“When it comes to music, it’s a small world,” says dub maestro Mad Professor, fresh from a month-long tour of Australia.
“Just take that tune ‘The Liquidator’— which I still play out — it was originally a reggae instrumental recorded by Jamaicans Harry J Allstars in 1969 but it’s been sampled again and again.”
In 1972, American soul group The Staple Singers used the bassline and intro from ‘The Liquidator’ for their hit ‘I’ll Take You There’. Then, in 1988, London jungle producer and “toaster” Rebel MC teamed up with Double Trouble sampling the reggae original for the ‘Sk’ouse Remix’ of ‘Just Keep Rockin’’.
“That’s what music is all about,” roars Mad Prof, aka Guyana-born Londoner Neil Fraser, who’s just released his new album ‘Dubbing With Anansi’ on his own, 25-year-running label, Ariwa Records.
“Yeah man, it’s a really small world when it comes to music.”
‘Dubbing With Anansi’ is a throbbing chunk of space-age dub — full of the Prof’s trademark hypnotic loops, smoky echoes and delicious filter sweeps.
The laidback, bass-heavy rhythms come with guest vocals from Sengalese singer Vivian N’Dour — sister-in-law of Youssou, of ‘7 Seconds’ fame — as well as long-term Prof collaborator Brother Culture.
The new record is more of the kind of trance-inducing dub that second generation dub star the Prof is known for. And that sound is the reason why everyone from the KLF’s Bill Drummond to Massive Attack, the Ragga Twins, Sade, the Beastie Boys, Lee Scratch Perry and The Orb, Horace Andy and Jah Shaka, to name a few, have, over the years, trooped over to his South London studio to work with him.
During the 1980s, when Bill Drummond was still working in WEA’s A&R department and, post Big In Japan, making music under the name The Man, he would call up the Prof for inspiration.
“Yeah Bill and his friend Youth would come to talk to me about making music,” says the Prof. “Bill was convinced there was a place in the mainstream for dub.”
The Prof engineered the KLF’s ‘3.A.M EternEternal’ and, later on, collaborated with them for ‘All You Need Is Love’.
Massive Attack were such Prof fans they invited him to remix their second album ‘Protection’, which he did, releasing Massive Attack Vs Mad Professor’s ‘No Protection’ in 1995.
“Dub uses the same reverbs and the same delays as dance music, so of course they go together,” says the Prof, a married father-of-four children (all grown up and left home now) who’ll turn 60 this year.
“It goes right back to the late 1980s, when dub and dance music first really came together.”
At the end of the 1980s the UK was gripped by recession but also at the centre of the most exciting youth-cultural and music revolution in history. London was full of empty warehouses ripe for “breaking and entering and hosting parties”.
“People involved in pirate radio would break into these factories on a Wednesday and, on the Friday, announce the dance on the radio,” says the Prof. “There would usually be one room playing reggae and one playing house,” he says. “A lot of the time, you’d get a reggae DJ and a house DJ playing at the same time and you’d get a kind of layer effect of the two musical styles.
“So you’d hear the reggae basslines with the dance beats over the top of them. It was a marriage of two different cultures and that’s how d&b started. And, later on, dubstep developed in a similar way too.”
KISS FM went legit in 1990 and was one of the first stations to play tunes by the Ragga Twins, a pioneering hardcore/jungle outfit from Hackney, in East London, that the Prof worked with.
“I was involved with Unity Reggae Sound System and we ended up doing three albums for them,” he says. “Then, later on, in 1995, I did ‘Super Ape Inna Jungle’ with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.”
Pre-acid house, in the late 1970s, the Prof lent his dub sensibilities to punk, when he collaborated with The Ruts, a British band who, like The Clash, were heavily influenced by reggae.
The Ruts’ 1982-released ‘Rhythm Collision’ album was produced in collaboration with the Prof who, by that time, had established his new studio in Peckham and was collecting a stable of artists that were helping to crystallise the Ariwa sound.
Neil Fraser was born in Guyana in 1955. His dad was a lab technician at a local hospital and would bring home broken bits of machinery and parts that the Prof would “take apart to see how they worked” before putting them back together. “My friends would ask me to play football or cricket,” says the Prof. “But I was too busy fiddling with broken telephones or old fuse boxes to get involved in any kind of sport. They’d say, ‘you’re not normal, you’re like a mad professor’. And the name just stuck.”
As a child, in the mid-1960s, he listened to local station BVI, that broadcast from the Virgin Islands, hearing tunes by “Dennis Alcapone and Lizzy, Bunny Lee, Prince Buster and Ken Boothe”. The station also played soul hits from America and by the time he moved to London in 1970, aged 15, the Prof was already a huge fan of Motown, Stax and Atlantic.
“All the music they released was really well-produced,” says the Prof.
“Atlantic worked with Gamble and Huff. And Motown liked to take an artist and develop them — like they did with Diana Ross. I remember when I first heard soul, when I was living in Guyana, I thought I’d like to do that — to have a studio that I can develop. It had a big effect on me.”
Later on, aged 26, the Prof heard an album called ‘King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown’, by producer Augustus Pablo and engineered by a Jamaican called King Tubby.
“Tubby was an electronic genius,” says the Prof. “He would turn up the bass and work the bottom end. He was one of the first people to start doing dub versions of tunes, where he’d drop out parts of the instruments on a pop tune so you’d be left with the drums and the bass. Then he’d turn up the reverb and add echoes. I remember hearing these tunes and feeling so excited. I felt there was a real future in this and I wanted to make music like that.”
The Prof first heard the word “dub” aged 15, not long after moving to London.
“I used to buy records and I was always more interested in the B-side – that was called the ‘dub’,” he says. “Me and my friends would go into record shops to buy the vinyl coming from Jamaica and we’d say ‘get me the dub first’. Before that, music was just an acoustic thing. You’d play the piano and it would be real piano. You’d play the drum and it would be a real drum. The singers or the bands themselves would be the artists. Dub music was the first music where the engineer and the producer could become the artist.”
Not long after his 16th birthday, the Prof set about building a simple four-channel mixer that he’d bought in kit form from a magazine. Later on, he got a job fixing amplifiers for Philips and then started working at Soundcraft, where he became a deft hand at fixing EQ channels for consoles. He used the money he earned from working to buy his first bits of kit — including a four-track Tascam 3440 — but the turning point came when he set about building his first echo and reverb effects unit.
“That’s when I started putting together my first home studio,” he says.
“It was in the living room in my house and it was there I recorded my first album.”
‘Dub Me Crazy Pt.1’ was released in early 1982 on Ariwa Records.
“It did nothing when I released it, then, three months later, a guy called me up and said ‘Hey, I want to speak to Mad Professor’, and I said, ‘That’s me’ and he said ‘Oh, this is John Peel and I like the sound on this album’,” he says. “I said ‘Oh, good, I’m glad you like it, ‘cos it’s not selling very well’, and he said ‘That’s because no one’s heard it but they are going to start hearing it now because I’m going to start playing it’. And he did. And it really caught on.”
John had bought the Prof’s album in London record shop Daddy Kool. After playing tracks from ‘Dub Me Crazy Pt.1’ on the radio he asked the Prof for more music. “I did some more tracks especially for him to play,” says the Prof. Those tracks ended up being part of the Prof’s second album ‘Beyond the Realms of Dub’.
That album came out at the end of 1982 and went straight to No.1 in the UK reggae charts, knocking Gregory Isaac’s ‘Night Nurse’ LP off the top spot.
By then, the Prof had moved his studio to Peckham and was releasing tunes by Pato Banton, Aisha and Johnny Clarke, creating a British reggae and dub sound that would later go on to inform a new wave of dub producers.
“One day I was in my studio and a guy called me up and said ‘Professor, I’ve got someone who makes dubs that you need to meet’,” says Prof.
“The next day he turned up with Lee Perry. We ended up in the studio for days on end. He’d sing a melody, then you have to pick it up on either the keyboard or on the bass guitar. People who know Lee see him as either someone who is very together, very controlled, or a guy who is unpredictable, who could do anything at any time.”
THE STUDIO MUST BE REBUILT
A known inspiration for Bob Marley, Perry, now 78, still collaborates with the Prof today. With tunes such as ‘Mad Man Dubwise’ and ‘Mystic Warrior’ under their belt — not to mention projects including Black Ark Experryments, it’s a long-running relationship that’s still producing solid gold dub gems.
The Prof left the Peckham studio where he first worked with Lee in 1986, re-locating to South Norwood, in South East London, where he still is today. A couple of years ago, he decided to “rebuild the studio”.
“Instead of moving more towards computers, I went the other way,” he says. “I got fed up of the computer sound. I thought it was too rigid and too lifeless and when I compare it to stuff done in the ‘80s and the ‘70s, with real instruments and machines, it just sounded a lot better.”
As a purveyor of lovers rock, roots, reggae and dub, it’s hard to pin the Prof down. Since a recent trip Cuba, he has “got an electronic salsa thing somewhere between roots and dance music” that he’s been “cooking up”.
“I love roots. I love reggae and I love dub. I love it all,” says the Prof.
“I was born in the 1950s and I grew up in the 1970s. Those were the first years of sexual liberation and black political freedom. So I love making records about black liberation and equality. But I also love to make songs about romance and I love good singers.”
For his live “Dub Show”, he “rebuilds his studio on stage”, appearing on line-ups with everyone from Mala’s DMZ crew to Lee Perry and The Orb.
“While most DJs use turntables, CDs or a laptop, I play a master tape with 16, eight or 24 tracks,” he says. “I play my own music and other stuff and I remix it all live. Sometimes I might throw in some Marvin Gaye or a bit of Bob Marley, unless I’m playing to a bunch of committed reggae, hardhead nuttahs in South London that is; because they don’t want to hear that.”
Just like there are lots of “reggae, hardhead nuttahs” based in South London, there’s also a big chunk of the UK’s dubstep fraternity that grew up in the South side of the capital.
“I think it’s because there’s always been a lot of good record shops around Croydon and South East London that sell dub,” says the Prof.
“I like to think Ariwa has something to do with it too.”
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