photo manipulation by nacrowe
the mythical figure of LEE "SCRATCH" PERRY for me was always this seemingly inscrutable, opaque persona where in interviews he would constantly speak in terms of PROPHECY and claims of DIVINE PROVIDENCE that got in the way of me deciphering a route of connection and understanding to a producer that created some of the most compelling music of the 20th century.
as the documentary THE UPSETTER: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF LEE SCRATCH PERRY (PERMANENT MARKS, 2008) illustrates, he is largely responsible for the transition of SKA into REGGAE and was instrumental in the careers of many of JAMAICA's most famous cultural exports, including BOB MARLEY. to some extent he took a back seat in terms of his public persona, preferring to be a behind-the-scenes figure who controlled the boards and the contracts. in the documentary he speaks of MARLEY as "the king" and himself as "the prophet," which is as apt an analogue to the relationship between artist and producer that ive ever come across.
what i found particularly interesting was how his relationship with REGGAE and the community around it broke down. essentially he was being harassed by the police and the local community on a daily occurrence for money at the legendary home studio, the BLACK ARK, that he worked out of. being of generous heart, his home was largely open to the public given his optimistic outlook on people's motives given his RASTAFARIAN beliefs. this was a mistake and he lost everything, his studio, his wife and his connection to a community. the unhinged and impenetrable public persona he carried with him largely until his passing was his guard against intimacy in a sense. if people thought of him as a madman and left him alone, then that is what he wished to be.
its a pretty sad story given that one of the celebrated touchstone talents the elevated JAMAICAN music to a worldwide audience saw such notoriety and fame as something to be feared within the context of his local community. at the time before he burned the BLACK ARK and was being extorted by the police, he had to hire soldiers to provide him security. he was a literal prisoner. there is a moment in this documentary when an unnamed off-camera interviewer in the early 1980s asks him he felt about the passing of his former collaborator MARLEY and his response was that now he was free. he was free from being extorted by his entourage and his fame. he was free from the community that sprang up around his music and depended on him for sustenance and work. its a pretty heart-wrenching sad state of affairs that fame equals being a target for extortion by both familial and power structures in JAMAICA, but such is the case. it makes total sense to me how FELA KUTI in NIGERIA built a literal armed compound (KALAKUTA REPUBLIC) in LAGOS to guard against outsiders and the police while he was working in his home recording studio inside. same sad state of affairs.
watching this film definitely helped me better understand the history of an enigmatic cultural figure whose music ive long cherished. i dont think it is essential to understand one's biography to appreciate their music, but with the case of LEE "SCRATCH" PERRY and his idiosyncratic public persona i think it doesnt hurt. it was seemingly a deliberate smokescreen to ensure his personal safety and to push away those that sought to exploit him. THE UPSETTER: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF LEE SCRATCH PERRY is worth investigating for anyone interested in REGGAE and the history of JAMAICAN music. highly recommended.
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