The Ariwa / Mad Professor story
Equally renowned for producing deep roots reggae, trance-inducing dub and bittersweet lover’s rock, the Mad Professor’s Ariwa Sounds stable is a veritable institution of British reggae.
Prof was ridiculed when he first set up a studio in the front room of his south London home in the late 1970s, but plenty of hits soon followed thanks to his creative drive, perceptive production skills and technical expertise behind the mixing desk; in the best reggae tradition, Ariwa drew from diverse influences to create a unique sound, making use of unbridled artistic ambition to fill any gaps that may have appeared due to a lack of finance. Since those humble beginnings, Mad Professor’s music has seen him circumnavigate the globe countless times and his skills as a dub remixer have drawn requests for collaboration from numerous stars working in different popular genres all over the world, all of which is testament to the pervasive and broadly appealing nature of his creations. This compilation celebrates over 25 years of Ariwa ingenuity and those who have had the pleasure of spending time in Professor’s company know that he is a man of high intelligence and easy wit, committed to progressive social change as well as evolutionary music; he is also a gentleman in every sense of the word.
Although very much a southeast London phenomenon, the story of Ariwa really begins several thousand miles further southwest in Georgetown, Guyana, where Neil Fraser was born in 1955. The only British colony established on the South American mainland, Guyana is a mixture of impenetrable jungle and Caribbean coastline, populated by African slave descendents, the offspring of east Indian indentured labourers and Amerindian tribes people; just as the most prominent of Jamaica’s pre-European inhabitants, the Taino, referred to the island as Yamaye, meaning ‘land of springs’ or Xaymaca, meaning ‘land of wood and water,’ so did the Amerindian inhabitants of Guyana call their region Guiana, meaning ‘land of waters’ and it is thought that the Taino and Carib that migrated northward to the Caribbean islands from their original home in the Orinoco delta did so from the Guyanese coast. As Guyana prepared for its independence from Britain in the mid-1960s, there were other important links with Jamaica that young Neil was exposed to via the radio; as he recalls, ‘In the Eastern Caribbean, you couldn’t pick up any Jamaican stations but you had a very good station called BVI, Virgin Islands radio, with a very good deejay, one of the best I’ve ever heard, called the Groove Governor: he would be playing the best reggae for four hours on a Saturday night, so you would hear Dennis Alcapone and Lizzy, a lot of Bunny Lee productions and Studio One, so I used to tune in every Saturday night. Also, certain producers really leant heavily on the Caribbean market: Bunny Lee was one of them and Byron Lee with Dynamics, so you’d get the Bunny Lee, Dynamics and Federal records and certain people were bigger in the Eastern Caribbean than in Jamaica, like Ken Lazarus and Dobby Dobson, they were huge artists. But I was definitely inspired by Prince Buster and Ken Boothe, and for some reason, the Gaylets with Marcia Griffiths were popular, and Rita Marley and Tinga Stewart were popular.’
Neil’s other musical motivation came from soul music and calypso. ‘Stax was hot, Motown was hot and Atlantic, they were the hot labels; with calypsos, Sparrow and Kitchener were the hot people of the day, they were making the kind of music that the deejays would end up taking, like social music: Sparrow would make a tune about an “Obeah Wedding” and it hit, or “Mr. Walker, I’ve come to see your daughter,” huge, huge hits. Quite honestly, we didn’t see any difference between calypso and reggae—it was just music.’
Seeking better employment opportunities, Neil’s parents migrated to Britain and he joined them at the age of thirteen, settling in the south London suburb of Tooting. Although his parents split up and his mother remained in Guyana, Neil found that his father, employed as a lab technician at Charing Cross Hospital, stimulated his interest in electronics, while music remained a primary motivation for the youth. ‘I used to be a technician,’ Neil explains, ‘even when I was back home I used to build radios and stuff like that, so when I came to London I continued, because I found my father was also in electronics; he had loads of parts around, so I then built different things. When I left home in the early ‘70s, I thought I’d built some effects: I built a reverb unit and I just got drawn into the thing, had a tape machine and I started to like put my voice on records and I ended up building a mixer, so then I thought I’d build a studio. But before then, I was just a big reggae fan: the first records I bought were things like “You Never Get Away” by the Melodians—I really loved Treasure Isle and the Bob Marley sessions produced by Lee Perry, like “Duppy Conqueror,” “Screwface,” “Small Axe,” “Upsetting Station,” those were my favourite tunes. I got sucked into the whole thing, the U Roy scenario, not ever thinking I would end up doing it professionally but it was something I really loved and I really understood; after I became a technician, I analysed the records, like King Tubby’s records, analysed them and found out what they’re doing and tried to emulate them. I was an electronic technician, started to work for places like Reddifon Rediffusion; I was gifted in that, so I didn’t have to study it, I just read books, maybe not learning it the proper way but I learn it my, just learned electronics and sound engineering. Soundcraft had this job going and I went and the guy showed me a big pile of boards that was thrown in a corner; he said, “These boards got faults” and nobody could fix them—he said, “I’ll give you two days trying, if you could fix them then you’ve got a job” and I managed to fix all the boards, so I stayed there for two years until I started professionally with the studio.’
Ariwa Sounds studio was officially inaugurated in 1979, its name drawn from ariwo, a Yoruba word meaning ‘communication’; it was then located in the front room of the Fraser household at 19 Bruce Road in the south London suburb of Thornton Heath, not far from Ariwa’s present HQ. Somewhere along the way, Fraser’s alter ego appeared as the Mad Professor, his backing band initially known as the Sane Inmates; minimally equipped with a Teac 3440 tape machine and discarded gear picked up from Soundcraft and other sources, Ariwa’s early days were certainly inauspicious. ‘I had a lot of British guys ‘round the area who were doing things, like Rockaway and Sister Audrey, local artists. But the first “yard” artist really on my label is probably Johnny Clarke; before him I had Congo Ashanti recording some of his own productions and Mikey Dread recorded stuff in 1980 in my house…by then I’d moved up from 4 track to 8 track and then 16; I didn’t stay 4 track for long. I was in my house up until ‘82 when I moved to Peckham, but I was in my house when I did all the Ruts DC stuff.’
On this compilation, only two songs feature from the original studio at Bruce Road: the landmark dub piece ‘Kunte Kinte’ by Brixton based band Aquizim, and ‘Pleasures of the Dance’ by reggae-inspired punk group Ruts DC. The move to a basement studio at 42 Gautrey Road in Peckham, instigated in May 1982, brought Ariwa to a next level, but Professor notes that the transition itself was anything but smooth. ‘I became 24 track when I was down Peckham because when I was in Bruce Road I had a good, solid Ampex MM1000, a really good machine but when we tried putting it down into the basement, it nearly collapsed all the stairs because the machine weighs a ton, so I had to sell it and the only other machine that was on that market at that time was an Aces, built by a guy named Peter Keeling who was really experimenting; the first thing that was wrong was that where track 1 was supposed to be, it was track 16…I took the machine back to him and it worked for a time but then it would suddenly pick up and go into play mode, or you would be playing it and then suddenly it would be in record mode, so if you’d selected any tracks, you could be rubbing off what you’d recorded. It was a crazy machine, but we managed to get some hits with it; most of the Johnny Clarke stuff was done on that machine, we made some good albums but it was a hellish machine so by ’84, I got myself an Ampex that came from Virgin’s studio, The Barge; it was a 24 track Ampex 1100 and I spent about two grand just tidying it up. From then we started to make lover’s rock hits like “Country Living” and hits like the Pato Banton album.’
The material to emanate from Gautrey Road is really the sound of Ariwa finding its feet: Johnny Clarke’s aptly-titled Yard Style album retained a Jamaican sensibility whilst also incorporating a range of international influences; Pato Banton’s debut album showed the Birmingham-based toaster was equally capable of humorous ditties and politically relevant material; Sandra Cross’ recasting of the Stylistics’ ‘Country Living,’ first adapted in reggae by the Mighty Diamonds, was a particularly strong example of the UK lover’s rock genre, grafting soulful vocals onto lilting reggae beats. Professor also notes that he also made an important connection during this era, cutting his first set of recordings with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at the same address.
‘He came down with Winston Edwards and Joe Gibbs in September 1984 and Scratch said he wanted to do some work, so I said “No problem.” He voiced “Judgement Inna Babylon” in my studio and when he finished with his tracks, he then ended up voicing a load of tracks for me as well and a lot of them came out on Mystic Warrior, which wasn’t released until 1988, but there was at least another two albums’ worth left that never came out. Syd Bucknor was the main engineer on those sessions and I learnt a lot from them guys, between the two of them, because Syd is quite experienced, from the old school; soon after I started making really good hits. At the end of ’84 we did some tours of England, but Perry had a bust-up with the backing band in Leeds and I didn’t see him for a couple years until I did the re-mix of “I Am A Madman” for Trojan; then I was running what was a pretty hot label, the mid-’80s was a busy, busy period so I had no time for Perry’s stuff because really and truly, I was just dedicated to my label and the artists because we were having very good successes, selling 25-40,000 copies.’
Disaster struck in 1986 when the Peckham premises was burgled; a demoralised Professor nearly quit the business. ‘I had a burglar alarm, but it wasn’t turned on for some reason,’ he laments. ‘After then, I was quite depressed about the business and I was thinking of leaving it, but it was only temporary; I moved back to my house for six months and gradually I caught the buzz back. Then I saw this place up for sale at Whitehorse Lane so I bought it.’
Big hits to surface from the new studio included John McLean’s romantically vulnerable ‘If I Gave My Heart To You’ and Carol ‘Kofi’ Simms’ pairing with toaster Macka B for a recut of ‘I’m In Love With A Dreadlocks,’ which she first recorded in 1977 as part of the harmony group Brown Sugar; then Professor moved away from lover’s rock, seeking a change of direction. ‘I did a whole bunch of nursemaiding and ended up with quite a few hits; we definitely sold hundreds of thousands of records out of that trend, but then people started to use me as a sandwich and I thought, I want to move from the lover’s back into the dub and more adventurous, experimental music, because there’s always these two sides to my whole persona.’
Mad Professor issued the first of his Dub Me Crazy series in 1982; by 1993, he was up to Chapter 12 and quickly followed such releases with the Black Liberation Dub series and further dub excursions with Scientist, Mafia & Fluxy and Sly & Robbie. He also strengthened ties with Lee Perry, cutting a series of albums with Scratch at the mic and Prof behind the mixing console; their bond was so strong that they have toured the world together for the better part of fifteen years, evidencing the longest musical partnership Perry has fostered during his entire career. Other great Ariwa records surfaced with U Roy, Horace Andy, Yabby You, Michael Prophet and Earl 16, while Prof continued his habit of nurturing new talent through works with rising hopefuls such as Chukki Star, Starkey Banton, Queen Omega and steel-pan player Pan Africanist, better known Patrick Augustus, author of the popular Babyfather. In 1996, Prof opened the now dormant Are We Mad studio around the corner from Ariwa; the smaller facility was kitted out with 1970s equipment, giving it a different sound, so Prof made specific use of it on particular projects for a number of years before ultimately shutting it down. Meanwhile, his mixing skills grew ever higher in demand. Ever since the days of his collaboration with Ruts DC, Professor has always been willing to lend a dubwise hand to a multitude of international musicians; he mixed material for the Beastie Boys in the 1980s, which sadly has not yet surfaced, before altering the manic creations of radical duo KLF and spaced-out ambient house pioneer, The Orb. Definite high points in the 1990s came with an exceptionally sensual dub mix of Sade’s ‘Love Is Stronger Than Pride’ and a dubwise deconstruction of Massive Attack’s Protection; further collaboration was achieved with bull-horned pop-star Jamiroquai, edgy Swiss techno-rockers The Young Gods and Boston neo-ska group Bim Skala Bim, while in the new millennium Prof has used his dub skills on material by former Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell, New Zealand’s Salmonella Dub and experimental duo Jack Adaptor, as well as myriad others in Japan, Brazil, Argentina…
Over a quarter of a century ago, Ariwa started out as a family affair and it certainly remains one today: Neil’s wife Holly is actively involved in its administration and his son Joe is becoming increasingly involved in mixing. Its all part of the gradual evolution at Ariwa, which has taken British reggae towards all kinds of areas it might otherwise have never ventured into. Having just completed a string of productive new sessions with Sly & Robbie, as well as cutting a dazzling new album with Max Romeo, the future still looks bright for the Mad Professor; watch this space because whatever emanates from his creative mind is bound to be nutritious to the ears.