zaterdag 4 augustus 2012

The genius of Scratch

Lee “Scratch” Perry (also nicknamed “the Upsetter”) has been a very influential figure within reggae music. Noticing the relative paucity of biographies of reggae artists or producers, – other than Bob Marley –, I was therefore pleased to know that a biography of Perry has appeared. This was written by US-born reggae journalist/writer David Katz, and is called ‘People Funny Boy’, subtitled ‘The genius of Lee “Scratch”Perry’. It first appeared in 2000, and a revised edition in 2006 (the latter one I read). I not only knew of its existence, but actually owned it for a while before I found time to read it. It is quite voluminous (around 540 pages), and has much eye for detail.

Perry or Scratch (as I will call him from now on) was a producer as well as a musical artist, and he worked with many artists in Kingston (Jamaica) studios: studios of others, such as Clement Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, and later, since 1973, his own Black Ark studio, which was housed adjacent to where Scratch lived with his family in the Washington Gardens area, somewhat outside the ghetto areas, in Kingston.

For many reggae fans the Black Ark studio was almost a sacred spot, where the pinnacle of Roots Reggae in the 1970s was reached. Scratch likewise is seen as even more iconic than other icons within Jamaican music. Scratch’s magic touch shaped reggae and other directions in Jamaican music, and launched or at least stimulated - the careers of the Wailers, Max Romeo, the Congos, Junior Murvin and others. He was a producer who was considered by many a genius; he got out of artists and songs what other producers in Jamaica could not. The said book relates adequately the why and how of this, while detailing Scratch’s life.

To put it shortly: I enjoyed this biography ‘People Funny Boy’ very much. The above significance for reggae was explained with detail, but also Scratch’s life, so you get to know the person behind the producer well. Recommendable for anyone interested in reggae and/or Scratch. I don’t think it is translated in many other languages though: I read it in the original English.

While it was a good read, of course some points of critique can be articulated. Yet I think that all in all the balance tips to the good. I assume that there were certain aspects that even intensive investigative journalism could not uncover. The writer Katz, an experienced reggae writer, interviewed Perry, who was quite open, it seemed. Whereas Jimmy Cliff, on whom Katz wrote another biography, was more reserved in giving personal information, Scratch seemed to keep less secrets.

Thus, several interesting details came to the fore, of which I will not betray too much to keep it interesting for the prospective readers. I will, however, selectively highlight certain aspects from Scratch’s life story which I consider relevant for my view on reggae’s history.


In his younger days, while still living in the Jamaican country area of Clarendon, Scratch loved to dance at parties, and became even known widely for his dancing. My opinion is that the genius of Scratch, his magic touch with reggae, relates to this: he was used to feel the music (back then it was not reggae yet, but still) with his whole essence and body/structure. Later in his Black Ark studio he danced while recording/producing songs, thus helping to shape these songs. He probably danced while writing songs himself as well. His productions became popular with the public, often (not always) more than those of other producers (Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs and others), maybe because he “felt” the music better while dancing.

Another crucial aspect in Scratch’s role in reggae is his openness to Rastafari adherents and messages in his recording and studio. Unlike some other producers who distanced themselves from Rastafari personally, while allowing artists nonetheless to record such messages, albeit hesitantly, such as Coxsone, Scratch actually sympathized with the Rastas and seemed like-minded and similarly rebellious, also personally. At least initially.

The “Deep Roots” recorded at the Black Ark, such as by the Congos, the Rastafari message of Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon album (and several others by different artists), testifies to that.


Yet as time progressed, the story of Scratch became more enigmatic. He was called a musical genius by several artists who respected him for bringing out the best in them and their songs. His role for the Wailers was crucial, albeit not without conflicts. As it seemed, while Scratch and Bob Marley went along well as good friends or “bredren” until Bob’s end, the relationship between Bunny Wailer and Scratch was much more tense and not always amicable.

At the end of the 1970s, Scratch’s behaviour became more “crazy”, mad, and erratic. He even seemed to radically shift his views. He got in a conflict with the Congos, and more broadly complained about the Rastas, the Dreads hanging around the studio, bringing, as he states, “unclean spirits” in it. He seemed to consider those as unreal, false Rastas, but why becomes less clear.

What I got out of the book is that the conflicts focused on money: many people wanted something from Scratch, especially that he would help finance and maintain associated artists, among them many “dreads” apparently having burdensome requests. This seemed to be too much for Scratch, and there’s the suggestion of money scams, foul play, though not too much concrete events and cases were explained. Thus, the Congos fell out of favour with Scratch, as did other artists or musicians hanging around the studio.

Combined with other madness this made Scratch (probably himself) burn the Black Ark studio in 1983. In his mind it was too polluted with bad spirits (again, without becoming quite clear in what way), disturbing what Scratch once envisioned as a righteous, Rastafari “Ark of the Covenant”.

Following this, Scratch made bold, seemingly irrational statements that he didn’t want to work with dreadlocked artists and Rastas any more. Later in his career he - a black man himself of course - even tried to avoid working with black musicians. He was not too consistent in this: he later still worked and socialized with Rastas and black people whom he still considered friends.

Over time he also got to share the stage with the same Congos he was once in conflict with, such as at the 2011 Summerjam festival in Germany, so they patched things up apparently. It nonetheless may seem odd for reggae fans to know about this tension, as many hold the Congos-Scratch combination for the Heart of the Congos album (1977), recorded at the Black Ark, as one of the most iconic moments in Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae.

Scratch’s mad behaviour: drawing and painting on everything (walls, loose items), throwing liquids on studio equipment, the said burning of the studio, suddenly shocking people, seemed however more calculated than thought. He acted mad and crazy to “keep people off his back”, keep them away from him, those people who wanted money and favours. This “mad” behaviour continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. While his musical genius was still acknowledged - even by artists who he had quarrelled with - he thus became even more known as a ”mad genius”. Enigmatic, odd, and not always totally clear were the causes of such conflicts and quarrels (what did these “dreads” at the studio actually do?, or how much money did they ask?). They however are fascinating stories in some sense, and are related engagingly in Katz’s book on Scratch.


The latter part of the work deals more with Perry abroad (“a foreign” as they say in Jamaican) since the 1980s, where he went to reside, seemingly escaping the hassle he perceived in Jamaica. It discusses how Scratch developed his career in Britain, the Netherlands (during the peak of his Pipecock Jacksone persona), the US, and elsewhere. Further, the artists (reggae and other) he worked with, such as Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and eventually his meeting of Mireille, his future Swiss wife, and his taking up residence in Switzerland, where he worked with more artists, such as Yello.

He over time had relationships with some other women as well. Earlier is his life, in Jamaica, he and his earlier Jamaican wife, Pauline, got separated. Pauline at that time got in a relationship with a member of the band the Meditations. And yes, that was a “dread”. The work is thus even detailed regarding Scratch’s intimate relationships, such as in the elaborating on temporary conflicts with his wife/partners and marital problems. But in fact that is quite in line with the rest of the book: also other relationships, with his children, musicians, former partners, other family members etcetera, tend to get much attention. Quite different therefore than the less personal “extended discographies” (even if nominally biographies) I have also discussed on my blog.


Especially in the latter part of the book Scratch’s performing in Europe and elsewhere is discussed, describing the vocally improvising, free-floating style of Scratch. On stage as well as in studios, where he voiced tracks/instrumentals this way, sometimes lyrically absurd. That is maybe one manifestation of his penchant for constant innovation and experimentation, a deterrence of being “fixed” in formulae.

It is maybe here, in part, where his musical genius also lies. In the Black Ark days he used to shift course once in a while, and innovated more than other producers. Scratch’s famed song ‘People Funny Boy’, also one of the earliest reggae songs, from 1968, used the crying of babies (his own children), as well as Afro-folk religious Pocomania church rhythms and musicality. Also on the Congos’ album and other albums he used inventive studio techniques – often despite limited means and relatively dated equipment - contributing to a specific Black Ark ”sound”, which seasoned reggae fans probably can dream (echoed guitar chops, among other things).

Scratch did not invent reggae - that was an organic process including several people -, not even dub - which can be credited mainly to King Tubby -, but he certainly did help to shape and develop both reggae and dub since their early stages.

This knack for constant innovation makes another episode from the book’s latter part all the more interesting. Scratch (also) got in a temporary conflict with white British producer Adrian Sherwood. Scratch accused Sherwood once for being evil, and for limiting him, “keeping him – Scratch – in the past”, musically. Sherwood apparently while working with Scratch indicated he wanted Scratch’s Black Ark sound revived, which Scratch found too confining. This reminds of the all too common, quasi-anthropological “freezing in the past”, Westerners sometimes like to do with cherished exotic cultures..


Not long after finishing the book by Katz I saw a recently (2011) appeared documentary on Scratch, called ‘The Upsetter’, subtitled ‘The life and music of Lee Scratch Perry’, made by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough. Years after the book was published, so I wondered how the book and documentary interrelated.

Again, I try not to betray too much for people anxious to view this documentary, but I can say that I only recognized selective parts of the book in the documentary. Scratch himself is seen being interviewed, as well as in his daily activities, which adds much that a written work can’t show. Here the visual complements, rather than distracts from, the content. There were, however, also lesser, or too superficial aspects in the documentary, but overall it is certainly worth a watch, and is informative and engaging. Also after having read the book.

Some information is repeated more or less from the book, but there is also (partly) new information in this 2011 documentary 'The Upsetter'. His beef with the, according to him, polluting, unreal Rastas or dreads in the later Black Ark days, is discussed again. Further, his ideas on himself, the world, and music, Scratch expressed throughout the documentary, prove insightful and entertaining. His statements vary from inventive, to odd, to excentric, or crazy, but clearly have a vision behind them. Scratch’s vision of life comes across as spiritual and religious, or Biblical in some sense, Rastafari-derived as well, but in an own, distinct way that is as individualistic as it is free. Difficult to “nail down”, “fix”, or categorize. Indeed similar to other people who are considered geniuses. Some people for instance compare Scratch (also in the book) in this sense with Salvador Dali.


I myself have visited, as I write this – and if I recall well -, 4 concerts of Lee “Scratch” Perry, of which one was a shorter one at a festival in Amsterdam. The other 3 times were in concert halls the Melkweg and Paradiso, in Amsterdam as well, and were longer in duration. I’ve seen him both with a white Swiss backing band, and with black British musicians and Mad Professor (who was not on stage). The latter was the last time I saw him, in early 2012, in Paradiso.

I enjoyed all these concerts, and understood soon not to expect too much “clear-cut” songs on forehand. Scratch started improvising around his known songs and on his riddims vocally. Crucially, he did this very well and engaging. Almost naturally he added much to the mostly good music with both his singing (or chatting/toasting), and his lyrical associations, in what can be called “free musical poetry”. It lifted the music up. Maybe his extravagant attire, painted hair (red and short, the last time I saw him), and hat with mirrors on it, helped somehow in experiencing it.

In light of the earlier mentioned conflicts with some dreads - and his short, punky hair - it may seem remarkable that he made during this 2012 Amsterdam concert many references to Rastafari and Jah in a positive sense, as part of his “free musical poetry”. Although I already assumed he somehow was still a Rastafari-sympathizer, from recent interviews and lyrics.

I already had gathered rationally from documented/written Reggae History that Scratch’s creative talent or genius is outstanding and real, not just a hype. During this fantastic 2012 concert I got to “sense” it as well.

People Funny Boy : the genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: David Katz . – 542 p. – London [etc.] : Omnibus Press, 2006 (revised edition). ISBN: 978-1846094439