Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, reggae legend and Bob Marley producer, dies at 85

Prime Minister Andrew Holness called Perry "one of the most important and creative figures to have come out of Jamaica."

Jamaican reggae singer, musician and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, who pushed the genre’s boundaries and shepherded dub music, died Sunday at Noel Holmes Hospital in Montego Bay. He was 85 years old. 

Andrew Holness, prime minister of the small island nation, released a statement, saying, “Today Jamaica has lost the rhythm and soul of a prolific music icon who has inspired many.” 

This April 2013 photo shows musician Lee “Scratch” Perry performing onstage during Day One of the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella)

“Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry,” he added, “was truly one of the most important and creative figures to have come out of Jamaica.”

Born March 20, 1936, in the small town of Kendal, Rainford Hugh Perry, nicknamed Lee, left school in his teens and moved to Kingston. 

“When I left school, there was nothing to do except fieldwork,” he told British music outlet NME in a lengthy 1984 interview. “Hard, hard labor. I didn’t fancy that. So I started playing dominoes. Through dominoes, I practiced my mind and learned to read the minds of others.”

“This has proved eternally useful to me,” he maintained.

Reggae and dub icon Lee “Scratch” Perry performs live at the Jazz Cafe on June 15, 2006 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

Perry ultimately became a producer for a wide array of artists — including a lengthy stint with the late global legend Bob Marley, with whom he collaborated on “Could You Be Loved,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Buffalo Soldier” and other classics. Perry’s music is widely considered to be deeply influential to not just reggae, but also hip-hop and post-punk sounds. 

Known as “The Upsetter,” Perry formed his own record label, Upsetter Records, in 1968, where he was one of the first artists to use the art of sampling. The sound was a crying baby in a “diss record” aimed at his former business partner. In 1973, he built a studio in Kingston called the Black Ark, where he would continue to innovate in sampling. 

Also often called “Reggae Wizard” or the “Salvador Dali of dub,” Perry was known to create noises and layers in music using common sounds like stones, water and kitchen utensils. 

In 2019, at the age of 83, Perry released an album, Heavy Rain, which he co-produced with Adrian Sherwood.

Some of Perry’s best-known collaborations are with The Beastie Boys, who released a statement via Twitter on Sunday regarding his passing. Mike D wrote: “We send the most love and respect we can to Lee Perry who passed today, to his family and loved ones and the many he influenced with his pioneering spirit and work. We are truly grateful to have been inspired by and collaborated with this true legend.” 

Recording artists The Mountain Goats also saluted Perry on Twitter, where they wrote: “few more important figures in the music of the 20th century. he expanded the vocabulary of studio sound; lived a long life & leaves a lasting legacy. play his music for your kids, see how instantly they love it. it’s universal. safe travels home to God.” 

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