Perry began his career in the late 1950s working with Prince Buster and Clement Coxsone Dodd's sound system. He was soon producing records with Dodd, and recording at Studio One, but the pair eventually stopped working together due to personality and financial conficts. Working with Joe Gibbs at Wirl Records, Perry tried to begin his recording career but, again, personality and financial problems caused conflict and Perry left to form his own label, Upsetter, in 1968 (see 1968 in music). His first single was "People Funny Boy", which was an insult directed at Gibbs and sold very well; the single is notable for its innovative use of a slow, sluggish, bass-driven beat that would soon become identifiable as a distinctively "reggae" (or, more accurately, roots reggae) sound. During the 1970s, Perry released numerous recordings under a variety of names including Scratch, Pipecock Jackxon, The Upsetter, Super Ape and Jah Lion. Most of his hits were big in both Jamaica and the UK, and he soon became known as much for his eccentric character and outlandish style in his appearance as for his music.
In the early 1970s, Perry participated in the creation of dub, and formed a studio, The Black Ark, to experiment in the style, as well as produce tracks from notable musicians like Bob Marley & the Wailers and The Congos. With a studio of his own, Perry was free to experiment without concern for paying hourly for studio time, and could lavish a great deal of time on the records he produced. Virtually everything recorded in The Black Ark was done so on a 4-track recording deck. Perry remained in the forefront of dub innovation and experimentation until, surrounded by rumor and controversy, The Black Ark recording studio burned to the ground. Perry generally insists it was an accident due to faulty wiring, but he is fond of telling stories and regularly tells new versions of old stories. It is unlikely anyone but Perry will ever know if the burning of The Black Ark was purposeful or accidental.
Even after producing such seminal singles as "Small Axe", Perry sold the tapes to Trojan Records without telling Marley, Peter Tosh or Bunny Wailer. After Marley & the Wailers signed to Island Records, Perry began accusing Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records) of cultural imperialism and psychic vampirism, as well as calling Marley an accomplice and a sell-out to his race. In spite of his difficulty getting along with some, Perry continued working with a variety of musicians, including the Clash. In spite of a public stance against all drug use except cannabis, an integral part of the Rastafarian religion, rumors circulated regarding constant use of LSD, cocaine and even gasoline and tape head-cleaning fluid. These stories are likely urban legend, though Perry's behavior is known to be erratic when he is drinking alcohol.
Further evidence of Perry's eccentricity was provided when On U records producer Adrian Sherwood evicted him from his home after Scratch buried Sherwood's new television set in his back garden. Without doubt, Perry is a highly eccentric creative genius. Surely there is room to question his sanity, but caution is advised before leaping to diagnosis based on rumor and heresay.
Since leaving Jamaica soon after the destruction of Black Ark, Perry has lived in Switzerland and continues recording with great success, though his production work has slowed down significantly, without a studio of his own. Lee has collaborated and toured with Mad Professor since the mid 1980s.
Compact Disc Discography
See also: dub, List of reggae musicians
A great reference on Scratch is the book "People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee 'Scratch' Perry" by David Katz, ISBN 0862418542.