On his new album 'In The Viper's Shadow', working with reggae royalty and why he's making all the stems available to buy
The history of music is littered with unlikely success stories, but Prince Fatty's is arguably more unlikely than most.
He's the quietly spoken white guy from southeast England who's nevertheless become one of the most respected producers in reggae and dub today, working alongside some of Jamaica's biggest stars (try Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Little Roy, Bunny Lee, Dennis Alcapone, Style Scott and Luciano on for size). And when he's not rubbing shoulders with JA's finest, he's lending his skills behind the board to everyone from A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde to The Brand New Heavies and Kula Shaker.
The man born Mike Pelanconi is also known as one of the industry's most ardent hardware enthusiasts. It was undoubtedly the use of painstakingly sourced vintage analogue equipment that made his debut album (titled, with trademark chutzpah, The Best Of King Fatty) such a revelation when it dropped in 2005, capturing the authentic spirit and feel of 70s dub where so many imitators had tried and failed before him.
It was around the release of that album that Prince Fatty first featured in iDJ. Now, a full decade and a half later, he's just released a new album called In The Viper's Shadow. The album features a typically stellar list of collaborators, but what really caught our eye was the fact that he's releasing all the stems from the album (for the uninitiated, that's the individual 'tracks' that make up each recording - so just the guitar part, just the bass, and so on) available for public consumption.
It's been done before, admittedly, but it's far from standard music industry practice – and for the world of reggae and dub it may actually be a first. So now seemed like a good time to renew our acquaintance and find out what's going on…
You've made all the stems from In The Viper's Shadow publicly available – what was your thinking there? Is it about democratising/demystifying the music-making process, or just about giving dub DJs the ability to remix the tracks on the fly?
"Both, actually. For the new generation of dub mixers, this allows one to practise and experiment. When I was a young assistant starting out, I learned a lot from loading tapes and masters. I hope to inspire new engineers to move forward and develop analogue-style live mixing, even in the digital environment.
"For the dub DJs and soundsystem crews, it allows them to make their own versions and unique arrangements. Unique versions are the best way of making yourself stand out from the crowd, especially if you have a good MC or instrumentalist."
How do the rights work – what can/can't people do with those stems once they've got them?
"The stem and multitrack files are not copyright-free: technically they're for private and educational purposes only. You can make dubs for your own soundsystem to play out by all means, and use them in a live dub performance environment. You are free to make a dubplate disc, but not to manufacture and/or redistribute via Spotify or CD/vinyl. Videos on YouTube of live dub mixing or shows is also fine."
You did something similar before with the More Hifi Less Wifi campaign, so tell us about that, and what feedback you've had? Has anyone sent you any of their own tracks or remixes based on the stems from that project?
"Yes, I love hearing people do mixes and working their tape echoes and mixers! The feedback from More Hifi Less Wifi was great, which encouraged me to go a step further with the full multi-tracks. I am planning to release more stems soon, as I have such a crazy catalogue of recordings.
"I've seen a few dubheads doing live mixes on YouTube and it's satisfying to see. And Earl 16 told me he heard a soundsystem in Greece using the stem files live and he was very impressed. If you go to Europe you will see many people doing live dub mixing, especially in France."
Moving on to the album more generally… that's quite an amazing list of collaborators, even by your standards! Cornell Campbell, Big Youth, Tippa Irie to name but three… how many of those are 'new' to this project and how did those particular collabs come about? Were there any "pinch yourself" moments involved?
"Yeah, it is crazy, the chaos theory of music has bounced me around the world. I used to buy, beg and copy Saxon Sound System tapes as a kid – I never imagined I would ever have the likes of Big Youth or Tippa Irie in my studio!
"I met Cornell Campbell in California doing shows and we started recording after that. Big Youth happens to be the uncle of one of my best friends. Tippa Irie used to come down and record at my studio, and he loved the live feel of my productions."
Were the collaborations generally done in person, with the two of you in a studio somewhere, or was there more remote working involved?
"Most of the vocals and all the music were done at my Brighton studio. I was mixing the album in Thailand, at my friend's place called Jahdub Stido, and Tippa Irie happened to visit on a break. Tippa heard Two Timer, asked me to set up the microphone, and the rest is history as they say.
"Most times the sessions are fast, for example Marcia Griffiths sings a song in two takes, the first being the warm-up, and then she hits the road, as for sure she is the queen of reggae music and is a busy lady.
"I have to point out that Horseman has drummed for most of the artists at some stage on the live circuit, and is well loved and respected. For me it’s like rolling with an ambassador, so he makes it easy as any introduction is always genuine."
By my count, this is your 12th album in 14 years, which is incredibly prolific! Do you ever worry about spreading yourself too thin? Or is the reality of music-making in the 21st Century such that you HAVE to release a constant a stream of music?
"Funnily enough I haven’t counted, so thanks for pointing that out! In real terms, I haven’t received any royalties from those records due to bad contracts, so I have to keep going to put food on the table.
"My new set-up with Evergreen is the first time in my life I've had a set-up that works and is transparent. After all, I'm a record producer, not a forensic accountant! Music law in this country drastically needs updating, and until it is, artists and producers will get taken for a ride."
Speaking of which… I interviewed you for iDJ when the first album came out, and it's fair to say your profile's gone up a bit since then! So what are the biggest pros and cons of being Prince Fatty NOW, as opposed to being simply Mike and his collection of records and gear back in, say, 2004?
"That’s a tough question! The pros are definitely travelling, and going to places like Brazil to record and tour. I've had some great experiences: I can’t believe that over time I had the great Bunny Lee hanging out in my studio, I worked with J Dilla in the early days of Delicious Vinyl before he was famous, and I met Ike Turner after his show late one night at Ronnie Scott's too. I blew Ike’s mind with my knowledge of his records and Ampex tape machines – Ike was very technical about recording. I have met many of the great reggae artists and musicians from the golden era of music and I am proud to count the likes of Winston Francis as my friends and family.
"The cons are that it has become too expensive to run a big analogue studio. A reel of tape costs £430 now, because only one company in the USA makes it, and the Brexit vibe has got me down and thinking about leaving full-time. Brazil is my new target, as the music culture is so deep there and of course they love reggae big time! I made an album with an MC from Sao Paolo called Monkey Jhayam last year, and this opened the doors for me."
Finally, what else do iDJ readers need to know about In The Viper's Studio, or about other stuff you've got going on?
"The next release for the start of 2020 is an EP featuring Shniece McMenamin who is my latest singer. I'm also about to mix my next album, titled Prince Fatty Rids The World Of The Evil Dictators – more dub but featuring my interstellar cast. Stay tuned, as I feel more Brazilian collaborations will materialise in due course."
Words: Russell Deeks
In The Viper's Shadow is out now on Evergreen Recordings, while the stems can be found at Prince Fatty's online store.