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  • Writer's pictureLisa Tomlinson

Lee 'Scratch' Perry the Black Ark Miracle, his influence on Popular Music

Lee 'Scratch' Perry, the enigmatic and mystical reggae singer and record producer, has been one of the significant figures in Jamaican popular music. Perry has acted as the foundation upon which popular music scenes and styles have been developed in his island home and abroad.

Another musical icon, Kool Herc, has played a similar role in developing the music. Jamaican born Clive Campbell, 'Kool Herc,' has been credited with creating hip hop music in the New York City borough of the Bronx in the 1970s. Using turntables, Herc created what he called the 'break' and provided the rhythmic sounds of hip hop.

The break was done by isolating the instrumental section of the record, which stressed the percussion beat—the 'break’—and changed from one break to the next. Herc's use of the two turntables and the Jamaican practice of talk-over or toasting have roots in the Jamaican sound system culture.

While there are ongoing debates about the origins of hip hop, Herc's creation of the genre has nonetheless been well documented. Also, he is often recognized within the academy and music circles. This is contrary to how we have treated Lee 'Scratch' Perry's contribution to hip hop music and Black popular culture outside of his birthplace, Jamaica.

In addition to the foundational 'break' technique that Herc introduced to African American hip hop, Perry's contribution to the musical style included remixing. In their book Teaching in a Networked Classroom, Jonathan Salvage and Clive McGoun point out that the idea of remixing has its origin in Jamaica. They note that in the 1960s and 1970s, producers such as Lee 'Scratch' Perry played 'stripped down instrumental versions of popular reggae songs'.

The producers would take away the voice track and then replace it with new tracks and production into the mix. The writers add that remix culture later moved from Jamaica to the streets of New York and transformed into hip hop music which included 'live musical collages assembled together through cutting and scratching on turntables and mixing decks'.

In a Rolling Stone article, hip hop icon Afrika Bambaataa also gives credit to Perry's musical innovation of remixing as paving the groundwork for hip-hop; 'it was Lee Perry's sound and the Jamaican toasters that inspired us to start hip-hop,' Bambaataa stated.

Lee 'Scratch'Perry's collaboration with hip hop artists is also notable. Rap artists sampled his catalogue immensely: Lil Wayne's, 'I Am Not a Human Being', Jay-Z's 'Lucifer' and The Emperor's 'The Underground'.

Perry's influence also made its way into Black British hip hop culture, where he became a part of the new subgenre of hip hop called trip-hop. The variant of hip-hop was produced in Bristol by Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead. Perry's musical style of bass and electronic dub sound added to the hip hop variant. And he did a series of collaborations with Mad Professor, the Scientist and Dub Syndicate.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry's impact on Black popular culture should not come as a surprise, given the nature of how Black creative expressions circulate throughout the diaspora to shape cultural identities in the same way African American Rhythm and Blues influenced Jamacia's music production. As such, Perry's influence also extended to other Black popular expressions.

For example, avant-Garde jazz legend Sun Ra and the leader of African American Funkadelic style George Clinton are tied to Black aesthetic forms that Lee Perry also played a role in pioneering.

Perry's eccentric style morphed into what we term today as Afrofuturism, an idea that dares to envision Black people into the future through the elements of science fiction and digital technology. John Corbett's chapter 'Brother from Another Planet: The Space Madness of Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Sun Ra and George Clinton' is a significant book that describes some of the founding artists of Afrofuturism. The word Afrofuturism is not mentioned in the chapter. However, Corbett highlights the futuristic trend. In his chapter, he points to the similarities between the three men:

Within the distinct world of reggae, jazz and funk, Lee Perry, Sun Ra, and George Clinton have constructed worlds of their own, futuristic environs that subtly signify on the marginalization of black culture…linking their common diasporic history to a notion of the extraterrestriality.

Black British filmmaker John Akomfrah's documentary, The Last Angel of History, also looks at Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Sun Ra and George Clinton from the same Afrofuturistic perspectives and as cultural pioneers of the movement.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry, though not a self-identified Afrofuturist, took on an Afropunk fashion style that later influenced generations of Black male and female music artists. For instance, Lee Perry dressed up in space-like costumes, black biker boots decorated with an assortment of crushed mirror pieces that he pasted to the leather. His 'frohawk' and beard were either coloured in bright red or multi-coloured. Afrika Bambaataa's, Grace Jones's, and OutKast Andre 3000's fashion choices reflected Perry's bold and fiercely individual style.

Back home in Jamaica, his Afrofuturist dressing was also adopted by earlier Jamaican working-class male dancehall dancers. For example, the late dancehall choreographer Gerald 'Bogle' Levy wore similar leather outfits, biker boots and studded jewellery, a non-traditional male style of dressing.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry was a true visionary who used his creative energies to stretch outside the boundaries of his native home. While he crossed over different genres of music, it was the African Diaspora that his eclectic music and fashion taste resonated with the most. Using his alienation and expressing an eccentric otherness through his art form, Lee 'Scratch' Perry performed space-age fantasy layered in African and African Caribbean spirituality and folklore to create different characters. In doing so, he appealed to marginalized groups seeking an alternative subculture. A subculture that did not put any restriction on black bodies but encouraged the celebration of Black cultural expressions in its multiple forms.

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