Lee "Scratch" Perry, the legendary Jamaican singer and music producer, died at a hospital in Lucea, according to local media reports confirmed Sunday by Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness. He was 85.
"If Bob Marley was the face and voice of reggae, Lee 'Scratch' Perry was its soul," BBC media editor Amol Rajan wrote Sunday. "He was a towering figure despite his diminutive stature and eccentric appearance," exerting his influenced as "the producer and brains behind many songs more famously sung by other people." He recorded Marley and the Wailers, the Heptones, Junior Murvin, and many other reggae artists from his Black Ark studio in Kingston.
Perry also worked with the Beastie Boys, the Clash, and Paul McCartney, among others. Keith Richards called him "the Salvador Dali of music" in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone. "He's a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen." Perry "was experimenting with things that people still to this day are inspired by," DJ Rikshaw told NPR in 2006. "He was doing remixes before the term even really existed with these 12-inch dub plays, disco mixes that would splice together different songs, different rhythms and effects."
Perry was born Rainford Hugh Perry in 1936. His nickname came from the 1965 song "Chicken Scratch," NPR reports. He began his music career at a reggae label in the 1950s, did his most influential work in the 1960s and '70s, and won a Grammy in 2002. After Black Ark burned down in 1983 — he was suspected of torching it himself after a breakdown — Perry briefly moved to Switzerland, telling The Guardian he needed the cold weather because he was part elf.
Perry was "as legendary for his otherwordly fashion and esoteric spiritual practices as for his occasionally questionable ethics," NPR reports, and he fell out with many of the people he worked with, in one case secretly selling the Waliers tapes to another label and pocketed the money. Perry "and Marley would later reconcile," BBC News notes.
"I tire of the trope that genius rides shotgun with madness, but few people were as weird or cast as long a shadow as Lee Perry," producer Steve Albini tweeted Sunday. "His records were shocking and became talismans for anybody who ever tried to manifest the sound in their head. Requiescat."