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The Mad Professor - Interviewed!

Neil Fraser, a.k.a. UK dub producer the Mad Professor, can't wait for audio technology to catch up with the sounds he can hear inside his head.

7 Sep 2001

mad professor interview
by grant smithies for pulp magazine (nz)
september 2001

Neil Fraser, a.k.a. UK dub producer the Mad Professor, can't wait for audio technology to catch up with the sounds he can hear inside his head.

Frustrated by the limitations of our outdated stereo technology, Fraser thinks in quadraphonic, pentatonic, geometric, analgesic, afrodisiac, psychedelic full-screen surround-sound, pushing his equipment to the limit and beyond as he attempts to cram his cutting-edge creations into a format that uses just two puny speakers. Beavering away in his legendary Ariwa Studios in South London, Fraser reimagines sound as bravely as Salvador Dali once reimagined paint, scribbling an intricate outline of hi-hats, kickdrums and cymbal crashes across a broad canvas of bass then adding colour and texture via startling splashes of guitar, keyboard and horns. Then the fun really starts as samples, echo, delay, phasing, chopped-up vocals and a myriad other brain-bending bits'n'pieces are layered over the top (and I do mean, over the top!). When the resulting surrealist soundscapes erupt out of your speakers, you know that the Professor has only one objective: To fuck with your head.

You gotta love the guy. Born in Guyana, raised in London, he has been destroying home stereos and delighting dancehalls around the globe for twenty years now. This is the man who put UK dub on the map with his speaker-shredding "Dub Me Crazy" series and dragged reggae renegade Lee Perry out of semi-retirement to record and tour again. The man who's righteous dubstyle reworkings of Massive Attack, Roni Size, The KLF, DJ Krust, the Beastie Boys, Jamiroquai, The Orb- hell, even snotty punksters Rancid- are often more sought after than the originals. The man who's gigs attract not just skank-happy reggaephiles but also hip hoppers, be-boppers, highly-strung junglists, bionic bleepsters, deep houseniks, techno terrorists- literally anyone with an open mind and an interest in wild, freestyle sonics. The man who spends over half of every year taking his dub studio on the road, breaking the sound barrier everywhere from Brixton to Birmingham, Tokyo to Toronto, Moscow to Marseilles, and- any day now- dear old Aotearoa.

"Last time I was there I remember going to the top of an old volcano, very high up, and looking down in this crater" recalls Fraser. "A very beautiful place, true?". True. And what can we expect this time? "You know me. There will be some heavy, heavy dub flavours, and also some drum and bass. The live show is all about spontaneous electronics you know. No two nights will be the same. I've got stuff on tape but I'm creating entirely new stuff through the effects, mixing it live because I set up a whole studio on stage, a miniature version of what we have here in (Londons') Whitehorse Lane". He laughs a deep, chugging laugh, his own personal bassline. "You'll hear sounds and riddims from long ago, but you'll also hear the future. It's such a new concept in entertainment that some people can't understand it. For other people it is the ultimate show because dub is a medium with unlimited possiblities, you know. It's a militant form of music that's designed to go into the mind where words can't go. One thing's for sure there'll be no shortage of surprises".

As a survivor of one of Fraser's previous gigs, I can vouch for this myself.

I remember watching the expressions on people's faces when the warm-up DJ finished and The Prof let the bass off the leash for the first time. A huge wall of bassbins bucked like they'd been hit by an earthquake, forcing out so much air it blew your hair back. Next a searing guitar skank started to strafe the air, chopping into the bassline like an axe into wood. Fraser, clad in his customary white lab coat and smiling a less-than-trustworthy smile, tweaked a knob on his mixing desk, unleashing a rabid pack of barking-mad drums. All around me I saw a sea of wide eyes, open mouths, jaws hitting the floor- the full possum-in-the-headlights look of bewilderment- followed by unbridled joy.

Yet another international dancefloor had fallen under Fraser's spell. "My objective is to freak out people with effects, you know ?" says the sanity-shunning master of understatement. "I like do impossible tings, perform tricks, always surprise the listener. I like to go inside a sound and turn it upside down, take it to the brink of distortion and beyond and really fuck it up so a listener has no idea what's happening to their ears".

As you can imagine, Fraser was not your ordinary nipper. When other more sensible souls were snogging girls and smoking fags behind the bike sheds, our boy Neil was at home fondling his soldering iron. "Yes, I got the Mad Professor name in school because I loved to experiment with wires" he says. "Instead of playing football and cricket like a normal kid I would be messin' around wit' wires. When I was small, back in Guyana, the most technical thing in our house was a radio. I wanted to know where the man's voice was coming from so I opened the back and saw all the valve lights flickering, and that started a whole new curiosity about the transmission of radio frequencies. I ended up building my first radio when I was about 10 years old. No books, no nothing, I just built a radio! I don't know why, I just messed around with different diodes and transistors and picked up signals. And from then on I was hooked, from then on I was Mad Professor".

Years later, inspired by Jamaican producers Joe Gibbs, Errol Thompson and King Tubby and the sweet ghetto grooves of Philadelphia soul and Motown, Fraser bought a tape machine and started building himself a mixing desk in his front room in London. Soon he had noisy-ass West Indian musicians turning up at all hours of the day and night to record, and began building all manner of effects units so that he could drag their sounds kicking and screaming into outer space. The neighbours, as you can imagine, were not chuffed. "Phaser, reverb, echo- I built them all myself because I had no money to buy them. Besides, growing up with electronics, you really get a sense of what these devices can do. Around '76-'77 I just got into dubbin', y'know and I've done it ever since".

The man is a workaholic, having released over 150 full-length albums since 1981. You should most definitely be there, expecting the unexpected. One thing's for sure, sounds will be shown no mercy. The professer thinks nothing of frying harmless high frequencies in hot oil, skewering blubbery basslines with shards of jagged guitar or pushing defenceless reggae rhythms over a cliff into gargantuan pits of echo, laughing like a loon as they fall.

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publishing 10/2001