The Upsetter

One evening on a late shift in my Print days, I put on a mix tape, of which I had made hundreds in my time, to listen to whilst I waited to be relieved of my duties by the next fella in, due around 11pm. Suddenly, came forward the sounds of that superior dub track ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’ by Augustus Pablo . A couple of the old boys I worked with (who were probably around my age now, with me being in my mid 20s at the time that I’m describing) gave it all the ‘turn that bollocks down, gawd help us’ but I find an ally in a dispatch rider called Mickey Roscoe. Mick suddenly put his newspaper down and said somewhat surprisingly ‘I don’t mind a bit of that.’ 

He then said give him a week and he’d do me a tape of his old skinhead/Reggae records. Which he did, and on that, I discovered plenty of great music, including ‘Curly Locks’ and ‘Return of Django’ both of which I loved. So, this was my introduction to the sounds of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry who had co-written and produced both singles. Over the intervening years Perry has become an iconic name in music production, as well being as famous for his outlandish look and eccentric behaviour.

He was born Rainford Hugh Perry in the March of 1936, in the rural Parish of Hanover, Kendal, Jamaica, His early years were poverty stricken.

‘My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school… I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature.’

He left school at 15 and earning a living any way he could, sometimes as a dancer and then a domino player, before finding his way into the local music scene, picking up the nickname of ‘The Neat Little Thing.’ He then had a mystical experience, which involved him throwing stones into the Negril river  ‘When the stones clash, I hear like the thunder clash and I hear words. These words send me to Kingston. Kingston means King’s Stone, the Son of the King. The stone that I was throwing in Negril send me to King Stone for my graduation.’ Quite.

Once there , he found work at Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s Studio One, where he began an ‘apprenticeship’ in the late 1950s. Despite a somewhat fractious relationship between Dodd, and though no singer, Perry released up to 30 singles for Dodd, acquiring his first nickname from his 1965 song ‘Chicken Scratch.’ A further nickname, ‘The Upsetter,’ arose from Perry’s eccentric behaviour towards others, and it was cemented once the phrase found its way into the  lyrics.

‘I am the avenger; you’ll never get away from me.  I am the Upsetter.’

After yet another heated argument, Perry left Dodd and teamed up with a rival Joe Gibbs over at Amalgamated Records. But that too went south quickly and so he formed his own Upsetter Records from 1968. He later took aim at both his former bosses with the tunes ‘Run For Cover ‘ aimed at Dodd in 1967 and ‘People Funny Boy’ in 1968 which he lobbed Gibbs’ way. The beat that he conjured up, which the lyrics were laid over, are now acknowledged as the beginnings of the reggae sound.

Once ensconced in a studio, Perry’s amazingly inventive productions, often with ‘off/on’ collaborator King Tubby, came very quickly to the fore. The ‘Upsetter’ sound found a home on countless releases, on various labels, in Jamaica and overseas, especially here in the UK, and became very familiar. In among them, early work with Bob Marley and the Wailers, on songs such as ‘Mr Brown,’ ‘Duppy Conqueror,’ and ‘Small Axe’ though debate rages still,  about who did what on what track.

1973, saw the construction of Black Ark, his own tiny 12 foot square, 4 track, studio built in his backyard at 5 Washington Gardens, Kingston. This then allowed him more time to develop sounds, and artists like Junior Murvin, with whom he co-wrote the seminal ‘Police and Thieves,’  The Heptones and Max Romeo on ‘I Chase the Devil’ and ‘War inna Babylon’  as well as the great ‘Curly Locks’ with Junior Byles as mentioned previously.

The kit ‘Scratch ‘ operated from, was said to be pretty basic, but he got more out of it than others, developing his own innovative sounds, often using garden tools to produce the beat and he also had an interesting technique with microphones, which included burying them under trees.

‘It was only four tracks on the machine, but I was picking up twenty from the extra-terrestrial squad.’ 

Reminiscent of a fellow studio obsessive, Joe Meek, ‘Scratch’ let outside forces get into his already ‘interesting’ way of observing things and in a dark moment in 1979, an overworked and unstable Perry, full of weed and rum, burnt Black Ark down. Seemingly suffering some sort of breakdown, he also left his 4 children and their mother Pauline, and was often found walking backwards in the street.

‘I blew smoke into the microphone so that the weed would get into the songs to see if it was the smoke making the music or Lee Perry making the music. I found out it was me and that I don’t need to smoke. I did make a dread studio, and I said I’d make a righteous studio and a Godly studio. It was even too dread for me. I had to burn it down to get rid of that dread vibration. I forgot that I was a soul man. It was a dreadful equation. Too dreadful for me.’

He then travelled to the UK and the states in the 1980s and began working with various collaborators, including producers, Adrian Sherwood and the Mad Professor, Neil Fraser , and began to make solid music again. He’d also cleaned up his own personal act, by quitting alcohol and weed. Raising his profile even higher, he appeared on vocals on the track ‘Dr Phil’ from the Beatie Boys 1998 album ‘Hello Nasty.’

Lee won a Grammy for his album ‘Jamaican E.T’ in 2003 and he revealed he was an artist too, with an exhibition of his work in 2010 in California. He worked with The Orb in 2012 and in the same year, he received the ‘Order of Distinction, Commander Class’, the 6th highest honour in Jamaica.

For many years, he had resided in Switzerland with his wife and manager Mireille and their two children.  Over his 60 year career, he produced well over a thousand tracks, but it all came to an end in late August 2021 in Lucea hospital from an unknown illness in the North West of  Jamaica, where he had returned to in 2020. He was 85

Mad Professor – Neil Fraser – ‘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.

Keith Richards –  ‘You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music. 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.’

Last word from the man himself – ‘My music is a child. It is a baby. God makes man, and man makes music. So, when man makes music, he must depend on what is in the music. Man becomes the scientist, and what he mixes with the music is what he gives to the people. I used to mix my music with herb — smoking herbs and drinking wine and white rum and cigarettes. Now I mix my music with piss, and mix it natural with pooh. The way my bass player plays sometimes, he squats and gives sound like ‘pooohhhhhh!’ The mess of creation! My God is the God of nature and the God I respect. When I’m thirsty, he gives me water and when I drink, the water stays for a few days until it’s not normal water anymore. It becomes piss water. So, I give thanks to God to give me water to drink and to clear my passage so that I can piss. When I was hungry, he gave me food and, later that day, the food became shit. So, I say, ‘thank you today for the food that becomes shit tomorrow. I give praises that I can give a shit and not suffer from constipation.’


The Mumper of SE5



THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Rhoda Dakar

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THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Gary Crowley




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