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Interview: Mad Professor (Part 1)

Interview: Mad Professor (Part 1)

Interview: Mad Professor (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Felix Foueillis - Comment

"I took dub into the world of stereo"

Sampler

"Visitors by appointment only" says the sign on the imposing entrance to South London's Ariwa studios - home of Neil Fraser, better known as the Mad Professor. Fortunately, United Reggae has one. Fraser's son Joe buzzes the door open with the instruction to "wait in the room on your immediate left" decorated with signed posters from visiting artists like Luciano and Stevie Face. After a few minutes it is time to enter the main studio of this labyrinthine complex - partly modelled on Berry Gordy's Hitsville USA - where the Professor is sitting, peering quizzically from behind his trademark spectacles bearing one round and one square lens.

While most reggae labels are lucky to last a decade the Guyanese-born Londoner has been running his imprint his way since 1979, steering it through changing fashions, four different locations, and the increasingly moribund state of the record business. Live shows are now predominantly his thing - and he is gearing up for the second edition of his Back To Africa festival in Gambia, starting on January 25th 2013. In the first half of this feature length two-part interview Angus Taylor speaks to the producer, engineer, remixer, and pioneering businessman about his musical madness and the method therein...

Mad Professor

Let's talk about your early interest in electronics. Is it right that you built your first radio in Guyana aged nine?

Yes. In our house there were literally two electrical devices - one light bulb and in those days every house had a wooden radiogram. When my mum went to work I would go round the back of the radiogram looking for the man inside! I said "Where is this man? I want to see this man in the radio" and my mum said "There's no man in the radio". So I took a screwdriver and prized the back open - I remember it clear as yesterday - and I couldn't see a man but I saw some valves light up and some resistors and capacitors. So when my mum came home she gave me some licks and said "I told you there is no man! Go and get yourself a book and learn about this thing!" So I went to the library, got a book and learned about building a crystal radio. Within days I had strung up my crystal radio, first on a zinc sheet and then putting another wire down in the earth and getting an old diode from somewhere - I don't know where! I called everyone and said "Come listen!" and they could barely hear it because it was a weak signal. But then I learned rapidly how to build a transistor amplifier through a Germanium transistor, so soon it was blaring out loud through the speakers!

What kind of music where you hearing on the radio at that time?

Calypso, Mighty Sparrow, Toots and the Maytals and Wet Dream by Max Romeo, Supremes, Temptations, Otis Redding - that was it.

When my mum went to work I would go round the back of the radiogram looking for the man inside!

How did the music you were exposed to change when you moved to England in 1970?

It didn't change that much - it's just that you had more! You had music everywhere. At the time Radio 1 was the order of the day and at that time Radio 1 was Motown crazy! By the end of the sixties Motown and Motown artists were kings. There were one or two popular tunes like Bruce Ruffin and Young Gifted and Black and probably Jimmy Cliff but apart from that no reggae. Maybe Tony Blackburn would slip in the odd tune like Horace Faith Black Pearl - commercial tunes that Trojan designed deliberately to capture the British charts. But if you wanted real reggae you had to go to the clubs. In Tooting where I lived you had a sound system called Sound Organization who used to play at a pub called the Angel. You had people at the Co-op Hall or you'd go to Safana B sound system. Sir Coxsone and Duke Reid used to be at the Swan in Stockwell and you had Morpheus in Croydon. U Roy was starting to break at that time so you'd hear Version Galore and a lot of Treasure Isle. Treasure Isle was tops - not Studio 1. Not even Bunny Lee. Treasure Isle was the preferred label. Treasure and more Treasure. Duke Reid - he was running it. Although you had one or two Upsetter because by that time Upsetter was coming in - Duppy Conqueror and Small Axe were just starting to get played.

Tell me about building your first mixing console in your teens.

Soon after I left school I got a circuit from Practical Wireless or Practical Electronics. In those days if you wanted to do anything adventurous, chiefly you had these two magazines. They could show you how to build anything from a tape machine to a wah wah or tremolo pedal effect for guitar to a mixing desk or a reverb unit - that's where I saw a circuit for a mixing desk. I needed something I could play a cassette through so I needed a particular design. I learned about different inputs and built a little twelve channel job. Then I got a tape machine - an Akai 4000 DS - and started to play with that but gradually I found that was limited and so was the mixing desk so I started to go after a more professional one. I got a Teac 3440 which was four tracks quarter inch - a real semi professional job. By then I had got a job at Soundcraft fixing boards. The guy in charge showed me a room stacked with PCBs - printed circuit boards. He was from Guyana and had the driest sense of humour. He said "You call yourself an engineer? These are old boards and none of them are working. If you can fix ten by Friday you can have the job."

How many did you fix?

By the second day I had fixed ten and I was eating through them! After a while I had to slow down. I just had a knack for them and I quickly understood what was going on. I learned quite a bit because the job was almost tailor-made for my interests.

Did you feel your interests in music and electronics converging?

It was like: you knew how to drive a car but you didn't know the rules necessary for you to drive safely. Being in that job I learned why certain things made sense. I learned why it was necessary to have a certain degree of mathematics if you are going to do electronics. You learn about calculating voltage and the relationship between voltage, resistance and current. You'd learn about squarewave testing - a lot of people don't understand that even now. If you think this desk is flat - and when we say flat we mean frequencywise from 20hz till 20k without the amplitude changing - you put a squarewave in the input and you put an oscilloscope on the output and look on the scope and because there is a squarewave going in the output is supposed to be square as well - and if it isn't you have a problem along it. Then with the EQ as you turn it you see that part of the square lifts - then you realize "OK" because as you boost the bottom end this part of the square is higher and you can see it has actually moved up 20DB. And as you move the treble then that part of the square moves. So you understand the importance of so many things you learn - and luckily I could learn quick!

I would love to play the piano like I hear some people play. But I know with the amount of electronics in my head there is no way!

In your career you must have encountered a lot of people who are creative but not technical. Is that a source of frustration to you or are you happy to assist?

Yeah, I'm happy to do that. Because I realized that to really become technical is almost a different career. A lot of people coming into music from a musical point of view don't have the headspace. Most human beings can only do so many things. Even me - I would love to play the piano like I hear some people play. But I know with the amount of electronics in my head there is no way! I don't know about these days because you have a computer which makes it a whole different ballgame - but in my day you had a choice: either you go electronics or music. I chose electronics. The good thing was I wired my first studio totally - I knew if anything went wrong in it I could be there fixing it. Sometimes Joe and Kamal will say "We got a problem dad" and I'll say "Blah blah blah" and that's it. But that's because they don't have the electronics.

What made you decide to start your own studio in 1979?

(pauses) I just got drawn into the whole thing! I was there every day building stuff and then I think I went to maybe five Bob Marley concerts. I saw Dennis Brown live, Bob Marley at the Lyceum and U Roy at the Lyceum and the Diamonds with this Virgin Frontline package in '76 when they brought over a load of artists. Me and my girl, we'd just go down and watch all the shows - we didn't have money for anything else but we were 17-18 watching and getting sucked into the thing. So I decided to start a studio. We bought this house in Thornton Heath - it had a big room but not quite as big as this - and straight away I thought "That's a good place for a drumkit and a piano over there" (laughs) So I converted it, formalised my mixing desk, got my four track machine and invited some musicians around on Sunday to play some tracks. That's how it literally started - people coming round and jamming. Then I started playing with things - dropping out the piano, putting echo on, my test tone, my phasers. And it just got better - or at least I thought it was getting better! (laughs)

Which producers were you listening to at that time to inspire those tricks?

I think the Joe Gibbs stuff was way ahead of everything else. African Dub was a big influence. Channel One stuff.

Some of the Gibbs Errol Thompson stuff was pretty out there with all the sound effects. Some people found those sound effects really annoying but you were listening thinking "We could push that further".

Yeah absolutely! You can hear it in my Dub Me Crazy - Dub Me Crazy is like a direct rip off of African Dub! I'd be the first to say that. The thing about dub albums in those days was that none of them played with stereo. It always fascinated me that a lot of reggae people don't play with stereo. That was one of the things I thought I would do with my first dub album - I wanted to have a voice coming in the left and then out in the right or a sound in the left and it's reverbed out in the right. You just pull the listener more into a relationship with the engineer. You play with them. The dimension is wide. Nothing in reggae was doing that. Joe Gibbs was primarily in a nice stereo but it was like a weak stereo in terms of definition and panning whereas Channel One was mainly down the line mono. Channel One was, as you probably know, basically a four track half inch Ampex machine whereas Joe Gibbs was a sixteen track two inch with loads of options. So I took it into the world of stereo.

You just pull the listener into a relationship with the engineer

How easy was it to get the studio off the ground?

When I left my last job - me and the guy had some argument where he told me to piss off and I went home - and I think Moa Anbessa sound system were releasing some records and had some Tubbys four track tapes. They asked me to edit, cut and remix some of them. This was two days after I walked out of my job. Then I had a call from Shaka - I'm not sure if one of the Moa Anbessa guys told him about the studio - and he wanted to do some voicing. By then I had upped the studio to 16 two inch and I had a one inch headblock Ampex eight track so I could play eight and sixteen. Shaka came with some tapes and he voiced Junior Brown - one of the first records we did was Junior Brown Warriors and he was quite happy with that. So within the first week of leaving we had Shaka, Moa Anbessa and a few other people so it looked like this could work. Then the next week no one booked! The third week no one booked! So I found the local dole office and signed on. (laughs) Then by the fourth week it started to come again.

Who was the first Jamaican artist to visit your studio?

Either Horsemouth, Mikey Dread or Johnny Clarke . It might have been Mikey Dread first actually. That would be '81. The studio was at Bruce Road and I remember the first session we attempted with Mikey he was supposed to come at 6 o'clock in the afternoon and he came at 2 in the morning with an entourage of four people and these big tapes. So we stuck the tape on the machine only to find the tape needed noise reduction which we didn't have! I remember Mikey being frustrated saying "Bwoy!" and kissing his teeth. Obviously we were hand to mouth and didn't have a lot of things.

How did the ratio of people coming in versus your own projects progress over the years?

Mad ProfessorWe had a mortgage to pay and we had our first baby on the way as well. So I was still using Sundays primarily as my day - recording my own stuff. I had a guy called Preacher and a guy called Kingsley on bass and drums and Sergeant Pepper putting down some piano stuff. But for most of the week I'd advertise the studio and I'd have some rock bands and pop people coming in. A lot of them quite liked the reggae flavour and overtones in the studio. I'd even dub up a few of their rock things! Some of them didn't like it because they wanted a real rock sound but it was a cheap studio - £8 an hour.

Was this where you first got the taste for remixing?

Yeah, absolutely. Because I spent a few years working on whiteboy music, rock and pop music. They would come in and I would have to understand their frequencies because they were working on different frequencies from reggae people.

How did you first meet Lee Scratch Perry when he came to live in London in 1984?

Perry I think I met after I moved to Peckham. I moved because that studio in the house was getting too much. Neighbours started to complain and we had some weird people coming to the house. In those days Thornton Heath was a respectable neighbourhood! There was a white guy that called himself Zolan something. His face was made up with white - when I say white I mean blanco - he had black eyelashes and I remember he came in about 6 o'clock and he was walking along the road with a bunch of schoolkids from the station following him because he was dressed so weird! (laughs) He wanted to do things like record at midnight when it was a full moon - I don't know what he was playing at! So the man next door said the drumkit was where he had his bed or something and we had to move. We found this place in Peckham which was rough!

There were times when I was too busy even to go to the toilet!

Who linked you to Scratch?

After we had been there for a year, Winston Edwards from Studio 16, who was using the studio, told me Lee Perry was in town. It was between him and a guy called Adam from one of our distributors, Zircon, who was in touch with Max Romeo's brother - because Perry was staying with those guys up in North London. Perry wanted a studio to work out of - he had some stuff he recorded at Blackwell's studio in the Bahamas on two inch 16. He came down and started to voice some things for himself. He would book the studio all day and he would sing maybe ten vocals on one song. He was a workaholic in those days - he really was. Then I'd have to mix it all and we would come round the studio when I was mixing and say "No, no, no! Where the voice? Where the voice?" and when you'd fiddle with the voice he'd say "Where the bass?" He was really on the ball. And I learned a lot from him as well because he was really using his ears and arriving at a balance quickly. So when he finished his product and voicing the stuff for himself we had got a bit close. Then he asked which rhythms I had so I gave him a bunch of rhythms to voice which became the Mystic Warrior album. We still have another couple of albums I think from those same sessions that we haven't released. Then we went on tour up in Manchester, Leeds and Scotland when he was using a band called Sus. We did a bunch of dates and those were fun.

You said he was quite a busy person - would you describe yourself as a busy person?

I've had my moments! (laughs) I've learned to pace out myself you know. There were times when I was too busy even to go to the toilet! I pace myself now - I'm not so busy.

People outside of reggae music think of it as a very laidback music but people like yourself and Perry were always on the go.

Oh yeah. Up to now Scratch is still busy. Scratch is a worker -  he loves music and he loves working. If Scratch had his own way he would be in the studio every day. He's got ideas and a very quick brain - even at his age now. The ideas that are coming to his brain - you would be amazed. OK, he's got the showman side but if you were to take away that thing about him when he's on stage or when certain people are around and you went in the studio with him one to one you would see that he has got some serious ideas. Definitely an ideas man.

If Scratch had his own way he would be in the studio every day

You worked with him for quite an intense period from the 80s through to the end of the century. Are you in touch with much these days?

Now and again. It's not so easy because he doesn't answer his phone or anything like that. But last time we worked was like June or July - we spent a long weekend in Mexico. We don't work as much as we did at one point - but we work when it comes up and there is enough food on the table. (laughs)

You were supposed to perform together at the Respect Jamaica 50 celebrations but he missed his flight and you became the main attraction.

Yeah, I was the main attraction! Junior Murvin dropped out for some reason and then Scratch missed his flight. That's one of the things with Perry - it's always touch and go. Sometimes they leave it too late to catch planes and I don't think they understand how London is very tricky especially with traffic and with planes! If I were them, for a big show like that I would come in the day before. Tell the promoter to cover your hotel for the day before. But they wanted to come in at 5 o'clock when the show is at 8.

Mad Professor

When did you find out he wasn't coming?

I think we were on stage! I was trying to rush off because I am always conscious about the person who is coming after me. I don't like to take liberties. I think during the break before our encore one of the guys said "You don't have to rush you know because we don't think Perry is coming. Something about the plane - he couldn't find another flight from Zurich. Just play on and take your time". So that's what we did.

You mentioned you have lots of unreleased music with Scratch. How much unreleased material would you estimate you are sitting on at any one time?

Me? Gosh! I'll show you my tape room in a minute. We've got a lot of stuff by a lot of people. We've got a lot of Yabby You stuff. I've got a lot of stuff by the usual lovers rock people like Sandra Cross. I've got a lot of dub stuff - dub albums I recorded and abandoned for whatever reason. Sometimes you just don't think they're good enough. But the thing about music is sometimes you go back years later and realize it was actually quite good! That's why I made the series The Dubs That Time Forgot -  they are literally that. You moved on because at that point where your head was at was aiming at a higher level. But sometimes as an engineer and producer you also suffer from something I call "audio fatigue". Where you literally have to give yourself a break from listening to something because after a while you can't judge it and you don't appreciate it. And over the years I have been through different mixing consoles and different tape machines and I literally get tired of certain sounds. Like even right I am yearning for my old desk to be reinstalled because there is a certain sound in my head that I can't get from this one. I go through moods, man, like a playboy goes through girlfriends! (laughs)

As an engineer and producer you suffer from something I call "audio fatigue"

One unreleased project you worked on that has passed into legend was some work you did in the 90s with the Beastie Boys.

Oh yes! I don't know what became of that now that Adam is not with us anymore. I was in LA I think with Rita Marley and the I Threes. I was doing front of house, which I think is my favourite spot, when two skinny white boys appeared beside me and said they liked what I was doing and asked what I was doing after. I said "Nothing. Who are you?" and they said "We're from the Beastie Boys. We've got a place just down the road if you want to come and hook up". So went to their place and we had a jam and they said "Why don't you come along tomorrow and do some mixing for us". They gave me a bunch of tracks and I started to dub them up - I must have dubbed up about ten songs. At that festival I also met U Roy who was literally doing nothing - just sitting there taking in the show. I wanted to record an album with him so we laid the foundations for that and I said when I next came back to LA we would record. When I went back the Beasties said I could use their studio for the U Roy album, which I did. The rhythms had been recorded in England but we used their studio and I did some more work for them as well. Why it never got released I don't know - but we also did some other things like Dr Lee PHD with them and Scratch. It's just sitting there. It's almost legendary now. But then they pulled down the studio and moved to New York and since then unfortunately we lost Adam who was one of the key players. I think one of the guys ought to dig out the tapes.

Read part two of this interview.

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