Neil Fraser aka The Mad Professor has taken on many roles in his four decade career. He has been a producer, engineer, artist, remixer, label owner, tour manager, festival promoter, musicologist, entrepreneur – in fact, he’s done pretty much everything bar spending time in a laboratory or being committed to an institution for the psychologically infirm.
He built his first crystal radio aged nine in Guyana before relocating to London in 1970 where he assembled a twelve channel mixing console from scratch in his teens. He then soldered his interest in electronics to his love of the capital’s reggae music when he started up his first home studio in 1979: voicing and mixing pop, rock and reggae acts six days a week and devoting Sunday to producing his own creations for his Ariwa label. As both imprint and space took off, he began to record visiting Jamaican artists such as Johnny Clarke, Mikey Dread and most notably Lee Scratch Perry – with whom he maintained a close musical and business relationship until the end of the 20th century.
Ariwa has lasted longer still, outputting thousands of releases (never mind the billions of unreleased tapes stashed at the fourth incarnation of his Ariwa studio near Croydon). His sonic journeys have spanned roots and dub, lovers rock, and in recent years, forays into the links between reggae and the South American music of his past and the South London dubstep. As the recording industry has become less profitable he has travelled further and further physically with his live mixing extravaganza the Mad Professor’s Dub Show: bringing his distinctive take on reggae to every corner of the globe. In 2012 and 2013 he fulfilled a lifelong dream to hold his Back To Africa Festival in Gambia.
Although he is usually associated with heavy digital dub – this is misleading. Fraser prefers vintage electronic equipment to computers and is a great lover of the sweet sounds of soul music – having based Ariwa on Berry Gordy’s Motown.
Angus Taylor spoke to reggae’s tenured Professor at Sardinia Reggae Festival about his revamped studio and his plans for 2014 – including his long awaited album with Luciano, Deliverance, due for release in late February. However, things did not go to plan when the Professor turned the tables and began questioning us!
PROFESSOR: I’m going to start by interviewing you (laughs) – you must have a good insight into the true international clout of reggae right?
I think you have a better idea than most people in England.
Because one thing I have a problem coming to terms with when I talk to the people in England – especially young black Londoners – is their ignorance on the international clout of reggae. They really think it’s finished – because they are misled by the UK media which is leading them up a totally different road than the real one. For years I have been going to festivals – even in England – and the main diet has been reggae. Nothing to do with what’s on the radio – but from ’89-90 you’d go to festivals and hear Chase the Devil, 54-46, and obscure reggae tracks that never even made the national charts. It’s been a generation of that – so it’s not surprising that so many bands are playing reggae.
I saw Morgan Heritage play in London this summer when Beres didn’t make it.
I heard about that.
I had already seen the same tour in Germany. The London crowd did not know the new album – they only danced to the old stuff. The German audience seemed to know both the old and the new stuff.
London is also a market that has got people who are fiercely defensive about what they like – fiercely pigeon holed. You have the roots crowd and you have the dub crowd. Now the dub crowd – if it’s not a certain way they ain’t taking it. You could call it dub but it doesn’t matter – if it’s not their dub – like a tune like say Johnny Clarke the one that goes “all over the world”…
Yeah if it’s not a Blood Dunza or a song that Shaka would play then forget it. Then you have the lovers rock crowd – if it’s not a smooth type of lovers rock like say Aswad Roots Rocking then don’t come giving them nothing else. And of course they’ve got the various stereotypes – and I guess rightly so because London was like the biggest reggae market for years. Even bigger than Jamaica. Not only the biggest reggae market – London is a place where most artists don’t feel they’ve made it until they can play and conquer a London audience.
There’s the cliché that for London youth reggae is the music of their parents whereas in say Italy listening to reggae can still be a radical parent alienating move?
Well that’s probably right but slightly wrong as well because in Germany a lot of the audiences parents were into reggae – although probably a different kind of reggae. Outside of England Germany was the next biggest world market for reggae. I remember touring there in ’88 when the only other people other than us touring where like Steel Pulse,Aswad, Dennis Brown, Marleys, Tosh. But the audiences were hungry for reggae! Unlike the current Germans they didn’t make dreadlocks on their heads or anything – they didn’t absorb that. But they were taking in the music and they really loved the music. In fact they had a different attitude in the sense that if you were playing reggae and you didn’t have dreadlocks they didn’t quite believe you. There were purists like that. And if you weren’t black then “no you can’t be playing reggae” whereas the younger ones now they accept that a reggae player could be without dreadlocks and might be white or Indian.