One of the greatest and most well-known dub producers, Mad Professor (known in normal life as Neil Fraser), talks about the 40th anniversary of his label Ariwa Sounds and plans for celebrating it, his love for Africa and the annual festival that he hosts in Gambia, his favorite places to perform, as well as much more
Mad Professor is known as one of the key figures in the second generation of dub musicians. His label Ariwa Sounds is a true and established trademark in the dub and reggae world. This year, Ariwa Sounds is celebrating its 40 year anniversary which is quite an age for an independent record label. The label’s catalogue consists of around 350 releases with many big and cult names in the dub and reggae world like Lee Scratch Perry, Sly and Robbie, Pato Banton, Jah Shaka, Horace Andy, as well as much more.
A lot of big-name artists from other musical genres like Grace Jones, Massive Attack, ORB, Perry Farrell asked Mad Professor for remixes in order to get his specific and unforgettable dub touch on their music.
Mad Professor was kind enough to talk with All Andorra about his latest releases, his music festival “Back to Africa” that he hosts annually in Gambia, his current semi-retired and easy lifestyle and other interesting stuff.
Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov
Hello Neil! It would be interesting to know what you have been up to recently – are there some interesting releases on Ariwa Sounds, maybe some collaborations that have to be noticed, or plans to go on tour?
Ariwa Sounds has already been going for 40 years and we are celebrating the anniversary this year. Due to the anniversary, I’m mostly busy now with reviewing the label’s catalogue – we have around 350 releases, which is quite a lot for an independent label. It is good to go back and to refresh our memories about the great music that was out on Ariwa Sounds. I am now preparing a lot of re-issues of the old releases in their original sound and we are also going to publish some old music that was recorded in Ariwa’s studio but was never released before.
Ariwa Sound in the early days was known mostly as a vinyl label. In what format are you going to release these re-issued old tracks? Will there be a vinyl version or only digital?
Most of the re-issued tracks are going to be released in a multiform kind of way – digitally, on vinyl and on CD. The market is very split in nowadays – there is more interest in the vinyl sound again but some people prefer a digital format or CDs. And we have to think about all the people that are interested in our releases and give them what they want.
As you maybe know, there is another big and influential dub label that is about to celebrate their 40th anniversary just like Ariwa Sounds – Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound. Do you know Adrian and did you have an opportunity to work with him maybe on some projects?
Of course I know him as we live in the same city and are involved in the same scene. We have done some jobs together. I think I made a couple of remixes for On-U sound. His label is really good. But if we compare it to Ariwa we can say that his label is more “white” and Ariwa is more “black”. In the sense that my label represents the African spirit more.
Besides managing the label, you also host the annual “Back to Afrika” festival in Gambia. Can you please tell us about it and are you going to do it this year?
Yes, this is my label’s festival. Many artists that are signed on Ariwa Sounds come to perform there. There is a big interest in the festival and a lot of people from all over attend it. I have been organizing it since 2012, but for the last two years there was a break as there were some political troubles and instability. Now the things in the country are better and this winter I am going to do the festival in Gambia again.
I am going to do the festival in Gambia again
We think your festival could be a good thing for Africa’s image as some people still hold the stereotypes that traveling to this continent can be a bit dangerous and seeing a friendly music festival with an international crowd is obviously breaking this kind of stereotype.
Well, you know, people have a lot of fears and stereotypes. Some people are afraid and think it’s dangerous to go to London, Moscow or Barcelona. I don’t really care about it, I take it easy. I like Gambia, it’s a safe and friendly place, a small country with access to the Atlantic Ocean with an amazing amount of different fruits – I think you can find all the fruits that you can imagine there and also a lot of fish as well. I have a house in Gambia and go there regularly just for a holiday.
How did it happen that you have a house in Gambia? Is it connected somehow with your family roots?
I come from Guyana and in the black people’s community there was always a lot of talks about moving back to Africa in a spiritual, physical and cultural way. So, I just fulfilled this mission and bought a house in Gambia where I spend a lot of time now.
This idea of moving back to Africa is the backbone of the Rasta movement. As we know, the Rasta culture is the main base of dub and reggae – the music style in which you were involved almost all of your life. What came first for you, this spiritual and ideological aspect of Rasta culture, or its music?
The spiritual aspect and Rasta ideas were very important for me from my early childhood years. They came first and then the music followed.
How did it happen that you moved from Guyana to England?
I moved with my parents. They immigrated to England when I was 15. My father was a dispenser and my mum was a nurse.
As I understand, you got involved in the music business when you started to live in England, how did it happen?
I was working as a technician, repairing different electronic equipment from radios to freezers. I have a kind of curious, engineering mind. If I see some gadgets, I need to know what is inside and how they work. I became interested in sound engineering and was exploring how the mixing desks work. Then when I understood how, I started to construct my own mixing desks.
How was your interest in music formed? Was its’ base mostly dub and reggae music?
I started to be curious about music in the 60s and there was not much reggae and dub music around at that time. I was listening to a lot of soul and Caribbean calypso music. There was no jungle, drum’n’bass and even dub then. Modern music as we know it was just about to come onto the scene.
Did you get your funny nickname Mad Professor when you started to work in the music industry?
I got it from my childhood years. When I was a kid and my mates went to play football or do some other boyish stuff and called me and asked to join them, I was never interested in such kinds of things. Sitting at home, constructing and brazing amplifiers was always much more interesting for me. So, my friends gave me this nickname. As you see, it was a natural development.
You are now known as one of the dub sound producers who really developed the music style. What approach do you use in your studio production nowadays? Analogues like in the old days or are you exploring modern software and digital technologies too?
I still use only analogue equipment in my work. But my children who work with me are using digital things and different software.
I still use only analogue equipment in my work
But it was a long time before I settled into a proper studio. I remember how, at the beginning of the 80s, when I was just taking my first steps in music production and had a small studio in my front room, Mikey Dread came to me, somehow he knew about me as a young and promising sound producer who could arrange a proper sound for his recordings. I was expecting him to be at my place at 6 o’clock, and he came very late, Caribbean style late – around midnight, and with a big entourage, he brought 6 friends with him. Mikey brought 10 tapes, I started to play them and besides the music, there was a terrible annoying noise on each tape. Mickey asked me to use DNL, it is a noise reduction gadget and I didn’t know about it at that time. Mikey got really angry and said that I was wasting his time and he had travelled such a long way from north to south London just for nothing. In the end, he said: “Let me give you one piece of advice. Get yourself a studio.”
The next time I met Mickey was almost 10 years later, at the end of the 80s when Ariwa Sounds had a serious studio and a label with a lot of hits. He was curious about my production and came to my new studio, which was very well-equipped and professional and I was happy to say to Mikey: “You see, I followed your advice, now I have a proper studio”.
It must be great working on music with your children – that must bring a great level of understanding and common feelings to your family?
Yes, two of my sons, Joe and Karmel, work in the studio with me as sound engineers and they also release some of their music on Ariwa Sounds too. And they tour sometimes with me as well..And I should mention that their mother and my wife was with me right from the beginning, from my first steps in the music business. She supported me from the first moment and saw how all my ideas were taking shape. So my family was always behind me and took part in my work.
When you are performing live, your instruments are effects and a mixing desk. How can you describe your show – is it like an extended DJ set or more like a demonstration of your skills as a studio producer?
I do exactly the same thing on stage using the same equipment and gadgets, as the things that I do in the studio when I do remixes, dub versions or recording other artists’ music. So, yes, we could say that on my shows you can see the craft of creating dub music and see all the tricks and skills I use in my work in the studio.
I do exactly the same things on stage as in the studio
You are also touring occasionally and making some music together with the greatest dub maestro of all time – Lee Scratch Perry. Do you have any plans to do something with Lee in the near future?
I love working with Lee. It is always a surprise, a great experience and an adventure. I’ve known him for a long time. I think we met first and started to work together in 1982 when he had just moved from Jamaica to London.
At the end of the year, we are planning to release Lee’s album on Ariwa Sounds, it will be called “Lost Tapes” and it will be in line with the re-issuing of the old releases for the label’s anniversary. There will be some old tracks that we recorded at the beginning of the 80s and never released as they were lost for a long time but we just found them again.
Working with Lee is always a surprise, great experience and an adventure
Besides re-releasing your label’s catalogue, are you still making some new music at the moment?
I am a little bit, but not so much. I take it easy and feel that I’m kind of semi-retired now.
What is your current semi-retired lifestyle like at the moment? How would you describe your typical day?
I live on the edge of London and my studio is not far away. I actually started the studio a long ago in my house, but then it grew bigger and bigger and I had to move it to a separate place, but it’s just 500 meters from the place I live now. Ariwa is one of the biggest studios in London now too.
I wake up in the morning, sometimes I go to the gym and then I go to the studio and check some orders that we have from distributors for the records, do some paperwork, maybe work on some music. Generally, I’m trying to have a chill, semi-retired life with no stress and to take everything easy.
As I understood you are not touring so much now, but in the past, you went to a lot of countries with your shows. Do you have some favorite countries where you like to perform most of all?
I really love Brazil, Rio is a fantastic city. Argentina is good too and all of South America really. Some Scandinavian countries are great too.
Have you ever been to Andorra as a performing artist or as a tourist?
I have never been to Andorra, but I’m sure that I would like it. I like the Mediterranean countries that are close to Andorra. It seems like a place that has to be explored.
Hopefully there will be a chance to enjoy your happy music in the Andorran mountains someday. And thank you for this interesting interview.