Return of the Mad ProfessorA legendary figure in reggae, the man who calls himself the Mad Professor has produced more then 150 albums, launched a formidable label called Ariwa and collaborated with the likes of Jamiroquai, the Beastie Boys, Massive Attack, Rancid, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Sade. He helped develop the reggae scene for close to 25 years; critics once said he showed no signs of slowing down. But he did.
Born Neil Fraser in the South American country of Guyana, the Mad Professor has gone from producing 10 to 12 albums a year at his peak to, lately, producing maybe one album a year.
He burned out, he acknowledges in an interview at an Itaewon coffee shop. He is in Korea for a performance tonight at Itaewon’s J Bar, and for a producer’s workshop he hosted on Thursday night.
Wearing a black Ariwa T-shirt and a digital camera slung around his neck, his black-rimmed sunglasses nearby, Mr. Fraser speaks in a deep, lilting voice. He often stops midsentence to softly sing. His voice, and a mind constantly chewing on millions of sound bits, seem the most active part of him.
“Now, I think I’m back,” he says. After a four-year hiatus, he’s got a batch of eight albums coming out this year, mostly centered around dub, reggae or dancehall.
“I’m hungry for the studio like a hungry man,” he says.
Mr. Fraser grew up in Guyana, where he developed an interest in electronics. His friends called him the Mad Professor because he was constantly fiddling with wires and diodes. His family moved to London when he was 13. Around the late ’70s, his fascination with electronics led him to music.
“From day one, when I started, I won’t say it was a joke, but it was an extension of an electronic career,” Mr. Fraser says.
In those days, electronics was strictly analog. He was not only collecting, but building, amplifiers and mixers. So he thought, “Why not build a studio?” When that studio went up, he thought, “Why not get some artists?” From there, things “erupted.”
“I found myself entering a career ― music, which I knew nothing about,” he says. “Really, I didn’t think I stood a chance of surviving. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll have a go at it, or I’ll be squeezed out.’”
Far from being squeezed out, he built a solid reputation as a dub master. Dub is a genre that Lycos Music describes as “reggae in the raw.” This form strips out the melody, leaving the rhythm section and the residue of other instruments, often with layers of echos.
He recorded bands and vocalists with his label Ariwa, named after a Nigerian word for communication. That first studio led to another in West Norwood, the largest black-owned studio in the U.K. He recorded his first album, “Dub Me Crazy, Pt. 1,” in 1982. Rolling Stone’s Web site calls the “Dub Me Crazy” series “modern masterstrokes.”
Mr. Fraser has also remixed music from a wide range of genres, from electronica to rock to R&B. “I have a checkered background, it could go anywhere,” he says.
When he works on remix projects, he says, he tries to be as detached from the musician as a surgeon is from a body. His work with Massive Attack, the British trip hop group, is perhaps his best known. He remixed Massive Attack’s entire album, “Protection,” releasing a new version, “No Protection,” in 1995.
Working with Lee Perry was “a different cup of tea,” he says. Mr. Perry is credited with nurturing Bob Marley’s career, and is an influential figure in reggae.
“Perry came to me as a friend,” Mr. Fraser says. “He was an advisor, an elder statesman who was lost at the time, and looking for a home.” At that time, he says, Mr. Perry wanted to leave Jamaica; Mr. Fraser’s studio in the U.K. was available, and Mr. Fraser was keen on learning from the master.
But when asked what he learned, Mr. Fraser demurs. “I can’t say that,” he says. He shakes his head and looks away. “I don’t want to go there,” he says.
“Here’s what I can say. He taught me the importance of getting voice on a mix. He’s a master of that.”
After a bit of coaxing, he reveals what he says was the most important thing Mr. Perry taught him: “Whatever you do, never let another human being control your soul.”
The music the two recorded remains unreleased. Asked if it ever will be, Mr. Fraser says, “When it’s a work of art, you hope the public will hear it.”
It’s Thursday night, and Mr. Fraser is sitting in front of a dozen young adults at Bar Nana in Itaewon. A few sport dreadlocks and colorful shirts, some with political or social slogans. People ask him about analog-versus-digital; about technical tricks; about musicians he’s worked with in the past, and his expectations about his performance tonight.
Kevin Hill, a DJ, came to the producer’s session to learn from someone he respects. “His music is coming from the origins of roots, reggae. He started in the ’70s, and moved with the times. Being a backyard DJ, to spend time with the master is inspirational.”
A Korean musician going by the name Gallae, who moved to Jamaica at 16 to learn reggae and calypso, describes Mad Professor’s music as warm. “Music has power. When you listen, your mind and feeling changes. It’s crazy, man.”
Halfway through the seminar, Fraser stops talking to play with the mixing deck and the delay machine in front of him. Speaking into a mike, he adds echoes, creating feedback and using the sound itself to generate more sound. Later, one of the attendees turns on some tracks he has created to ask for Mr. Fraser’s opinion and suggestions. Mr. Fraser just rolls with it all.
“I’m still very much a new artist,” he says. Reggae has never quite been mainstream. And there are plenty of places, even near his home in England, where his music is unknown. Korea is also one of those places. Try finding reggae, roots and dancehall here. Bar Nana might very well be the only place.
Even when he was touring the U.S. earlier this year, he says they went to small cities. “It was a good introduction of my stuff to alternative locations.”
For his performance in Korea, he has no idea what to expect. As a matter of fact, it’s only recently that he’s started learning to face an audience. “The only way is to develop a thirst for it,” he says. “It makes you more confident.”
One would think confidence would be something the godfather of dub had plenty of. But it was also a lack of confidence in the future and the music industry that led to his disenchantment. “The CD-copy, Internet-download situation that we have upon us depressed me a lot,” he says.
So instead, he toured. And as he did, meeting musicians and fans, he began to come to terms. Ever the electronic geek, he has an iPod he says can override any sound system, and a new G4 Mac that he describes as “fast, new and cutting-edge.”
“We cannot stop technology from developing, and the human desire to get the best deal. We have to accept it, learn it, master it, and stay one step ahead,” he says. “Luckily, my brain is keen.”
THE PROFESSOR’S NEW SYLLABUS
Albums produced by the Mad Professor that either came out in 2004 or are due out by year’s end:
Aisah, “There Is More to Life”
A mix of covers, pop songs and songs on the edge of gospel.
Earl 16, “Awake”
Something of a reggae legend, Earl 16 is the voice of crossover bands like Dred Zone. This one is a very Jamaican, heavy, rootsy affair.
Horace Andy, “Rise Up Now” (also released as “From the Roots”)
Horace worked on this album between Massive Attack tours. Roots and reggae, with a couple of commercial hits.
Troublesome, “The Beginning”
A 24-year old of Jamaican and Trinidadian background He takes a humorous approach to dancehall music.
Bongo Kanny, “Heading to the East.”
This 21-year-old is quite political. He’s young, he’s fresh, and he’s a reflection of roots today.
Mad Professor, “New Galaxy of Dub”
The second in the Sci-Fi Dub series. He worked with Mafia and Fluxy on this one; it’s just about ready to be released.
Mad Professor, “Forward with the Revolution”
Dub with Sly, Robbie and Dean Frasur.
A crazy mix of Carribean music. This is a Japanese-only issue.
by Joe Yong-hee