Equally renowned for producing deep roots reggae, trance-inducing dub and bittersweet lover’s rock, Mad Professor’s Ariwa Sounds stable is a veritable institution of British reggae.
Professor 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 undeniable 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 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 mixer have drawn requests for collaboration from numerous mainstream stars working in different popular genres all over the world, all of which is testament to the pervasive and broadly appealing nature of his work.
Although very much a southeast London phenomenon, the Ariwa story really begins in Georgetown, Guyana, where Neil Fraser was born in 1955. Despite its location on the South American mainland, a shared colonial history brought reggae into the framework in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to a disc jockey known as the Groove Governor, broadcasting on BVI radio from the British Virgin Islands. Soul and calypso were early influences too, with the styles of Sparrow and Kitchener affecting him nearly as much as the output of Motown and Atlantic.
By the time he reached London in the early 1970s, Fraser was a reggae connoisseur, moved by the productions of Treasure Isle and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry as well as King Tubby’s mixing artistry. In Guyana, he had already been tinkering with electronics, building his own radios at home, and he was soon crafting custom effects units and a mixing desk in his new home (later trademarks include the ‘doppelganger’ and the ‘warbler,’ both inimitable hallmarks of peak-period Ariwa material). After working for Reddifon Rediffusion as an electronic technician, he then began working for Soundcraft, fixing faulty mixing desks, until he decided to open a recording studio of his own and launch into music production full time.
Officially inaugurated in 1979, Ariwa Sounds drew its name from ariwo, a Yoruba word meaning ‘communication.’ It was initially a four-track studio located in the front room of the Fraser household at 19 Bruce Road in Thornton Heath, not far from its present Whitehorse Road HQ, though it was based in Gautrey Road, Peckham for part of the 1980s. Each premises had its own attendant sound, and was part of the process of Ariwa’s evolution. Ariwa began with roots reggae and dub, but there were collaborations with punk groups like Ruts DC as well, and lover’s rock was always the other side of the coin. Gautrey Road had visits from Jamaican stars like Johnny Clarke and Mikey Dread (as well as the first of many collaborations with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry), but once in Whitehorse Road, there were several breakthrough hits in the lover’s rock mode. The Dub Me Crazy album series that began in the original space was highly popular with dub heads too, and in addition to cutting albums with Horace Andy, U Roy, Yabby You, and Earl 16, Prof was simultaneously 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 book). He was a longstanding partner to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry during much of the 1990s as well, helping Perry to keep his career on track during a time of protracted personal upheaval.
In 1996, Prof opened the now-dormant Are We Mad studio around the corner from Ariwa, a smaller facility kitted out with 1970s equipment. Used for specific purpose when he wanted to achieve a different sound, the studio was ultimately decommissioned, once it no longer made financial sense to keep it up and running. Meanwhile, his mixing skills grew ever higher in demand. Those to benefit from his magic touch include the Beastie Boys (whose 1980s collaborative work with Prof has sadly never surfaced), the KLF and the Orb; Jamiroquai, Swiss techno-rockers The Young Gods, and Boston neo-ska group Bim Skala Bim also stepped up to the plate in the 1990s, 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 and elsewhere. Here are 10 of Mad Professor’s most noteworthy creations, select nuggets of a voluminous back catalogue.
Mad Professor (& Aquizim) – ‘Kunta Kinte – The African Warrior’
(Beyond The Realms Of Dub, Ariwa LP, 1982)
In the early days of Ariwa, Prof began voicing tracks with local unknowns such as Rockaway, Davina Stone, and Garnett Cross, the latter a gifted teenaged keyboardist and songwriter from Brixton who went by the name of Sergeant Pepper. Garnett was part of a larger family band called Aquizim, featuring Patrick Cross on drums (aka Horseman, who would later work with Prince Fatty) and Derek Cross on vocals, along with Bajan bassist Bernard Cumberbatch (husband of the Cross’ singing sister, Sandra). In 1981, Aquizim recorded the driving track ‘Kunta Kinte – The African Warrior,’ with Bobby Davidson on lead vocals, but Prof felt the vocal was not strong enough, so held back the release. However, when putting together Beyond The Realms Of Dub, the second instalment of his Dub Me Crazy series, he released a beautiful dub cut which heightened the irresistible nature of the rhythm, and showcased Professor’s inventive use of effects.
Ruts DC – ‘Militant’
(Rhythm Collision, Bohemian LP, 1982)
In 1979, at the height of the ‘punky reggae party,’ the reggae-tinged ‘Babylon’s Burning’ brought the Ruts onto Top of the Pops. The group’s anti-police anthem ‘Jah War’ also referenced reggae, and they further boosted their reggae credentials backing Laurel Atiken’s playful hit tune ‘Rudi Got Married.’ But when lead singer Malcolm Owen died of an overdose, the group morphed into Ruts DC, bouncing back with the rock-oriented Animal Now. Rhythm Collision, the group’s 1982 studio swansong, was a totally different beast, a dub delight recorded with Mad Professor at Ariwa. Composed of dub tracks that did not yet have vocal counterparts, it was a quantum leap that set them apart from their peers. Tracks like ‘Militant’ lie somewhere between punk, dub, funk, and traditional protest music, and showed the ease in which Professor was already able to work across different genres.
Mad Professor – ‘Creation Dub’
(Mad Professor Meets Jah Shaka At Ariwa Sounds, Jah Shaka Music LP, 1984)
Having his own studio meant that Mad Professor was in touch with all manner of producers and players of instruments active on the UK reggae scene. This was especially true in the realm of dub, and being in southeast London was part of the process —Jah Shaka was a notable nearby ally and rival (as was Joe Gibbs’ cousin, Winston Edwards). The ‘confrontation’ album Mad Professor Meets Jah Shaka At Ariwa Sounds pitted the two dub wizards against each other, though within the Ariwa confines; ‘Creation Dub’ is a delicious Professor reworking of Aswad’s ‘Warrior Charge’, put together with members of Aquizim and other Ariwa stalwarts on board. There’s a smattering of a lover’s rock vocal in the mix too, along with some shocking movie soundtrack wailing at the start.
The Wild Bunch feat. Sandra Cross — ‘Country Living’
(Ariwa 12″, 1985)
Sandra Cross began fronting the Wild Bunch in 1984, the group being a kind of Aquizim spin-off that featured her brother Garnett on keyboards and her husband, Bernard Cumberbatch, on bass. The group’s eponymous debut album had a mix of roots reggae and romance tunes, but Cross’ Country Life album was pure lovers (and is noteworthy for the inclusion of another Cross brother, Victor, on keyboards). ‘Country Living’ was Cross’ take on the Stylistics’ Philly Soul classic, but patterned after the Mighty Diamonds’ reggae recasting of the tune, now with added London lover’s rock twists. Cross’ lilting vocal provides the hook, and the extended 12″ allows Prof to segue into an extended dub section — in true Ariwa style, it’s the best of both worlds.
John McLean — ‘If I Gave My Heart To You’
(Ariwa 45, 1988)
West London-based male lover’s rock crooner John McLean scored a big hit with this song of romantic vulnerability, put together at Ariwa by toaster-turned-producer, Captain Sinbad. Its unusual arrangement is pure Ariwa, with a xylophone line providing melodic contrast to McLean’s clear voice, bolstered by a full male harmony chorus. The song was such a widespread smash that it was subsequently issued by Dureco in the Netherlands, and was also handled on Sinbad’s Rock Fort label in Jamaica.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry with Mad Professor — ‘25 Years Ago’
(Mystic Warrior, Ariwa LP, 1989)
After washing up in London in the mid-1980s, following a dramatic breakdown and an extended period of mental instability, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry began voicing material at Ariwa. ‘25 Years Ago’ was recorded in the mid-1980s, but not released until 1989; it is a suitably eerie track, on which Perry waxes lyrical about the many demons that were than plaguing him. Most notably, he expresses dissatisfaction with having been continually ripped off, never given financial reward for his work, nor proper credit for his artistic innovations. It marks the start of a long journey of collaboration between Perry and Prof, and although there were plenty more fascinating results from the pairing, this particular number remains an outstanding example of what transpired when the two put their heads together at Ariwa.
U Roy feat. Sister Audrey — ‘True Born African’
(Ariwa 12″, 1991)
Sister Audrey is most widely known as a lover’s rock singer and backing vocalist, but she cut her fair share of roots reggae too. The censorious ‘English Girl?’ was first recorded for Jah Shaka in 1982 at Ariwa’s Gautrey Road premises with Aquizim; the early ’90s re-cut sounds considerably less sparse. Placing U Roy onto the rhythm was an inspired move on Professor’s part, the contrast between her dulcet tones and U Roy’s gruff and forceful toasting helping the song to retain some livid buoyancy. Just as Audrey rejects that label of ‘English girl,’ U Roy reminds us that black people are ‘true born Africans,’ regardless of the land in which they begin their life journeys.
Macka B and Kofi — ‘Dread A Who She Love’
(Ariwa 12″, 1992)
Kofi is one of the many lover’s rock singers to enjoy strong hits with Mad Professor. In fact, she began her career in the Brown Sugar harmony group, whose 1977 single, ‘I’m In Love With A Dreadlocks,’ was the first to surface on Dennis Harris’ Lover’s Rock record label, the imprint that gave the movement its name. As lover’s rock gathered new bursts of steam in the early 1990s, she recut the tune for Professor to fine effect, and the extended 12″ release of the re-cut had an inspired toast from Birmingham-based deejay Macka B. Although the latter is known for his Afrocentric worldview and material that attacks social injustice, the pairing worked well on this release, another bi-polar example of the Ariwa capacity to face in different directions simultaneously.
Sade — ‘Love Is Stronger Than Pride’ remix
(Epic 7”, 1992)
With lover’s rock being an important branch of the Ariwa tree, and with Professor’s ability to bring new contours to the work of international artists, it made sense that Sade would eventually seek out his talents. Mad Professor’s understated remix brought a real Ariwa sensibility to the tune, his astute post-production morphing the tune much more into reggae mode, yet allowing her vocal qualities to shine through unfettered. In Prof’s hands, the chord changes of the song sound more dramatic, and the subtle musical and harmonic embellishments allow for more of a nightclub atmosphere.
Massive Attack & Mad Professor — ‘Sly (Cosmic Dub)’
(Wild Bunch 12”, 1994)
Bristol’s outstanding trip-hop unit Massive Attack have always acknowledged their debt to reggae and dub, with Horace Andy a noteworthy presence as lead vocalist from early on in their career. The pairing with Mad Professor for the dub recasting of their sophomore album Protection as No Protection made perfect sense – if anyone was going to do dub justice to their downtempo creations, Prof was the most likely contender. On the 12″ release of ‘Sly’ there are two different Mad Professor dub cuts to the tune; each is appealing in its own way, but I find that the ‘Cosmic Dub’ rendition gets under your skin more after repeated listening, the outer-worldly nature of the rhythm heightened by Prof’s emphasis of the song’s metronomic electronic pulse.
Max Romeo & Dub Revolutionaries — ‘Juks We A Juks’
(Ariwa 10″, 2005)
Ariwa has continued to develop its sound into the new millennium. Prof’s son Joe began mixing material there, uncredited at first, but latterly more recognised, while Mad Professor continued to break new talent from his HQ, as well as working with established veterans. His album collaboration with roots stalwart Max Romeo almost didn’t take place due to quarrels over terms and a few other differences, but when they finally got together, the collaboration was dynamite, as heard most obviously on the driving 10″ single, ‘Juks We A Juks.’ This likable rhythm with its ‘militant’ drum rolls has Romeo saluting reggae as a modern-day type of ‘pocomania song’ (referencing the pervasive Afro-Jamaican church cults of Jamaica), while Prof dubs up the whole proceedings to thrilling effect on the second half. Proof that Ariwa remains a valid concern that continues to issue original and challenging material.