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Interview: Mad Professor (Part 2)

Interview: Mad Professor (Part 2)

Interview: Mad Professor (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Felix Foueillis - Comment

"If you study reggae and the roots of reggae you have to enjoy soul"

Sampler

In part two of this exclusive feature length interview with the Mad Professor - we discuss his Back To Africa Festival in Gambia (starting on January 25th, 2013), his mischievous tendency to taunt reggae journalists and the secret to his label Ariwa's success...

Mad Professor

How did you decide to create your Back To Africa festival in Gambia?

Growing up in London in the 70s, we were the first generation of Caribbean and Western blacks who embraced Africa. Because prior to that black people who were sons of slaves - from America, black people in the West Indies, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana - were taught not to like Africa, to be afraid of Africa, to be embarrassed by Africa. That was part of the psychology due to slavery. That was part of the brain washing and that mentality. To think Africa was ugly and rough. If you asked your grandparents about Africa they would say "No, don't ask me about that". But come the end of the 60s in America you had the "Black is Beautiful" thing which gave a lot of black people confidence and was like a healing process after slavery. You had historic songs like James Brown's Black and Proud and Syl Johnson... (pauses)

Is It Because I'm Black?

Is It Because I'm Black. From about '66 to the 80s you had various conscious songs. Along with the conscious songs came the practical things. At first black people were straightening our hair to look white and European, and even straightening our noses and cutting your lips if you had enough money, or lightening your skin to get away from your blackness. So as people became more educated we realized we had to not run from our African-ness - we have to go towards it. Then soon after that the Rasta thing came along. OK it was there before but it wasn't popular. Rasta, like most African trends were shunned. Rastas originally had no part in society. They were despised and looked on as tramps. But come the early 70s, first with Count Ossie, Revelations, then people like Max Romeo, Let The Power Fall On I, they were the first Rasta tunes. Then Bob Marley, at first you could hear on Burnin', Rasta Man Chant which was like a taster for what was coming, which was Natty Dread in '74 which turned the whole thing around.

The theme on the streets for us all as teenagers in the 70s was "Back to Africa"

How did it do that?

Suddenly, Natty Dread was, not just Rasta Awareness, but a positive black awareness album. And the theme on the streets for us all as teenagers in the 70s was "Back to Africa" - whether we'd go physically or whether we'd go spiritually. But of course, at that time, yes, there were one or two talking about physically going - but it was not easy then to go to Africa physically. I don't know easy it was to go to Gambia then but you will have heard of a few things like the Muhammad Ali George Foreman fight in... (pauses)

In what was then called Zaire.

Yes, and you had various interests coming up for westerners, especially black Americans, but it still wasn't really the physical thing to do - going back to Africa. I, personally, started to go to the Gambia when the kids were small around '91, '92, maybe '93. We went on holiday which was ok, and then didn't do anything more there until I started to work with Jayzik and Patrick Augustus on the Jahzik album Problem Child around 2000-2001. Jayzik kept telling me "Oh Prof, you've got to come to Gambia, man" and I said "I've been. It's ok. It's a little bit colonial but..." and she said "No man. You've got to go again". So we kept talking and then in 2005 I had a bit of a gap in the thing so I jumped on a plane to Gambia. And I couldn't believe it! It had such a vibe. Everything was great except the food. (laughs) I went back two months later in May and by that time me Patrick and Jayzik had decided we really ought to get a few people down there. Straight away I decided we should really do a festival with a theme of Back To Africa. From there the whole idea was in planning...

What challenges did you face in putting on a festival in Gambia?

When you put on a festival anywhere, the first thing is - you tell people you are putting on a festival and they say "Yeah, yeah, yeah". Because maybe one out of every hundred people say they are putting on a festival might go near to succeeding! So when you say you are keeping a festival most people say "yeah, yeah, yeah" and wait to hear that you are not keeping a festival! So that's the first challenge you face: convincing people that you are keeping a festival. Secondly, the logistics. If you are keeping a festival in the Gambia - it's not down the road in Croydon! So you've got to deal with the local scenario - permission from the government, what they are going to expect, getting people from here or Europe into Africa with airfares and so on. And again, because you are keeping it in Africa you go through the whole negativity thing "Yeah, they eat people in Gambia, they do this, you have to be careful". And when you're there on the ground, we had to deal with the sound equipment, which we took ourselves, created the festival site, we did everything ourselves.

When you say you are keeping a festival most people say "yeah, yeah, yeah" and wait to hear that you are not keeping a festival!

What did you learn from putting on the festival for the first time in 2012 which has informed the staging of the 2013 one?

With the first one, obviously we had things we didn't anticipate. My first impression was we could have the festival starting every day at maybe 10 o'clock in the morning! But I found the natural vibe for that particular location was to start more in the afternoon when the sun was going down. Then logistically, from where most of the people were staying to the festival site was a bit of a distance so we had to deal with that. So there are certain little things that, until you go into it, you don't know what you are up against. But we did it and we had a great time, the local people really enjoyed it, it was a great meeting of cultures - people from all over. We had friends coming from Argentina, friends from France, Germany, from all over Europe meeting with African people from Senegal, Gambia and even Sierra Leone. People made friends, some made lovers, some made wives and husbands! (laughs)

What can people expect from the second edition of Back To Africa?

If you've never been to Gambia or Africa before you can expect an introduction to Africa. The hotel this year in the package is nice. It's quite typical European standard three/four star hotel but it's in African surroundings. You can learn about local fruits, local juices; papaya, guava, baobab; there is a lot of fresh fish, you can meet some very nice people like the Mandinkas, the Fulas, various African tribes, and whether you are black or white it is taking you  into a world that doesn't exist in many places. The world is developing rapidly but in that part of the world you still go down the road and people have time for you, and then suddenly everything slows down, people who don't know you say "Good morning" "How are you? "Where are you from?" and start a conversation. Unlike when you're going down the road in Brixton or Thornton Heath where you start talking to people and they either start fighting you or call the police! (laughs) Africa has still got that old school kind of thing.

What are you working on at the moment?

Mad ProfessorI'm not! (laughs) I'm just back from a gig at the weekend in Italy. We are co-ordinating a few things though - mainly compilations. In 2013 we intend to kick the label back out there. I've got a few things like Introduction To Ariwa - which is for new people just coming on board to get their teeth into some of the things we specialize in. Introduction to Mad Professor - which is slightly different from Ariwa because it's more dub. I've got a Roots Daughters compilation of female artists like Aisha and Sister Audrey. We have to finish the new album from Luciano - it's been lurking around for the past 18 months or so and we need to put some finishing touches.

How does one go about introducing someone to Ariwa when you have such a huge back catalogue - how can you step back and decide how to introduce someone to yourself?

I guess you travel a lot and talk to different people. It's good to get feedback from fans. I was in Croatia just a week and a half ago and people there tell me what they like, what they don't like, so I can then take that on board. This weekend I was in Italy and I took it on board what they liked. So you really have to just observe what others are saying and not so much what you think. The studio started in '79 and the label started in '81 so you can imagine over the years how things have changed and methods have changed, music styles have changed, even the studios have changed. This is the fourth location and the one that's been here the longest - since the end of '86, start of '87.

Was Luciano recorded here or was it done remotely?

No, he came here. This is an old fashioned studio with old fashioned values - we don't believe in sending files. I do that for remixing but for my own stuff I like it when the artists are here really. So we can have a one to one and put our vibes in to the project. If you notice [gestures around] everything here is an old machine. OK, we've got ProTools and all that but that's more for them [gestures to his son] to talk to the rest of the world.

This is an old fashioned studio with old fashioned values - we don't believe in sending files

What's someone like Luciano like to work with?

He is a very professional vocalist. He's one of the old school. He's quick. He isn't going in unsure of himself. He's quite sure when he enters. He's one of the few really professional people I've worked with recently. The thing with the music business is, as time goes on and people have more studios and there are more artists there is so much less professionalism. So it's great when you meet someone with those old school values. He's quick and he's got the kind of voice you can do different styles with - roots, dancehall, lovers rock. He has a Teddy Pendergrass kind of thing but within reggae instead of soul. So it's up to you as the producer to put the material where you want it - because you have this singer that you could push into any direction without selling out. It's rare.

So what you're saying is that with most people - their limitations are very clear so there is a clear path for you as a producer?

Absolutely. Take someone like Gregory - he had that kind of voice. Dennis. Those were guys where you could come soft and smooth, you could some militant - it's up to you where you want it. And of course, the art of fine producing is that you first have a sound in your head. And all the people you bring in have got to help that sound. Not just the people - everything. The desk you touch has got to be able to get you that sound, arrive at that point in your head. If the desk isn't capable you feel like you have been short-changed. (laughs)

I interviewed Don Corleon when he made his dub album and he said you were planning to work together. Any news on that?

We talked about it and I guess we're still talking about it. The last time we met was in France and we talked about it. I was surprised when he called me up and said "Listen, you're one of my influences. I listen to your stuff all the time". I was like "Shit, this is one of the top Jamaican producers listening to my stuff!"I thought that was very nice of him because not many people like to pay homage or respect to someone who's still alive! A lot of people like to wait until you're dead - like the Bob Marley song says "Johnny was a good man". (laughs) So Don he told me what he was doing and I told him point blank that I am not a fan of ProTools - I'm quite old-school - and he said he loved the old-school stuff too but it's hard for him to get it. I told him there's loads around Jamaica but you've got to see what people have got in their cupboards! I guess the hardest thing with old-school stuff is the maintenance - you need to go back into electronics. We exchanged a lot of opinions and comments - he's quite young and quite sharp as well. Protoje I had met a few years before - his mum is one of my favourite singers.

Not many people like to pay homage or respect to someone who's still alive!

Lorna Bennett.

Breakfast in Bed. That record to me was like the ultimate record of '72.

Do you know her cover of the Bells Stay With You A While? It's really worth searching out.

OK, I'll check that out! The thing about Breakfast in Bed is, it's got the sound of one of Jamaica's most hidden rhythm sections - The Now Generation. The Chungs, Geoffrey and Mikey, Mikey Boo on drums, Val Douglas - brilliant musicians. You can hear them on a lot of Ken Boothe stuff, The Chosen Few and that Breakfast in Bed skank. They're like forgotten heroes - a lot of people don't even know they existed. To me they are very important in the development of reggae. Classically trained musicians - they don't miss!

Some of your remixes can really turn a tune inside out so you see its guts. Your remix of Money on Easy Star's Dubber Side Of The Moon renders the original almost unrecognizable.

(laughs) The thing about remixes is I always refer to the person asking me. People vary so much in what they want and what they expect. Some people will say "change everything". Some will say "change nothing"! So you really need to find out where they're at. I learned that from the Massive Attack album. The first thing I submitted they said "No" and I think I may have done too much! So I just toned it down, changed the bass and dubbed it up and they were fine with that. So it really depends and there is no standard that exists. I think with Easy Star they weren't sure but I submitted a few options and they picked. They've got a Michael Jackson thing going on now.

The thing about remixes is... some people will say "change everything". Some will say "change nothing"!

What do you think of that? It's a different ballgame from taking rock bands and putting them in dub. There is a long pedigree of reggae covers of Michael they have to measure up to.

I think that's brave of them. I heard a couple of things on the internet and my first thought was that whoever was in charge of the music could have picked an easy way out. They could have just sought out some of those reggae covers! If they had covered the covers it would have been a more precise job. Because the way they did it, musically they've missed out on a lot. We did The Girl Is Mine once and we took hours in doing it. We got a guy to sound like Michael and we got a guy to sound like Paul McCartney. If you're going to cover Michael Jackson, to gain from his international knowledge you have got to have the music right. Shinehead did a great job with Billie Jean - that was a classic. You've got to cover the covers man!

You're known as a dub producer but there is a huge love of soul in your music - especially in your many lovers rock hits which are of course intrinsically linked to US soul.

I think if you study reggae and the roots of reggae you have to enjoy soul. To put your head where Duke Reid, Coxsone, Byron Lee and Khouri were at, and to understand the whole syncopation, sound and the mood of reggae throughout the generations. Even talking to Lee Perry you realize soul music had a pronounced influence. The fact that Jamaica is only up the road from Miami, and a lot of time they were taking obscure soul tracks, turning them inside out and making new music. I grew up listening to soul and reggae but it was only years later that I realized a lot of the reggae I was listening to was actually soul music. One of the first main shockers was on the album King Tubby meets the Upsetter at the Grass Roots of Dub. I would hear this [sings melody of 300 Years At The Grassroots] and Tubbys would phase it and make a wicked dub tune. Then years later I'm in a second-hand shop in Croydon and I hear Born To Love You, realize Derrick Harriott covered it and that is that fucking track on the King Tubbys album! Then I realized The Isley Brothers did Born To Love You for Motown - and a whole new world of relationships between music existed. That just pulled me more into soul music. I realized the importance of labels like Atlantic, Motown, Philly. Things like John Holt Love I Can Feel?

The Temptations - I Want Love I Can See.

Yes! You just realize that there is so much going on. Quite honestly, to study reggae is to study soul. If you go through Duke Reid, all that Phyllis Dillon stuff like One Life To Live, they were all soul tracks man on obscure labels. Dawn Penn No No No is another one.

It was inspired by Willie Cobbs (who was covering Bo Diddley).

Yeah - it sounds like you know about this stuff as well! Did you used to write for Echoes?

When you were an up and coming producer Rodigan and Echoes weren't taking you seriously. So I decided "I am going to show them"

No, never. But I believe in 1986 you recorded a song criticizing the magazine and its writers called Echoes Of Deaf Journalists?

(laughs) Absolutely! To be honest, in the 80s I was one of the rebel producers. You had this hierarchy of reggae. If you were one of the guys doing Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs or Bob Marley everyone would take you seriously. When you were up and coming from south London and bringing in new names they wouldn't. You couldn't buy the adverts in Echoes Greensleeves were buying. Most producers would say "That's how it is. That's the system man". We had no internet. We had no United Reggae. On the reading side you had Echoes and on the radio side you had people like Rodigan. If Rodigan was your friend then fine. But when you were an up and coming producer Rodigan and Echoes weren't taking you seriously. So I decided [kisses teeth] "I am going to show them" and I made this record. Simon Buckland was the man in charge and Debbie Kirby was the girl there, so I got a girl that sounded like Debbie to say [puts on female voice] "Simon, don't give them any good reviews until they pay their ads!" (laughing) then I had someone in the background singing "It's a good thing we're deaf!"

What was the reaction?

Debbie was quite pissed off. Simon took it in good humour. Buckland was cool. But they just had me down as a guy who knew how to wind them up! (laughs) Then soon after that we got some number one records - Pato Banton, Macka B and Sandra Cross - and I became part of the system and part of the crew at the top! Then I didn't need to fight them so much. Rodigan started to play my stuff. But it wasn't easy at first.

Mad Professor

You've also done some projects in South America - where you come from. Like our discussion of soul music there is an intricate web of relationships between rhythms from Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

It's interesting. I've got a project called Samba Dub which is lying around here somewhere. What that shows is that in the 60s and 70s when I was a kid you would turn on your radio and hear a lot of Latin American stuff. There was this radio station called Radio Antilles which beamed across the Caribbean and South America where you would hear reggae, then Latin, then Calypso. I realized that Samba, Cumbia, Calypso are all quite similar - and the early reggae was quite like that. Afterwards reggae moved into a more American thing but the early reggae was more like the Calypso and what they call Spouge in Barbados - there was this kind of lazy thing. Cumbia is still there on that. I went to Colombia two years ago and recorded with some Cumbia people and I was surprised when that record became a hit and started to sell in Spain. So we started this Samba project in Brazil.

What did you gain from that project?

That has really brought together the similarities between Samba, Calypso, early reggae and Cumbia. So instead of one side becoming more like America, the reggae, and one side becoming more like Africa, the Samba, it's more or less a music where  between the Latino vibe and the slaves coming across, somehow they merged and certain things came through. Especially when you go to somewhere like Bahia or Sao Luis in Northern Brazil and it's down the road from Guyana - just a few hundred miles. People from Guyana are basically the same as the Bajans and the Trinidadians. Every guy in Guyana would have relations that come from either Barbados or Trini or Jamaica. Even though it is on the continent they are quite Caribbean in a sense. That's why you have people like Beres Hammond going to Guyana almost every year. They've got a strong cultural exchange going on even though they are like 2000 miles apart. I saw Dennis Alcapone in Guyana as a boy doing Cherry Oh Baby.

Dubstep started round here in Croydon

Another of your projects that broadens the horizon of musical relationships with reggae was your The Roots Of Dubstep Project from 2011. Rodigan has also got very into dubstep in the last few years.

Dubstep started round here in Croydon, you know? The first time I heard about dubstep was about ten years ago when my daughter's boyfriend said "A lot of guys are playing around with dub - hooking it up with the 2 step thing". This was 2002-2003. But when I heard it I thought "The only thing dub about this is the bassline and the sparseness" but he said that they had been in a club where someone played a 2 step and then a dub record and locked them together. It became popular and I did some gigs and festivals with Benga and then I realized the mood they called dub was really the bass they were hearing. When I got talking to Benga I realized that he and his friends parents had some dub records at home and that some of the records they mixed with 2 Step were my records - especially being from that area. So I thought I really ought to make this album to say "Listen, this is where the whole dubstep thing comes from - dub". It did some good and kind of woke up some people into the whole connection.

Dubstep has moved away from reggae now - in the same way jungle in the 90s did.

The problem with UK youth is they have always run away from reggae. At a time when everyone else around the world was running towards reggae! It's like they don't want to like what their parents like and when it comes too near to that they run away. So it's nothing new. But like I showed my kids - I said this to them and showed them years ago: "Come out with me and open your eyes and see what's going on". And when they come out they see reggae is alive and kicking all around the world. London should embrace it but for some reason, even in the popular days of Bob Marley, London youths were running away from reggae.

The problem with UK youth is they have always run away from reggae

Really?

Because even a lot of people who got signed as reggae artists in England - whether it was the A&R or the management - ended up trying to make R&B when they shouldn't. That was the difference with Bob from day one - he signed to make reggae. He said "Look, this is my reggae. You take it or you leave it". Nearly everyone else - even Dennis Brown after he got signed - tried to make some pseudo soul music. Even some UK people - Caroll Thompson, Janet Kay - once they got signed started making some kind of R&B soul that went nowhere because it wasn't them. That's the problem with the UK - especially UK black youngsters - they're always trying to be American. When most of them - their heritage is reggae! Sooner or later they'll have to come back to it. They might as well embrace it. Or why not embrace some calypso and try to make something new out of that? They're trying to make soul and they don't understand soul music.

You've kept your business going through a lot of musical changes and more than one recession. Now the music industry is going through what some believe to be a crisis. You're an electronics man but it's not an electronics industry any more - it's computers. Do you feel confident?

Yeah. At Ariwa you have to remember we have the spectrum of reggae. In the early days you had your Greensleeves, Fashion, Channel One, Joe Gibbs, Junjo Lawes - and then you have Ariwa. With Ariwa you'd scratch your head and say "What's this?" because we've never fit the stereotype. You'd pick up an Ariwa 12 inch from the early days, play one side and get something heavy and play the other side and get something very smooth that sounds like it's got no relation to the side before! In the early days people said "That can't work. You've got to be a roots label or you've got to be a lovers rock label." We were like: it could be man's thing, it could be a girl's thing, it could be smooth, it could be heavy. So that kind of gave us a little cocoon after a while. It wasn't easy at first to become accepted, as I said earlier. Most people who started a label used to work for Jetstar or Greensleeves so they knew this or that person. I knew nobody when I started. I was jumping like a damn fool into something where I had no cousins from Jamaica who were producing or could fight off the badmen! I had to fight off the badmen myself. (laughs) So we really and truly had to carve our way through not just the reggae business but the music business.

With Ariwa you'd scratch your head and say "What's this?" because we've never fit the stereotype

What's your secret?

What that did was give me a kind of insight into running a business in an independent way. Sure a different way from your bank manager or accountant might advise you! The fact that it has been going for 30 odd years means something is working. It's not been easy but something worked. In hindsight I wish I'd done the same thing in France or Germany and then we probably would be stronger economically. But we're ok here - not flush with money but there's a balance going on. Vinyl doesn't sell for what it used to. You hardly sell any CDs. The studio isn't rammed with people wanting to hire it like it used to be. But you have to find a way of surviving because it is not easy for me to go and retrain to do anything else. I've only got music - our brand of music. But the good thing with all this though is we have a great fanbase, even here in England. We have loads of people who really like our stuff and really support us. In Australia, the States, Latin America has really come out strong with us in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia - we've got fans around the world. So the secret is to pace yourself according to the rest of the world. If you go faster than the world then you'll be frustrated. If you go slower than the world you'll be left behind. So you need to find out the pace everyone else is going at - and go with the frequency. 

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