Born in the rural Jamaican village of St. Mary’s in 1936, Perry began his surrealistic musical odyssey in the late ’50s, working with ska man Prince Buster selling records for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Downbeat Sound System. Called “Little” Perry because of his diminutive stature (Perry stands 4’11”), he was soon producing and recording for Dodd at the center of the Jamaican music industry, Studio One. After a falling out with Dodd (throughout his career, Perry has had a tendency to burn his bridges after he stopped working with someone), Perry went to work at Wirl Records with Joe Gibbs. Perry and Gibbs never really saw eye to eye on anything, and in 1968, Perry left to form his own label, called Upsetter.
Not surprisingly, Perry’s first release on Upsetter was a single entitled “People Funny Boy,” which was a direct attack upon Gibbs. What is important about the record is that, along with selling extremely well in Jamaica, it was the first Jamaican pop record to use the loping, lazy, bass-driven beat that would soon become identified as the reggae “riddim” and signal the shift from the hyperkinetically upbeat ska to the pulsing, throbbing languor of “roots” reggae.
From this point through the 1970s, Perry released an astonishing amount of work under his name and numerous, extremely creative pseudonyms: Jah Lion, Pipecock Jakxon, Super Ape, the Upsetter, and his most famous nom de plume, Scratch. Many of the singles released during this period were significant Jamaican (and U.K.) hits, instrumental tracks like “The Return of Django,” “Clint Eastwood,” and “The Vampire,” which cemented Perry’s growing reputation as a major force in reggae music. Becoming more and more outrageous in his pronouncements and personal appearance (when it comes to clothing, only Sun Ra can hold a candle to Perry’s thrift-store outfits), Perry and his remarkable house band, also named the Upsetters, worked with just about every performer in Jamaica.
It was in the early ’70s after hearing some of King Tubby’s early dub experiments that Perry also became interested in this form of aural manipulation. He quickly released a mind-boggling number of dub releases and eventually, in a fit of creative independence, opened his own studio, Black Ark.
It was at Black Ark that Perry recorded and produced some of the early, seminal Bob Marley tracks. Using the Upsetters rhythm section of bassist Aston “Familyman” Barrett and his drummer brother Carlton Barrett, Perry guided the Wailers through some of their finest moments, recording such powerful songs as “Duppy Conqueror” and “Small Axe.”
The good times, however, were not long, especially after Perry, unbeknownst to Marley and company, sold the tapes to Trojan Records and pocketed the cash. Island Records head Chris Blackwell quickly moved in and signed the Wailers to an exclusive contract, leaving Perry with virtually nothing. Perry accused Blackwell (a white Englishman) of cultural imperialism and Marley of being an accomplice.
For years, Perry referred to Blackwell as a vampire, and accused Marley of having curried favor with politicians in order to make a fast buck. These setbacks did not stem the tide of Perry releases, be they of new material or one of a seemingly endless collection of anthologies. Perry was also expanding his range of influence, working with the Clash, who were huge Perry fans, having covered the Perry-produced version of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves.” Perry was brought in to produce some tracks for the Clash, but the results were remixed more to the band’s liking.
Despite the considerable lows in his career, Perry remained busy and, so it seemed, reasonably happy. Although he was less in demand as a producer, his solo work remained very strong, and his continuing influence could be felt in the contemporary dub music of the Mad Professor (another former Perry protégé that Perry went on to treat with disdain) and some post-rave electronica music. Even the Beastie Boys gave Perry his props in a rhyme on their release Ill Communication and later added him to the bill of performers at a concert for Tibetan freedom. In 1997, Island (the label started by the vampire Chris Blackwell) released Arkology, a well-received three-disc compilation of Perry recordings. That same year a collaboration with Dieter Meier of the Swiss electronica duo Yello called Technomajikal arrived on the Roir label. The project was made geographically possible by Scratch’s move to Switzerland.
A word or two about Perry’s discography: it’s massive, unwieldy, and although there are plenty of great records, there’s almost as much crap. The lack of quality control has little to do with Perry, but rather with sleazebags trying to rip off his legacy. After King Tubby’s murder in 1989, his studio was looted, and many of Perry’s tapes were stolen. Some of these recordings have shown up on poorly mastered, and expensive, anthologies. Releases on Trojan, Rounder’s reggae subsidiary label Heartbeat, and Island (and its subsidiary label Mango) are generally excellent and are the best place to start building your Perry collection. Smaller labels like Seven Leaves and the French Lagoon Records (which seems like a semi-legit bootleg label) are hit-and-miss propositions, and those inclined to check out recordings on these labels are encouraged to proceed with caution. And avoid releases on the Rohit label, if only for their lousy production and tacky, grade-Z packaging. Also, as with King Tubby recordings, purchasing a Perry release means you might be buying a record he produced, but not necessarily performed on. That said, happy hunting and listening.