What do The Clash, Paul McCartney, Andrew W.K., Beastie Boys and Bob Marley have in common? They have all worked with legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, whose influence on music and audio engineering can not be over-stated. An infamous eccentric behind the mixing board, “The Upsetter” not only revolutionized reggae music in his native Jamaica; his influence can be heard in everything from electronica to indie rock to hip-hop.
Perry began his career in music in the late 50’s as a record seller for Clement “Coxone” Dodd’s Kingston sound system and quickly began recording tracks for Dodd’s Studio One record label, eventually recording nearly thirty ska and rocksteady tunes. Eventually he and Dodd had a falling out and he began working with Joe Gibbs. He shortly fell out with Gibbs as well and founded his own Upsetter record label in 1968. His first single “People Funny Boy” was one of the first records to contain a “sample” (of a baby crying) and it also featured the chugging, syncopated beat that would eventually become known as the “reggae” rhythm.
In 1973, Perry built the legendary Black Ark Studios behind his family’s home in Kingston. It was in the Black Ark that Perry began experimenting with innovative new sounds, overdubbing layers of effects and instrumentation, eventually becoming one of the key architects of “dub” reggae. During this prolific period, Perry worked with reggae legends Bob Marley and the Wailers, Junior Byles, The Heptones and others. The early to mid 70s are considered by many reggae lovers to be the music’s golden age and Perry’s output during this time sealed his reputation worldwide as a musical legend. Eventually musicians outside of the reggae sphere would be clamouring to work with Perry in order to capture that distinctive sound that only he could produce.
Filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough have finally put the fascinating story of Lee “Scratch” Perry onto film with The Upsetter. Narrated by Benecio Del Toro, the film follows the life of a true musical innovator and at the same time, documents thirty years of Jamaican music and culture. The film starts Friday, May 13 at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco. This is a must-see for any lover of reggae, audio engineering or creativity in general. Tickets available here.