It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Professor
Although England's Mad Professor claims to be sane, his many albums offer an argument to the contrary. The leading practitioner of dub music, an instrumental outgrowth of reggae that's known for its studio effects, he makes music that's thoroughly, wonderfully berserk.
Mixing is in the Professor's blood: This native of Guyana (born Neil Frazer) is the son of a traveling druggist and chemist. But gadgets, not pharmaceuticals, were his first love. "When I was eight years old I built my first radio," he recalls. "That's when people started calling me the Mad Professor. People thought it was strange having a young boy getting into radios and electronics instead of going out to play football. They thought I was a madman."
Neil's parents must have had some questions about their unusually precocious son, too. After building his first radio, for example, the young Professor constructed a frequency jammer that blocked radio signals to his entire block. "It was quite crazy, yes," he remembers with a laugh.
Before he could be recruited by, say, the U. S. Department of Defense, however, the Professor discovered reggae. "I was just into reggae strong--very, very strong. That's when I thought I should become a singer. But when I recorded my voice and heard it back, I thought, 'No, I'd better leave the singing alone.'"
Instead, Mad Professor became a dedicated fan, devoting himself to learning about the early reggae and rock-steady sounds of artists such as Prince Buster, U-Roy, Ken Booth and Lee Perry. Then, one day in 1972, he discovered dub music. For the Professor, it was an epiphany. "There were some B-sides that King Tubby was mixing," he explains. "It didn't have much echo, just reverb, but the electronics in the song were stepping out more than normal, and they were much more acute, more sharp--and it just had a terrific effect on me. It had no words, no nothing, but it was saying a lot. And I thought, 'Oh, I must learn more about this music.'"
In retrospect, it's only natural that the Professor was drawn to dub, a style that combines reggae and studio wizardry. Tubby, a studio engineer for U-Roy, was the innovator of the genre. During the late Sixties and early Seventies, the B-sides of 45 rpm singles released in Jamaica were used only to test sound levels. But rather than wasting this space, the King filled it with versions of the A-side cut that he distorted by alternately phasing the bass and vocal in and out and by adding echo and delay. His experiments proved wildly popular with the proprietors of Jamaican sound systems. Before long, a new type of music had come to life.
In 1979 Mad Professor began adding to dub's legacy. "I started my own little studio in my house in London," he reveals. "I built my console, the board, and I built a lot of effects. Phaser, reverb, echo--I built them all myself, because I had no money to buy them. Besides, growing up with electronics, you really get a sense of what they can do."
The first product from this studio was Dub Me Crazy, his debut long-player, as well as the first of what wound up being a twelve-record set of Mad Professor dub. Its success established Great Britain as the first dub hotbed outside of Jamaica. "That was a real fun album for me," the Professor notes. "The tape machine that I was using was a 16-track: two-inch Ampex, a real heavy machine with lots of bass."
The disc also established the Professor's sonic trademark: More Is Better. Unlike King Tubby, who was forced by circumstances into becoming a dub minimalist (he seldom had more than four tracks to work with), Mad Professor utilized practically every open space, heavily foregrounding the bass and drums and using his homemade gizmos to fragment voices, dissolve strands of sound and incorporate noises and instrumentation that had never been heard in reggae.
Jah Shaka Meets Mad Professor, the Professor's seminal 1983 collaboration with fellow British dub pioneer Jah Shaka, a militant, Afrocentric multi-instrumentalist, further solidified his reputation as an innovative producer. "Soon after that, people began asking me to do things," he says. "I thought, 'Okay, let me give it a try,' and we tried with different artists like Tony Benjamin and Sergeant Pepper. We just put together loads of different things, and some of them made the grade of being issued, and some of those were quite successful. And then it grew, and it led me to other artists who asked me to do other things. Next thing I know, I'm running a record label."
Mad Professor's Ariwa imprint quickly became known as one of England's most prolific labels: To date, its owner has created or produced 131 albums featuring worthy talents such as Pato Banton, Wild Bunch, Macka B, U-Roy, Yellowman and Lee Perry. In addition, pop artists like the Orb, Sade, KLF and even Rancid have flocked to Ariwa to have their albums sliced and diced.
An altered version of Protection, a 1993 CD by Britain's Massive Attack, demonstrates why such a wide variety of acts have turned to the Professor. "I basically did a remix of their album, and the dub album was called No Protection," the Professor explains. "Their version was popular, but I think what my version did is, it came at the right time to show people about this thing called dub." In fact, No Protection outsold the original release--a fact that the Professor chalks up to unexpected compatibility: "They had that trip-hop, college-kid scene, the crossover scene, and I guess I was a guy more from the reggae background that they needed to come bang with. I guess in that sense, we were ideal for each other."
Since that time, dub has been embraced as dance music by devotees of other forward-looking musical approaches, including techno and trance. In the Professor's view, this breakthrough makes perfect sense. "Dub is like the uncharted territory of music. Everything hit hard: commercial reggae, hip-hop, trip-hop. But with dub, it was like some people had no respect for dub for years. They always regarded it as the kind of music you just make to fill in space when you had a gap. But that was really the wrong way to look at it. The evidence was there. Then people got bored with everything else. And because of the interest in techno and jungle--and both techno and jungle were actually drawn from dub--people then got into this dub thing. And the whole thing just grew and grew and grew."
Throughout this evolution, Mad Professor has tried to push into unexplored territory--and he's used technology to help him do it. His studio now boasts 24-track analog machines, DAT players, 16-track analog tape machines and more effects machines than are found at many major Hollywood sound facilities. As a result, his job has become that much more complex. "With all these effects on the market now, a lot of dub is more digital and clinical-sounding," he complains. "It doesn't necessarily feel as good as it used to. So I think that the average dub producer has got to work a lot harder to make it sound as natural as it used to. But it's definitely still possible."
New Decade of Dub, a followup to the 1983 Jah Shaka opus, illustrates his point. The album highlights the drums and bass as usual, but songs like "Morphing Dub" also contain heavy blasts of echo, wildly reverbed drum kits and Doppler sirens swirled into a truly mind-bending brew. Even more impressive is "Natural Roots." Shaka contributes mesmerizing Nyahbinghi drum lines throughout the piece, while the Professor creates dense walls of sonic distortion, programmed break beats and deconstructed synthesizer chord progressions. The resulting sound is so cohesive that you'd think the two had been playing together for years.
Another new effort from the Professor--Black Liberation Dub, the third offering in his "Evolution of Dub" series--is more politically charged, in large part because Louis Farrakhan's booming voice is heard throughout it. "Music ought to communicate with people," the Professor maintains. "I must give some kind of message, because that's the whole idea behind dub music." He adds, "I think Farrakhan is to the Nineties what Martin Luther King was to the Sixties and what Marcus Garvey was to the Twenties and Thirties."
While it's possible to disagree with that assessment, there's no denying that the Professor's use of Farrakhan's words (lifted from his "Million Man March" speech) is extraordinarily powerful. The soundscape across which these phrases float is largely computer-generated, but it never takes on the cold, life-less feel of rote techno. The elephantine bass on tracks like "Cosmic Ray," for instance, is accented by approximations of classical violins and flutes.
The work of a kook? Perhaps--but we should all be so loony.
Mad Professor, with Black Steele and the Robotics, Sol Jazz Massive, DJ Greg Eversol, DJ Tribal Touch, DJ Timbuk, DJ Hardy, DJ Phlip, DJ Mike Rich, DJ Dave F, DJ Tim Dawg and John Chamie. 9 p.m. Thursday, October 31, the Key Club, 2040 Larimer, $15, 296-0969. Mad Professor, with Black Steele and the Robotics, and Roots Revolt. 9 p.m. Sunday, November 3, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8.40-$10.50, 443-3399 or 830-
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