When discussing Jamaica, most non-Jamaicans think of weed, then Kingston or Montego Bay or some all-inclusive resort they’ve stayed at. Their minds don’t drift to the rural parish of Hanover in the island’s northwest corner. Its economy is largely based on agriculture and mining, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. Poor families would often need their children to quit school before completion to keep the house afloat. One of the teenagers in that situation was named Rainford Hugh Perry, though he’d assume many others in the decades to come. He also credited the slamming rocks and crushing sounds of his bulldozer with the sonic innovation that would make him a household name on the island. That was how Lee “Scratch” Perry got his start.
Much of the dub and reggae music that’s flourished since the 1960s takes its lead from Scratch, known by those familiar with the scene as one of the two most influential dub producers in Jamaican history, along with King Tubby, and by far the height of its eccentric rhythm. Perry first became formally interested in music when he moved to Kingston in the mid-1950s, still a teenager. By the turn of the next decade, he was an apprentice working under popular musicians of the time and getting his hands on the latest recording equipment. He eventually grew tired of working under other musicians and producers and ventured out on his own by 1968. Around that time he produced two rock tracks, “People Funny Boy” and ‘I Am The Upsetter”, that had a slowed down tempo, the kind that would come to define reggae and distinguish it from rock music found other places. In his own words, “When people hear what I-man do to them, they hear a different beat, a slower beat, a waxy beat, like you stepping in glue. And dem hear a different bass, a rebel bass, coming at you like sticking a gun.” It was this style that attracted people like Bob Marley, before his international success when he was first incorporating Rastafari in his music, the Heptones, Junior Miles and the Congos. It’s not often that Bob Marley is mentioned as a passing footnote in someone else’s history, but that’s the case with the scope of Perry’s expansive discography.
Perry was a fervent experimenter. He felt a connection to his home and wanted to convey the place in which his art was created by making his productions oozy, humid, dense and lush. This stickiness is heard in tracks like “Keep on Moving” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. By comparison, this is quite a tame track for Scratch though. In the time between ending his work with Marley in 1971 and establishing his creative haven at Black Ark Studio in 1974, Perry immersed himself in the art of mixing and crafting instrumentals. He was fascinated with overlaying sounds on top of one another and punctuating it with quirks and flashes that ranged from hypnotic to disturbing. These ripples created the world that would come to full fruition at Black Ark, where he would create his most mesmerizing work.
From the outside, Black Ark was little more than a shack in Perry’s garden. A quiet, dark place that contrasted with the radiant sunlight outside. Musicians described it as stepping into another world—Scratch’s world—where he was always tinkering. It wasn’t a hangout spot or meeting place. The only people there had reasons and they were recording. His equipment was basic with a purpose, he’d left his previous studio in anger because they upgraded to new equipment. He would say years later, “Them want to change my miracle, so them get fucked. It’s because them change the board.”
Kung Fu Meets the Dragon is one of the instrumental albums that defined Perry’s sound at this point in 1975. It draws its unorthodox title from Bruce Lee movies and the kung fu wave that crashed on every international shore at the time. It opens with a rattle of bells and Perry’s ghoulish voice announcing, “This is kung fu, taking you on a musical view.” The kung fu tropes and ad-libs throughout show how Scratch was able to incorporate the theme into his instrumental work. The percussion pops in like a martial arts jab, the piano is acoustic and dry and the tracks feel atmospheric, like a slow rolling fog that signals a boss battle and the smoke that Perry would blow on the tape decks to affect the sound of his mixes. This is benign compared to some reports that he would sprinkle blood and “other body fluids” as well. He ran a microphone from his console to a palm tree outside because he wanted to “record the African heartbeat.” His mixing was often erratic, done while the artists were still recording to capture the spontaneous nature of creation. Artist Mikey Dread recalls, “Scratch was ingenious in that he just do some little things in his studio and create the vibes. And in Scratch environment, herbs would be burning every day.” Eventually, the studio fell into decline alongside the pressures Scratch faced from rival musicians, political forces, his lack of a mainstream hit at the time, and mental strain. By 1979, Perry had begun defacing his once hallowed space, laying graffiti over every square inch of wall and eventually, as he claims, burning it to the ground in 1983. The music and testimony of those who made it are all we have today.
Few places evoke the image of marijuana paradise like Jamaica, no matter how played out that stereotype is. We can all imagine the standard caricature of a white dude who throws up a Rastafari flag next to the Marley poster in his freshman dorm while the more idiotic friend urges him to keep the dreads cause “you really pull them off” (he doesn’t). And it all started when he took three puffs off a joint he didn’t throw in on two weeks earlier. Like most things, the actual history of Jamaica’s relationship with marijuana and music is complex, dignified and not so easily reduced. Lee “Scratch” Perry is part of that history and is often forgotten by the casual reggae listener. He’s still alive at age 82 today, with the vigour of a teenager ready to innovate, and deserves our attention.