Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry Remembers Neil ‘Mad Professor’ Fraser | Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry


As a kid, one of the first records I bought was a single called Upsetting Station by Jamaican singer Dave Barker. He used the beat from the Wailers song Duppy Conqueror and started with an announcement: “This is the recording of Upsetting Station – the news as it happens. At the time, I didn’t know what a producer was doing or even what a producer was, but I did recognize that something special was happening with this record. It sounded really different and it fascinated me.

Shortly after, I heard the Wailers’ Small Ax and noticed that it was also produced by Lee Perry. I was still in school at the time and felt that something innovative was happening with these records. Just instinctively, I felt it. Then, around 1974, there was an album called King Tubby meets the upsetting at Grass Roots of Dub, which was very popular. There were serious musicians playing there – Vin Gordon, Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis. That’s when I started paying attention to it and realized that the role of the producer was to shape the sound.

The sound of records Lee made at his Black Ark Studios in Kingston in the 1970s – songs such as Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin or One Step Forward by Max Romeo – was nothing short of amazing. He loved the soulful side of reggae, singers like George Faith. There is something fascinating and hypnotic about the production of these songs that comes from Lee himself – his character. During this time he produced some of the greatest reggae records ever made. Nothing approaches them.

We first met in 1983 and started working together the following year. He came from Jamaica with a bunch of tapes he wanted to finish. After that he started recording for me in my studio, Ariwa, in east London. We did three albums together in 1984, but only one, Mystical warrior, has been freed. Lee worked hard and was extremely productive – we worked 12 hours a day, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. That’s one of the things I learned from him – you have to put in hours. We toured the UK together and made a documentary for Channel 4. It was a busy time and I was happy to be close to him as an apprentice.

Perry at the time of the upheavals, c1970. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Lee brought out the best in people. When I started working with him, I noticed my records sounded better. It’s a kind of magic that has rubbed off on you. He could be touchy, sure, but no more than the average Jamaican reggae producer. They were all delicate. You had to be in order to survive. The rules of reggae business are vague. It’s not simple.

We became friends and remained friends for a long time, which I think was not the case with a lot of people. You had to know how to work with Lee. It was not easy. He definitely had a destructive streak and he could have a lot of trouble as he was naturally unpredictable. He was the Shocker.

Still, there was never a dull moment when he was there. There was a time when he would chat with musicians out in the sun and every few minutes he would jump, move a few feet to the side, then sit back down. He did it a couple of times, before he got really angry and started yelling at them, “Listen! Why are you standing on my shadow? It was pure Lee. It was part of his personal Obeah and he believed in that sort of thing. He once cast a spell on a local Jamaican musician who had run away with his [then] wife, Pauline. This was around the time he set fire to Black Ark Studios. Lots of musicians bothered him for money. I think the pressure has become too much. It was a deep, dark soul.

People say Lee was crazy, but I don’t think he was crazier than most. After a while it became a kind of performance for the press, for the Whites in general. He realized that they would pay more attention to him if he played a role. It was also a survival strategy. He had to be smart. And he was.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Neil Fraser at Perry's 80th birthday party at Electric Brixton, 2016.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Neil Fraser at Perry’s 80th birthday party at Electric Brixton, 2016. Photograph: Roger T Smith / REX / Shutterstock

I spoke to Lee two weeks before he died. He was getting tired and weak – he was an older man and things were starting to fall apart. I know it wasn’t Covid, but no one knows for sure what happened. It’s also pure Lee.

Honestly, I don’t know why he was so brilliant and I thought about it a lot. He was just unique in every way, someone who could turn anything into music. And he believed there was spirituality to everything. He was a mystic. Totally. All I can say is that I have never met someone like him and I don’t expect to do it again.

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