The Method of Mad Professor's Madness
If an American recognizes Neil Fraser's Mad Professor alter ego, it's most likely because he knows his total reworking (or versioning—to use a dub term) of Massive Attack's second album, Protection, into No Protection. Released in 1996 at the height of the trip-hop wave, Mad Professor's version turned out to be far better than the original. Massive Attack's Protection was an all-around bland effort, with a beauty that offered no resistance, no challenge, no mystery. You heard it, consumed it, forgot about it. In No Protection, Mad Professor exploded this ordinary beauty into a vast world whose seas shimmered and whose skies were agitated, brightened, and amazed by falling stars and rising fireworks. This is no exaggeration; the difference is unbelievable.
For those who might not know, dub is best explained as a Jamaican form of remixing records. It was invented in the late '60s by the electrician King Tubby and elaborated by the eccentric Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Scientist, King Tubby's protégé, closed Jamaica's dub period in 1982, the very year the Guyana-born Mad Professor initiated its UK era. Like all dub masters, Mad Professor was part electrician/part musician and so built his own studio from the ground up, modifying equipment to meet his special dub needs. He named this studio Ariwa, apparently the Nigerian word for sound, and with this machine, which by the mid '80s had grown to become the most powerful recording studio owned by a black Brit, he dominated the dub scene throughout the '80s.
Mad Professor's masterpiece during this period is African Connection, and what distinguished it (and much of what Mad Professor completed at the time) from Jamaican forms of dub was its frank futurism. Though science fiction played a role in Jamaican recordings like Scientist's Scientist Encounters Pac-Man (the greatest dub album), African Connection was considerably spacier, tripper, and more technological. Jamaican dub masters used the genre as a time machine, a way to return to the lost African kingdoms; Mad Professor's UK versions always looked forward to an Afro-techno utopia.
"When I was a kid, I developed a very strong interest in electronics," he explains, "because in our house back in the Caribbean, where I was born, the most technical things in the house were a light bulb and a radio. I checked out the light bulb; I read about electrical theory and I soon understood how the light bulb worked. But with the radio, I was puzzled. So I kept saying to my mom, 'Mom, where is the man in the radio?' 'Boy, don't be silly there is no man in the radio,' mom would say. 'Look, there is a man in the radio and I'm going to find him,' I said." When she went out to work, Mad Professor opened the radio with a screwdriver. "I saw was these resistors and things. Mom came back home from work, saw what I had done, and gave me some licks. 'You breaking up my radio. I told you there was no man in the radio. If you want to find out how the radio works, get the book.' So I went to the library, found out how to make a radio, and that is how I ended up in the studio and mixing and all that."
Great dub producers are also great music theorists. Singers don't think, they only express their feelings. A dub master like Mad Professor thinks hard and creates concepts. At end of a long conversation with Mad Professor, I asked him to define the essence of dub, and this was his answer: "The very nature of dub is sound, which is why dub doesn't work with digital. Digital has got no sound. Digital has no character. The whole basis of digital is based on binary notations, naughts and ones, so you're either [in] one state or the other. And that is the reason it doesn't lend itself to dub. Digital itself has no sound. It can clone a sound, but it's got no sound. With analog, each room is different. Each speaker is different. Each character is different. Analog puts an individual stamp on everything." Dub is the philosophy of firstname.lastname@example.org