Lovers and Technology: Mad Professor and Ariwa Sounds Among the odds and ends I’ve got stowed away is a Rough Trade mail order catalogue from 1981. It makes for a fascinating read still. What is particularly striking is the high proportion of reggae releases featured in its listings. Many of these are ‘home grown’ recordings, but reggae music made in the UK is still ridiculously underappreciated despite there being a rich and varied heritage to explore. There, however, are certain names generally granted legendary status. These include Dennis Bovell, Jah Shaka, Adrian Sherwood and the Mad Professor. That’s fair enough. We would surely all agree that these are among the greats. And yet would it be too controversial to suggest that this consensus is rather based on reputation than real familiarity? Take for example the Mad Professor: what immediately comes to your mind when his name is mentioned? His early production work with The Ruts DC? His reworking of Massive Attack’s Protection? The Dub Me Crazy series? His lovers rock recordings? Or perhaps his enduring label Ariwa? How much do we really know about the Mad Professor? There is still a school of thought that equates independent record labels with the punk rock era and what came after. This is patently ridiculous. There is a long tradition of small record companies in whatever area of UK music you choose to examine: jazz, blues, folk, classical, reggae, rock, soul, and so on. There has always been recording activities away from the mainstream, and some of these imprints have been more successful than others. It’s just that their definition of success may not have been a place on the national Top 40. Sometimes even survival is success in certain circumstances. The Mad Professor’s Ariwa label over the past 30 years or so has become a venerable independent institution. Growing out of the Ariwa Sounds studio, it may not have had the early success of its south London neighbour Fashion, but the Mad Professor’s track record is remarkable. I have to confess it is only over the past few years that I have come to realise just what a treasure trove the Ariwa catalogue is. So, working on the basis that there may be others who are not familiar with a lot of the records the Mad Professor has put out on his label, it seemed like a fun idea to put together some personal favourites from the Ariwa archives. This is a purely subjective rather than representative selection of tracks that were on my mind at the time. Another day the line-up might be totally different, and indeed I keep thinking of what I’ve left off this mix. It just happens to feature many of the ‘home grown’ talents Ariwa recorded. The Mad Professor has worked with many of the Jamaican reggae greats, and issued several series of dub recordings under his own name, but I have chosen not to include these. Some of the artists included here are captured at the start of their careers, while others have completed numerous laps elsewhere. I just hope this collection encourages you to explore the Ariwa back catalogue and buy some of product that is available on vinyl, CD or digitally. I would like to add the customary note of caution by offering apologies to those who know an awful lot more about the music of Ariwa than me.
Ranking Ann – Something Fishy Going On I’ve become incredibly fond of old ‘80s UK reggae. I don’t have the money to become a serious collector of the original vinyl, even if I could track it down. And there doesn’t seem to be THAT much around on CD. Not even on compilations. Though Soul Jazz and Honest Jon’s have made a start. There doesn’t even seem to be THAT much documented, generally, about the music either. Not the Lovers Rock or the DJ or MC thing or the sound systems. But the fascinating aspect of this sort of cultural amnesia is that there are all sorts of odd random postings on YouTube that collect aspects of this music. I like to think that it’s people from back in the day, as they say, that are rummaging through their old crates, using new technology that has become more accessible, and sharing these lost sounds. I prefer that idea than the collector thing of people showing off their new pricey purchases. Anyway, one of the things I stumbled across was a number of clips relating to a Channel 4 TV show called Black On Black, which featured the Saxon Sound System, and a number of MCs. There was Tippa Irie, and what will have been his hit Complain Neighbour, and then he’s messing about with Daddy Colonel.
And, well, Tippa and the Colonel are great, but they are upstaged when Ranking Ann comes on and just wipes the floor with everyone and all that. And while you’re totally in awe of her presence you don’t quite realise at first what she’s saying. Then it registers that she’s talking about the right to fight, and what kind of government is this that wants to stop the miners’ benefits when all they want is coal not dole. And I don’t know why but it made me sit up with a jolt because in all the stuff I remembered and read about the Miners’ Strike and what was in effect a civil war there didn’t seem to have been anything about the black community, and what its views on the Strike were. And here was Ranking Ann, her big TV moment, using it to show support for the Miners’ struggle. You might think the black community, people in the inner cities, had enough problems or causes of their own. Unemployment, racism, police harassment, etc.
And that TV clip of Ranking Ann is so striking. This well dressed, good looking young black woman sending the crowd wild, but you almost do a double take as she is chatting about doing it in a militant style, and going on to have a go at the government for trying to starve the miners back to work. As the ‘80s developed there was a fast style chatting that developed in south London via the sound system scene, Saxon etc. Smiley Culture, Asher Senator, Papa Levi, Macka B. The Dub Vendor shop in Clapham/Battersea had a small studio in its basement and its own label Fashion which had huge success. Laurel & Hardy’s You’re Nicked. Smiley Culture’s Cockney Translation and Police Officer. And so on. But across south London in his home studio in Peckham the Mad Professor was getting behind Ranking Ann, releasing the exceptional LPs A Slice Of English Toast and Something Fishy Going On. These were incredibly inventive and uncompromising records. The title track from Ranking Ann’s second LP is featured here, and it tackles the theme of nuclear energy/war which was a major talking point in the mid-‘80s. Ann would go on to record with Scritti Politti, providing the Flesh And Blood response to The Word Girl, but this sadly did not prove to be a springboard for success.
Lorna Gee – Giro
Ranking Ann and other female MCs of the early-to-mid ‘80s provide the inspiration for a chapter in Dick Hebdige’s Cut ‘N’ Mix book on ‘Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music’. In this 1986 article Hebdige, one of the best pop culture academics ever, almost wistfully suggests this may be the future. Among the other young MCs he mentions is Lorna Gee, who was another star of that Black On Black TV show. She is captured wonderfully performing her hit Brixton Rock, a brilliant attempt at accentuating the positive of a place so often given a bad name. Brilliantly mixing up early hip hop with the reggae chatting tradition, referencing Gary Byrd's The Crown, the single version contains the immortal lines: "Don't need to boast. Don't need to brag. Don't gimme cocaine, I'll do with a fag ..."
Lorna recorded a number of other tracks with the Mad Professor, both in the DJ style and in the lovers rock format. Giro, an early cut of Lorna’s, is a work of genius where she tells, what is for many a familiar tale down the years, of trouble with the department that handles unemployment and other benefit payments. Dickens used that wonderful word obfuscation about the mysterious ways these people work. Lorna puts a humorous slant on state obfuscation and such proceedings, and that trick of laughing at adversity is something that ran through a lot of the early ‘80s UK MCs’ recordings. Lorna in more recent years has become increasingly involved in acting and teaching drama, and it’s easy to see the link between these activities.
Wild Bunch – Mr President When the Mad Professor re-imagined Massive Attack’s Protection he must have allowed himself a wry smile. For those who know their Massive Attack and the story of Bristol’s blues and roots will be aware of the part the Wild Bunch soundsystem/crew played in the scene’s development, and yet the Mad Professor, who will have been a visitor to the St Pauls parties over the years, in the early ‘80s had his own Wild Bunch project. The Mad Professor’s outfit was ostensibly a vehicle for the exquisite vocals of young south Londoner Sandra Cross, putting her in the vocal trio format (with Sandra Sampson and Sandra Williams who were formerly members of the group Sister Love) which had been so successful down the years from Motown to the UK’s own lovers rock scene. But if you track down a copy of the remarkable (1984) Wild Bunch LP you’d find something genuinely revolutionary.
One of the things that are particularly appealing about so many of the Ariwa LPs is the mixed content. You are very likely to find romantic ballads next to hard-hitting social commentary, with perhaps a hymn of praise to Jah or new technology thrown in for variety. With the Wild Bunch LP there is a real sense of youthful zest and defiance not often found on reggae records. The track included here, Mr President Man, is a wonderful example. A beautiful protest against US cold war posturing, it has an infectious uplifting feel often missing from political pop. The LP closes with the wonderful Indestructible Woman, a feminist anthem with a lovers rock lilt and the Mad Professor’s trademark musical experimentalism, while if you look on YouTube you’ll find a wonderful clip of the Sandras performing the track Creation live, which people will love to tell you has echoes of Aswad’s Warrior Charge but I defy you to notice anything other than the girls’ presence.
Mother Nature – The Quiet Storm
The appropriately named A Breath Of Fresh Air by Mother Nature was one of the early Ariwa LPs. Predominantly an instrumental affair in that reggae tradition which yields as much in terms of inventiveness as many soughtafter library or soundtrack sets. The music seems to have been provided by a mixture of Ariwa session musicians, including Black Steel and one of Sandra Cross’ brothers Garnet who performed as Sgt Pepper (his early Ariwa LP Judgement Day is thoroughly recommended). Also featured on this LP and indeed a number of other Ariwa releases is the violin of Bobby Valentino, who is best remembered for his contribution to the Bluebells’ Young At Heart. The Mother Nature track Quiet Storm is included here primarily because it is simply gorgeous and I confess the title appeals enormously because it suggests times passed when the pirate stations in London would all have their dedicated sequences of slow and intimate soulful selections late at night.
Sandra Cross – Comet In The Sky The lovers rock tradition is one of the greatest achievements in UK musical history. And beyond the acknowledged queens of the scene, Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson, there is a wealth of wonderful recordings from the likes of Deborah Glasgowe, Sylvia Tella, Jean Adebambo, Winsome, Marie Pierre, and Cassandra. I rate a lot of this music as highly as the soul music that was produced in the US in the 1960s. Often the charm of early UK lovers rock comes from the minimalism and intimacy, often accidentally as the result of small studio budgets. But in the digital age with an overemphasis on technical perfection the warmth and naturalness of lovers rock is incredibly refreshing.
The Mad Professor has done much to advance the cause of lovers rock, and his productions for Sandra Cross are definitely worth seeking out. After the Wild Bunch, Sandra released a series of LPs on Ariwa. She is probably best known for her interpretation of the Stylistics’ Country Living where she sings about leaving London behind, but the LPs are fantastic too, including a dub version of the Country Living collection. Comet In The Sky is the title track of her second LP for Ariwa, from 1988. This is another beautiful LP, and for those who sneer at the romantic tradition there is the very topical Free South Africa and the exceptional Why Oh Why. When you surrender to the charms of this LP, and make the mental connection between Sandra and Minnie Ripperton and Deniece Williams it’s only appropriate to put the Mad Professor up there with Charles Stepney.
Kofi – Black Pride
One of the treasures hidden away on YouTube is footage of Kofi overdubbing some vocals for the Mad Professor in the late ‘80s. You watch it and wonder how on earth it is that Kofi has not been a massive star. She has what used to be called star quality. Her records are quality too. Black Pride is the lead track of her first solo LP, Black ... With Sugar, and it’s a song that dates back to 1977 when Kofi had been a member of the pioneering lovers rock vocal trio Brown Sugar, with Caron Wheeler and Pauline Catlin. It’s just one of several highlights on the LP which ironically came out at the same time as Sade’s Lovers Rock LP. It is easy to see how Kofi’s effortless elegance could appeal to the Sade audience, but in her way Kofi is quietly uncompromising. And, Friday’s Child, the follow-up LP from a few years later is highly recommended too.
Peter Hunningale – Mr Government
This is the title track of Peter Hunni(n)gale’s 1994 LP for Ariwa, which was I believe the first time he recorded with the Mad Professor despite being a very well-established reggae figure whose story is worth searching out. And earlier records like In This Time from 1987 are essential. Conventional wisdom suggests there’s not much chance of finding classic UK reggae LPs from the mid-‘90s but the Ariwa catalogue proves how daft this view is. And this Mr. Government LP is one of the best. Peter has such a sweet voice, and like Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs he is as comfortable on either the lovers or the roots recordings. It has to be said that Peter is incredibly popular on the lovers’ scene, though. One of the things I really like about this LP is the way dub tracks are mixed up in the running order rather than being separated out at the end or on a separate record. And remember this was a time when the reggae influence on Massive Attack and the Bristol blues and roots was being celebrated, and there are moments here as good as anything produced on that scene. That’s meant as a huge compliment!
Papa Levi – Gwow Tax Letter Papa Levi is another reggae figure who had been around the block a few times before arriving at Ariwa to record the Code Of Practice LP in 1990. He had been very much in the vanguard of the early ‘80s fast chatting MCs/DJs/toasters who graduated from the sound systems culture. In his case Papa Levi was the champion of south London’s Saxon sound system, and his hit Mi God Mi King was a massive success here and in Jamaica. He had a brief dalliance with Island Records before returning to the independent sector, where his output included a couple of LPs with the Mad Professor. The first of these, Code Of Practice, was released at the start of the ‘90s and Gwow Tax Letter is very much the highlight. It tackles the theme of the incredibly unpopular Poll Tax and includes references to the 1990 Poll Tax Riot in Trafalgar Square which, for a major event, is ridiculously under-represented in popular music.
There is a case to be made for the ‘80s-into-the-‘90s English DJ culture being the best source for topical references in popular music, in the way folk music perhaps once was. Or, alternately, there is a case to be made for a continuation of the calypso tradition where current affairs were included in songs. There certainly is a link to calypso in the use of humour as a weapon. And I bet someone somewhere has written a thesis on the way the young toasters used different voices, as in taking the mickey out of different people’s accents, and adopted different characters, like the postman in the Papa Levi track included here, or the law enforcers in Smiley Culture’s Police Officer or Ranking Ann’s Kill The Police Bill.
Pato Banton – Gwarn (Go On) Outside of London it was Wolverhampton and the West Midlands that produced the best young reggae MCs. Pato Banton was among the main Midlands players early on, and he benefited from associations with The Beat (and later UB40). He appeared on the Special Beat Service LP, sparring with Ranking Roger, who lest we forget was the first UK toaster most of us came across. In the mid-‘80s Pato or ‘wise owl’ recorded his debut LP for Ariwa, Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton, which features Gwarn, a bounteous feast of wordplay, wry observation and patois which incorporates a fantastic, bizarre Mad Professor dub extension. And more funny voices!
The following year Pato recorded the Never Give In set for Greensleeves, which included some serious and some seriously absurd subject matters, from Handsworth Riot to Hello Tosh (Gotta Toshiba), from Don’t Sniff Coke to Pato & Roger Come Again. In ’89 Pato was reunited with the Mad Professor for what is in my opinion his strongest set. The September 1985 Handsworth Riots feature again, and Pato has a couple of opportunities to try out his West Midlands/Asian accent which is an interesting talking point.
Macka B – Unemployment Blues Macka B is another West Midlands MC who linked up with the Mad Professor, with whom he made a series of LPs. The first of these was 1986’s Sign Of The Times where he covers everything from the horrors of wet perms to the use of plastic bullets to keep black people in their place, via the white Europeans’ exploitation of native American Indians. It’s a great record, and it’s available now too which is a real bonus. The Mad Professor and Ariwa seem quite together in terms of reissues, via CD and downloads. Well, relatively speaking. One of my very favourite Macka B tracks, included here, is Unemployment Blues from a few years later. He sort of chats over the Egyptian Reggae or None Shall Escape The Judgement rhythm. It’s brilliant. He starts out recounting how he used to despair because he couldn’t get a job anywhere. No luck, no news, a bad case of the unemployment blues. On one particular occasion, after wasting his bus fare going to the Job Centre, he sees a job advertised in the window of his local paper shop, and writes off with details of his qualifications, experience and education, but not mentioning he was a rasta man. Eventually Macka B gets an interview. He gets dressed up in a suit, looking “sweeter than a chocolate éclair”. The boss at the interview nearly falls off his chair when he sees Macka B though, and just a stare and a stare. When told that they wouldn’t be able to fit him in, our Macka loses his rag and tells the boss he’s a racist, going nowhere, so take yourself, your job, your belly full of beer, put them all together, and stuff them up your derriere. Then one of his mates takes him off to a club, where Macka B gets on the mic, sends the crowd wild, and decides to be an entertainer.
And there’s a brilliant 1990 Macka B track called Get Rid Of Maggie. It starts by stating how everybody complains about the Poll Tax and Maggie Thatcher, but every time the general election comes around they vote her back in. That can’t work, says Macka B. Brilliant. And it goes on something like: ‘Look at the state of the nation. Cuts in health and the education. High interest rates and the inflation. So if you buy a house you have to have a million ...’ The Julie Burchill-style Thatcher apologistas would have a field day with this track when Macka B slips into the bitch/witch thing. Well, what can you do when those words rhyme with rich? There’s a wonderfully vindictive quote from Jonathan Coe I love from an interview about his book What A Carve Up which goes: ‘She was a Lincolnshire shopkeeper, that's what you have to remember about her. That was her background. Provincial and narrow-minded and unimaginative. A lack of a certain sort of imagination, a lack of feeling for how people who didn't share her values could have felt, distinguished her period in office.’ That explains a lot.
Tony Benjamin – Germ War (1984) Alan King Pin – Letter From Jail (1992) Tony Benjamin and Alan King Pin were members of The Regulars or Reggae Regular who were among the leading UK reggae groups from what I think of as the punk era, along with Steel Pulse, Capital Letters, Black Slate, Merger, Misty, Aswad, Cimarons, and so on. These reggae groups would often play with the punk groups, often appear on Rock Against Racism bills, and so on. Outsiders together was the party line. What is clear looking back is how good these UK reggae groups actually were. Mention of Reggae Regular instantly transports me back to my bedroom one Sunday lunchtime in the late 1970s and hearing Tony Williams on Radio London play their single Where Is Jah? This together with its flipside Black Star Liner has been a favourite in the more adventurous discos, which makes me smile because as a kid I would get confused by some of the legends emblazoned on reggae 12”s like ‘disco special’ and ‘pre’.
To compound my confusion Pre actually was the name of a imprint where Gregory Isaacs and Prince Far-I momentarily were label mates with Manicured Noise, Scars and Delta 5.
The Regulars’ 1979 LP, Victim, is really worth tracking down, with its mix of conscious and lovers themes. Tony Benjamin and Alan King Pin would in the early ‘80s become involved with the Mad Professor’s Ariwa set-up, playing on various sessions and making their own recordings for the label. Tony’s African Rebel was released in 1984 and features some wonderful vocal performances that have a real Burning Spear feel. The track included here Germ War returns to that era’s Cold War/nuclear arms race theme, and is quite chilling. Alan King Pin eventually released a couple of LPs on Ariwa in the early ‘90s. The first of these was Letter From Jail, and the title track is included here. I can imagine people seeing the title and thinking: “Aha, an LKJ Sonny’s Lettah type track”. But, no, the genius of this song is that it really is a lovesick/heartaching number about a lover’s letters sustaining a lost soul in their darkest days. It really is an incredibly moving song, and has a universal message any prisoner could relate to. There was, coincidentally, a later Reggae Regular LP on Greensleeves in 1984 called Ghetto Rock, which is another fantastic record, with the Mad Professor at the controls. But it doesn’t feature either Tony Benjamin or Alan King.
Robotiks – Echoes Of Deaf Journalists One very simple piece of advice I would give any music fan is to seize any opportunity to hear a record that has a title featuring the words dub and Mad Professor. And there’s plenty out there that have that particular combination! I admit that there was a time when I believed strongly that the only proper dub recordings were ones that came out of Jamaica in the late ‘70s, and I tended to look down my nose a bit at ‘80s and ‘90s dub sets made in the UK. But like a lot of people I’ve completely changed my view on that. Now I really love the Mad Professor’s eccentric dub work with all its weird effects and strange diversions and, yes, use of new technology.
I love dub but I also have a real passion is for instrumental reggae LPs that are not quite dub sets in the tradition of Augustus Pablo. Sure they could include a lot of dub effects and rework rhythm tracks that have been used elsewhere, but ostensibly they have been created as complete works. Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sounds catalogue features many such titles. And so does the Mad Professor’s Ariwa Sounds. One of the strengths of the Mad Professor’s set-up has been his use of a fantastic pool of musicians. Many of the great labels have had a similar resource to draw on. One aggregation of the Ariwa players was the Robotiks (or Robotics) who featured guitarist Black Steel and multi-instrumentalist Victor Cross. Victor was another of Sandra’s brothers, and he could turn his hand to pretty much anything but was usually featured playing keyboards. Clips on YouTube show how fantastic the Robotiks could be playing live, backing the Ariwa singers, pretty much creating a live dub extravaganza with the Mad Professor on the mixing desk or on bass. They also made a series of fantastic instrumental LPs, including the wonderfully titled 1986 set My Computer Is Acting Strange. Yes, the title always provokes a wry smile, but it is also worth remembering computers were not exactly in every household or workplace in 1986. And that’s an important thing to remember about the Mad Professor. It’s easy just to think of the name being in the tradition of Scientist. But the Mad Professor really is a technological genius. It’s his background as much as reggae. He’s built studios in his own home. Sure, Fashion Records also had its own studio in the early ‘80s but that set-up grew out of a record shop. The Mad Professor went it alone. And this determined independent stance will have been a factor behind the track included here, Echoes Of Deaf Journalists, which pokes fun at the industry’s gatekeepers or if you prefer the dear music media and the way it works. Let’s face it the Mad Professor and Ariwa have survived for so long with very little support from the mainstream press, but I bet a lot of the Ariwa LPs down the years have sold in quantities which would be the envy of many of the lauded ‘indie’ labels.
Aisha – Evil Spirits
The chances are many of us will have heard Aisha sing without realising it. The Orb sampled a snippet of her ululating on their Blue Room signature tune. The sample, I believe, was actually from the Mad Professor’s Fast Forward Into Dub, which was a version of Aisha’s very popular The Creator cut circa 1985. It would be a few years later that Aisha’s first LP, the excellent High Priestess, appeared on Ariwa, with another essential set, True Roots, on the label appearing in 1994 which contains the classic I’m Not In This World: “I’m not in this world to be taken for granted, used and abused ...” Thematically Aisha’s songs are uncompromisingly immersed in the roots tradition and are very much on the conscious side. I think High Priestess is one of the most uplifting records you can experience, and the track included here, Evil Spirits, is a particular favourite. Incidentally I believe legend has it Aisha was introduced to the Mad Professor by Dr Alimantado, which is pretty cool. I understand also Aisha used to sing with the good doctor’s old label mates Capital Letters. Aisha would later record for the Norman Grant’s Twinkle Brothers set-up, as would her label mate the wonderful Princess Sharifa. There was quite a bit of overlap between the Mad Professor and the Twinkle Brothers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and there’s a whole other tangle of connections to be explored if you want further inspiration.
Sister Audrey – No Work
English Girl by Sister Audrey was one of the early Ariwa hits, and has been a perennial roots classic ever since. In it Audrey fights for the right to have her own identity and declares: “Don’t call me no English girl. Just call me by my name ...” Ranking Ann would take the track and theme and develop it on the title cut of her A Slice Of English Toast debut LP. It would be almost a decade before Sister Audrey released an LP on Ariwa, but Populate was worth the wait. It is also worth buying for the cover alone. Generally the LP is a wonderful mix of conscious and lovers material, and includes a cover of Tony Benjamin’s Africa Is Zion. The track Children Of The Ghetto, sadly, is not a cover of the Real Thing’s masterpiece. Populate’s stand-out track is the strikingly bleak No Work which if it had been recorded by the Specials ten years earlier would still be hailed an epoch-defining classic. On this song Sister Audrey recounts a tale about unemployment, poverty, crime, despair “and there’s a baby on the way because naturally girl meets boy and that’s when they treat love like a toy” which is somehow all the more hard hitting for being delivered in a tone of voice that might be expected to be heard on a song about lost love.
Your Heart Out is the home for a variety of activities. As part of that activity, Anywhere Else But Here Today is a project that is all about exploring the past, discovering and celebrating the hidden treasures of pop music from around the world. See and hear more at: www.butheretoday.blogspot.com Your Heart Out itself is an irregular pop publication. You can explore the archives and participate in the occasional extra-curricular activities at: www.yrheartout.blogspot.com Contact: email@example.com
Lovers And Technology is a mixtape of a selection of tracks from the the archives of the Mad Professor and Ariwa Sounds. It is a tribute to what has been achieved at Ariwa, but it is a very personal selection. I hope you will explore further, and if you have not already done so treat yourself to a wonderful collection of old vinyl, Cds and digital downloads.
With thanks to Per-Christian Hille for the cover. And if you click on the cover picture on the next page youâ€™ll get the link for the mixtape.