They don't call Neil Fraser the Mad Professor for nothing. During our interview a few days ago, he was simultaneously on Skype with us, clicking back and forth between two callers on the phone, and talking to people who were coming and going in and out of his room. Inevitably, wrong buttons were pressed, connections were lost, and more than once we had to ask, "Are you directing that to us?" Through it all, his radiant persona and infectious laugh kept all the figurative plates spinning harmoniously. When he finally turns directly to you, he calls you by your name and makes you feel like you are his sole focus. It is a telling glimpse at the proverbial method to the madness behind one of music's enduring pioneers.
Over the last thirty years, Fraser has dedicated himself to not only recording music, but also to creating gear from scratch. He has applied his ingenuity to his own work through Ariwa Sounds, a label he jumpstarted in his living room, and through collaborations with everyone from Lee Scratch Perry, the Orb, and Sly & Robbie, to Massive Attack, famously remixing their album Protection into an entirely dub experience titled No Protection. Magnetic checked in with Mad Professor to talk about the new compilation A Ruff Guide to Ariwa Sounds, his recent Roots of Dubstep tour, and what’s next for both Mad Professor and the dub diaspora he has helped spawn.
It sounds like you travel with a little posse. Who else goes on the road with you?
These days, it tends to be one of my sons. I've got two sons in the record business. One of them usually comes out with me. They take care of some things because it gets to be too much.
Do they record individually, or mostly help you with your music?
They try to record, but it's not that easy to develop a career or a name.
How early did they get into music?
There's a picture on my Facebook with them, at one year old and nine months old, sitting on my lap, stretched across the mixing desk. The seeds were planted early on. They would come in from school, and when I needed someone to drop in on a track or something like that, they would learn about using the console, playing percussion, stuff like that.
So they've been on MP tracks?
Oh yeah, man.
Great way to connect with your kids.
In all honesty, I would say, it's better if they find their own career. The record business is not quite what it used to be. You're encouraging them to pursue something that might not work.
It's worked out for you. What's your secret?
I don't think it's a secret. If you work, say three times as hard as the average man, then even with bad luck and everything, you should still be at least ten percent ahead of the game. I believe in hard work. If most people work 9-5, I'd be working ten hours, every day, I'm putting in eight hours more.
You taught yourself electronics. How'd you get started?
When I was a boy, the only electrical thing in our house was a light bulb and a radio. I said to my mom, "How does the light bulb work? What's that man doing in the radio?" She said, "There's no man in the radio. Don't be stupid, there's no man in the radio." I said, "Yes there is, I hear him talking and singing." One day when she went to work, I took a screwdriver and went to the back of the radio, to find the man in the radio. When she came back, the radio was open up. She said, "I told you there's no man in the radio!" Since then, I've been finding out how these transistors work and that's what led to electronics.
You were young when you moved to London. What made you guys move?
I was fourteen years old when my father and mum divorced, and I was part of the tug of war, tug of love, part of the bargain.
Let's talk about this compilation [A Ruff Guide to Ariwa Sounds]. A couple tracks that stand out are "I Am What I Am" and "Invasion". "I Am What I Am" is such a female positive message, and dub/reggae often get a bad rap for how they treat women. And "Invasion" really speaks to a lot of our military activity in the world these days. Both of these tracks still resonate after all these years. How do you look back at these tracks and how they echo in present times?
A lot of times you make music that applies to someone in say, Russia, but it works for someone in Paraguay. Or you make something in 1962, but it applies in 1992. We as people, we basically the same. It doesn't matter who we are or where we are. "Invasion" is a track that was done with slavery in mind, but it's relevant to the situation in Iraq or Iran. It's applicable to black people, Indian people.
How about "I Am What I Am", and the way hip hop and reggae are taken to task over how they treat women?
It could be about women, but it could also be about gay people: I am what I am. If I'm gay, I'm gay – fuck it. That's the beauty of songwriting. This is where I think Bob Marley was onto something. Bob would write a song, "I Shot the Sheriff" - the sheriff could be anybody. "I am what I am" could be anything. Whatever you are, you should be proud of that. Piss off if you don't like it.
Reggae has a history of being very socially minded. It doesn't seem that dubstep which is tied to dub, is socially minded at all, it seems to be party minded. What do you think about the connection between dub and dubstep? Could dubstep use an attitude adjustment?
If you know where kids who make dubstep are coming from, you won't expect them to be too social. Most kids have no social calling. You can't get blood from a stone.
What was the connection for you since you are calling this The Roots of Dubstep tour?
They were listening to their parents' records at home, dub records. They were using the current technology to make what they think is dub. Obviously, technology always influences the sound of the music you make. Because of the technology, they looked at this as something different, and they called it dubstep. Then it went viral, and people thought dubstep came before dub. So I had to let people know, "Look - this is the roots, dub came first."
The dub diaspora is pretty wide, it's touched Drum & Bass, ska, trip hop. Are you surprised where it catches on? What cities give you the most love?
London, Paris, most capital cities, they know what's going on, they're crazy about dub - Amsterdam, Sao Paolo, people go wild. Especially English speaking places, but not necessarily because people who don't speak English know what's going on. Peru, Colombia, everywhere.
What's it like when you go back home to Guyana?
It's one of the few places I have never played yet!
Really?! Have you ever gone back to your homeland?
Yeah, every now and then I go back, but as a regular guy. I don't even take records, usually it's for some family connection. But I intend to. I'm making next year the year to establish dub in Guyana firmly.
Talk about roots.
That's where I first heard it.
What was the first time you heard it?
It was freaky. There was a clever DJ on the radio in Guyana who used dub as a background to talk to people. Not many DJs did that - use it as a background.
Speaking of DJs, the BBC's John Peel helped you out early on, didn't he?
Peel, nice guy, ahead of his time, definitely sad loss that he's not around. When I put out my first album, and he contacted me and said he liked it. I was quite surprised, because I didn't think anybody would like it. He started playing it, then invited me to the BBC for a session. Before he played the album, it sold about 500; another 500 sat there for six months. After he started playing it, the other 500 went, very quickly.
How about Lee Perry. Alex from the Orb said you just gotta let Lee Perry do his thing and try to make sense of it later.
I've worked with Perry for years. I know him as a together guy, he's a workaholic. He would work from nine in the morning until three in the next morning, nonstop. He used to be a studio fanatic, hard work. I've known him as a spontaneous performer as well, many, many sides.
Out of all your many projects, are there any you wish would have gotten more attention?
Not really. There's another Massive Attack dub album [Mezzanine] which they informed me is going to come out pretty soon. I think it should have been out ten years ago, they're going to come with it now, it's good stuff.
Your artwork is pretty unique. Are you into comics?
Not really, a lot of the titles, the only way we could reproduce those titles is by getting a creative artist. Stuff like Escape to the Asylum of Dub - there's no way to stage it, you have to draw it. There's this guy in Slovenia, Ohoroho, he puts it together, very nice artist.
You've said you're not a DJ. What is your live set up?
I've brought a mixing desk, an echo, a reverb, a filter, a phaser, lots of little things which I hook up into a miniature Ariwa studio. I play multi-tracks, no CDs, no records. I mix live in front of people, it’s the only way I do it.
A Ruff Guide To Ariwa Sounds – Track Listing
01. Kunte Kinte - Mad Professor
02. I'm A Rastaman – U-Roy & Yabby U
03. I Am What I Am – Redhed QI
04. Works To Do - Queen Omega
05. Lightning & Thunder - Cedric Congo
06. Open Door - Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
07. Don't Drink & Drive - Big Youth
08. English Girl - Audrey
09. Creator - Aisha
10. Deliverance - Luciano
11. Medusa Tail – Mad Professor
12. Invasion - Macka B
13. Juks - Max Romeo
14. Body Function - General Levy
15. My Opinion - Pato Banton
16. Dubbing In The Dark - Joe Ariwa
17. Good Vibrations - Shaloma
18. Bengali Skank - Mad Professor