Interview: Mad Professor (Part 1)

December 29, 2012

“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!

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