Rock | Mad Professor

Rock | Mad Professor 1

Mad Professor

Dubbing with Anansi

A disciple of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Mad Professor is one of the leading producers in dub reggae’s second generation. His Dub Me Crazy albums helped dub make the transition into the digital age, when electronic productions started to take over mainstream reggae in the ’80s. His space-age tracks not only made use of new digital technology, but often expanded dub’s sonic blueprint, adding more elements and layers of sound than his forebears typically did. In the mid-’90s, he returned to the basics, debuting a more retro-sounding style on the Black Liberation Dub series. Additionally, he ran his own studio and label, Ariwa, which was home to a stable of vocalists (with an emphasis on lovers rock and conscious roots reggae) and some of the finest British reggae productions of the era. As his reputation grew, he became a remixer of choice for adventurous rock and techno acts, most notably revamping Massive Attack’s entire second album under the new title No Protection.

Mad Professor was born Neal Fraser (or Neil Fraser) circa 1955 in Guyana, a small country in the northern part of South America. He earned his nickname as a preteen, thanks to his intense interest in electronics; he even built his own radio. At age 13, his family moved to London, and around age 20, he started collecting recording equipment: reel-to-reel tape decks, echo and reverb effects, and the like. In 1979, he built his own mixing board and opened a four-track studio in his living room in the south London area of Thornton Heath. Calling it Ariwa, after a Nigerian word for sound or communication, he began recording bands and vocalists for his own label of the same name, mostly in the lovers rock vein: Deborahe Glasgow, Aquizim, Sergeant Pepper, Tony Benjamin, Davina Stone, and Ranking Ann, among others. Amid complaints from his neighbors, he moved the studio to a proper facility in Peckham, South London. In 1982 he recorded his first album, Dub Me Crazy, Pt. 1, and quickly followed it with a second volume, the successful Beyond the Realms of Dub. 1983 brought two more volumes, The African Connection (often acclaimed as one of his best) and the fairly popular Escape to the Asylum of Dub.

The Ariwa studio was moved to a better neighborhood in West Norwood during the mid-’80s, and upgraded for 24-track capability, making it the largest black-owned studio in the U.K. From there, Mad Professor really started to make an impact on the British reggae scene. He produced major hit singles for Ariwa mainstay Pato Banton and Sandra Cross, and also helmed the breakthrough album for conscious reggae toaster Macka B, 1986’s Sign of the Times. At the same time, the ragga era was dawning, and all-digital productions began to take over reggae. As the ragga sound grew more and more dominant, Mad Professor’s brand of dub got spacier and weirder; while ragga detractors complained that Mad Professor’s work sounded sterile compared to the dub of old, many praised his otherworldly effects and inventive arrangements. The Dub Me Crazy albums reached the height of their experimentalism during the latter part of the ’80s, although by the early ’90s they were showing signs of creative burnout. The 12th and final volume in the series, Dub Maniacs on the Rampage, was released in 1993.

Meanwhile, Ariwa continued to prosper as a label, with further hits by the likes of Macka B, Pato Banton, Sandra Cross, female singer Kofi, Intense, Jah Shaka, John McLean, the Robotics, Sister Audrey, Peter Culture, Johnny Clark, and others. Additionally, he began to collaborate with some of reggae’s better-known figures; most crucially, he teamed up with main influence Lee “Scratch” Perry for the first time on the 1989 set Mystic Warrior. In 1991, he produced the first of several albums for the groundbreaking veteran DJ U-Roy, the acclaimed True Born African; he also went on to work with the likes of Yabby You and Bob Andy. He switched his focus to touring in 1992 and released the 100th album on Ariwa not long after.

With his high-profile collaborators, Mad Professor started to make a name for himself outside of the reggae community, and soon found himself in demand as a remixer for rock, R&B, and electronica acts. Over the course of the ’90s and into the new millennium, he would remix tracks by Sade, the Orb, the KLF, the Beastie Boys, Jamiroquai, Rancid, Depeche Mode, and Perry Farrell, among others. His best-known project, however — and the one that truly established his credentials — was 1995’s No Protection, a completely reimagined version of trip-hop collective Massive Attack’s second album, Protection. Perhaps creatively refreshed, Mad Professor’s own albums started to regain their consistency in the mid-’90s. Mixing electronics with rootsier, more organic sounds indebted to the earliest days of dub, he left behind the Dub Me Crazy moniker to launch a new series, the subtly Afrocentric Black Liberation Dub. The first volume was released in 1994, and others followed steadily into the new millennium, albeit at a less prolific pace than the Dub Me Crazy installments. More collaborations with Perry and U-Roy followed as well. In 2005, Mad Professor celebrated Ariwa’s 25th anniversary with a tour of the U.K. alongside Perry and the double-CD retrospective Method to the Madness. In 2009 he released two albums, Times Hard under the moniker Mad Professor vs. Joint Chiefs and the back to basics Audio Illusion of Dub.

The Interview

IRIE. You first got into music at the young age of seven. Can you share with us the story about the man talking and singing on the radio?

Mad Professor: Well you know, I was a little boy in the 50’s in Guyana, north of Brasil, north of South America. Not much technology then. In fact, the only thing in our house with technology was a light bulb and a radio. One day I asked my mom “how does the light bulb work?” She said she didn’t know and that I should go to the library and get a book, which I did. I went to the library and got a book. I then asked her what’s the man doing in the radio. She said there’s no man inside the radio. I replied yes, there is. Sometimes he talks and sometimes he sings. She said, “look, there’s no man in the radio.

So, one day when she went to work, I took a screwdriver and went to the back of the radio and opened it up and said, “Oh, she was right. There’s no man in the radio.” Instead there were resisters, capacitors and dials and all sorts of things. When she came back home, the back was still off of the radio so she told me to go to the library and learn about the radio. So I went to the library and got a book and I taught myself electronics and built myself my own radio before the age of 11.

IRIE. You were born in Guyana. When did you move to England?

Mad Professor: I moved to England as an early teenager. I was thirteen. My parents were split. My father was in England and my mother was in Guyana. So I went to join my father in England.

There I discover he also had a fancy for electronics which I didn’t know when I was in Guyana. He had various books on electronics. I was able to build more complicated things and approach electronics more professionally.

IRIE. What was your attraction to Dub? What made you decide to produce Dub?

Mad Professor: I had no idea I was going to become anything in Dub. You know, I was interested in music and interested in recording. Dub, I thought, was the future. I thought it was futuristic. There was nothing like Dub. If you go back to like 1970, there was basically a handful of musical genres. Literally a handful. You had on one side, soul music, which would have encompass motown, your James Brown kind of thing. You had the word funk just coming in, which was like a more kind of dancing version of soul, you know. On the reggae side you just had reggae which evolved basically from ska, then it became rock steady in the late 60’s. Then it became reggae by 1969.

So basically reggae was the cover name that most of us as Caribbean kids in England were into. Reggae in those days, the popular artists were Maytals, the Melodians and John Holt. Just about that time, the talkers came about… people like U-Roy. U Roy ended up with like three hit songs in Jamaica. And in those days, whatever hit in Jamaica would naturally reflect and become popular in England. By the end of the 1970’s, you had U-Roy with hits like ‘Version Galore,’ Wear you to the Ball,’ and “We can never get away.’ These were the first records where the artists were actually talking. Like U-Roy would be saying, ‘Version Galore’. And he would be chatting as oppose to singing. The guys in the background like John Holt and the Paragons or the Melodians would be singing like, “You will never get away. you will never get away, I hear them say you don;t love, you don’t care for me, not anymore. And then U-Roy would come in saying, “Well right on!, huh!” This was the new exciting thing for us kids at this time. This was all we wanted to here. That was the genre.

So what happen next was the people who made the records, the producer, would have the song on the A side and then on the B side, there would be a version with just instruments; the A side without vocals. What happen after that, they took it one step further. Instead of just having an instrument version, the started to drop out part of the version. And this is the beginning of dub. Where they had the drum and bass going. What we use to call bass and drums.

And it’s just literally bass and drum. That’s what it was. No rhythm guitar. No horns, nothing. And then, obviously when Tubby started to play, he started to put some echo in. And this is how dub began. By 1971, this was the new exciting format. You never heard anything like that before. And in the dance, it would give you a lot of excitement and I was drawn to that.

IRIE. Let’s talk about Analog Dub versus Digital Dub. Do you feel that the digital gear available to today’s dub artists threatens the real dub vibe?

Mad Professor: I’m a person of the old school. My studio is pretty much an Analog studio but we do have a digital room as well so we can record digitally. I’m from the old analog school. I still have tape machines. I’m not that bothered about people who want to use the latest things because it’s not the matter of what is the latest in technology, it’s the matter of how creative the thing is used. I think to do Dub, it is in its most creative form when done analogically.

IRIE. I’m a fan of your album covers. Why did you decide on illustrating each album cover?

Mad Professor: Once you make an album, specially if you make an album of Dub, you are going into a domain where the album sleeve needs to depict what you are trying to bring out on the record. Unfortunately, you cannot bring it out with a photo. You have to bring it out with a drawing. That’s the only way we can bring out the true interpretation of the Dub album.

IRIE. What was the inspiration behind the album Dubbing with Anansi?

Mad Professor: Anansi, for some strange reason, is one of the survivors, one of the African heritage survivors of the slave crossing. Why, I’m not too sure. But I think we should take it more seriously then we do because there must be a reason why Anansi survived and many things didn’t.

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