Open The Gate: Examining The Impact Of Lee “Scratch” Perry

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s death is a massive loss on many levels, but perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of it is realizing how much a single person can transform music on the whole. There have been numerous books, films, and other media documenting the Jamaican producer’s biographical information, so I’ll keep that to a minimum, but for those unaware; Lee Perry was born Rainford Hugh Perry in Kendal, Jamaica in 1936. By his teenage years he had left school and started recording reggae and ska tracks for various labels, eventually launching his own label, studio, and solo career by the late ‘60s. Perry, nicknamed “Scratch,” or “The Upsetter,” developed a one-of-a-kind production sound that graced not just a wide swath of landmark reggae records, but also breathed weird life into productions from rock and punk acts. He was active without stopping for for over sixty years, and before he died at age 85 on August 29, 2021, his boundless creative approach helped lay the foundation for many tangents of reggae, as well as what germinated into hip hop, electronic music, post-punk, noise, and much more. Modern pop production is still catching up to ideas Perry played with decades earlier. Even if you’ve never heard a note of music Lee Perry was involved with, the odds are good that you’re a fan of something that stems from ground he broke.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of an artist immediately after they die, but without exaggeration, Lee Perry simply never sounded like anyone else. His production style had a specific blur to it that was simultaneously bright and deteriorating. Psychedelic rock bands and modern composers of the ‘60s were running wild with backwards guitar solos and reassembled tape cut ups, but Perry went further, burnishing the lines of where song and production met. There’s ongoing debate as to whether it was Perry or King Tubby who should be credited with inventing dub, the practice of reimagining a reggae song by bringing various elements in and out of the mix and applying healthy amounts of delay and reverb to the splinters of sound. Both producers pioneered the craft in the late ‘60s, but regardless of who did it first, Perry’s dub vision saturated everything he touched. Where other producers used dub mixes to unravel otherwise straightforward songs, Perry’s versions could sometimes be tamer renderings of his original mixes. His psychedelia lived in the details of everything he made, and even with literally thousands of tracks to choose from, you’d be hard pressed to find one without something remarkable or pleasantly shocking about the production.

The very essence of studio experimentalism changed because of Perry’s work. Sounds that showed up first in his dub versions of reggae tracks slowly morphed into remixes and extended instrumentals of ‘80s dance tracks, which in turn informed much of the house and electronic music scenes that followed. Perry was one of the most precise early examples of using the studio as an additional instrument,

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