Mad Professor interviewed by David Hill – February 2013
David Hill: Could you tell me about your background?
Mad Professor: I was born in South America – but without a sombrero! A place called Guyana. There are three Guyana’s – British Guyana, French and Dutch Guyana, and I’m from the British one, a former British colony. Culturally, we’re not like any other South American country, we’re probably closer to English Caribbean – you know Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica. Most of us have family from one or two of the islands. My grandparents came from Trinidad and Barbados and they went to Guyana to seek gold. A lot of people are still going, ‘cos a lot of people say that Guyana have the best gold and the cheapest coal. So some go there and stay and multiply and become Guyanese.
DH: So when did you move to London?
MP: When I was about 12 or 13.
DH: So you still have vivid memories if life in Guyana as a boy?
MP: Oh yeah, that’s where my whole electronic thing started – my hunger! We were quite poor growing up – in fact we only had one light bulb! There were only two electrical things in the house, the light bulb and the radio. In those days the radio was probably built by a carpenter who was sometimes an electronics guy, [they were] wooden frame with and electronic chassis. And every day the radio would come on and I’d say to my mum, “What’s that man doing in the radio”, and she’d say, “There’s no man in the radio!” So one day, when she was out, I went to the back of the radio with the screwdriver, the back came off, and I saw a load of resistors, capacitors and valves. She came in the back of the house, caught me, and she gave me some licks. She said, “I told you that there’s no man inside the radio, what are you doing?” So I go to the library to get a book to find out more about the thing, and I read the book and learn about radio. Then I started to collect old bits and I built myself my first radio when I was about ten years old – a crystal [set]. Then I built a one transistor job, amplified it and run a little speaker.
Then I came to London to meet my father, as he’d come here before. He was a chemist and druggist and was into science of all sorts. I discovered he had a room full of books, including Playboy magazines!
DH: That’s quite an exciting thing for an eleven-year-old boy!
MP: Oh yeah, coming from the Caribbean you never see anything like that, but I was more interested in the electronics books and I started to build more things. There was a shop around corner from us in Tooting called Broadway Electronics, and you could buy any bits, transistors, resistors of different values, so I went to town.
DH: There was more of an electrical hobbyist scene in those days, wasn’t there?
MP: [These was] Practical Electronics and Practical Wireless – even here in Croydon you had five or six hobby shops, and I’m talking the mid-70s. You know a lot of those shops turned into proper electronics manufacturers, people like Tuac, Saxon amps, and stuff like that. Because in the 70s everyone started to build their own, and obviously with the advent of the sound system there was a greater demand for power modules, where sound systems wanted 500 (watt) modules to put like four 500s on a set and have a two thousand watts. So suddenly with a lot of West Indians building sound systems and there was even more of a demand for audio electronics.
Croydon was also a place during the war that had a lot of [military] bases and they ended up with lots of local electronics companies [to service and supply them]. I could get anything I wanted electronics wise, and I had this hunger to build things.
By the time I left school I had started to repair various things and I got work quite easy, fixing audio stuff [like] turntables, amplifiers and whatever. Then I found this circuit for a mixing desk in Practical Electronics, a twelve-channel desk, and I went to town on that. I drilled the chassis and put everything together, the metalwork and all that.
And then I got this offer of a job at Soundcraft, where they had these faulty boards for a mixing desk, a Series Two console. Lee Perry had a Series One, that was the first one in a flight case, and then there was the Series Two that was a little bit bigger. The Series One was really a live desk, but Lee was using it in the studio though, it wasn’t meant for that. Anyway, there was this room full with PCBs (printed circuit boards), it was absolutely stacked with them, there must have been a few thousand boards in there. And this guy, who funnily enough was also from Guyana, said, “So, you call yourself a technician? Okay, you see the boards in this room? All of these boards are bad. We need these boards fixed, and I can tell you, they’re not easy to fix. We’ve tried about six people recently and none of them could get them to work.” They gave me a week’s trial. He showed me what to do, put one on a jig and showed me the square wave and all the testing [equipment] so I could check the boards out. How audio tends to work is with a square wave test, which is the perfect test for an audio board. You’ve got a ‘scope and you put a perfectly square wave into the input, and at the output you’re supposed to get a perfectly square wave out, and subject to the EQ, you can see distortion. If it’s biased towards the treble you see it goes up in a slope, if it’s biased towards the bass, it goes up at the tail end. So a square wave tells you a lot, that’s how basic electronics works. So I went to town on that and by the end of the week I must have done 15 to 20 boards. They said that the boards were okay, and I landed the job.
DH: So you qualified yourself?
MP: Yes, and at the same time I was teaching myself about the electronics at a professional level, so it was perfect for me.
DH: When would this have been?
MP: This would have been about ’78, ’79.
DH: And what were you listening at that time?
MP: Dub. Dub and Motown.
DH: Was that Jamaican dub or UK, or both?
MP: Anything, I mean there wasn’t that much UK stuff at that time except for the stuff made by Dennis Bovell and a few other guys. Most of the UK stuff was being made by Jamaican musicians [who were] over here on tour. Castro Brown was producing stuff with Sly and Lloyd Parks and those guys. One of my favourite albums was actually The Stylistics first album, with ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, ‘You Are Everything’, and all these Philly ballads. I was just fascinated by the sheer sonic quality. I appreciated the studios and the labels that could make a sound that wasn’t generic, that wasn’t typical. So as soon as you put a needle on the record you could hear it was a Sigma Sound, and reggae had a lot of that, like Treasure Isle and Studio One. I really appreciated that.
DH: The technical component and the way that the music is presented?
MP: Right, exactly. Being a technician, I would strip apart in my head, or try to strip apart, how every record was put together. A record like ‘For The Love of Money’ by The O’Jays, you listen to that record and you think ‘How did they do that?’ Between the engineer and the producer, Joe Tarsia and Gamble & Huff, they’re doing things to wake up an inner part of your soul. On ‘For The Love of Money’ they have this voice coming back at you and then you realise that it’s reversed vocals. And it’s freaky – and the thing is, if you take drugs, it would probably freak you out even more. I mean I don’t take drugs, but… Things like that make you realise that, as a producer, if you have the time and the money you could probably make very interesting records. Not necessarily to make a million dollars, but to reach somewhere in the listeners’ soul. And that is where I was at.
Reggae wise I thought that the most imaginative records at that time were [coming from] Joe Gibbs, they had a bit more sonic quality than most. And the best players would be the Now Generation, Geoffrey Chung, Mikey Chung. I was listening to a lot of that kind of stuff. And the things retaining real Caribbean horns. That’s why I really love Treasure Isle, when you hear Tommy McCook, you really feel the Caribbean, the coconut trees and sunshine. To tell you the truth, there were very few bad records in that period!
DH: Yes, if you look at the output from even ’65 to ’75 and the depth, breadth and sheer qulaity in all sorts of genres, and then you compare it to the last ten years. It’s just breathtaking.
MP: To tell you the truth, in a year like ’73 the standard of music was so high that many good records didn’t hit. When I heard that a record like Bloodstone’s ‘Natural High’ only made number 16 in the charts, well I couldn’t believe it. Until you realise that ’73 is the year of things like [William DeVaughn's] ‘Be Thankful For What You Got’, that’s the year Al Green had ‘Call Me’, Marvin Gaye had ‘What’s Going On’. You had to be really
good because there were so many really good records out there already. To penetrate the top twenty you had to compete on a World-class level, and as technician, I put a lot of down to format, because I’m convinced that the format has a lot to do with the overall sound of the records.
DH: When you say format, what do you mean?
MP: The multi-track format. For instance, two inch 16 track is easily the best format for sonic appeal. It’s a beautiful format. The music just hits you. The dynamics are brilliant. You listen to Pro Tools and it just doesn’t carry the same. I think that tape records something that digital can’t, something that can’t yet be measured. That’s what I realised after a while. The main technical things that most manufacturers look for are signal to noise [ratio], frequency bandwidth and distortion, but I think that there are certain other things that are embodied in a recording. In the 70s the state of the art format was 16 track two inch, or 8 track 1 inch tape.
DH: Is that because a 16 track two inch is better than a 24 track two inch due to the area available on the tape that the head has to record on?
MP: Exactly. It kicks more. When you hear a bass drum drop, it has more weight.
DH: I suppose that it’s the same as having a higher IPS [inches per second], it’s just more tape space?
MP: Absolutely, if you go down to 7.5 IPS you get a lower bass sound than with 15 IPS. That’s why records like Fabian ‘Prophecy’ just rumbles. It was 8 track, one inch at 7.5 IPS, and it growls. There’s no way a record running at 30 IPS would sound like that. It would sound more transparent, but the bottom end, which is what they were after on that particular record – it drops! So as a producer I’ve learnt not to dismiss formats and not to be so blind as to think it doesn’t matter, far from it, formats are important.
Over the years I’ve worked with different tape machines, I’ve got a couple MCIs now, but I’ve also worked with Ampex, Studer and Otari, and I can tell you that Ampex are easily the best machines. They have the best, best sound, but they’re also the most delicate machines, because if the control room becomes too warm the tape speeds up or slows down, things like that. You need air conditioning, and even then they still go mad sometimes. The MCIs are definitely more stable, [and have] similar circuitry to the Ampex.
DH: I know that they used an MCI desk at Island’s Compass Point studios in Nassau.
MP: Well MCI was built in Miami, which is next door to Jamaica, so a lot of Jamaican studios ended up with MCI equipment. Channel One had Ampex at first, Ampex 4 track, and then in 1980, or 1979, they upgraded to 16 tracks. That’s when the sound changed, with Scientist, where you can feel the space. Like I said, format is not to be taken lightly. So if you build a studio, you really ought to look at the formats you’re using.
DH: So how long were you at Soundcraft?
MP: I was at Soundcraft for about a year and half and then decided I’d learnt enough to build my own studio, so I jumped (laughs). We’d just bought this house and it had this front room, it was a nice front room with two single rooms knocked out, and I thought this would make a nice studio. That was at the corner of Thirsk Road and Bruce Road.
DH: And what did your wife have to say about that?
MP: (laughs) Well, she got a bit pissed off with my ideas, but it was the mother-in-law that had ideas for a three-piece suite right where I wanted to put a drum kit! They had in mind various domestic things, and I had in mind a drum kit and piano. I got myself a 4 track machine, a TEAC 3440, that’s the 4 track on quarter inch, and by then I modified my little desk so I had an 8 track.
DH: And that was when you first started recording music for yourself?
MP: Yeah, I’d never recorded before.
DH: So you knew musicians?
MP: I knew one musician (laughs). I knew a musician called Dave, who used to play keyboards in a reggae band called Black Volts. Actually I new two, I knew Dave and Dennis Bovell. His wife and my wife went to school together, so I knew him when he was hitting the big league.
DH: He must have been a superstar at that point?
MP: Oh yeah man, really, he was. He was making soundtracks for movies. He was telling me the other day that he was getting forty grand for a soundtrack at that time. I said, “What!” Forty grand could buy you two or three three-bedroom houses in those days! In the late 70s and early 80s, music had real money in it, if you were doing the right thing. It was a different ballgame then. So I only knew these two guys and from them I got to know other guys, until I knew enough to have a Sunday afternoon session, when, like, four musicians that would come around. And it just started to jump. Every Sunday we would put stuff down on the 4 track.
DH: And it was reggae that you were recording?
MP: Yes, it was reggae. I might have dabbled with some crossover stuff years later, but I was always reggae, whether roots reggae or lovers. I was one hundred percent reggae.
DH: So when did you press your first record?
MP: I pressed records after I upgraded from 4 track to an 8 track machine, a Tascam, and
then I added some more channels and expanded it.
DH: So you customised the desk?
MP: Totally customised, [for] more bottom end and better tops.
DH: And how do you go about doing that?
MP: Just by experimenting. By looking at the spec of certain transistors. So if you had a transistor that went down to, say, 40 hertz, you’d get one that goes down to 20 hertz.
DH: So you would change the components to increase the bandwidth?
MP: Absolutely. You just get things to give you a better sound, like better distortion levels. You play with components until you get the sound you want, you literally experiment until you get something good, and then you hold on to that.
DH: Do you look back on that period with affection?
MP: The 70s they were a magical period. People were hungry, and although reggae was on the outside to some extent, you had more crossover [success] than you have now. If you think about ’71, or even ’69, you had Desmond Dekker, you had [Bob & Marcia] ‘Young Gifted and Black’, and as political as the title might sound, it was a crossover hit. You had the Pionners ‘Let Your Yeah Be Yeah’, you Ken Boothe with ‘Everything I Own’, Susan Cadogan had ‘Hurt So Good’, then coming on to ‘Money in my Pocket’ and Althea and Donna. You had loads of crossover records hitting the mainstream. But yet in any store, like the equivalent of HMV, they didn’t have a reggae section. You’d have to find reggae records in the soul section. It was amazing.
Coming into the late 70s, you had Janet Kays ‘Silly Games’, Sugar Minott’s ‘Good Thing Going’, a Michael Jackson cover, and Trevor Walters ‘Love Me Tonight’, a homegrown hit, and yet UK reggae had no real international recognition, but it was real rich period for reggae.
DH: So you had left Soundcraft by this point?
MP: Yes, and after Soundcraft and I had one other job for three months down in Woking, doing aircraft sub-assembly, which was paying more money. Then I got bored of it. I kept talking about music all the time and they got pissed off with me and I got fired. I went home and same week I had two guys calling me up about the studio, which were MoAmbassa, the sound system guys, and Shaka. They wanted stuff done and I had about three days of work, so I thought that this was showing the right signs. And then the next week I had no calls, and the next week I had no calls, so I had to sign the dole (laughs). And then on the third week things start to pick up again, and that’s how it was.
DH: Did your current studio follow that one in the house on Bruce Road?
MP: No, after that studio, I had one in Peckham. Bruce Road was an end of terrace house, a fine thing, but you have to remember I had no money to spend on proper soundproofing and the guy next door used to work nights and sleep in the day. He complained to the authorities and then we started getting letters about the noise, so I needed to move. By then I also had started to have different rock bands coming in, because I had an advert going out in the South London press for an 8 track studio. I had to find somewhere as the letters were getting more serious because the studio was getting popular. I pressed one record, which bombed.
DH: What was the name of the label that was released on?
MP: Ariwa. It was Ariwa from the very beginning.
DH: What does Ariwa mean and where does the name come from?
MP: It means communication in Yoruba, which is a West African language. I got that when I was working in electronics for Redifussion, one of my first jobs around ’75. I was working with this seven foot tall African guy, and I asked for a name and he gave me Ariwa. So that was in ’75, and I kept the name and I’ve used it since then.
DH: So who recorded in your home studio?
MP: Well the bands were coming in every Sunday because all the guys were working [during the week]. So they’d be jamming and then we’d have some singers, like Sister Audrey, a guy named Sgt. Pepper, and Rockaway.
DH: And these are mainly from South London?
MP: Yes, South London guys and girls, who’d come in. There was Ranking Anne and other MCs, and we started to form the core of the Ariwa label.
DH: Was that singing with the band or voicing tracks that the band had laid?
MP: Well first they’d come and play with the band, and then they’d come back and voice tracks that we had on tape. Then I’d have something to experiment with and I’d be trying my little dub things, my echo, you know. We also had various Jamaican artists coming in and using the studio like Mikey Dread, Dread At The Controls, he was recording and doing a lot of experimental things, and Jah Thomas.
DH: Jah Thomas, was he laying rhythms, or was he voicing rhythms recorded in JA?
MP: He was mainly voicing rhythms from JA. Voicing, mixing and editing. I also had Mo Amossa with a lot of stuff from Tubby’s and different artists, and Shaka started to come in to do some voicing. This would be about 1980.
But we were under pressure to find a place, I looked around and I found a nice little detached building in Balham. By then I had a 16 track two inch Ampex machine, a solid machine, an MM1000, with an 8 track one inch head block. A beautiful sounding machine, but heavy – it took about eight men to lift it, and with great difficulty! Luckily we were on the ground floor, but we still had to go two steps up. It was heavy. Heavy in weight and heavy in sound! But I had to get a room big enough to fit it in, and I found this place in Balham first. It was a pretty good size, but just before I moved in realised that I’d soon out-grow this place, so I found this place in Peckham, which was a threestory building with a big basement. So I thought yes, let’s put the studio in there. But my clients didn’t like Peckham because by then seventy percent of the people using the studio were white rock musicians and Peckham was a very a rough area. When they saw a white guy coming they would just jump him. In the early 80s it was rough, believe me!
DH: Not great for clients then!
MP: No, not for my clients! I stayed there for four years – four years too long! But for some reason most of my [Ariwa] artists were from Peckham or Newcross, so it was better for them. In Peckham, we had the basement, and soon after that Shaka wanted a place, so I gave Shaka the first floor and he was running his office from there.
DH: So it was a central point for all things reggae then?
MP: Oh yeah, for sure. And with Shaka came a lot of his circle. He’s more Rasta orientated and in that community, and he attracted a lot of people that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. But the problem with Peckham was that my beloved Ampex couldn’t fit down in the basement [where the studio was], so for the first six months it was on the first floor and a tape operator would have to shout “Play!” down into the basement. So I had to get rid of it. I didn’t have much money, but I had to find a machine that was light enough to go down the stairs to the basement and the only machine going was built by a guy in Shewsbury named Peter Keeling. He built a two inch machine, 16 tracks, and he was trying to get it on the market. It was a small machine, but it was still heavy, so as I didn’t have much choice I thought I’d try it. He was selling it for £4,000. I could have got an new Otari MTR 90 Mk1, which is still a heavy machine, but lighter than Ampex, but they sold for £18,000. Soundcraft were also making machines, they had a new branch company called Soundcraft Magnetics and were building 16 track two inch machines that were quite portable, but they were twelve grand and money was tight. So I had to try Peter’s machine, and I should I have known from the very first day that Peter didn’t quite know what he was doing. When I put on my first tape the kick was on track sixteen and the snare was on track fifteen! I called Peter and told him that his machine was wired up back to front! He said it couldn’t be, as mine was the fourth machine that he’d sold and the others hadn’t complained, so I said that the others probably never had a reference point. His track one was track sixteen! I said, “Believe me, your machine is wired upside down!”
DH: And what was the audio quality of that machine like?
MP: It was okay, but it wasn’t brilliant. I kept it for two years, but it was a crazy machine. It would do things like there was a ghost in it. Suddenly it would start fast-forwarding, or if you press play and you have a channel ready, it would start recording [on it's own]. It was simply because the components used were [low grade and] a bit noisy, and coming from a manufacturing background I knew that. But I was in a trap, I’d taken on a building, I was running the label, and I still had some [studio hire] clients, so I needed a tape machine.
I stayed in Peckham until 1986 and I had that machine from ’82. It was a very prolific period for us and we recorded some good tunes on that machine, but with great difficulty! Our first big hit, ‘Don’t Call Me No English Girl’ by Sister Audrey, was recorded on that Aces machine. It was a big, big record. A lot of the Shaka stuff was also recorded on that machine – it was okay for roots, because it’s rough. But then I got fed up with the desk and I went back to my friends at Soundcraft and I got a frame that they were discontinuing. I put it together and modified everything so I ended up with a 32 channel Series Two, which was special with a four-band parametric EQ.
And then a friend called to say that Richard Branson was upgrading his studio on the barge, and they had an Ampex for sale. I said that the Ampex wouldn’t fit, but he said that it was an 1100, the smaller one. I said okay, I did a deal and I was back to Ampex. It was 24 track MM1100. I had to do some work on it and spent £1,500 putting in varispeed and everything. Cyril Sellinger was the Ampex expert, he knew them inside out, and he came and he spent all day on it. He brought the scopes and everything. Electronics is one thing, but a tape machine is combination of mechanical and electrical, and you’ve got to deal with tension. He’s one of only a few guys I know who used tension meters, because the tape has to show a certain amount of tension. He knew every part of the machine to adjust, he was a connoisseur and an expert. He tweaked up that machine, and when he’d finished, I knew we were gonna make hits. I just knew it, the way that machine sounded when you put your voice though it – wow the clarity!
DH: So when was that?
MP: That was about ’84, when I started to tour with Lee Perry.
DH: What was your introduction to Scratch?
MP: Well, this guy Adam, who ended up being the manager of The Orb years later, he used to work for a [record] distributor in Fulham called Zircon. He was a white guy, but he really loved dub music. Somehow he heard that Lee Perry was coming over and that he was looking for a studio to work out of, so he thought that he should hook us up. So he brought Scratch over and hooked him up with Seven Leaves [record label] and Winston Edwards at Studio 16.
When Scratch started to work he spent all day voicing and he really loved the sound he was getting from the Ampex and Soundcraft. He brought in an engineer because he thought that maybe I don’t have the experience, so they had Sid Bucknor, who used to be
at Studio One, which was good, because Sid had the stamina to work with Scratch. They would work from ten in the morning until ten at night. And when Scratch started a tour and they brought me along to do the mixing.
DH: So you were doing front-of-house mixing on the Scratch tour?
MP: Yes, it was on those early tours and he used a band called the Sus Band, they’re from west London.
And in the studio they were voicing on that Ampex and I learnt a lot from them. Scratch would come in and want to mix and he arrived at balances really, really, quick. I mean, sometimes, he’d play a tune from the start end when the tune finish, it would be balanced. And the way that they were using compression, it was really perfect.
DH: And what was he recording?
MP: The stuff he was recording was mainly stuff for himself. He was recording and he had a lot to say. Our relationship was purely client and studio and I wasn’t involved in the production. He would come in with his tapes and entourage, and they would just record.
It also was the point when he was becoming Scratch the artist [rather than the Scratch the producer]. I was doing all the tracking and he was doing the voicing. He was Scratch the artist and I was Professor the engineer. It was an interesting learning period for me, the way they worked with the gates and the compressors, both him and Sid, they really taught me a lot. Especially about vocals, they had it all. So the Ampex was really christened nicely, and it was sounding good.
Then I upgraded the studio, I had the Ampex, the modified desk, and then I had a digital delay, one of those Roland ones, and a MXR digital reverb, which had a nice bright sound. I went to New York to get that and it was two grand, and two grand was a lot of money in 1984! But it gave the studio a fresh sound.
Then I went on to do my own productions. I went back to one of my favourite albums by The Stylistics and I picked a couple of tunes, one was ‘Country Living’, which we redid. We’d done the rhythm track and then I looked around for a singer, but nobody wanted to voice it. I was turned down by about six people, and then I went back to Sandra Cross and asked her to voice the tune, [which] she did. I found some backing vocals, found the keyboard overdubs, then I tweaked it up.
I thought I’d press it up, and prior to this, most records I pressed five hundred of and I’d watch them trickle for six months. This one, for some reason, I pressed a thousand and within a day or two Jetstar, the distributor, called and said they needed another thousand. So I pressed the records and gave them to them. Then they called and said they wanted two thousand, I said, “ You’re joking!” This went on and it sold sixty thousand plus. It was a number one record in early ’85.
After that every producer wanted to come to the studio, because we’d started making hits. We were busy, busy, busy! We had a lot of Jamaican producers, like [Donovan] Germain – all of them come and use the studio, because they’d heard about it and they’re fascinated. It’s the nearest thing to Jamaica, but it sound different from Jamaica, and they all wanted a piece of the action.
Other than Sandra cross we hit again with Sister Audrey, again with Lorna G, Pato Banton, and there were some other things that we mixed that weren’t ours, like John Holt and Dennis Brown records, like ‘Wild Fire’. There were loads of different outside productions that we did that were big hits and it was busy. And then in ’86 we had Macca B hitting as well. The label was busy and the studio was busy, and money was flowing and for the first time. I could see that things were looking good, and then I had a burglary.
DH: What was stolen?
MP: A coin box, because in those days we had one, a cassette machine, a Revox PR99, a (Yamaha) DX 7. The Ampex and desk they didn’t touch, but I was pissed off, because whoever done this is obviously somebody who had been in the room when I was there. I felt violated and betrayed. So I thought that I should get out while I could and wind up the studio. I thought maybe I’d get a job and get back into electronics.
DH: It had that big an impact?
MP: Well yes, I felt like I’d been betrayed. You wouldn’t walk down the road and just go into a place unless you’ve been there already, not a studio like that. So I came home and became depressed for two or three months. Then I decided to put together another studio at home, but this time in the back room. I brought a few guys around, but it was small and it didn’t sound right, but I began to get my hunger back for the music business. Then I saw this place [in Thornton Heath] up for sale, but I didn’t have the money. I thought I’d drive out to see it though and when the guy brought me in and showed me around, I thought that it’d be ideal for a studio, because the building isn’t actually attached to the building next to it. I realised this this is the chance of a lifetime, if I do things properly, then maybe I could do it. So I pushed myself and got it. In those days you wouldn’t buy a premises to run a business, you’d rent. I thought that if I made that move I’ll have to be serious, because if I slipped, then it’s like my whole family going down the drain, because I really stuck my neck out to get it. I had no back up financially, only the income from the studio, and two mortgages to pay. So it had to work, but in those days the studio was working from nine or ten in the morning up to midnight, seven days a week.
DH: So business was good?
MP: Yes, and I started to go to things like Midem, the international music trade fair (in Cannes). My first Midem was around ’86, and even then there was still no classification for reggae, you had to say you were soul.
DH: But this says something important about you too, because I can’t imagine that there we many people involved in reggae that were attending Midem?
MP: No, I was crazy enough to go (laughs). But then I love travel, so I had some money and booked my flight. I didn’t have a stand there, I just walked around. Then after that we took a stand a couple of times and it was good for the profile of the label.
DH: Do you still go?
MP: No, because it’s the same time that I have the Back To Africa festival (in Gambia) on, so I’d have to move that back for a year to go. To be honest, the peak of this label, in terms of sales, was probably ’88, ’89. That’s when we had our best ever sales, in terms of vinyl.
DH: What would those records have been, was it more Lovers’ stuff?
MP: It was across-the-board. Well actually, the biggest dub record was in ’84, which wasn’t particularly a year for dub. Dub Me Crazy 4 in ’84, must have sold a good forty thousand, and Dub Me Crazy 5 did well in ’85.
DH: And when you have your costs contained, as you have with the studio here, it’s really making sense.
MP: Oh, yeah, definitely. And the best singles I would say would be between ’85 and ’89, things like ‘Country Living’, you’re talking about a record that sold sixty thousand, and ‘If I Give My Heart To You’ by John Mclean.
DH: Those are significant numbers.
MP: Oh yeah man, proper. We had about five or six records that needed two thousand repressed at a time, so it was a case of juggling cash flow, but it was exciting. After that we had some hits again, but they’ve never done fifty thousand. Well no, we did have Jocelyn Brown ‘Daydreaming’, the Aretha Franklin cover, that might have done fifty thousand, at the end of the day. But it was slower, over four or five years, whereas the others would have done that in a year.
DH: Could tell me about some of the people that have worked in this studio, like Augustus Pablo?
MP: Oh yeah, we had Pablo, and the aforementioned Mikey Dread, Johnny Clarke, Yabby U. Augustus, he would come in with a board, a big board, and a guy behind him with about a dozen bottles and various bags. He’d lay out all the ganja you can imagine on the board and get this big knife and he’d be chopping up the ganja. He’d have the bottles laid out and he’d’ take some of the liquid, pour it in, and chop it, then he’d get another bottle, pour it in, then chop it and mix it all up. Then he’d sprinkle something else
on it. It was a whole ritual that took about two hours. Then he got his pipe, a pipe with water, stuff it in the pipe, then he would light up and smoke. And cough. Cough for ten minutes, twenty minutes, and the smoke in the studio would be dense. And after another hour he’d say, “Right Professor, ready. Ready for tape. Where the musicians them? Ready!”
DH: And this would be in the early 90s?
MP: Yes this would be the 90s with drum machines running. I think he had a drummer too. He had Earl Sixteen, Sister Rasheda, Aisha and some others too. Pablo in particular loved girl singers, and he loved Lovers’ Rock. He loved those kind of chords. Amazing fellow, and he himself had some unique touches when he played the keyboard. He was a really good keyboard player. His ears were different. He was a mystic guy.
DH: He made Eastern sound his own really.
MP: Well that’s his heritage because he was literally a Black Chiney, he was a half Black, half Chinese. In the Caribbean you are what you are, and you make the best of what you have. You use your assets.
DH: What can you tell me about Vivian Jackson?
MP: When Yabby U is here, he’s like a preacher. He attracted various people from the music industry would come to see him. People like Lloydie Coxsone would be there, Fatman, and guys who I didn’t even know. Yabby U would be telling stories, telling them all how to live, and how not to live. He was a guy who could talk for hours about right and wrong, quoting biblical verses and showing different predications. He would tell you, “You don’t see it, but it’s written down, the meek shall inherit the earth”. And he knew how to convert biblical words into songs. He said to me, “Listen Professor, you’re the only man I’m going ever to record for, other than myself. I don’t record for people, you know.” He said that he’d record for me and he did.
I had Scratch and Yabby U staying at my house in the mid-90s when Yabby U was recording. At one point we had U Roy coming in as well, but he only stayed for two days because he said he couldn’t be in house with two madmen, so he found a hotel. (laughs) We were in another house, as that would have been too much! (laughs again)
DH: So where do you see Ariwa going from here?
MP: Well I don’t know, the record business is now a digital business and you don’t make enough to float the ship. These days as a record label you need to do something else, We’re actually moving more into events, we’ve got the Back To Africa festival, and we’ve got a couple of tourist-based businesses, which suits us. Luckily we’re not under any big pressure to survive, I only have to pay my electricity, my gas and my rates and that’s it. But as a record label you need to do something, and I think that the way forward is events. It just doesn’t make sense to press records like we used to.