Lee “Scratch” Perry

Lee “Scratch” Perry: “I am that I am”

Short Profile

Name: Rainford Hugh Perry
DOB: 20 March 1936 (d. 29 August 2021)
Place of birth: Kendal, Hanover, Jamaica
Occupation: Singer, producer

Lee Scratch Perry's new album, Rainford, produced by Adrian Sherwood, is out now via On-U Sound.

Mr. Perry, how do you still have energy for live performances at 83 years old?

I feel like a machine! There’s a computer in my head, in my legs… My brain has become a machine, like an eight-track tape machine from Japan. (Laughs) So when I go on stage, I feel energy and power. I could even fly. Live performance is giving me life, it reincarnates me and tells me what to do. And I concentrate hard when I’m performing because I want to heal the people.

Heal them in what ways?

I just love to make the people happy. Everything is about that. The music is talking, it’s the armor of justice… My music is healing, my music has feeling, my music has power.

Does that make you a healer as well?

Yes, of course I’m a healer. I am that I am!

“The devil would ask where I get so much power from and I tell him: from thunder, from lightning.”

You rather famously burned down your studio, Black Ark, in the late 1970s — that was a big loss for the music community in Jamaica but apparently you saw it as a kind of healing.

It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done! How else could I escape if I did not do that?

Escape from what?

From the demons. I would be under the spell of demons forever, they would have killed me if I didn’t do that. So that was God’s way, just to burn it and let it kill them. It was my saviour. If I never burned down the studio, I would have died because the devil was jealous of me, and jealousy is dangerous. The devil would ask where I get so much power from and I tell him, from the rain water, from thunder, from lightning, from the stars of heaven.

You grew up in the countryside in Jamaica — is that where you got your love of nature?

Yes, nature was always important to me. And now the sunshine, the breeze, the flowers and the roses, they live in my music. I was born in the jungle in Kendal, Jamaica. When I was young, my father did not take care of me. He married a woman from Kingston and had no time for me, so I went to live with my mother on a plantation called Saxham. When I got older, I was driving a tractor in the field. Whatever God says to do, if he says to drive a tractor, I do that in the name of Christ. I followed the spirits.

Was your family supportive of your love of music?

My family, they didn’t care. They don’t have much occupation for music, they are all laborers. They’re glad I chose something even though it’s different from them. They’re glad I chose something that them couldn’t choose. They know I was chosen by God, so what can you do about it? You have to do what God wish them to do. And God want me to be in the music.

So you felt that music was your true calling?

Yes, music was my true way and my true path, my true future. Music took me over and I was glad: I saw the holy words that come up out of the blue sky to me… Then I had to start to write them down and when I had too much of them, my book was overflowing. One day, Bob Marley came to me and asked me what to do. We worked together and the song that came out was “Duppy Conqueror.” You know the one? (Sings) “Yes me friend, we’re in the streets again.” I gave Bob Marley the song to sing, and it was a hit.

Did you know at the time that it would be such a success?

The way the song was talking, I knew it could not miss. It’s spiritual to me, it talks about conquering demons, things like that… Bob’s friends, even his best friend, heard this song and he was jealous about it, “How come he get a song like that to sing?” But only Bob Marley could sing it because he sung truth. Truth, the facts of life, and a lot of people can’t take it because it’s too many sharp edges. Few people can take the truth.

Duppy Conqueror by Bob Marley and the Wailers, produced by Lee Perry.

What kind of truths have you learned from music?

The facts of life: love God and live. Hate God and die. I was baptized in the church of God, and God is true. Without God, I would have no power. I have no musical power without God’s power.

What else gives you musical power? At one point, you used to smoke weed and blow the smoke over all your tapes to give them the breath of life…

That is right! Reality, yes. And you know why? God made man and blew his breath into him and the man became a living soul. So I would practice and that would make the words true. The herb is the teacher, so the herb tells me what to do and I have to do exactly that. It’s like a shepherd, and I have to follow the shepherd.

Where does the breath of life come from these days?

My exercise! I used to exercise every day, at five o’clock in the morning I’d go to the sea to swim. I always take my vacations by the sea because Jesus walked on the sea, and I do what Jesus do. So the sea filled me up with so much energy and turned me into Superman! I never realized who I was… Now I know that my real origin is a fish, and I’m still a fish. Pisces — if you know the symbol, it’s two fish, one goes east and the next goes west. I have the truth in my head: everything is connected.