Neil Fraser aka Mad Professor is the UK's foremost exponent of mindwarping dub in the tradition of Lee Perry and U Roy. Now, following collaborations with Massive Attack and The Orb, and releases on his own Ariwa label, he's taking his echo chamber epics to a global level. Will Montgomery hails him. This article originally appeared in The Wire 148 (June 1996).
"Just how sane is the Mad Professor?" runs the press release. It's a pertinent question in the world of dub, a studio space where sound and sanity often seem to get put through the same mincer. The aura of madness aside, the whole process of taking a song apart and reassembling it, like Buster Keaton's nutty self-assembly house in One Week, can be humorous as well as profoundly disorientating. Making all this explicit is, of course, part of the game played by dub pioneer and occasional Mad Professor collaborator Lee "I Am A Madman" Perry. Neil Fraser, to give the UK's Made One a name, pressed some of these same buttons with the inauguration of the playful Dub Me Crazy series in the early 80s. Since then, Fraser's label Ariwa has put out well over 100 albums, around 20 of them Mad professor dub releases (the Dub Me Crazy series ran to 12 parts). He's worked with UK reggae and lovers' rock singers, with big names from the 70s such as U Roy and Horace Andy, and with wayward mainstreamers like Massive Attack and The Orb (his towering "Towers Of Dub" remix). His career, which began in the dusk of reggae's heyday, has survived through lean times to see dub's disruptive tactics go supernova in the 90s. These days, dub's echo-pulse reverberates globally, from the post-Industrial sludge of Techno Animal and Scorn, clear across the Atlantic to Brooklyn's Wordsound consortium and Tortoise in Chicago. There's a point that needs making here, however: that the new appropriators of dub can treat the music as an exotic sound-surface (often in degenerate caricature as hamfisted echo or reverb) rather than an alchemical process of transmutation (the original vinyl constituency of the version, let's not forget, was the B-side of a Jamaican 7" single, where it would shudder with bassadelic force as the ghost echo of Caribbean R&B). Is something being lost in the translation?
"Well, you can't control that because people in the pop scene are always looking for, you could say, uncharted territories," says the Prof. "Dub is one of the few unchartered territories in music. Plus it's technical and this is the age of technology;you can do things with it. You can expand it. If you look at what jazz was in the 30s or 40s, and look at what jazz ended up being in the 80s and 90s, you see that through the process of evolution the word 'jazz' has been used to represent all sorts of things. It's just that 'dub' is a relatively new addition to the dictionary of pop music. And now with this new generation of dubbers and [laughs] 'dubbists', you can see a chance of pushing it even further. I'm doing my bit by taking it to the stage.
With a profile boosted enormously by last year's No Protection album, the Prof has been reaching the masses with a live dub show that he's taken to the US, Canada and Europe. It's a long way from the front-room studio he built in 1979 in the South London nowheresville of Thornton Heath to packed houses in New York, Toronto and Rome. And it's a long time since anything to do with reggae in Britain looked like meaning anything to anyone outside its immediate circle of followers. It's hard now, in fact, to recall that UK reggae was once a serious proposition. Steel Pulse briefly sold as well as Bob Marley, Misty In Roots and Aswad travelled under very heavy manners, and Dennis Bovell recorded a seriesof dubs that still sound futuristic. What happened?
"There was no one really investing in UK reggae," says Fraser, "not even the people themselves who were making UK reggae. And if the end if you don't invest in yourself, how can you expect other people to invest in you? What Bovell was doing was quite ahead of its time, really good stuff. I think it could have been taken further. Maybe there was quite a lot of pressure on him or else he got bored with it, or maybe he didn't realise the potential of what they were doing. I think the independent people - Shaka, Sherwood and myself - are the ones who really took time out to develop it and keep it going with 80s sounds and 90s sounds."
This talk of the merits of independence is something that recurs frequently in Fraser's conversation - major labels are not to be trusted, and there's a strong commitment to making Ariwa an economic success without compromising the music. Such level-headed pragmatism is some contrast to Lee Perry's baffling smoke signals, and the related language of sorcery, secret knowledge and implied madness that is buried in Fraser's sleeve art and song titles. So just how sane is the Mad Professor?
"From the start with me it was more of a sonic madness. I wasn't into mashing up no mixing desk or anything. On the contrary, I was quite sane outside sound and always made people know that from day one. If people come to you with some mad deals you've got to show them that you ain't so mad [laughs].
"The Mad Professor started because I literally built my own studio. I come from an electronic background as opposed to a musical background. I loved electronics and I wanted to make music and the only thing I could do was build a mixing desk and put together a studio. When I was doing it people thought it was crazy and it wouldn't work. It also hailed back to when I was at school, when I was about ten and I built my first radio. I guess for a nine or ten year old that looks rather crazy, especially when you have wires coming from your roof trying to receive signals."
This image parallels that staple of Electronica mythology which has the young Scanner sticking microphones out of his bedroom window to pick up the sounds of the neighbourhood. Once again, the wired-up household of the youthful electronics freak, a place of seemingly irredeemable geekdom, is the seedbed for the investigations of later life. Other ingredients of Fraser's youthful world included large does of U Roy, Dennis Alcapone, Motown, calypso, Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener. The various shades of light and humour represented in the work of these musicians frequently surface in Fraser's work alongside more familiar dub reference points, such as the Black Ark studio.
"I was influenced by the sounds that Perry was getting out of his four track. Prior to that a Teac four-track was a demo machine, but Perry was making masters on it. Similarly I was impressed by Tubby's; he was using a half-inch Ampeg. Channel One used four-track and got a lot of good sounds out of it. By the time I started to make records I was used 16-track two-inch: it was a very solid sound. I wouldn't say that I've had total state-of-the-art technology throughout my career, but it certainly was better than anyone who was experimenting five years earlier."
The trademark Professor sound is bright and clean - he makes no attempt to recapture the lost fog of degenerated sound that marks some earlier experiments. Although he makes some use of computers, Fraser strongly favours the analogue. He records on a warm analogue desk, uses live musicians to record his rhythms, and whether mixing onstage or in the studio, adds his effects live. It's an integration of the 'human' that perhaps finds a reflection in his increasingly political presentation of himself ("I Am A Machine" counters Perry on a 1995 Ariwa release; "click, whirr" go the crumbling brains of leave-the-body cybernauts). The technological gimmickry of the Dub Me Crazy series has been left behind in favour of the weightier rhythms and upfront racial politics of a new series: Black Liberation Dub. Why the change of emphasis, from someone who at one time seemed concerned to distance himself from rhetorical straitjackets?
"I guess being on stage taught me," he says. "For years I was too shy to even go on stage, really very introverted. Being on stage, doing all the festivals last year and so on, taught me you could tell people more of what you think. I always thought that with the Dub Me Crazy series I could have put out a few more messages, subtle messages, whether in writing or aurally. It was a fun series, wherein tricks would happen and sometimes things would go upside down or reverse, you know. It's playing with your ears. Then I thought, well, it's the 90s and things in the black community haven't really got any better."
Even the cover art now tells a different story: images of Malcolm X, Zulu warriors, machine gun-toting freedom fighters, even an anti-CJB demo are integrated into lurid technicolour collages. The only vocals on a recent collaboration with Jah Shaka were sampled soundbites of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
"I think things in the 90s have suddenly stepped backwards," he continues. "I think we as black people could take some of the blame for that by thinking that racism could disappear overnight. For example, if you look at most women in the music business you see that upon their head is hair that is not theirs. It's a backward step. Whenever I challenge people about this they say, 'Oh I can't handle my own hair'. Yet if God gave you that hair you're supposed to handle it. It's as bad as saying you can't handle your skin. So with things like that you see a reversal of all the works people like Marcus Garvey did, Martin Luther King, all the works of the conscious 60s and 70s being totally ignored by people who're just seeking to earn the next crusty dollar.
"So I thought I would make a series that would - not so subtly [laughs] - address certain issues that some might find hard to deal with. If they want to say I've got a chip on my shoulder, they can say it. I travel and I don't have to lick arse and I don't have to make revolutionary music to make money. I could make love songs, but there's a cause."
A salient and puzzling aspect of much standard 90s dub is the persistence of the Rasta trappings, the music finding appropriately banal religious accompaniment. Even with the mighty Aba-Shanti in his Vauxhall dungeon, the sight of a predominantly white crowd, high on the liver-shivering bass ride, chanting Rasta responses to the DJ is deeply peculiar. By contrast, the Prof's albums are notable for their lack of style-over-substance spirituality.
"I try not to get overtly religious in my music. I know several people who've used that as a source of inspiration or a source of expression or whatever. I just want to deal with what's in front of me. The Rasta thing is too easy. How could you base a religion just on someone's inability to comb their hair? You get people who suddenly start becoming Rasta without understanding where it was coming from, without understanding Garveyism or pan-Africanism. I wasn't gonna be part of that."
Fraser's overriding aim is to push his Ariwa label (the word is Yoruba for 'communication'). It's a cottage industry, but it's doing fine and the Mad Professor's production line of sonic teases looks secure for the future.
"I'll be honest with you: I'm not cheap and I'm not desperate. I'd like to get involved with everything, but I can't, I've got to have some sort of filtering system - if not I really would go crazy."