Red Bull Music Academy By Florian Obkircher
The Red Bull Music Academy is a playground for passionate musicians and a melting pot for new ideas. For 15 years, it’s been the place that brings together what belongs together: a thirst for knowledge and experience, creativity and, of course, people whose hearts beat for music.
London, March 2010
“UNFORTUNATELY, THERE IS NO RECIPE. THERE ARE NO RULES. STICK TO WHAT YOU’RE DOING. THOSE WHO SAY THERE IS A RECIPE HAVE ALREADY LOST.”
– PEDRO ‘BUSY P’ WINTER
It’s question time at the Red Bull Music Academy and out on the floor Myele Manzanza takes the microphone. He looks relaxed, considering he’s face-to-face for the first time with one of his musical heroes, the French producer Busy P. Sitting on the interview sofa, Busy P — whose real name is Pedro Winter — has just finished talking about his record label Ed Banger, home to the stadium-friendly electro act Justice, and his ten manic years as Daft Punk’s manager.
“You managed Daft Punk in their early stages,” says Manzanza. “What’s your advice for people who want to break into music?”
Winter leans forward and thinks before replying. Manzanza and the 29 other young musicians in the room listen, riveted. “Unfortunately,” Winter says, “there is no recipe. There are no rules. Stick to what you’re doing. Those who say there is a recipe have lost already.
“Put it like this,” he continues. “I can give you the recipe for a big soufflé, but I can’t tell you if the soufflé will still be up in two years. It’ll be…” He ends his sentence with a deflated gesture. Everyone laughs.
“Where are you from?” Winter then asks Manzanza.
“Cool! I played there last year at the Rhythm and Vines festival on the DJ stage.”
“Really? Me too,” grins the 21-year-old Kiwi. “But I played drums on the second main stage. A bigger stage than yours, I think.”
Manzanza’ actually played the festival with three different acts on one single day. Cut to the present day: the quick-witted drummer from Wellington lays down the rhythms for bands such as Recloose, Olmecha Supreme, Sheba Williams and Jonathan Crayford. If he has any spare time, he’s busy programming raw hip-hop beats for his nu-soul outfit Electric Wire Hustle, who released a highly praised debut album in 2012.
No doubt he’s a talented young musician, and in March 2010 he was one of 60 promising youngsters chosen to live out their musical fantasies at the Red Bull Music Academy.
“The Red Bull Music Academy has something really special for artists. Because I think that people who are passionate about music…it’s a necessity to have an arena to discuss, to purge, to learn and to share.”
— Erykah Badu
II. The Academy
“WHAT THE ACADEMY GAVE ME WAS A CHANCE TO PLAY MY MUSIC AND TALK TO PEOPLE FROM SINGAPORE TO SAO PAULO. FOR ME, IT’S WHAT SCHOOL WOULD BE LIKE IN HEAVEN.”
— Mr HUDSON
Since 1998, the Red Bull Music Academy has been touring the globe. Year after year, for one month, it pitches its headquarters in cities such as London, Cape Town, São Paulo, Melbourne and Toronto. The premise is simple: 60 selected musicians — including producers, vocalists, DJs and instrumentalists from all over the world, specializing in all kinds of genres — come together for a month (two weeks per group of 30) to work in high-spec sound studios. They get to play the town’s best clubs and coolest venues and learn from the true heroes of their craft. These aspiring musicians are the very heart of the Red Bull Music Academy.
“The Academy gives artists a chance to meet their peers from other places,” says Aloe Blacc, the singer whose international breakthrough came with the soulful hit “I Need A Dollar,” four years after he was a participant in 2006. “Everyone’s journey is different and you can learn from the mistakes and successes of others.”
This roving music camp is built upon the participants’ creativity and curiosity, the way they interact with one another and exchange ideas. Helping them through their paces on a daily basis is a number of professional musicians, composers, DJs and engineers who instruct and engage through their words and deeds. They share studio advice and technical secrets. Primarily, though, the Academy is about giving people a chance to inspire each other and exposing them to as many new influences as possible.
Kanye West’s former protégé Mr Hudson, who attended the Academy in 2005, raves: “What the Academy gave me was a chance to play my music and talk to people from Singapore to São Paulo. For me, it’s what school would be like in heaven.”
“We all remember that feeling when we were young and first went into the record store: we tried to be really cool, but we were just intimidated,” says Davide Bordot, one of the RBMA organizers. “The Academy is not like that. It is supposed to be the place where everyone can be at ease with their creativity, because in the end we are all nerds. Whether you produce multi–platinum-selling singles for big artists or you make experimental shit in your bedroom, in the end there’s always a nerd in everyone — and there’s a fan in everyone.”
The opportunity to meet and collaborate with people from all corners of the world was the main highlight of Jesse Boykins’ RBMA experience. The Miami native, who attended the 2011 Academy in Madrid, is part of a blossoming indie-R&B movement that’s already spawned stars such as Frank Ocean. “I was hanging out with people from Brazil and China, having conversations about music and passion,” says Boykins. “You realize that you are not alone and not crazy. You find out that there are other people who think the way that you do.
“What’s more,” he adds, “on the first night we got there, Nile Rodgers from Chic performed, Bootsy Collins lectured and RZA gave a talk.”
“YOU REALIZE THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE AND NOT CRAZY. YOU FIND OUT THAT THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE WHO THINK THE WAY THAT YOU DO.”
– JESSE BOYKINDS III
III. The Participants
Red Bull music academy alumni
Since attending the 2006 academy in Melbourne. This LA native has released three acclaimed albums, collaborated with everyone from Thom Yorke to Odd Future, and founded his own record label, Brainfeeder.
From re-inventing the instrumental hip hop genre to crafting massive radio anthems for Kanye West. Former academy participants Lunice and Hudson Mohawke are changing the game as TNGHT.
Aspiring underground MC to chart-breaking soul sensation (“I need a dollar”); LA’s Aloe Blacc has come a long way since attending the 2006 Red Bull music academy in Melbourne.
Boil it down to 60
At first glance, the process of getting in to the Academy looks straightforward: applications require a mixtape and/or self-produced tracks, plus a completed questionnaire. I maculate drum machine programming or dazzling turntable skills are not the priority. But spontaneity, openness and unalloyed musical passion might just get you through to the next round.
“In the first year, we got two hundred applications. These days we get four thousand, which isn’t really a huge number, though it was never really about the numbers,” says Bordot. “But one number I found impressive was that we got applications from ninety-three countries this year. The application procedure is really intense and long. We intentionally kept it that way because we wanted to keep the barriers high and didn’t want to make it too easy. We want people to be passionate about the project and really think about where they want to go creatively.”
There are no hard or fast rules on how to become a participant. It doesn’t matter if you produce songs in a high-end recording studio, on a PlayStation or on a laptop without a proper microphone — what matters is having a recognizable vision..
Another essential quality of each participant is the ability to work in a team. But how do you decipher what ultimately drives the candidates and how can you tell whether they’d be ripe for collaboration? One way is to present them with a 17-page questionnaire filled with musical queries and curveballs such as “What would you cook for your in-laws?” Jesse Boykins describes it as a personality test. “Some of the questions were really left field. I remember there was one about which superpower you would use to stop Godzilla destroying a city.”
Questions upon questions
“IN THE CENTER I DREW THE SUN, SURROUNDED BY A FEW PLANETS. I LOCATED MYSELF INBETWEEN, IN THE GALAXY OF SUBGENRES…”
– CAMO of CAMO & KROOKED
“The toughest question was the one where you’re asked to draw a map and locate yourself in the musical universe,” says Vienna’s Reini Rietsch, 2010 alumnus and member of indomitable drum ‘n’ bass duo Camo & Krooked. “In the center I drew the sun, surrounded by a few planets. I located myself in between, in the galaxy of subgenres, so to say.”
Martyn Lester alias Mooken, a 2007 participant from London, chose a different approach to the same question. “I took a photo of my face biting one of the rings of Saturn — I thought that would do the trick.” He proved to be right, even though he allegedly completed his questionnaire in between phone calls he took at the call center where he worked.
Rietsch says it took him at least a day to complete the questions, and 2008 participant DJ Babao from Brazil remembers he mulled over his replies for two whole nights. “It was good practice, as there’s precious little time to sleep at the Academy,” he says.
All the applications end up in an office in Cologne, Germany, and are dissected by a panel of 30 music journalists, label managers, DJs and musicians. Every submitted recording is listened to twice, just to prevent any kind of prejudice of personal taste, and is judged on two criteria: music and attitude. Eventually a short list of 200 entries is discussed by the team, and then whittled down to 60.
THINKING ABOUT APPLYING? HERE’S A TASTE OF WHAT TO EXPECT.
What do you expect to get out of the academy personally?
Orson Welles returns from the other side, and it’s “War of the Worlds” all over again. Which super powers do you apply to save the east coast?
Imagine you’re the DJ of the night (even if you have never DJed). It’s peak time, everyone’s going bananas. Which five tracks will you put on? Include artists, titles and labels.
IV. The Lecturers
“The Red Bull Music Academy is probably the most progressive entity of music education. I wanna be chosen for this!”
— Questlove, The Roots
List of past lecturers:
(Oral) history lessons
The initial spark for the Red Bull Music Academy happened in the mid-1990s. Founder Many Ameri and his colleagues thought about how to give new approaches to the then-prevailing concept of music workshops. Until then, these had been restricted to technical lessons in DJ scratching or company presentations on the latest audio hardware. Ameri wanted to give young musicians and DJs a broader understanding of their passion.
“Back then, club music and DJ culture wasn’t taken seriously. It was a lot like the way the U.S. is today: it was all over the media, but the coverage was really negative. It was about drugs and crazy raves; it was treated like a phenomenon that was soon to disappear,” remembers Bordot. “We felt there was so much inspiring and innovative stuff going on that nobody gave a platform to. It was time to shed some light on the interesting aspects of electronic music.”
“Oral history” was their catchword. In order to approach a field as complex and dynamic as pop culture, they believed it would be best to let those who had helped define and reinvent it have their say. These pioneers could explain and demonstrate historical points of contact and honor all mavericks, whether they are included in or typically omitted from the grand canon of pop music.
Audience with the Bass Gods
Barcelona, October 2008
Sly & Robbie enter the lecture hall to warm applause. “Amazing,” whispers DJ Babao. “It’s because of these two guys that I started making music.” The list of artists with whom this legendary Jamaican rhythm section have worked is as long as it is distinguished. The pair has provided backbone and beats for the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, the Fugees, Grace Jones and many more. So they’ve definitely got something to say for themselves, and they duly dispense tips and treat their enthralled audience to wonderful stories for two hours.
One anecdote concerns a recording session with James Brown in 1980. The soul star had his hair done especially for the session — by future U.S. presidential candidate Al Sharpton, who at the time was Brown’s tour manager. “It was as if he had an important performance ahead of him, whereas we were just a couple of kids in a studio! But that’s what James was like,” says Robbie in his broad Jamaican accent, and he slaps the unamplified bass guitar in front of him. When it’s time for a new trick, he plugs in and Sly grabs the sticks and they start an improvised session for the participants. It’s all in keeping with their motto: why play canned when you can do it live?
ONE OF THE KEY POINTS ILLUSTRATED BY THE LECTURERS IS THAT GENRES AND THE BARRIER DON’T MATTER IN MUSIC. AT THE HEART OF EVERY LECTURE THERE’S A STORY OF PASSION, A STORY TO WHICH EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE CAN RELATE.
Countless stories shared at the Academy include fairy tale phrases such as “I was in the studio when the guitar went electric” or “I was there when block parties in the Bronx turned into a real-life genre.” The common denominator of all the lecturers invited to the Academy is that they made an important contribution to music history and have firsthand experiences to draw upon.
On the one hand, you get legends such as Ken Scott, who produced The White Album by The Beatles and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. On the other, you hear from the youngsters who are at the forefront of exciting new movements. In 2006, for example, the British producer Skream was asked to lecture at the Academy — and he was probably younger than some of the participants. But he had just released a few records that, looking back, changed the course of pop music. He had helped to create a genre that would soon be christened dubstep — and would conquer the world.
One of the key points illustrated by these lectures is that genres and barriers don’t matter in music. Electro producers hang on Bernard Purdie’s every word when the drum legend reveals the recording mistake that turned Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” into a trailblazing masterpiece. Similarly, hip-hop heads appreciate Francesco Tristano’s explanation of how he balances baroque and techno music. This is because at the heart of every lecture there’s a story of passion, a story to which everyone in the audience can relate.
Take Katy B. Back in 2010 when the singer was still working on her debut album — a record that would turn her into the U.K.’s first chart-topping female bass music sensation — she attended a lecture given by German Krautrock veterans Cluster at the Academy in London. It turned out to be one of her personal RBMA highlights.
“I’d never heard of them before, and their music isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I found what they said extremely inspiring,” she says. “They renovated a house by a river and made music all day, and that’s something I would love to do. I’m such a hippie at heart. I’d love to do that in the future. Also, the fact that they’re in their 70s and making music shows there’s still passion, it’s still going strong. They don’t care about anything else; they do what makes them happy — that’s a great message.”
V. The Studio Sessions
During studio hours, the Academy becomes a magical musical playground. Young producers zip between the small sound-proofed rooms with drum machines and headphones tucked under their arms. Records found at the local flea market or thrift store are tested for suitable samples by hip-hop heads. Meanwhile, in the big studio, seasoned heroes invite the participants to join in a mighty jam session.
“THE ENERGY, THE FIRE THAT RAGED THERE DURING THOSE WEEKS IN SAO PAULO COMPLETELY BLEW ME AWAY. I’VE BEEN COMING ALMOST EVERY YEAR SINCE.”
– DJ Zinc
Barcelona, October 2008
It’s 11am, and the autumn sun streams through the huge windows of a disused textile factory in Barcelona’s Sant Andreu district. This is where the Red Bull Music Academy has set up shop in 2008, turning the four-story brick building into a creative melting pot complete with a radio studio, eight sound studios, a lecture hall decked out with sofas, and a luxurious lounge.
DJ Zinc pours himself a coffee. The Londoner is a founding father of drum ‘n’ bass . He’s one of the studio tutors who give the participants tips and lay down tracks with them. “At first I thought the Academy was a violin class that wanted to know something about electronic music. But the São Paulo edition showed me otherwise. The energy, the fire that raged there during those weeks completely blew me away. I’ve been coming almost every year since.”
He’s knackered. “Four out of ten, mate,” he says when asked how he’s doing. Turns out yesterday’s recording session was another long one. He was tweaking a track with rising Irish electronica star Rory D until 5am.
But the tune speaks for itself: six minutes of deep dance floor magic, topped off with vocals from U.S. synth pioneer Tom Oberheim. The 72-year-old gave a talk yesterday and was coaxed into a spot of spontaneous recording. “I just wanted to show Rory a couple of Cubase software tricks, but we got completely carried away,” says Zinc.
Austrian participant Dorian Concept can vouch for Zinc. “It’s the best stress I can imagine,” he says. “Get up, get the bus to the Academy, have breakfast, two lectures, lunch, studio, dinner and then clubbing or a night in the studio. I tend towards the latter.” He’s already contributed to seven of the tracks that have been recorded in Barcelona.
The 23-year-old keyboard wizard is in great demand, and not merely because his broken-beat tracks, pitched between jazz and hip-hop, are hot property at the moment. “Often people from the studio next door will say, ‘Hey, Dorian, you couldn’t just play a quick line over our disco track, could you?’ And so I come into contact with styles of music that I’d never produce myself.” This is a challenge all Red Bull Music Academy participants have to face.
The Academy is no place for shirkers: from shrinking-violet folk minstrels to proper techno geezers, everyone works together. “Each person has their own preferences, but we’re all open to and interested in other things,” Concept adds.
Various Assets — Not For Sale (ideally an interactive page with sound snippets)
The results of these nocturnal studio sessions and unlikely collaborations are compiled each year on a double CD called Various Assets — Not For Sale, filled with music made during the Red Bull Music Academy by the participants, lecturers and studio tutors. It’s available to download free at rbma.bandcamp.com.
VI. The Global Network
“It’s like a United Nations of music.”
— DJ Babao, Academy Participant. Barcelona 2008
In the early days, the Academy was an annual event. But over the past few years, RBMA has grown into a 360-degree institution whose assets include an online magazine, music papers, an online radio station and a TV channel broadcasting original documentaries, local workshops and over 500 events throughout the year that take place all around the world.
The artery that keeps this global enterprise throbbing with life is filled with the ongoing activities of the alumni and the Academy’s associated artists. Over the last 15 years, the Red Bull Music Academy has established a worldwide network of musicians. In fact, it’s kind of like a not-so-secret club: “You were a participant? Hey, me too!”
The alumni contribute exclusive DJ mixes to the radio and present their own shows. They’re the stars of in-house TV miniseries, such as H∆SHTAG$, which looks at the Internet’s influence on music. Former participants organize workshops in their own countries and perform at RBMA-curated stages at key festivals such as Sónar, the Montreux Jazz Festival and Movement in Detroit. To close the circle, the recordings of these gigs feed into the huge archive of RBMA Radio.
From futuristic folk to twisted techno, the music created at the academy is nothing like the same ol’ same ol’ blaring from the mother’s stereo. Flick through the tracks below for a taste of the academy’s acoustic smorgasbord – and treat your hard drive to the full menu via Bandcamp
“IT’S NOT ABOUT LEARNING WHAT THE PERFECT SNARE IS. IT’S ABOUT BOOSTING YOUR CONFIDENCE AND OPENING UP YOUR MIND.”
-Branko of Buraka Som Sistema, Academy Participant, Sao Paulo 2008
“We don’t sign artists to deals, but we try to help them with interesting projects and bring them together,” says Bordot. As it happens, quite a number of partnerships formed at the Academy. TNGHT, the hyped alias of sci-fi hip-hop duo Lunice and Hudson Mohawke, took shape there. Mysterious couple Tiger & Woods looped their first disco cuts at the Academy. And Russian house producer Nina Kravitz met her future label boss Radio Slave at the 2006 edition in Melbourne.
“I’m still in contact with the people I met there,” says futuristic soulman Jamie Woon, who attended the Academy in 2008. “In Madrid, I did the vocals for a beat my fellow participant Débruit made. Later, he did a remix for one of my singles.”
“It’s not about learning what the perfect snare is, it’s about boosting your confidence and opening up your mind for a lot of different stuff. The whole thing was mind-blowing,” says João Barbosa, aka J-Wow.
If you caught Barbosa rocking the decks today, you wouldn’t believe that he was once a reclusive studio nerd. Four years before the Portuguese producer took the world of global beats by storm with his Kuduro-influenced outfit Buraka Som Sistema, he was a participant at the Academy in São Paulo in 2002. A young man with a vision, Barbosa was plagued by self-doubt because back then there was no established scene for what he was doing. Before M.I.A. and Diplo, fusing electronics with world music was almost unheard of. Barbosa felt he’d never fit in to the industry. Yet being around other creative people and having a chance to play his stuff for them was crucial for his career, he says.
Another young musician who cut his teeth at the Academy is Steven Ellison from California. When he arrived at the Academy in 2006, the artist known as Flying Lotus was a precocious but unknown beatsmith who was just about to release his debut album. In Melbourne, he spent two weeks jamming with other rookies. “It was just before my debut album, 1983, came out. It was perfect timing. I made a lot of contacts, met musicians like Mark Pritchard and Kode9, who were people I looked up to, and we’re still in touch,” FlyLo reveals. “I also produced the track ‘Tea Leaf Dancers’ with Andreya Triana [a singer-songwriter and Academy participant from London], which is still one of my biggest hits.”
That track was the stepping stone to his breakthrough album Los Angeles, which took the electronic music world by storm in 2008. Today, Fly-Lo is a big-name attraction at festivals such as Sónar and Coachella. He’s the figurehead for an entire movement of young producers, a role model who demonstrated that you don’t need a studio, glossy video or a superstar rapper to be successful. “All these people would have had a career without the Academy because they are amazing,” says Bordot. “But we are proud to have been part of their process.”
VII. The Anniversary
For its 15th anniversary, the Red Bull Music Academy heads to New York, the birthplace of disco, bebop, punk and hip-hop. As a salute to the city’s restless creativity, the Academy will bring to the Big Apple a gigantic five-week festival with 37 shows featuring over 200 artists.
Highlights include public talks from Nile Rodgers of Chic and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem; a Culture Clash in which four sound systems, each representing different genres, battle for the title by each performing four rounds of 15-minute sets; an audiovisual installation from Brian Eno; a club night featuring New York house legends Masters at Work reunited behind the decks; and gigs by artists such as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Four Tet and, of course, 60 Red Bull Music Academy participants from 35 countries.
But there’s a question that this anniversary raises: in just a few years, the Academy itself will be older than its youngest participants. How do you prevent things from becoming too seasoned? How do you keep it fresh?
“Every year new people are entering this ecosystem and bringing in new ideas,” says Bordot. “Over the last fifteen years, music has changed massively. When we started out, we were inspired by collecting vinyl and going to clubs to dance and hear new records. The references of a new generation of musicians are completely different. Some young producers have never been to a club or a vinyl store — their source of inspiration is the Internet. They keep the Academy up to date; they keep things fresh. Ultimately,” he adds, “it’s not about the institution itself — it’s about all the people around the world who make it what it is.”