The black-hued brilliance of Jamaican music continues to transform our understanding of what sound is and how it can move us. Reggae, ska, rocksteady, dancehall. Dub versions, remixes, studio-as-instrument, producer-as-magician. These are just some of the ways in which the small Caribbean nation has changed the course of popular music worldwide.
Nobody understood better than Lee “Scratch” Perry how Jamaican sonic genius exists as a living, breathing network formed by people and vibrations enmeshed with technologies of recording and playback. From his early singles in the 1960s to his work with Bob Marley to his earth-shaking dub experiments, Perry’s system-wisdom allowed him to move fluidly between writing lyrics or melodies, singing or playing percussion, recording or remixing, arranging or bandleading or scouting talent: It’s all one love.
Throughout his life, Perry refused—gently, tirelessly—to make mundane distinctions: His music is pop, strange, holy. Relentless commitment to a world only he could hear has rendered his sounds universal. The man became an icon who collaborated with the likes of the Clash, Paul and Linda McCartney, and the Beastie Boys, but for all the classic reggae tunes he engineered, he remained committed to music as a process synonymous with life itself—alive and always changing. “The studio must be like a living thing,” he once said. “Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine perform reality.”
Wary and beatific, Perry’s sound transmits the belief that music is a spiritual practice, and his mystical unity can be heard on every recording. His music feels offhand yet uncannily sturdy. He didn’t so much “produce” singles as architect hypnotic environments where melodies and out-sounds combine forces to tell of a world where noise is as beloved as music: His 1968 breakout single “People Funny Boy” sampled a baby crying 30 years before Aaliyah and Timbaland’s “Are You That Somebody?” did the same.
For those who believe in sound, Perry’s backyard studio, the Black Ark, was the center of the world from 1973 until the producer allegedly burned it down himself a decade later, in order to, he claimed, rid it of demons. He caught soul on tape, repeatedly, coaxing now-classic performances out of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo, and many others. Then, despite having incredibly basic studio equipment, he further elevated the results. The fact that Perry only had a 4-track recorder—all the other major Kingston studios enjoyed 16-track setups—only made his ability to conjure up a highly idiosyncratic soundworld even more legendary.
Perry’s music means so much to so many, in part, because listening to it allows one to understand how a song can crack open spaces of possibility. Sometimes it’s a funny noise that seems out of place upon first listen but comes to define the shape of the track, like the bellowing cow in “Roast Fish & Cornbread.” Sometimes it’s a ghostly harmony where sweetness and dissonance become indistinguishable, as in “Rejoice Jah Jah Children” by the Silvertones. Sometimes it’s the creaking percussion—often played by Perry himself—that might anchor a track or unhinge its sense of time; the Congos’ Heart of the Congos does this to powerful effect, and indeed, the band named itself after the sound of metronome in Perry’s studio. The spaces of his songs always invite the outside in.
Perry’s shamanic studio practices were notorious (micing a palm tree to record the “living African heartbeat,” blowing weed smoke into the machinery, burying his master tapes to later spritz them with “a variety of fluids including whiskey, blood, and urine”) yet they coexisted alongside a technical mastery smart enough to know that perfection is the enemy. As Michael Veal reported in the excellent 2007 book Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, in contrast with King Tubby and all the other dub pioneers, who creatively rebuilt songs based on previously recorded sessions, Perry often executed his dubs live—dancing around, performing all manner of baroque studio wizardry and mixing the music to tape at the same time as he was recording the band.
Prior to dub, the notion of making music by removing sounds was unthinkable. Yet that’s precisely what dub did. The studio innovation was one of the 20th century’s most radical musical developments: a fully recorded song, fixed in time, can be brought to life, refashioned, and animated with a ghostly power. Dub music is literally unauthorized: You can take someone’s tune, remove key elements, and nevertheless end up with something profound—and maybe it works better on the dancefloor now, too.
He recorded “I Am a Madman” in 1986, and the idea that creative abundance must exceed limits of the normal was a constant refrain throughout Perry’s life. Western scientific rationality created madmen; madmen simply created. “Do you know that I’m crazy?” Perry asked a visibly uncomfortable BBC TV interviewer a few years ago. “I’m 100 percent crazy. I’m not lazy.” In that interview, the eightysomething agitator looked like no one but himself: hair and beard dyed red, hat and sneakers bedecked with mirrors and icons, cosmic-themed tights, a Jesus T-shirt, necklaces, rings—and the calm stare of a man who knows full well that he has ignored social convention since he first arrived on this planet back in 1936.
At the same time, Perry understood that, especially for a Black person, performance can never really stop. You are always on display, being judged or praised, often more of a character to be questioned than a citizen who belongs. He grew up in a British colony and saw Jamaican music for what it was: a miracle birthed by the downtrodden and dispossessed. After singing the titular line of “I Am a Madman” three times in a row in the song, the man who called himself “the Upsetter” continued: “Was bound in a country/… Human rights declaration throughout the universe, say Lord/Speak the truth and see what it costs at a time.”
Perry toured and collaborated endlessly, with an increasingly wide circle of international artists. His energy level was astonishing. Simone Bertuzzi of the Italian multimedia art duo Invernomuto, who filmed Perry performing for a 2016 conceptual documentary called Negus, told me: “He was almost 80 years old, and after a five hour drive he jumped in front of the camera for another five hours. At the end we asked, ‘Lee are you OK, are you hungry, do you want to stop?’ He said, ‘I’m a robot, I can go on forever. Whatever is fine for you is fine for me.’” Negus took as its starting point Perry’s notion that the right vibrations—played back over a properly loud soundsystem—can alter the past as well as the future. Countless artists received this type of unbridled, possibility-expanding inspiration from the Upsetter.
So while Perry has phase-shifted to another realm of existence, his body of work continues to echo, feedback, and grow. “As long as me live, I am taking the music to a higher level,” he said this past March. “Because my music has no end, and it make you feel happy, turn you on, and put you to bed.” His recordings captured magic. Now, our task is to dub that magic back into motion.