Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Over 75 Years, From Dub To Dubstep : The Record The groundbreaking reggae and dub producer stays relevant: He now influences electronic music.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Over 75 Years, From Dub To Dubstep

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SIMON: Ken Griffey, Jr., he was a pretty famous Seattle-ite, too, wasn't he? When it comes to reggae, the one name that rises above all, of course, is Bob Marley. But this month and next, another iconic Jamaican artist is getting some spotlight - singer and producer, Lee 'Scratch' Perry.

Mr. Perry just turned 75 and is releasing a new album and he's the focus of a documentary. Baz Dreisinger reports.

BAS DREISINGER: Who is Lee 'Scratch' Perry?

(Soundbite of music)

DREISINGER: Simple answer is, he's the eccentric Jamaican singer, songwriter and producer behind dozens of classic reggae and dub songs by Gregory Isaacs, The Clash and Bob Marley.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ETHAN HIGBEE (Director/Producer of "The Upsetter"): He's been at the forefront of every genre of Jamaican music throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. He's kind of one of those unsung heroes of the music business.

DREISINGER: That's Ethan Higbee, who with Adam Bhala-Lough, directed the new documentary about Scratch called "The Upsetter." Perry produced some 20 songs a week for hundreds of artists at his famous studio in Jamaica, the Black Ark. His processes inspired many producers, including Bill Laswell.

Mr. BILL LASWELL (Bassist, Producer and record label owner): He made interesting sounding recordings that had dimension and they had very full frequency range. And he did that with very little equipment, very primitive and probably not well-kept gear. And that was the case in Jamaica a lot, but he's the one that stands out.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LASWELL: The use of sound effects and early sampling of nature sounds, animal sounds, it's got to be influential on anybody who's trying to do something different.

(Soundbite of music)

DREISINGER: Laswell, who's worked with artists ranging from TV On The Radio to Shabba Ranks, produced Perry's new album "Rise Again."

(Soundbite of music)

DREISINGER: Perry is just as famous for his over-the-top persona as his music. We're talking about a man who dons a Native American headdress in interviews, wallpapers his studio in graffiti, and in the film, claimed to hear sounds in nature; in stone, rain, thunder, wind, that lead him to music.

Mr. LEE 'SCRATCH' PERRY (Reggae artist): ...on the other wind, I hear (unintelligible) hit and I hear the rain and I hear the storm clouds and I hear the thunder roll and the lightening flash. That's why I come to get in (unintelligible) music business. I learned everything from storm.

DREISINGER: The film takes a stab at peeling back the mythical persona. Scratch was born was born Rainford Hugh Perry in rural Jamaica and this had a lot to do with the way he saw the world, says David Katz, author of a definitive biography of Perry.

Mr. DAVID KATZ (Author, "People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry"): He grew up in a remote village where there were certain cultural practices that survived the Middle Passage from Africa. So his mother is what was known as an Etu queen. Now Etu is a form of Yoruba spiritual practice that involves communication with ancestral spirits who have already departed.

DREISINGER: Those spirit voices told Perry to go to Kingston where he became a handyman and janitor at music studios. He worked his way up to writing songs, launching his own label and in 1968, releasing his first single.

(Soundbite of song, "People Funny Boy")

DREISINGER: The song was one of the first to use a sample, that baby crying. And it's also one of the earliest reggae songs. Perry took that music to new heights when he worked with Bob Marley and the Whalers in 1970.

(Soundbite of song, "Duppy Conquerer")

DREISINGER: At the Black Ark, Perry went on to pioneer dub music, using the mixing desk as an instrument to recreate new versions of songs. Listen, for example, to Max Romeo's 1976 hit "I Chase the Devil," which Perry produced.

(Soundbite of song, "I Chased the Devil")

DREISINGER: Now, listen to Perry's dub remix of it, "Disco Devil."

(Soundbite of song, "Disco Devil")

DREISINGER: The late 1970s was a chaotic time in Jamaica and here's where the film and Perry's life get murky. Political violence exploded. At the Black Ark, Perry was being extorted by gang members, his wife left him and hoards of Rastafarians were camping out in the grounds. The film panders to stereotypes about primitive ganja-smoking Rastas and it seems Perry had a breakdown.

David Katz, who was initially involved with the film but dropped out, describes it this way.

Mr. KATZ: He threw everybody out of his studio. He trashed all the equipment and threw a lot of it into the septic tank. But when people spoke to him and said, hey Scratch, what's going on? You know, have you gone mad? What's the -have you taken leave of your senses? He would tell them, no, I'm just pretending to be mad.

DREISINGER: It's a claim often made by Perry and those around him, including Bill Laswell.

Mr. LASWELL: Probably he manufactures that just to keep people from messing with him. In Jamaican, there was a saying. I don't remember exactly, but he plays fool to catch wise. And that's pretty much what I think the deal is.

DREISINGER: Perry even says he recorded the song "I am a Madman" as a tongue-in-cheek affirmation of the rumors about him.

(Soundbite of song, "I am a Madman")

DREISINGER: Biographer David Katz says it's more complicated than that.

Mr. KATZ: If you see Lee 'Scratch' Perry today at home, what he will do is constantly go to every available surface and paint on it and then draw over that and then glue something on top of that. So he's just continually creating something. It's like a never-ending artwork that changes from minute to minute. And that is not an act. It's like he can't stop creating.

DREISINGER: So the film doesn't answer the big identity questions, but it does deliver a happy ending. In his late 60s, Perry married a Swiss woman, moved to a village in Switzerland, quit ganja and turned vegetarian. At the age of 70, he went on a world tour, free from drugs and alcohol.

Mr. PERRY: Make music without alcohol. Make music without cigarette. Make music (unintelligible) I'm making music with (unintelligible) and I am (unintelligible) again.

DREISINGER: It's a resurrection that might be Scratch's best production yet. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.

(Soundbite of song, "Rise Again")

SIMON: And this is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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