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.