles for sale.
1971 to 1972
Perry's relationship with the Wailers comes to a bitter (though not final) end when he sells their tapes to Trojan Records and keeps the money for himself a particularly hypocritical move considering the financial chicanery he suffered under Coxsone and Gibbs. Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records, seizes the opportunity to sign Marley and his disgruntled crew, causing Perry to cry cultural imperialism Blackwell is a white Jamaican who emigrated to Britian; his mother was a Jamaican colonial and accuse Marley of selling out. But Perry bounces back quickly, slowing down his style even further, helping to evolve dub alongside pioneer King Tubby. On the B-side of singles, they would deconstruct songs into their basic instrumental elements before adding echo, reverb and phasing, in the process creating the first "remix." He would later say of Tubby: "I thought he was my student, maybe he thought I was his student, but it makes no matter. I'm not jealous."
Trojan Records releases African Herbsman, a compilation of Perry and Wailers productions; in retrospect, it is considered by some the Wailers' best work, laying the foundation for the reggae revolution that will spread throughout the globe. Perry's own "Cow Thief Skank," built from the beats of two previous Upsetter songs, is arguably the first hip-hop scratch record and a high point in a year during which he releases three Upsetter records and runs three labels. Unhappy with relying on the recording facilities of others, he also buys a house which he lives in with his common-law wife and children Michelle, Marvin, Mark and Marsha and begins building his own backyard studio, a two-year project that costs 12,000 pounds.
With his studio, Black Ark, at last complete, Perry gets down to business kicking off with Junior Byles's "Curley Locks," the first Jamaican single to sell over 100,000 copies overseas, as well as his own dub masterwork "Blackboard Jungle," co-produced with Tubby. His equipment is simple but he manages to squeeze out previously unheard sounds that have never quite been reproduced. He explains it saying "It was only four tracks written on the machine, but I was picking up 20 from the extraterrestrial squad." In reality, he records four tracks, dumps them onto a single track and repeats the process.
1975 to 1976
Despite the Wailers' defection to Island Records, Perry signs a worldwide distribution deal with Chris Blackwell, as well as reuniting with Marley for "Jah Live," a tribute to recently-deceased Haile Selassie, whom Rastas believe to be God. He also picks up some toys on a visit to the U.S., including prototype drum machines and phasers, which he uses to release a series of classic dub tracks including his own Upsetter tune "Super Ape." With increasing political violence ripping through the country, Perry responds by recording vocals for "Bury the Razor" and co-writing the political "War In a Babylon" with Max Romeo, while also releases sillier songs such as "Stay Dread" and "Kung Fu." The studio also pumps out psychedelic jazz, dark dub and intensely spiritual Rasta tunes with great frequency. Black Ark becomes known as a magical place, where one can find the island's most adventurous, experimental music perhaps because Perry blows marijuana smoke on the master tapes as they roll.
Punk goes reggae as Perry produces the Clash's "Complete Control" record a band who got their name from Perry's hit "Two Sevens Clash" and covered his seminal "Police and Thieves" by Junior Murvin. He co-writes "Punky Reggae Party" with Marley while the two chill out in London.
Perry's increasingly excessive ganja'n'rum-fuelled lifestyle and rumoured use of other narcotics starts to catch up with him, inspiring a supposed UFO experience, a mistaken sign from Jah and the rejection of three records in a row by Island. He's conned out of considerable money by dread-locked hustlers who convince him to put money into a supposed Broadway musical about reggae. He bans dreads from his studio.
As evidenced by the anguished record "City Too Hot," Perry's life is spinning out of control. He's being harassed for protection money by local ruffians, his studio is filled with freeloaders, his wife leaves with the kids and he records Linda McCartney. It's all too much. The actual chain of events remains somewhat speculative, but basically Perry covers the walls of Black Ark with insane written rants, is seen wandering around Kingston backwards hitting the ground with a hammer, and somehow ends up torching his own studio. He's released on arson charges due to a lack of evidence (he blames bad wiring). The commonly accepted story eventually becomes that Perry was convinced Satan has set up shop in his studio and needed to be driven out. He's later quoted saying: "I destroyed the studio and burnt it down. Over. I felt I'd stood up for what I believe in. No one could rip me off anymore. Not Chris Blackwell. Not anybody." His studio in ruins, Perry continues to greet people with cryptic metaphysical nonsense and is discovered by a NME reporter worshipping bananas, eating money and baptising visitors with a garden hose.
Dutch record label Black Star Liner still eager to work with the acclaimed, albeit crazy, producer installs new equipment in what's left of his backyard studio. Perry installs a duck pond in the drum booth. The restoration and recording projects are soon aborted after Perry proves too erratic, causing him to cut off ties with the label. The label takes the tapes back to Amsterdam, finish the mixing without him and release Return of Pipecock Jackxon, the first record to come out post-Black Ark. Perry casts a spell on them.
Fed up with the local music industry, Perry leaves Jamaica and tours the U.S. with the Terrorists, a white reggae band from New Jersey. He leaves them in the dust for another white reggae band, the Majestics. Then he returns to Jamaica to record with former boss Joe Gibbs.
He comes crawling back to Island Records, dead broke.
Perry moves to London. Angered that his record History Mystery and Prophecy was released in the U.S. but not the U.K., he accuses Blackwell of being a vampire literally. "He invited me to Compass Point studio and I saw him drink blood of a freshly killed chicken. He thought it was all that voodoo stuff and offered me some." The following year Perry puts his accusations on wax with "Judgement Inna Babylon," which also claims Blackwell killed Marley. He also turns down a production offer from Talking Heads, mistakenly assuming they're on Island Records because he meets them at Compass Point. He hooks up with Neil Fraser, better known as Mad Professor.
Perry records Battle of Armadgideon (Millionaire Liquidator), during which he reportedly sips black current and gasoline while wearing an electric heater on his head. His eccentric behaviour continues the following year when he again covers the walls of his studio in graffiti and places wine bottles filled with his own urine on the mixing boards.
With his standards seriously gone missing, Perry remixes Simply Red's Bunny Wailer cover and works with weirdo UK metal act Zodiac Mindwarp, but turns down early hip-hoppers Mantronix and Big Audio Dynamite. On the other hand, he does produce Terrence Trent D'arby whose early work is fantastic, and performs at the Elysee Monmartre in Paris. He also releases his comeback album Time Boom X De Devil Dead, his best album of the 80s, on On-U Sound.
Perry relocates to Zurich, Switzerland with Mirreille Cambell-Ruegg, a wealthy Swiss businesswoman once married to Mikey Dread. They marry in a Hare Krishna temple and have two children. They threaten Coxsone with legal action over recent recordings at Studio One and Jamaican newspapers accuse her of manipulation. Meanwhile, King Tubby is murdered and his studio looted, resulting in the theft of numerous Perry productions, some of which later show up in sketchy anthologies.
Rejoicing in Blackwell's sale of Island and convinced that it is partly his doing, Perry decides to cast a new spell, this time on Margaret Thatcher: "the mirror god himself will chop off Margaret Thatcher's head and kill the seven demons in her." He makes plans to move back to Jamaica and rebuild Black Ark, which doesn't happen. He does team up with British producer Adrian Sherwood for From The Secret Laboratory, some of his best work since the Ark burned. It is released on Island Records.
Perry releases two albums, including the lawsuit-inspiring Coxsone recordings and the digital Lord God Muzik. He also goes on a dissing rampage, taking shots at Marley, Coxsone, Blackwell, Gibbs and Mad Professor but praises punks and rappers
He leaves his wife and tours Europe, playing well-received three-hour sets. He lives in Mad Professor's Ariwa sound studios for a while before reuniting with wife. Perry also reaches a new phase of pop-cultural prominence when he's namedropped by the Beastie Boys, who sing on "Sure Shot": "I'm like Lee Perry, I'm very/ On rock the microphone and then I'm gone."
Island Records releases the awesome three-disc compilation Arkology that chronicles the best of Perry's creative peak and provides an introduction to a new generation of fans. He sells out two gigs in San Francisco, his first Stateside performances in 15 years, and later plays at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. The shows go well and he follows up with a wide-scale American and European tour.
Beastie Boys let Perry have his way on "Dr. Lee, PhD" from their Hello Nasty album, though it is not one of the record's highlights. He also provides vocals for the Fire This Time's Still Dancing on John Wayne's Head, a production that also includes Michael Franti and Chuck D.
Perry and Mad Professor release three records, including Techno Party, which combines their traditional dub with its electronic offshoots trance, house, trip-hop and drum & bass and includes a jungle nursery rhyme about Perry taking on Satan and his spaceship. It is considered to be his best recent work and club kids from around the world start to connect the dots, realising that much of their music can be traced back to Black Ark. A high-profile biography, People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry is published.
Perry tours America and Europe with Mad Professor and it's generally considered a disaster. Visa problems prevent him from entering several European countries and those that he does perform in report unenthusiastic gigs, with one reggae message-board poster writing: "LP was disgracefully rubbish, his wife was running the show drinking champers on the stage and looking pissed off, Lee Perry ranting on that he is white now cos his fans are white." This fact is further demonstrated when Perry stars in a popular new Guinness television ad and is profiled in Vanity Fair.
At the tender age of 66, Perry unveils a still-present prowess with Jamaican E.T., and prepares to go back out on the road. Recorded in his home studio in Switzerland, known as White Ark, it's a deep, dubby journey into a bird-filled haunted forest where sounds pounce like ninjas, fading just as quickly while you spin about wondering where the hell this mad music is coming from. It makes little sense, with Perry mumbling incoherently over many of the tracks, but the bass will make you bounce. Slowly.