Neil Fraser is comfortable talking about revolution — not just from a political standpoint, but also as one of the few independent producers and label owners to be working at the forefront of what remains reggae music's most freewheeling sonic offshoot. “That's the essence of dub, you know,” Fraser says from his hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica, where he is scoping out new talent for his UK-based Ariwa Sounds Ltd., founded in 1979 and still going strong. “Dub has always been a welcoming music of freedom, and everyone who feels the need to be free will seek it out. You don't need words to come in and throw you off what you're thinking. It gives you the space to think, and it gives you the chance to rewrite the canvas, you know?”
Known by his more familiar alias Mad Professor — which he picked up as a kid when his friends noticed how easily he could take apart and reassemble just about any electrical appliance — Fraser has produced or contributed to nearly 200 albums to date, establishing himself as a legitimate heir to the legacy left by such Jamaican studio greats as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby and Prince Jammy. But even more importantly, Fraser has staked out a claim for an altogether different place in the pantheon — one where, through his influence, dub quickly became as influential a production force as hip-hop and other facets of modern breakbeat culture.
“As a technician, I realized every medium got a different sound,” he explains. “If you try to get a certain sound and use the wrong medium, then that's your first recipe for failure. A ½-inch 4-track machine sounds totally different from a ½-inch 16-track machine, so you need to be totally understanding of what that is. Pro Tools has a sound to it, but you've gotta boost up the equipment just to give it a real feel, because Pro Tools itself is a cold-feeling medium. I've used digital delays and drum machines since '84 [along with synths ranging from Yamaha's DX7 and DX100 to Sequential Circuit's Prophet-5], but my ears are locked into that '70s sound. There's nothing like a great 2-inch tape machine that will kick you in the chest, like you hear on a Joe Gibbs recording or a King Tubby mix.”
Fraser's intimate knowledge of that classic sound has its roots in the reggae broadcasts he heard in his native Georgetown, Guyana. At age 13 he moved to London, and his father encouraged his interest in electronics. Soon he was designing and building his own reverb and delay effects (much like Tubby had taught himself to do years before he became “dubwise” in the early '70s). Fraser decided to open his own studio shortly after he had refurbished an Ampex 16-track MM1000 tape machine and built a mixing desk from scratch using spare parts from various Soundcraft boards. With that, Ariwa (from the Yoruba word for “communication”) was up and running.
Since then, Fraser has worked with an impressive list of artists — among them not only reggae giants such as Mikey Dread, Horace Andy, U-Roy, Scientist, Yabby You, Sly & Robbie and the original Upsetter himself, Lee “Scratch” Perry — but also numerous innovators in other genres, including the Beastie Boys (whose Mad Prof mixes remain unreleased and unbootlegged), The Orb, Jamiroquai, Sade, Bill Laswell, Depeche Mode and Perry Farrell. Last year's outstanding retrospective Method to the Madness (Trojan US, 2005) gives fans a double-dose of his production and remixing skills spanning two decades.
The rest of Fraser's catalog is simply too large to document here, but several key recordings stand out for their contribution to (and expansion of) the numerous hybrid genres of dub — such as trip-hop, jungle, drum 'n' bass, garage and grime — that have cropped up over the years. He recorded several albums with Lee Perry in the mid-'90s, with the aggro-jungle epic Super Ape Inna Jungle (RAS/Ariwa, 1995) testing the limits of even Perry's iconoclastic tendencies. Meanwhile, the Dub Me Crazy series, which started in 1982 and since then has logged some dozen installments, as well as the more recent Black Liberation Dub series, both caught the attention of a raft of UK electronic and dance artists — including Massive Attack, who back in 1994 recruited Fraser for quite possibly his most daring project yet. No Protection (Gyroscope) features blissfully tripped-out remixes of eight tracks from the Bristol trio's breakthrough album Protection (Circa/Virgin) and still holds up as one of the cornerstones of Mad Professor's dub prowess — particularly his knack for bringing out the tubular graininess of a synthesized beat or bass line.
“That was all about Tubby,” Fraser recalls today. “I listened to how Tubby mixed a record and thought, ‘I want to be like him.’ He was way ahead of the rest of Jamaica in terms of how his records sounded. It was just basically a full mono sound — okay, he had done a few things in stereo, but his bass sound, and the way the toms would leap out, everything just radiated. It was just a well-refined and warm sound, and that's why dub became so interesting to listen to for me.”
Visitwww.ariwa.comfor more windows into Mad Professor's labyrinthine sonic laboratory.