Popular music has a long history of aural innovators, from Brian Wilson and his downward spiral to Phil Spector's wall of sound. They are often romanticized as shadowy knob-twiddling visionaries who through mixing boards and miles of cable added new worlds to stereophonic sound. Reggae music, with an admittedly limited rhythm structure, has been propelled forward by it's own pioneers, with Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Mad Professor holding top rank. In their own unique ways, both have created indelible catalogs of hit reggae albums, sonic experiments, and plenty of wicked bass heavy dub, traditionally the instrumental B-side or "version" of a popular song spliced and diced into a teeth-rattling art form all its own.
The two are from different generations and continents, yet both Professor and Perry walk the same twisted line. Both are passionate for electronics (Professor built his own mixing board as a teenager while Perry pushed four track recorders beyond comprehension), both built their own record company from the ground up (Ariwa / Black Ark), and both have produced music for a surprising range of artists including Massive Attack, U-Roy and the Orb (Professor) to The Skatalites, The Clash and the Beastie Boys (Perry).
But personality and style distinguish their unique talent. Mad Professor, a.k.a. Neil Fraser, is modest and straightforward, while Perry is one of the most slippery, beguiling characters in modern music. His outlandish character and studio trickery has long been rife with myth and titillating humor, but Perry's contributions to reggae, hip-hop and popular music are without question.
Before being nicknamed "Scratch" and "The Upsetter," Perry was known at dancehalls as the "Neat Little Man" for his small frame and agile feet. He dropped out of school at 15 and spent his time playing dominoes and dancing virtually every night at dancehalls around Jamaica. The music, boogie woogie, blues and jazz, became too narcotic to ignore. Perry moved to Kingston to enter the cutthroat Jamaican music industry any way that he could. He got his break as an errand boy for Coxsone Dodd and his Studio One empire, but his sharp ear would prove invaluable. Perry soon became the studio's audition supervisor and talent scout, with his crowning achievement being the discovery of the vocal trio the Wailers.
Coxsone and Perry eventually parted ways with Perry finding work with Prince Buster, Joe Gibbs, and others, but while the market often demanded singles with slick production techniques, Perry wanted to experiment, splice, and basically screw around with everything. Perry soon realized that his unorthodox ideas needed their own home. In 1974, he built the fabled Black Ark recording studio in the backyard of his Kingston suburban home.
The reggae that burst out of the Black Ark throughout the late 1970s was unparalleled. The sound was heavy, thick, and sexy. Using a now-antiquated Teac four track recorder, Perry would push convention to extremes by squeezing multiple layers of bass, drums, vocals and imaginative fragments of sound onto thin, magnetic tape - a feat that makes modern plug-and-play digital sampling seem all too easy. "I am the dub shepherd," Perry once said. "It was only four tracks written on the machine, but I was picking up twenty from the extra terrestrial squad."
Crucial vocal hit singles for Junior Byles ("Curly Locks"), Max Romeo ("War in a Babylon"), The Heptones, Meditations and Junior Murvin ("Police and Theaves") turned heads everywhere, in addition to Perry's own psychedelic instrumental dubs with his studio band The Upsetters; an aural playground for his mad ideas. Perry would splice two, sometimes three rhythms together, drop vocals, laughter, and unexpected aural oddities like a cow mooing in and out of the mix. At times you could practically hear Perry chuckling behind the console.
Blame it on money, paranoia, or possibly too much weed, for just as Black Ark reached a creative nexus in the late 70's Perry burned the studio to the ground. Today the truth behind the blaze, whether it was accidental or deliberate, has never been disclosed. In the days leading up to the fire, various eyewitnesses reported that Perry covered the studio walls with graffiti, then painted over all his vowels with black X's. His odd behavior was noticed on the street too, as some claim to have seen him walking backwards down city sidewalks and at times pounding the ground repeatedly with a hammer. One thing is for sure though - the legend of Perry and his Ark would establish him as one of the most entertaining and original record producers of the century.
Perry disappeared for a number of years thereafter before resurfacing in England in the late 1980s. He's released a number of new discs of original material in classic Scratch style, including production jobs with Terence Trent D'Arby, collaborative work with Mad Professor, and even a performance at the 1997 Tibet Freedom Concert. Ironically, his music is perhaps more popular (and more understood) today than ever, with four to five reissues of old material coming out on CD each year.
But prolific record pressing is old hat to the Mad Professor, who's own Ariwa record label has released over 100 albums since 1981. In addition to his own dub and reggae work, which ranges from political to experimental to downright extraterrestrial, Mad Professor has remixed tracks for Massive Attack, Depeche Mode, Jamiroquai, Rancid, KLF and Perry Farrell.
Since his youth the Mad Professor (who's neither angry nor a teacher, by the way) has had an insatiable passion for electronics. Born in Guyana and raised in England, Professor built his first radio at age eight, followed by a mixing board and finally a complete home studio. Even today with his arsenal of mixers, processors and turntables, Professor still uses his old mixing board when the proper "vibe" is needed.
Throughout the 1980s Mad Professor earned reputation as one of the best reggae producers in Britain, with both reggae and non-reggae acts asking him to overhaul their work. His original albums, of which there are countless, have explored more nuances and styles of instrumental dub than most would believe possible. He's searched for the roots of dub and reggae rhythms in "The African Connection," got political in the ongoing "Black Liberation Dub" series, and even fused modern-day jungle with dub in "Mazaruni - The Jungle Dub Experience."
Dub may be an instrumental art form, but "you don't have to hear vocals to get a message," Mad Professor said in an interview from 1996. "You could hear a track like 'Black Liberation Dub' and you don't have to have any words to say that it's 'Black Liberation Dub;' when you hear it you know its 'Black Liberation Dub' because it sounds like 'Black Liberation Dub.'"
Of all his production work, perhaps his most celebrated and recognized project (in non-reggae circles) was his remix of Massive Attack's sophomore album Protection in 1996, which tied the roots of reggae and dub to modern day trip-hop and trance like no one else had before. The album, appropriately titled No Protection, broke trip-hop down to its roots - dub to astonishing effects. Bass lines swayed and curled around gorgeous percussion, while the vocals of reggae legend Horace Andy, Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl) and Tricky were elongated into glorious echoes of reverb.
Today Mad Professor continues to release ever-creative interpretations of dub, in addition to a heavy road schedule which finds him performing live all around the globe. The Ariwa recording studio is taken on-tour and reassembled on each stage, so Professor can perform live re-mixes of master tapes from his extensive catalog. He's also joined by a variety of singers and live instrumentation to complete the sound.