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|The name "Mad Professor" conjures up an image of someone hovering over the controls in a laboratory, twisting the knobs and dials in pursuit of a new science. And in many ways it's true of The Mad Professor. In the reggae world, he's highly respected for his work with veteran deejays U-Roy, Ranking Joe and Dennis Alcapone, his prolific output of lovers rock, and brilliant collaborations with the father of dub, Lee "Scratch" Perry. He is also the founder of Ariwa, the largest Black-owned studio in the UK.
As Brooklyn-based filmmakers producing a documentary on dancehall, we jumped at the chance to talk with the Professor. He's not only one of the most sought-after producers in reggae and dub, but has laid down tracks for the Beastie Boys and Sade, and is responsible for the wickedest remix in history, Massive Attack's entire album, Protection.
When we sat down with Mad Professor and one of his artists, Dennis Nolan, we eased into the Mad Professor's groove smoke, take-out Chinese, and the sounds of King Tubby and Bob Marley. The conversation flowed.
ZETNA: We heard that you play cricket?
MAD PROFESSOR: I did for a little while
Whenever a match was on, I would be there with my wires and building my radio. I built my first radio when I was about ten years old.
ZETNA: Where did the interest come from?
MAD PROFESSOR: The man in the radio. You know him?
FELA: The man in the radio?
MAD PROFESSOR: Yeah, in our house the most technical thing was the radiograph. So I thought I'd like to find out how a radio works 'cause it don't make no sense that voice coming out of a box. I'd read books and gradually I built my own radio.
FELA: Were your other friends doing the same thing?
MAD PROFESSOR: They were playing marbles or cricket or whatever. Or looking for girls.
ZETNA: You grew up in Guyana, right? When did you move to England?
MAD PROFESSOR: When I was thirteen.
FELA: Did you love music then?
MAD PROFESSOR: Well, yeah. Being into sounds and electronics, it was a natural marriage. Guyana is the kind of place where you don't have much, so whatever you want you have to try to build it if you can't buy it. And we were poor.
I feel bad eating and you girls not eating.
ZETNA: We had some roti in Brooklyn earlier.
MAD PROFESSOR: The first time I came to America, I went to Brooklyn.
ZETNA: When was that?
MAD PROFESSOR: 1984. I've got some family living there. So is Brooklyn still rough? It used to be fifteen years ago.
FELA: Not as rough.
MAD PROFESSOR: Have you spoken to Coxsone Dodd yet? Have you girls filmed him?
ZETNA: Not yet.
MAD PROFESSOR: He's on Fulton Street, right? Yeah man, he was definitely one of the fathers of reggae.
ZETNA: So much music came out of Studio One.
MAD PROFESSOR: For many years that was the only place you could go to make records.
FELA: Tomorrow night after your show, there's a big sound clash in Queens.
MAD PROFESSOR: Oh yeah? Who and who?
FELA: Coxsone, the sound from England, Downbeat the Ruler from America, and Killamanjaro from Jamaica.
ZETNA: A vintage clash.
MAD PROFESSOR: Oh all right! I'll probably check that!
FELA: I love the message on your answering machine.
MAD PROFESSOR: Oh gosh, which one was that?
ZETNA: Someone's singing along
MAD PROFESSOR: [laughing] I wonder if it's me? Which tune? Was it Lee Perry?
ZETNA: Yeah, it's Lee Perry.
FELA: That's right, because you introduce the tune. I felt like I was listening to the radio and it was just so nice.
MAD PROFESSOR: Is it "Dr. Dick?" [singing] "My name is Dr. Dick
FELA: No, I would've remembered Dr. Dick.
MAD PROFESSOR: You gotta hear Dub You Crazy With Love. This is an album I done a couple of years ago. It's dub with the accent on the romantic scenario.
ZETNA: Which part of the "Dub Me Crazy" series is it?
MAD PROFESSOR: Oh, it's a separate one. With the Ariwa label, we've always had this schizophrenic thing, where we do something heavy and political but then we'll put out some lovers rock with artists like Sandra Cross, Kofi, John McLean, Caroll Thompson. Lovers rock is one of the first Black musics of England, and it's totally different from the reggae out of Jamaica. It's not as hard. It's sweet and melodic and really puts you in the mood for love, huh?
MAD PROFESSOR: So after 15 years of running the label with various lovers rock, one day I had this idea. I was producing an album for a Japanese girl, and she wanted to hear some instrumental lovers rock. And as I was running the track I thought, "Why don't I do an album with just the riddims?" The original dub mixes. When I started making lovers rock, I always used to do a dub, but I never actually issued them, so I had all these mixes stacked up. I just had to go back in my cupboards and dig them out, play them and see how they fit. And everything just evolved.
FELA: The name of your label is Ariwa. That's a Yoruban word.
ZETNA: It means communication.
MAD PROFESSOR: Yeah, it's nothing sexy. When I was working at an electronics job with some guys from Nigeria, they gave me this name Ariwa. I must have been about twenty then. You could talk and hope. To be honest, I didn't really plan on building a record company. What you see now I didn't envision. I was building an electronics company Ariwa Electronics. I made all sorts of devices. I had a thing called "the phantom," which was a bugging device. I was advertising it in the paper and the advert was: "HEAR EVERY WORD."
ZETNA: You created that?
MAD PROFESSOR: Well, it's a standard circuit. I just put it in a nice little box.
MAD PROFESSOR: If you had, say, access to some hotel room, you could put this thing behind a mirror and set it and it would run for 48 hours. You could be next door, tuning in the frequency on the radio, and you'd hear what was going on inside the room.
ZETNA: That could come in very handy. Do you have any left? [laughs]
MAD PROFESSOR: I tried another advert that said: "NO SECRET IS SAFE." Then the newspaper called and said, "You know what? We can't run your advert anymore. We have word from the Home Office, and it's something about
FELA: British Intelligence?
MAD PROFESSOR: So I kind of got pissed with it and, at the same time, more interested in the studio. When I started the studio thing, there were so many people who were better at it than me. But that's when I got started. And that's where I wanna be.
ZETNA: But you've been touring a lot.
MAD PROFESSOR: This tour is only about two weeks long. Originally, it was gonna be for six weeks. I'm not in a mood for touring. Maybe I've been on the road too much this year. We've been to New Zealand, Australia, and Puerto Rico.
ZETNA: My little island
FELA: How is the vibe different from one place to another?
MAD PROFESSOR: It's good to meet the people and see how the people are socially. Every place got its own vibration. You take Holland, for example. You play a city like Rotterdam and people could enjoy it, but after you play you get no reaction. There's this silence, and you wonder, "Maybe they don't like it
what have I done wrong?" Then, after the show, people come up to me and slowly say, [faking an accent] "Hey, man, wicked show." The thing about Holland, all sorts of drugs are legal ganja, cocaine, heroin, anything. So everybody in the audience is stoned. They don't even move. They don't even clap.
ZETNA: They can't even put their hands together?
MAD PROFESSOR: It's like that in Holland. But I love playing England because [snaps his fingers] people are just with it. They're just well on the dub tip.
FELA: Do you ever play in Jamaica?
MAD PROFESSOR: Never played in Jamaica, no. I mean, I'd love to.
ZETNA: That's really interesting. Why not?
MAD PROFESSOR: Why? We didn't have a contact. Within the next two years we should do it. I don't know what kind of show, but we will do it.
ZETNA: Do artists seek you out?
MAD PROFESSOR: There's always people coming and trying. If someone comes at the wrong time, they could miss me, they could be out of sync. And after trying for six months, they could easily think that I'm avoiding them. But it's not that. You're just moving all the time. We go back to England this weekend and then, I think Wednesday, we're in Spain, then back to England for a day and then to Paris for a show. So if you come at the wrong time, you'll be constantly getting, "Oh, sorry, try again in two weeks."
Dennis Nolan: Yeah, I left a tape which he didn't even listen to.
MAD PROFESSOR: He came up and left a tape, and I think I was finishing a mix or something, so I stuck the tape by the mixer.
DN: At least he knew where it was when I came back.
MAD PROFESSOR: Yeah, so I played the tape, "Hmm
let me hear the next track. Shit, I like this, you know. I could work with some of this." And 'cause the next day was free, I said, "What you doing tomorrow?"
DN: I said to myself, "He may ask me to do something on the day, you know
right there and then and I've got to be ready."
MAD PROFESSOR: Did I tell you the story about this guy who was running me down for a long time to record him? I listened to the tape same as Dennis and then I said, "Shit, man, you sound good. The thing is, though, I'm going on tour, but I've got musicians in the studio right now. If you're really ready, you could do something now. But if you miss it, you ain't gonna see me for six months." And the guy said, "I ain't ready man
I've gotta think about it."
FELA: There's no time for that.
MAD PROFESSOR: And a few months down, he came back and tried to get in and couldn't. You have to move when something's right. It's not like Ariwa is a major business where you sell mega-platinum records. You sell 100,000 if you're lucky. I think the music business now is such that if you want to make a market in it, you have to be unique and do it very good. And even if it doesn't hit straight away, it's gonna catch on later because people are constantly searching for something spiritual, something of quality. Whereas with a major, you've got to catch a fire the day you put it out.
FELA: You know, we've been reading that lovers rock is not so large here, that the audience base is mostly everywhere else.
MAD PROFESSOR: No, don't be fooled.
FELA: Tell us.
MAD PROFESSOR: It isn't large anywhere right now. Japan is the biggest place for lovers rock.
ZETNA: I was in Jammyland yesterday to see what lovers rock they had, and they told me that a Japanese kid had just bought all the lovers rock on vinyl.
MAD PROFESSOR: The Japanese really love it. Especially British lovers rock.
FELA: I copied some tapes called "King of Diggin'" from my friend Pookie.
MAD PROFESSOR: King of who?
FELA: "King of Diggin'" he's this kid from Japan who digs in the crates and comes up with all these really old tunes for his compilation tapes.
FELA: Why do you think lovers rock is big there?
MAD PROFESSOR: The nature of the Japanese people. They're really cool, laid back people. They're into romance, man, and lovers rock is soft like that. Jamaican reggae is harder, you know, and while they like it, they don't love it like they love their lovers rock.
ZETNA: What do you think about the audience for your dub music?
MAD PROFESSOR: Hmmm?
ZETNA: We've been wondering about the ethnicity of your audience
MAD PROFESSOR: This is what happened. When dub music was first made, it was mainly reggae fans, Black people. Like when Tubby's got popular, dub was on the flipside of every record that was coming out this was from '75 to '78. When I started, around '79, they were still into it but not as big. And by the time my music took off, it was like 50% Black, 50% White. Then we moved towards the '90s, and when the next generation of dub people came along, that's when you had White guys starting to make dub as well. And now, more White people are into dub and roots, and because of dancehall, more Black people got into dancehall. That's where we're at now.
FELA: Do you think there's going to be another shift?
MAD PROFESSOR: Who knows? You can't predict music. [laughs] And I've been in it long enough to know. You don't know what's going to trigger one particular part of society at the time. But yeah, it would be nice for more Black people to get back into dub. A lot of Black people don't know much about it. I mean, they hear the effects of it, but they don't know where it's coming from.
ZETNA: Do you think of your audience when you're making music?
MAD PROFESSOR: No, I don't think of an audience really. At the end of the day, when you produce music, you gotta be selfish. Because if you think about pleasing people, then sometimes you think, "Well, maybe, I don't want to upset them with this track." You can't really hold back and say, "I won't tell them about South Africa because half the White audience might get upset." A lot of times you just have to do what you feel is right and tell the truth.
You know, someone might say, "You made a record using part of Farrakhan's speech. Are you a Black Muslim? We thought you were a Rasta." So, I said, "Have you met me?" "Well, we heard your music and we know you're a Rasta."
MAD PROFESSOR: I said, "Yeah, my locks is down to my feet." [laughs] People have these stereotypes. They think because I make roots reggae, I must be a Rasta. I just say, "Listen, I put Farrakhan on the record because I don't know what he's all about, but believe me, I think he's an important figure for this century." Any man who can command that amount of people, whether it's a million or more, is important. I'm not endorsing anything he's saying, but I think that in a time when we're lacking strong Black leadership, he's an important figure. He's like a Marcus Garvey of the '90s.
ZETNA: Did you use an actual part of a speech?
MAD PROFESSOR: No, just little excerpts of his voice for "The New Decade of Dub." But I did copy a speech around the same time as the Million Man March, and put it in between the tracks, under the rhythm. But I wish I'd known about the March, I would've come over here.
ZETNA: You didn't hear about it in England until after it happened?
MAD PROFESSOR: Until maybe a week or a day before. They try to control that information from reaching England. They're afraid of Black people in England thinking too much and knowing too much.
FELA: You know, they had a Million Woman March, too.
MAD PROFESSOR: Yeah?
ZETNA: Fela went to the Million Woman March.
MAD PROFESSOR: Was it good?
FELA: Incredible. You looked everywhere and it was just Black women. I've never seen so many Black women in my life. It was beautiful.
ZETNA: We've been slightly obsessing about your song, "False Curl Girl." Where did that name come from?
MAD PROFESSOR: In England, in the past year or two, nearly every woman you meet has to have long hair, so that they can [motioning] flip it over their shoulder. Well, I love Aesop's fables, and there's one about a crow that's in the yard with the rest of the birds. The crow was feeling bad because of the peacock's feathers and he thinks, "Man, I wish I had feathers like those." Every day the crow is like this, until one day he says, "I'm gonna pick up all these dead feathers from the peacock and stick them in the back there and fly away." The rest of the birds just laugh and say, "Look at this idiot, he's got his own beautiful black feathers. We'd love to have his black feathers, and now he's flying around like an asshole!"
FELA: That was the unabridged version.
ZETNA: Not for children.
MAD PROFESSOR: So you know about Aesop?
FELA: Oh yeah.
MAD PROFESSOR: On the last three albums, inside them there's a fable.
FELA: So that's how "False Curl Girl" came into being?
MAD PROFESSOR: Yeah, I thought, we're living in a city with all these false curl girls
I had to put it on record. The song dedicated to the girls who don't like their own hair. I mean, I know it pissed off a few people but then
FELA: Well, beauty is political. And there was another song too, "Black Skin, White Minds."
MAD PROFESSOR: My goodness, you're very deep now.
FELA: Is that a reference to Frantz Fanon? To his book, Black Skin, White Masks?
MAD PROFESSOR: Can you get his books here? Really? Which shops?
FELA: Almost any one. Even Barnes & Noble.
MAD PROFESSOR: I've been looking for that for fifteen years. Under what section?
FELA: In cultural studies.
MAD PROFESSOR: Thank you. You saved my day. Well, that song came up because of my experience in England. The problem with slavery as you probably know you couldn't speak your natural language. Families got separated so you had a nation of people that suddenly found themselves without any particular guidelines. There was this scarring effect which is what comes down through the generations, whether it's with the false hair business or skin lightening business. People think, in order to get through society I ought to look more like a Caucasian. So women with nice thick lips try to thin them out, or they try to have a Michael Jackson job and fix their nose so it looks straight. At the end of the day, it just damages the confidence of the inner soul. And it doesn't really help the overall Black image it weakens it. So "Black Skin, White Minds" it's a heavy title because it's there everyday. I just think I ought to make social music so I make social music.
FELA: What type of music do you listen to?
MAD PROFESSOR: My favorite music is Philadelphia soul. You know, Gamble and Huff, the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass.
FELA: Teddy P!
MAD PROFESSOR: Kind of sensuous music. I love that. It came out of Philadelphia. Two producers, Kenny Gamble and Dion Huff, had a label called Philadelphia International, and big hits like, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," "Wake Up Everybody." You know, positive Soul music. That was the post-Motown period. And these guys in Philadelphia made some phenomenal records but the business wasn't that successful. They got blown out of the sky despite making some of the biggest hit records of the '70s. They were no match for the big boys. So they're some of my heroes. I also listen to the popular stuff Puff Daddy, Mary J. Blige. I don't like a lot of modern songs but I do listen.
ZETNA: That music is big in England? All the hip-hop
MAD PROFESSOR: More the r&b side. It's kind of hard to understand the deep social issues of hip-hop, but people love the cool tunes of R&B. They like Brandy and Monica. The kids love that, man. I just love sound.
FELA: We read that you don't consider yourself a musician.
MAD PROFESSOR: I program drums and I can play the bass. I can get around a simple track if I have to, but I still don't consider myself a musician because it takes me time. Like on Dubtronic, on some of the tracks I came up with the lines and played with the help of a computer.
ZETNA: Computers make everything much easier.
FELA: Although there's one thing we've been thinking a lot about over here the whole Y2K thing.
MAD PROFESSOR: White UK?
MAD PROFESSOR: That's rumor, man. Sometimes, Americans are like that. They try to spread that propaganda even to England.
ZETNA: Well, what's it like when you're in America not a city like New York but the country?
MAD PROFESSOR: I've noticed in America, that it's like everybody has their place a segregated country. Loads of different people but everybody works within their own cultural network. And a lot of people have their preconceptions, stereotypical views of different races and different nationalities. What I find with America is that so many people have attitudes when it comes to dealing with Black people. Because of my history, I'm probably a little bit sensitive about not being dealt with fairly. I find with racism you have to confront the source of it. This is what I noticed in Germany. When you come off a flight, people are walking off the plane, White people, Black people. At Customs they ask, "British passport?" "Yes, British passport." "Yes, pass through." But come to a Black man "British passport?" "Yes." "Oh. Let's check that." They pull you over. "Is this picture stuck on?" Then they run it through a computer. They photocopy it. And you think, "Shit! This must've been going on for years." And you wonder why, in the 1990s, a government is allowed to get away with that? It's only because most people don't say anything.
ZETNA: That's true.
MAD PROFESSOR: You're supposed to keep quiet. But I tell people, "Shit, does that mean our kids are going to have to go through this too?" So I try to make people aware of it. And yeah, I'm going to make a record about it one day.