As yet another Mercury retrograde yoga pose for this month, I’m posting an interview of mine, resting neatly in the dustbins of the internet. This one found a home in Remix Magazine. I got turned onto Remix by a woman who was an ad rep there and helped me get a couple of writing gigs. I’ll leave her name out of the story, but the highlight of my connection with her was a wild night in Miami at WMC, fueled by psychedelics, Timo Maas and her sexy girlfriend. Here is me and The Mad Professor talking music and tech.
Deep in the dub lab with Mad Professor.
Mad Professor is out to lunch. Sitting in a booth at a Chinese restaurant in New York, the A-list dub and reggae producer looks troubled as the waiter sets a seafood combo in front of him. “There’s all kinds of strange things in here,” he says as he pokes at the dish with a fork. “This looks like a scallop, and that looks like a frog leg, but what’s this? An alligator foot? And that looks like a duck’s behind!”
Even though he’s not sure what he’s eating, Mad Professor scoops up a forkful of the mystery mixture and shovels it into his mouth. “It tastes okay so far,” he remarks between gulps, “but if I stop speaking, you’ll know it’s foul.” Like this adventure in cuisine, Mad Professor’s auditory odyssey involves the inspired blending of exotic ingredients, coupled with a fearlessness that keeps him forever pushing the boundaries of taste and the times.
As a remixer and producer, Mad Professor — aka Neil Fraser — has worked with Sade, Pato Banton, the Beastie Boys, and others. His original tracks veer from the rootsy dub of “The African Connection” to the political blitz of “Black Liberation Dub” to the drum ’n’ bass hybrid of “Mazaruni: The Jungle Dub Experience.” His Massive Attack remixes on the LP No Protection: Mad Professor vs. Massive Attack made the original Protection album pale in comparison. This is the same man who initiated the modern British dub explosion with his 1982 album Dub Me Crazy, and who inadvertently helped birth the mutant strain of ambient-dub when the Orb lifted a sample from his “Fast Forward into Dub” track for the undulating backbeat of their epic “Blue Room.”
But perhaps Mad Professor’s most remarkable achievement is the success of his Ariwa label and studio, which he founded in 1979 in South London and has developed into a leading dub label and a sprawling, state-of-the-art studio complex. Through Ariwa (a Yoruba word meaning “communication”), he’s worked with reggae legends — including Horace Andy, U-Roy, Macka B, Papa Levi, Nolan Irie, and the mythical madman of dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry — and has released more than 100 records since 1981. Not bad for a guy who launched his career by hand-building a crystal radio in his native Guyana when he was only nine years old. Such pursuits were hardly the activity of choice for most of his peers. “Well,” he snickers, “that’s why they call me the Mad Professor!”
What distinguishes the sound of your records from that of first-generation dub producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry?
Other than the fact that you’re dealing with another generation, you’re dealing with different technology, and that’s going to shape the sound you get. You simply cannot get certain sounds with a digital hard disk recorder, a set of Tannoy speakers, or a computer. So it all comes down to the musicians and the media they’re using to get their work across. But just as important, it comes down to the engineer’s ears. I cannot hear what King Tubby heard. He did a good job of hearing what he heard, but no one else can hear it the same way.
People can criticize your sound all they want, but at the end of the day a man’s sound is a man’s sound, and the sound is ultimately in your head. This is how it works for me, even on a live show. I go into a hall, and gradually I bring the acoustics of the hall around to my sound. I adjust it within the parameters of the sound that’s in my head. That’s why an engineer will go around from one place to another and get roughly the same sound. The sound you’re after is the sound in your head.
If you think about it, there are certain things you’re after. If you don’t like the snare to sound too sharp, you’re going to roll the high end off the snare. Or if you like your bass way up front, gradually you’re going to bring your bass up. Sooner or later, as an engineer you’re going to wind up with the sound that’s in your head, a sound that’s pleasant to you, not annoying. That’s why it’s important as an engineer that you don’t go deaf — keep the top end down! You shouldn’t hear too much loud music, because if you lose the top end of your hearing and you’re trying to adjust the room, you’ll end up with a room sound that’s too bright. It’s not going to be pleasant for anyone.
What do you use these days to get your sound?
My studio has two rooms. I usually record in the smaller room, which has a mixing desk I built — a 32-channel Soundcraft desk customized with 4-band parametric EQs that have a very nice bottom end. That feeds an Otari MX-80 tape machine. I have some ADATs, but I don’t use them very much. I use a pair of Tannoy Super 8 speakers as monitors. The effects I use most include a Roland SDE-3000 digital delay, Lexicon PCM 70 and 224 reverbs, and some old phasers and spanners.
Why are you involved in both the business and production ends of your label?
From the outset I was making records, and I had to put them out myself. I never had a godfather or a rich dad. I had to learn about distribution as much as I had to learn about the mixing boards, so I don’t know any other way. I put out my first record [Come Back Again by Sergeant Pepper] because I had a couple of singers around me who were excited about putting out a record. We were all green. They were green singers and I was a green producer in a green studio. I didn’t know what to expect.
I learned some hard lessons, too. After we cut the record, I went to the pressing plant and paid for a thousand copies. I think I paid around 50 pence apiece, which is just about what you’ll pay today. I had someone take them down to a distributor, and I thought I’d sell the whole thousand for 1 pound 20 pence each and make myself 1,200 pounds. Well, it didn’t work out that way. The guy who was advising me called me two weeks later and said, “Hey Neil, your records must be moving. I was at the distributor on Thursday and the pile was high, and when I went back, it was low. You might want to press another thousand, because you don’t want to be caught without any.” So I ordered another thousand records from the press, and three days later my friend called me again and said, “I made a mistake. The distributor just moved the records from one corner to another.”
How did you and Macka B cross paths?
He came along around 1984 when the label was pretty well established. He wanted to do an album, and I said, “Why not? Sounds like a good idea.” We finished it in about four weeks. We called it Sign of the Times, and it went straight to no. 1 on the reggae charts. It was a fast seller. We’ve been doing live shows together since 1997, and we kind of know each other, so the only real rehearsing we do is at the time we record. I’d say about 50 percent of what we do live is improvised. My attitude is that if it’s a real show, you can’t do the same thing every night.
Have there been moments when he’s surprised you?
Yes, and I’ve surprised him, too. A couple of months ago one of our multitrack machines went down during a gig, so I had only one to work with. I had to think fast. I sampled a bunch of the tracks and quickly fashioned a new finished track from them. Before the song was finished, I locked the samples with the tempo of the reel track, which freed up the machine so we could put on the next reel and go into the next song. Macka B just turned and looked at me real surprised and started saying, “Sample, sample, sample.” And then we went on to the next track.
How did you start working with U-Roy?
I met U-Roy in L.A. in 1991. I was a fan. I wanted to be a toaster like him. I told him, “I want to do an album with you.” And he laughed, because many people had said they wanted to do an album with him but never did. So he gave me the number of his manager. The next thing I knew we were recording, and it was a great, great session. We recorded the vocals in the Beastie Boys’ studio.
What is it like to work with Lee “Scratch” Perry?
It’s like walking on a barbed-wire fence about 50 feet off the ground! You don’t know whether you’re gonna fall off or cut yourself on the barbed wire. He challenges my brain in terms of remembering things. Lee Perry these days is confined to delivering some really good spontaneous vocals with a Bob Marley track. He surprises me like that. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “Who is the real Marley?”
What do you think Bob Marley would have been like if he hadn’t passed away?
I think he would have gone more pop. The last two Marley records were pretty ordinary — at least that’s what I thought. They didn’t carry the spark. He was a legend before he died, but I think he would have become an unappreciated legend after a while.
Why do you think no one has been able to fill Marley’s shoes?
There are a couple of reasons. For one thing, most people are doing it primarily for the money. If you make music solely for the money, you can never reach the state that Bob Marley did. For any artist to reach that level, they have to have a high degree of discipline. And I think they need someone to help them develop that talent — like Chris Blackwell. There are very few artists out there anymore with that kind of commitment, especially in reggae.