People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry

David Katz
Payback Press ($22.95)

by Mark Terrill

Reggae music was just one evolution in the colorful genesis of Jamaica's post-war musical history, which also included ska, dancehall, rock steady and other genres. But reggae was more than just pop music; it was also a part of the culture, and no extensive discussion of reggae music would be complete without also addressing post-colonialism, Rastafarianism, Jamaican politics, and the music business itself, in particular the Jamaican/English axis. David Katz covers all of these issues and more in this comprehensive and highly-readable biography of Lee "Scratch" Perry, "the Salvador Dali of reggae music," the result of years of research and interviews, approved and endorsed by Scratch himself.

Born into a poor family in rural Jamaica in 1936, Lee Perry worked a series of menial labor jobs, including a stint at a rock quarry, where he became fascinated with the thumping sounds of shifting boulders, and eventually had a vision about "King's Stone," resulting in his move to Kingston. He began working as an A& R man for various record labels, quickly establishing himself as an important discoverer and developer of potential talent, and went on to become an assistant producer in several of Kingston's studios, his talent and acumen for extracting the optimum sound and performance from seemingly raw talent earning him a wide reputation. In 1968, Scratch's self-produced "People Funny Boy" sold a staggering 60,000 copies, enabling him to buy a model S Jaguar, and establishing him as an independent producer.

In the early seventies, Scratch built his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, and began experimenting with "dub" music, in which versions of popular reggae songs were heavily reworked, removing the original vocal track, boosting the bass and drum tracks, and adding no end of effects. Originally these dub versions were used for the B-sides of singles, as alternate versions, but Scratch's unlimited imagination and penchant for experimentation elevated dub music to the level of art. The Black Ark Studio soon came to resemble a mixture of a mad scientist's laboratory and a pop music hit factory, producing a steady flow of chart-topping songs that helped establish the careers of Bob Marley, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, and many others. Scratch, with his in-house band, The Upsetters, soon became one of the driving forces in the Jamaican music scene, and eventually he was sought out as a producer by such diverse musicians as Paul McCartney, John Martyn, Robert Palmer, and The Clash.

The growing popularity and ensuing workload, however—along with a steadily increasing intake of ganja and rum—soon began to take its toll on Scratch's sanity; as Jamaica's political situation degenerated into bloody anarchy, and Scratch sensed that he was not receiving commensurate recognition or financial compensation for his efforts, his grip on reality gradually began to slip. Added to this was Scratch's ongoing confrontation with Rastafarianism and his own bizarre personal cosmology. Eventually he became totally insufferable to all around him, alienating both his family and his large circle of musician-friends, resulting in a self-imposed exile on the grounds of the studio. One summer morning in 1983, the Black Ark was destroyed in a fire, the cause of which is still disputed, eventually becoming the stuff of legend.

Despite the obvious temptation to exploit the more sensational aspects of Scratch's life and career, Katz has written a factual, straightforward, yet lovingly compiled account of a highly eccentric character whose own remarkable life story requires no embellishment whatsoever. Katz's ability to balance detailed documentation with lively anecdotes provide for an absorbing yet entertaining read. At 536 pages, with extensive discography, bibliography and index, People Funny Boy is certainly destined to become the definitive biography of Lee Scratch Perry.

Eventually Scratch left Jamaica, and after various ill-fated projects and collaborations in Canada, America, Holland, and the UK, Scratch finally settled in Switzerland, where he still works in a home studio. There has been talk of reconstructing the Black Ark Studio in Jamaica, and work has actually begun, but it's doubtful if Scratch will ever be able to pick up where he left off, let alone exceed the seminal and complex nature of his incredible output in the seventies, work which has meanwhile found a broad resonance in a range of other genres, from American rap and hip hop to British punk, jungle, ambient and trip hop, from Japanese electronica to European avant-garde and techno. Regardless of what may lay in store in the future, Scratch's legacy will forever remain intact, solid as stone, steady as the groove in his masterpiece, "Roast Fish and Cornbread."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001