Those we lost in 2021: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry remembered by Neil ‘Mad Professor’ Fraser

20 March 1936 – 29 August 2021
The British dub artist recalls the craft and eccentricity of the pioneering reggae producer – a singular talent he loved working with

As a boy, one of the first records I bought was a single called Upsetting Station by Dave Barker, a Jamaican singer. It used the rhythm of the Wailers song Duppy Conqueror and began with an announcement: “This is the Upsetting Station recording – the news as it happens.” Back then, I didn’t know what a producer did or even what a producer was, but I recognised there was something special going on with this record. It sounded really different and it fascinated me.

Soon after, I heard the Wailers’ Small Axe and I noticed that it was also produced by Lee Perry. I was still at school at the time and I felt that something innovative was happening with those records. Just instinctively I sensed that. Then, around 1974, there was an album called King Tubby Meets the Upsetter at the Grass Roots of Dub, which was really popular. It had some serious musicians playing on it – Vin Gordon, Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis. That’s when I started to take more notice and realised that the role of the producer was to shape the sound.

The sound of the records Lee made in his Black Ark studios in Kingston in the 1970s – songs such as Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin or One Step Forward by Max Romeo – was just incredible. He loved the sweet soul side of reggae, singers like George Faith. There is something fascinating and hypnotic about the production on those songs and that came from Lee himself – his character. At that time, he produced some of the greatest reggae records ever made. Nothing comes close to them.

We first met in 1983 and started working together the following year. He came from Jamaica with a load of tapes he wanted to finish. After we did that, he started to record for me at my studio, Ariwa, in east London. We did three albums together in 1984, but only one, Mystic Warrior, was released. Lee was hard working and hugely productive – we worked 12-hour days, 10 in the morning to 10 at night. That was one of the things I learned from him - you have to put in the hours. We did a UK tour together and made a documentary for Channel 4. It was a busy time and I was happy to be close to him as an apprentice.

Perry in the Upsetters era, c1970.
Perry in the Upsetters era, c1970. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lee brought out the best in people. When I started working with him, I noticed that my records sounded better. It was some kind of magic that rubbed off on you. He could be tricky, of course, but no more tricky than the average Jamaican reggae producer. They were all tricky. You had to be to survive. The rules of the reggae business are vague. It’s not straightforward.

We became friends and stayed friends for a long time, which I don’t think was the case with too many people. You had to know how to work with Lee. He wasn’t easy. He definitely had a destructive streak and he could be a lot of trouble because he was naturally unpredictable. He was the Upsetter.

Still, there was never a dull moment when he was around. There was one time he was chatting with some musicians outside in the sunshine and, every few minutes, he would jump up, move a few feet to the side, and then sit down again. He did this two or three times, before he got really angry and started shouting at them: “Listen! Why do you keep standing on my shadow?” That was pure Lee. It was part of his personal Obeah and he believed in that stuff. He once put a spell on a local Jamaican musician who had run off with his [then] wife, Pauline. That was round the time he set fire to the Black Ark studios. A lot of musicians were bothering him for money. I think the pressure of it all just got too much. He was a deep, dark soul.

People say Lee was mad, but I don’t think he was any madder than most. After a time, it became a kind of performance for the press, for white people generally. He realised they would take more notice of him if he put on an act. That, too, was a survival strategy. He had to be smart. And he was.

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Neil Fraser at Perry’s 80th birthday party at Electric Brixton, 2016.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Neil Fraser at Perry’s 80th birthday party at Electric Brixton, 2016. Photograph: Roger T Smith/REX/Shutterstock

I spoke to Lee two weeks before he died. He was getting tired and weak – he was an older man and things were starting to fall apart. I know it wasn’t Covid, but no one knows for sure what happened. That’s pure Lee as well.

I honestly don’t know why he was so brilliant and I’ve thought about it a lot. He was just unique in every way, someone who could turn anything into music. And he believed there is a spirituality to everything. He was a mystic. Totally. All I can say is that I had never met anyone like him and I don’t expect to again.

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