Mad Professor on dub and the origins of dubstep: "The chicken came before the egg"
One of the pioneers of dub and electronic dance music, Mad Professor, was born Neil Joseph Stephen Fraser in Guyana. In the late '60s, at the age of thirteen, he moved to London, where his father was living. Fraser, who was an electronics whiz kid and had built his own studio by the mid-'70s, became involved in the production of lovers rock and dub. Although he had built up a respectable reputation for himself with some of the giants of dub, he earned international acclaim in the early '90s with his masterful remix of Massive Attack's entire 1993 album and trip-hop classic Protection.
Since his work with Massive Attack, Mad Professor has been a very much sought-after producer and performer, with his remixes stretching songs out into fascinating shapes and spaces. We recently spoke with the affable dub legend about his own introduction to dub, how he got into performing live, and his love of older sounds, from synths to tape.
Westword: You have said that you don't consider yourself a musician, possibly because your work has more often been on the production and engineering end of making music. What drew you to doing production on lovers-rock recordings early on in your career?
Mad Professor: I was attracted to lovers rock mainly because of its affinity with soul music and melodious melodies. The thing with lovers rock is that it brings that part of your soul to the forefront. Lovers rock is really re-recordings of '60s and '70s soul songs -- some of which were very obscure. But within the reggae community, we turned it inside out and mixed in some old Caribbean melodies and came up with that style. It was great.
How did you get introduced to it?
We grew up with it, actually. It was really started because it was a U.K. version of reggae. You had this next generation of West Indian kids who didn't know Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados, but they knew reggae because their parents were making it or playing it and they wanted to make their form of reggae. Because they grew up with pop -- Beatles, Yardbirds and stuff like that -- and a lot of soul, Motown, somehow they made a music that was a little bit softer than the harder Jamaican stuff. Of course we didn't have all the stuff you get in Jamaica.
The first label to do this was a label run by a guy called Dennis Harris called Lover's Rock. It was the kind of music for men and women to dance together like they do in the Caribbean, hold each other. That's how the whole style started. One of the first artists to do lovers rock was an English white girl called T.T. Ross; a lot of people don't know that. A lot of that stuff was produced by two guys, Dennis Bovell and John Kpiaye. I was a few years younger than them, and I grew up just getting involved with that, so it was a natural part of my musical diet as well.
You were getting involved in dub production around the same time, and these days your name is one that is all but synonymous with that art form. What got you into that style of production?
The first time I heard dub was a B-side record, and I just freaked out. "Hey, this is amazing! I can think, I can dream, I can do anything!" It's like a template to do what you want to do; you take it where you want to take it. Because I was into electronics, I later built my own studio, and I thought I would love to make my own type of dubs, which I proceeded to do. So I built my first four-track studio and started to make dubs.
What was that first dub record you heard?
Because we had versions, like instrumental things, but the first dub one without echo on the drum and bass was actually a dub of a Ken Boothe version of an Al Green song called "Look What You Done for Me." I heard the drum and bass with that, and it freaked me out. I thought, "Shit, man, I've got to get into this stuff." That one didn't have echo, but the other dubs that came after that soon added echoes and bigger reverbs. Then I heard Tubby was the guy, you know?
You moved to London from Guyana in the late '60s. And you'd been building radios and other electronic projects since you were eight or nine before moving. What was your route from making electronic devices to getting into working with music and recording?
Well, at first it was a natural progression because you had to build certain things. There weren't shops like Guitar Center, where you could go and get something easily. If you wanted certain things like your own reverb, you had to build it, or you needed a lot of money to pay someone to build it for you. After I built a studio, the next move was to record some artists. You get an idea how artists work, meaning you squeeze and get the most out of them and squeeze and get less out of them. Not too dissimilar to electronic circuits.
You've worked with the Orb's Alex Paterson, and he's not a traditional musician. How do you find working with artists in a collaborative way that are very involved on the production side, as you are?
A lot of times it doesn't matter, because most of the time you don't need the artist, especially in the modern environment. You work with someone and you need the tape or you need the file these days -- whereas years ago, you were introduced to the artist. But these days, you aren't. It doesn't matter, which is probably a good thing, because you're [working with a piece of music instead of] a personality.
In 2012 you put out an album called The Roots of Dubstep. What was your aim in giving the album that title? It's certainly suggestive.
It definitely suggests something -- because, you know, dubstep ended up with a whole new audience, younger people who knew dubstep. Sometimes they know dubstep, and suddenly they know dub, and they keep thinking dub came from dubstep. So the whole idea behind The Roots of Dubstep was to let them know, "Hey look, the chicken came before the egg. The egg didn't come before the chicken." That was really the idea, just to set the record straight.
You put out an album with the great Cedric Congo [Myton]. Clearly you're both renowned reggae artists. What do you feel he brought to the project and complemented what you do and vice versa?
Cedric, you know, is a very important part of history, a history that isn't often voiced. I love talking to the old guys because I'm always learning something from them. Cedric has a world of knowledge in his mind. I learned quite a lot working with him. Very nice guy. A gentleman. He's in his mid- to late sixties.
What do you feel you learned from him this time?
Well, you always learn from everyone, no matter what. With an artist with some history, you pick up a lot.
It's little things here and there, and it's probably hard to pinpoint exactly what that is.
Yes, exactly. That's for sure.
You've been performing live for some time. Coming from the production side of music, how easily does what you do there translate to a live performance? It seems like it's probably a totally different animal.
Well, it's not easy. I had to first do dub mixes live by being in the studio. I'd be in the studio and mixing a record, and I'd mix a band straight, and then do a remix with a dub, and the band would be like, "Hey, hey, we love that!" So I recognized from the early days in the studio that there was some kind of entertaining process, in terms of doing the mix.
So I had a call in the early '90s from a promoter who wanted me to come and do a gig; he wanted me to come and play some records. I told him, "I'm no DJ." He said, "Anyone can deejay. Come down." I said, "No, but I'll tell you what: If you give me a mixing desk, I will bring a machine down, and I will mix live in front of an audience."
So we did that. It went well, and he said, "Can you come back and do the next one?" It turned out even better, and more people came, and they offered me more money, and the next thing you know, I'm doing a show called the Mad Professor Dub Show, and that's when it took off.
When I came to America, I said I wanted to tour this, and a lot of engineers said, "No, it can't be done. You can't be on stage." I had big problems in the States back then. But now it's all right.
Is what you do now more of a live DJ set?
No, I do basically do what I was doing then, which was multi-track on stage, a true mixing desk live and fuck about with the tracks.
You are known for your synth work on your production. What kinds of synths do you enjoy working with these days?
I'm an old-fashioned guy. I love the DX7s. I think the DX7 and the Prophet 5 are two of the most creative synthesizer inventions over the years. DX7 Mark I? Beautiful. The way they process sound, the quality is absolutely brilliant.
When you're collaborating with other people, how do you see your role in that project?
The thing about it first, when you do a collaboration, you have to find out what your collaborator has in mind. It's easy to do too much and it's easy to do too little. Someone like me can take it in a totally different direction than they expect. So I need to first find out what they've got in their head and marry it with what I can do.
Obviously since you got started, technology has changed quite a bit. With those developments, what do you find useful and what do you find yourself going back to that works for you?
I still make records like I used to 25 years ago, which is on tape, with real musicians and people playing real time. What I love about the new technology is that you can send files quickly. I could be talking to a guy in England from here and send him a song just like that, seconds later. I like the speed and the mobility, but I don't like the sound generated by computers; I can't get into that. I'm allergic to that computer sound, that ProTools sound -- I can't take it.
So you like the speed and convenience of the file format but not the sound of something recorded completely digitally?
Right. I don't like it. It's just harsh. When things are recorded on computers, it's just harsh. Some people can't hear it, but to me, it turns my stomach. I can't use it.
So you don't mind if someone records to tape and then sends you a file of that, once it's been digitized?
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