Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Golden Age of Roots

'War Ina Babylon'

by Dylan Nelson

20 August 2010

Photo of Lee Perry (center) with Max Romeo (in white), by
Kim Gottlieb-Walker 

The producer occupies a unique place in the crowded and intricate world of Jamaican music. Making sense of the countless singers, engineers, and instrumentalists who could be involved in any given song requires the kind of expertise enjoyed by few casual listeners, but in some cases the studio at which a recording was made is a convenient shortcut. The producer, after all, was frequently responsible for bringing the contributors together, as well as for creating the atmosphere of the record—a deciding factor in the message and the impact of reggae music. Auteurs like Joe Gibbs, Keith Hudson, and Augustus Pablo were the men who shaped a final product from the diverse forces guiding Jamaican music, forging an individual legacy from the talents of a host of musicians, songwriters, and engineers.

Lee “Scratch” Perry, the volatile, brilliant, and idiosyncratic man behind the Upsetters band and the Black Ark studio, tops them all. He played a pivotal role in the rise of groups and singers like Junior Murvin, the Congos, and the Wailers, and in the course of a long and passionate career he was a key player in pushing the bounds of expression to fashion dub and reggae itself from older forms. Forced to choose a single figure upon which to found an understanding of reggae in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Perry would not be a bad choice.

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