Steve Mason vs Mad Professor
Dub disciple Steve Mason talks to the prolific Mad Professor about the foundations of digital dub and keeping track of his vast catalogue
You are known as the digital dub man. Why is that?
Haha, well I didn’t even know I was known as the Digital Dub Man until you said so! The thing about dub, right, is that basic dub was in the 70s – and then nothing happened for a few years. People like myself and Jah Shaka started to experiment, those experiments were at the start of digital technology. We were some of the first to produce dub using drum machines and digital techniques. That kicked off in the 80s; back then I was one of the most active dub engineers so that’ll be the reason you know me this way.
Did you feel as though you were doing something different to everyone else at the time?
Yeah, I felt as though I was doing something different, but I didn’t necessarily feel ahead. You only know you’re ahead when people comment after the adventure. It wasn’t about being ahead; at the time I just thought ‘why aren’t other people trying these things?’ I realised afterwards that their heads were just somewhere different; I was hearing things they weren’t. I was hearing various collaborations with soul and R'n'B, using tricks in the mix.
Do you prefer digital technology compared to analogue? I'm thinking here about drum machines vs. drummers, for example. Do you find one easier or more creative?
I prefer real drums. I think it’s a real art to record and mix real drums; to get that right is the greatest thing – it takes the recording to another level that I still find hard to describe.
In the eighties when samplers became widely used, did you ever experiment with them?
Our first experiment with a sampler was with an E-mu Emulator, we thought it was such a real fascinating keyboard – very expensive keyboard. We played around with it; one of the first things we did was record My Computer’s Acting Strange. We did this track called Dodgy Contacts [breaks into song ‘watch those dodgy contacts, wub wub wub wub wub, wa-wa-watch those dodgy contacts – they dangerous’]. And it became very popular in the club – reggae people thought it was weird, but we really enjoyed it.
Who of your peers – I'm thinking about people like Lenny Chin and Dennis Bovell – do you most admire, and is there any kinship between you or is it fierce competition?
It’s not so much a competition because when I started, the hot producers at the time were people like Dennis – he couldn’t do anything wrong. Every track he touched was great and he made it special. Then he drifted out of reggae and more into the pop stuff. Then Lenny Chin became the popular producer in the UK reggae scene. Even still I enjoy the 'lovers rock,' and all those people like Carroll Thompson, Donna Rhoden – they did great things. I was on the outside looking in on those guys thinking ‘boy, I would love to make music like this!’ I was in the studio myself then, but what I was doing didn’t sound as polished as their stuff. I was waiting my turn – trying to get better every time.
I spoke to Dennis about the sound days of the 70s and 80s and he said there was a real problem with the crowds not feeling British reggae was "authentic." Did you have any experience of this?
There was always a certain amount of people – not only in the seventies, but the eighties, nineties and even now – who feel that the only authentic reggae comes from Jamaica. You need to either not cater for those people or send them to Jamaica. It’s about knowing where your head is at as a producer and not being drawn into such politics.
My favorite dub album of yours is Jah Shaka Meets Mad Professor – especially the amazing use of tape delay on Creation Dub. Mighty Sounds! Which of these early dub albums are you most satisfied with?
I really liked the album called Escape to the Asylum of Dub, and also Who Knows the Secret of the Master Tape. They’re really nice, really good; I think those albums reached a height that nothing else came near.
The Massive Attack dub you did back in 1995 was a masterpiece! Were you happy with it?
No, I wasn’t very happy with it! I thought it could have been heavier and longer. But, you know, everybody else was happy – the public were very happy. And it did well – it’s a million seller. Haha…I can’t complain! And it certainly helped my career.
With such a massive back catalogue, do you ever look back and check out what you were doing in say 1984?
[laughs] Yeah, always! In fact, funny you should say that – we’re having this festival here in The Gambia and just a couple of hours ago I was thinking ‘I’ve got to tell my sons to transfer some of the stuff from '83-'84 and bring it here so I can play it.
Music of every era records what’s going on. Music is like a clock – you play it and remember time. For instance, if you hear a song like say The Supremes – Baby Love, or The Temptations – Just My Imagination; maybe you heard it when it was a hit years ago, then when you hear it again tomorrow the first thing you’ll think is ‘oh, when that song was popular I had this girlfriend’ or ‘when this song was popular I was on a beach in Hawaii.’ That’s the beauty of music; it has some real fascinating characteristics. In fact, the human being can’t understand all the powerful elements of music. [laughs] I'm sorry, I get carried away...
Who slipped through the Professor’s net – was there anyone you wanted to work with but never had the chance to?
I was about to work with Dennis Brown in the late nineties – we got together, we ran through some songs. His voice wasn’t there though, and then a few months later he died. He was definitely one.
Having made so much music in your life, do you wake in the morning with that drive and passion to create music like you always must have?
Music? Not in the past few years – largely because my studio has been taken over by my son! I want it back! [laughs]. I need to either put back my original desk that I built or I need another one. I don’t really feel the passion to record right now, these days I feel more of a passion for festivals. Organising events – I’m more into that, just getting these things to work. It’s a real challenge to get it together, a lot of logistics.
Other than reggae, what music has been a major influence on your career and sound?
Soul music was a big, big influence. Just you listen to any song by Wilson Pickett produced by Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia – I love that Philly late sixties/early seventies era. Love Motown, love Stax. I like Norman Whitfield, George Martin – Tom Bell was an early inspiration. It was all music that infected – it’s just very strong.
You came to the UK from Guyana when you were 13 – did you bring music with you? Records or tapes?
[Falling about laughing] Naaaaah – there wasn’t anything! Hold on, funnily enough – the only music I brought with me was a cassette of the first Stylistics album that someone passed on. That’s the most influential album for me – I’ve grown to love and really appreciate it.
Was the music of Guyana an inspiration?
No, we didn’t have that many artists! Well, we didn’t at the time – since then, over the past ten years, there’s been a few guys have come up to make a mark internationally. There were a few people I heard growing up, but it didn’t really influence me. I was more influenced by Africa, man – Calypso and stuff. And reggae – yes, the Jamaican, and some Trinidadian, eventually.
Have you ever worked with any Guyanese artists? In my mind a South American Dub album is a mouth watering idea!
Yes, I plan on it. I work with a label from Guyana called Kross Kolor and we’ve released some acts from them, a guy called x2 and a girl called Big Red and it seems to be doing OK, it sells very well. It’s not my production; I only license them and put them on the general market. I want to work more with them in the future – I want to help. Similar to what I’m trying to do in The Gambia, I want to pay some attention to the Guyanese.