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Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Legendary Jamaican Producer & Dub Pioneer, Dies at 85

Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Lee "Scratch' Perry," guitar and vocals, performs on October 9, 1992 at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, the legendary Jamaican producer and a pioneer of dub, has died. He was 85.

Perry, whose pioneering accomplishments made him of of reggae's most eccentric producer-vocalist, died Sunday (Aug. 29) at the Noel Holmes Hospital in western Jamaica, according to the Jamaican Observer. A cause of death was not provided at press time.

Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness confirmed the news in a tweet on Sunday.

“My deep condolences to the family, friends, and fans of legendary record producer and singer, Rainford Hugh Perry OD, affectionately known as ‘Lee Scratch’ Perry," Holness wrote. "He has worked with and produced for various artistes, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and many others. Undoubtedly, Lee Scratch Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace.”

Perry, whose real name was Rainford Hugh Perry, was born in rural Jamaica in 1936. His career in music began in the late 1950s when he was hired by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Jamaica's famed Studio One, where he got his start in producing music. After splitting with Dodd, Perry joined Joe Gibbs’ Amalgamated Records and continued producing while also working on his own music career. Perry would later go on to form his own label, Upsetter Records, a nod to his 1968 single "The Upsetter."

By the early 1970s, Perry had built his legendary Black Ark studio in Kingston, which became the birthplace for many classic reggae and dub recordings by Bob Marley & The Wailers, The Congos, Max Romeo and Junior Murvin. With his backing band The Upsetters, Perry also released such influential albums as Blackboard Jungle (1973) and Super Ape (1976), as well as his solo release, Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread (1978). In 2003, he won a best reggae album Grammy Award for Jamaican E.T.

Perry's work on Romeo’s War Ina Babylon, The Heptones’ Party Time, The Congos’ Heart of the Congos and Murvin’s Police & Thieves helped push reggae to new international levels in the late 1970s. After covering "Police & Thieves" on their 1977 self-titled debut album, The Clash worked with Perry as their producer in London. Inspired by the punk scene, Perry co-wrote “Punky Reggae Party” for Marley.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once referred to Perry as the "Salvador Dali of music."

“You could never put your finger on Lee Perry -- he’s the Salvador Dali of music," Richards told Rolling Stone in 2010. "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.”

Later in life, after suffering a mental breakdown and allegedly burning down Black Ark Studio studio in 1983, Perry moved to England and the United States before settling with his family in Switzerland. Over the next several decades, he continued releasing music and collaborating with artists like the Beastie Boys, Mad Professor, The Orb and Adrian Sherwood. In 2019, Perry released the albums Rainford and Heavy Rain, the latter of which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's Reggae Albums chart.