A Tribute to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry

The Upsetter leaves behind a legacy of timeless music.
Photo credit: Mike Takaki. Republished from High Times print.

On Sunday, August 29, at the age of 85, famed Jamaican producer and artist Lee “Scratch” Perry passed away. Over the years, several High Times writers have caught up with the mysterious musician, providing a glimpse into his life.

Perry adopted many nicknames over the course of his career: the “Upsetter,” the “Super-Ape,” “Inspector Gadget,” “Pipecock Jackson” and the “Firmament Computer.” But he was mostly called “Scratch” from one of his early songs, “Chicken Scratch.” He loved and experimented with just about every new genre of music, and is credited with being a pioneer in dub.

Perry produced the best work to ever come out of Jamaica. He produced The Wailers’ albums Soul Rebels and Soul Revolution—the first time non-Jamaicans heard Bob Marley sing, also producing some of Jamaica’s most iconic artists.

Bob’s son Ziggy Marley provided a statement that was widely shared on various platforms. “It was always a unique experience being around him,” Marley told Rolling Stone. “He opened minds with his creativity and his personality. Some people thought it was madness, but I recognized it was genius, uniqueness, courage and freedom. He made no apology for being himself and you had to accept that and figure out the deeper meanings to his words and character.”

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Legacy

Perry built his name working various jobs at Coxsone Dodd’s famed Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica. The sounds of Jamaica were constantly evolving from ska to rocksteady and reggae. Perry created the studio band the Upsetters in 1968. In 1973, Perry built his own Black Ark recording studio in his backyard. There, Perry produced for Jamaica’s best artists including Junior Byles, Junior Murvin, the Heptones, the Congos and Bob Marley.

“Scratch was a massive personality, he was a creator, a pioneer, a wizard, a shaman, a magician, a philosopher, a musical scientist,” Marley continued. “A man like him will never come this way again,” Marley said. “One of a kind. He will be missed a lot by those of us who had the time to experience him not just through music but through knowing him personally.”

In the late ’70s, Perry heard punk rock for the first time, and played an album of The Clash to Bob Marley. Perry loved their covers of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” so much so that he produced The Clash song “Complete Control.” It led Bob Marley to write “Punky Reggae Party”—his tribute to the punk rock bands they met.

In 1998, Perry appeared on Hello Nasty album by Beastie Boys.

Also in 1998, High Times’ own Doug Wendt interviewed Perry, confronting him about whether his band the Upsetters would ever get back together. High Times’ Chris Simunek interviewed him 10 years later.

In 2003, Perry won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with the album Jamaican E.T. and the next year, Rolling Stone ranked Perry number 100 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Perry on Cannabis

Perry has always been there when friends like Bob Marley or Paul McCartney needed a puff.

In Tokyo, Japan in 1980, Paul McCartney was busted for a whopping 7.7 ounces of pot—facing serious consequences in a country that doesn’t tolerate drug use. Perry had previously worked with McCartney and his wife in 1977, when he produced Linda’s covers of “Sugartime” and “Mister Sandman” at Perry’s Black Ark studio in Jamaica.

When Perry heard that McCartney was arrested, he sprung into action, penning a letter to Tokyo’s Minister of Justice, demanding his release. “I LEE PIPECOCK JACKSON PERRY would LOVE to express my concern over your consideration of one quarter kilo to be an excessive amount of herbs in the case as it pertains to master PAUL McCARTNEY,” Perry wrote. “…I find the herbal powers of marijuana in its widely recognized abilities to relax, calm, and generate positive feeling a must.” 

High Times has followed Perry for decades, and even managed to interview him at the precise moment when he quit smoking weed in his 70s: “Since 25, I have been smoking pot, and it overload the brain” Perry told High Times in 2008. Marijuana, ganja, Lamb’s Bread—I don’t smoke anymore.” Perry even backtracked later on, suggesting that too much weed is a bad thing in a Fader interview.

Few people adored ganja as much as Perry did for over 50 years of near-continual use, and it shows in his work and legacy.

  1. Just wanted to take a moment, to write thank you to the writer and material contributions. These efforts make available the steps and show action where it could have been simply looked over. Having been looked over before, I don’t think the latter is useful. Again, thx for the story and naturally your steps.

  2. A friend went to a concert 3 years ago where he saw Mr Perry playing with a joint as big as a baby’s arm, in his words.
    So, I don’t think Mr Perry really stopped smoking Ganja

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