“Every object has a shadow.” This is Mad Professor’s explanation of dub – the oblique polymer helix of a track, the song’s manipulated skein that through reduction lulls you into trances using sounds you didn’t know were there. Mad Professor’s work as part of the second generation of dub has been to expand the remit of dub artists – he has had to span the journey from analogue to digital, and to operate with founding fathers as imposing as King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Jammy to contend with. His use of digital equipment has led to a generally cleaner and yet more eccentric style, branded as sterile by people unwilling to relinquish the warmer clicks, hisses and moos of Perry’s Black Ark output. Mad Professor [Neil Fraser, 56] can do all that too, but is perhaps most famous for his reworking of Massive Attack’s second album – No Protection.
Recently he has been working with modern roots reggae artist Luciano on an album, and is all around the world with his multi-track manipulating live dub shows. His Dub Me Crazy album series was prolific, while arguably his finest album, The African Connection is dense with samples and energy in the mould of King Jammy and Scientist. His latest solo album, 2009’s Audio Illusions of Dub heralds a back to basics approach that is still in force when we speak.
Mad Professor’s name came with a price: his garden shed in Thornton Heath was inadvertently set ablaze during one of his more cavalier experiments in electronics. “I was mixing with the wrong elements” says Fraser cryptically.
Fraser had a hands-on approach to gathering the samples he would use to fill the bare bones of his dub – “When I started in 1979 it was before the sampling generation. Before it was legal to steal – when I wanted a sound there was only one way to get it.
“If I wanted the sound of an aeroplane flying over, I can’t get it from a sample, I’ve got to get a microphone and record when the next plane come. If I want a donkey going hee-haw I record a donkey. Just one way to be done…” explains Fraser is his benign Guyanese lilt. The moos that Lee Perry recorded years before were similarly DIY, if unsuccessful – rum-keened and miked up, he spent hours trying to get near cows in a field but found that they kept wandering away.
For all his placidity, one gets the picture of Mad Professor an outcast-eccentric, the kind of kid who measures up social ineptitude with hours puzzling away in a cubbyhole, mind blissfully absent from the present.
As mentioned, like many dub artists, Fraser is an electronics fiend. Like King Tubby before him he rewires his mixing desks to get them to do what he wants them to. Years before this he would make his own bugging devices, and advertise them in the newspaper with a “No Secret is Safe”. The Home Office apparently got involved, and he decided to retreat to the safer environs of the studio.
“It was fascinating – if you wanted anything and you didn’t have no money, at least if you knew something technical you stood a chance by building it. These days if you want an iPhone and you don’t have money you buy an iPhone you have to wait and buy it second hand. In the old days if you want an iPhone and you didn’t have the money, you build one.
“You get a circuit and build it, so it was exciting. Like that you have access to all electronic items – it was great man! I would build everything. I would build amplifiers, speakers everything.”
I ask Fraser if a great musician should know how to construct his instrument, as well as play it: “Definitely. You need to know what it can do – the extremes it can go to. You need to imagine what you can get from it. When you test the parameters and you’ve been testing them for years you know exactly how far you can push them, to get the best out of them. If you don’t know how to push it then you won’t really get as deep down.”
Asked about when Jamaican reggae artists in exile would congregate together in London, he misses the old times. “People are more into survival now you knu? People don’t really get together as one family. Shame it’s not. It used to be more like that back in the day. You just see everyone – sometimes you do a session in the studio and you’d get three or four people at the same time – Johnny Clarke, Earl Sixteen, Ranking Joe, Dennis Brown – that would be in my studio in Whitehorse Lane, south London.”
On the excellent documentary Dub Echoes, legendary King Tubby collaborator Bunny “Striker” Lee pinpoints the exact moment dub was created. Ruddy Redwood, a sound system operator went into Duke Reid’s studio to cut a dubplate. Lee recalls: “The engineer forget to put in the voice. That was when we stop it and Ruddy said: ‘No, mek it run.’
“Tubby and myself was there that evening [during the recording] and when that tune finish him put on the vocal fully. So when him go Spanish Town [for the dance] and him play it…it was a big hit with the crowd. So I come back de Monday morning and I say – ‘Bwoy Tubby over the weekend a lickle mistake we mek in Duke’s studio tear up the place pon Ruddy’s sound!’”
“Getting deep down”, as MadPro says, requires an extended dub. It is the process of many minutes, the physical effect of repetitive low-frequency sound, the subtraction and reintroduction of high-frequencies, that creates an ensorcelling effect that can be compared perhaps to minimal – say Ricardo Villalobos’s Fizheuer Zieheuer.
For Mad Professor: “Dub is a spiritual thing. I don’t know if rock music is. Dub music will take you on a wave and take you straight back to Africa – straight back – beyond the plantation straight back to where your forebears were running around in the sun you knu?”
Words by Miguel Cullen
Mad Professor is supporting Leffield in Tripod in Dublin on December 12. Buy tickets to the gig HERE