Lee Perry, the man known as "Scratch," has always had a gift for manipulating rhythms and vocal harmonies and otherwise generating hypnotic arrangements. Through the art of dub, he elevated artists such as Bob Marley, Augustus Pablo and the Congos to previously unknown heights, and he even assisted with distinctly nonreggae acts like Robert Palmer and the Clash.

But much like other revolutionary producers, such as Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, Perry's excessive work ethic and immense ego often proved overwhelming, even debilitating. Early in his career, he was a hired hand at Jamaica's renowned Studio One, where Toots and the Maytals and the Wailers got their starts. But life at Studio One was short for Perry, whose fuse was even shorter. A falling-out with owner Coxsone Dodd led him to rival production houses, but those relationships also were brief.

His biggest break came in the early '70s, when the Wailers enlisted his aid on a number of tracks. Until that point, the band's sound had leaned toward ska and American soul. Stripping the trio's sound down to basic rhythms and ethereal harmonies, Perry left the Wailers with a primal, groove-based sound that would shape the future of reggae.

The association ended acrimoniously as a disagreement erupted between the struggling producer and the equally destitute band. Perry, believing the master tapes to be his, sold the music to the English-based Trojan label, pocketing the money. The rest was history for the Wailers; Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell heard the imports and signed the band.

These days Perry has been active mostly alongside English producer/DJ Mad Professor. Their collaboration has been interesting, to say the least, but still it ranks far below Perry's earlier triumphs. It's tough to say whether seeing the aged and wacky Perry now would be a revelation or a letdown. Yet if you witnessed even a few minutes of the recent Marley retrospective on PBS's American Masters, you got the sense that there's still reason to plunk down good cash for Perry's antics. During one interview, Perry was clad in a cape and king's crown, excitedly explaining the rhythmic style he designed for the Wailers. Another shot showed him wearing the same cape, but instead of a crown, he donned a pig baseball cap, complete with snout and ears.

The energy and eccentricity are obviously still there. So, it would seem, is his viability. No matter how strange or irrelevant he becomes, Perry is still a touchstone to that groundbreaking period in reggae. Considering the genre's current state of decline, maybe the music needs a good shot of history and weirdness.

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Mike Emery