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Reggae's Mad Scientist

The sounds inside Lee "Scratch" Perry's head changed the world - reggae and rap wouldn't exist without him and he did it all without ever learning to play an instrument or make a damn bit of sense

Lee "Scratch" Perry performs in London.
Philip Ryalls/Redferns
July 8, 2010

Just before dawn, in the garage of his mansion, set high above a medieval village in the Swiss Alps, Lee "Scratch" Perry balances precariously on the top step of a ladder and spray paints an abstract self-portrait. Dozens of medals and pendants hang from his army jacket and jangle as one of reggae's founding fathers stretches his wiry frame to reach the canvas. His foot taps to the beat of a dark dub track he created more than 30 years ago. His black biker boots are covered with a mosaic of shattered mirror pieces that he has glued to the leather. His mohawk and beard are painted cardinal red. "Being a madman is good thing!" Perry shouts over the music. "It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don't come around and take your energy, making you weak. I am the Upsetter! Sutler, you were born to suffer! I am the Upsetter!"

It is a title Perry conferred on himself with his 1968 Jamaican single "I Am the Upsetter." It is also a perfect description of Perry's historic, confrontational impact as a record producer, in the late Sixties and Seventies, on reggae and beyond. Perry cannot read or write music, but with his intuitive ear for the natural complexities of reggae rhythms and the spiritual rebellion in R&B voices, Perry produced Bob Marley and the Wailers' best early recordings – Seventies sessions including the righteous anthems "Soul Rebel," "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror" – and the mid-Seventies Rasta-protest classics War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo and Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin. Meanwhile, Perry's pursuit of extremes on his seminal dub releases – mesmeric rhythm tracks chopped and rebuilt with primitive electronics and confounding logic – laid the foundations for hip-hop, electronica and the entire remix industry.

"You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he's the Salvador Dali of music," says Keith Richards, who has been working on some recordings with Perry. "He's a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen. More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the artist's soul. Like Phil Spector, he has a gift of not only hearing sounds that come from nowhere else, but also translating those sounds to the musicians. Scratch is a shaman."

Along the way, the 74-year-old Perry has also been called a madman, charlatan, con man and prophet; but mostly, he is just an obsessive-compulsive artist who believes that he is a vessel for the divine, placed on this earth to spread a gospel of peace, harmony and positive vibrations. "They say man is not perfect," he says. "Well, then I say I don't want to be a human being! Because I have to be perfect. You must believe you have a guardian angel, only then can you be perfect too."

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