Horns of Plenty The Red Bull Music Academy’s School is in Sessions

Horns of Plenty The Red Bull Music Academy’s School is in Sessions
The October sun has sunk behind the towering brick walls of a once-abandoned textile factory in San Andreu, on the outskirts of Barcelona. The surrounding medieval streets, pedestrian ramblas and miniature parks are filled with the post-work crowd cheerfully milling about — buying ham hocks from the butcher, pushing their niñas on the swings, rolling smokes on the benches. It couldn’t feel more Old World. But inside the factory walls, the folks who were told by Chuck D a couple of days ago that they were "the future of the music world,” are busy pushing things forward. The Fabra I Coats factory has come back to life to house the 2008 Red Bull Music Academy, a mobile music school that’s spent the past decade roving the globe — from Berlin to Melbourne, Sao Paulo to Seattle, Cape Town to Toronto — to bring the world’s best young beatmakers together with the world’s best old ones. Past years have seen visits by everyone from techno pioneers Jeff Mills and Carl Craig to Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, Brazilian bossa nova icon Gilberto Gil and Canadian hip-hop heads A-Trak and Kardinal Offishall.

Right now, reggae legends Sly & Robbie are hanging around the Academy. First they performed a free show in the Barri Gòtic’s ancient Plaça del Rei, then spent several hours talking to the students about Kingston’s soundsystem culture and working with everyone from the Rolling Stones and Serge Gainsbourg to Bobs Dylan and Marley. Right now Robbie Shakespeare is holding court at a table within smelling distance of a squid-laden BBQ while his partner, Sly Dunbar, checks Facebook — but in a couple hours, they’ll hit the live recording studio upstairs to show the kids how it’s done.

See, not only is this sprawling industrial revolution-era building filled with a musical United Nations — Germans, Americans, Swedes, Canadians, Russians, Peruvians, Estonians, Aussies, Poles, Spaniards and many more — it’s also been retrofit with eight cutting-edge recording studios. One is decorated with pornographic collages, another has hipster t-shirts tacked to the wall ("art fags suck”), a third hosts the "Reactable,” a touch-screen electronic instrument made famous on Björk’s last tour. There are also audio and video editing suites, a fully functioning radio station (which airs live in Barcelona and online) and 22 avant-garde art exhibits. The academy provides access to more machines, instruments, software and gear and producers than these kids have ever before gotten their hands on. But more importantly, it provides them access to each other.

"The mission was for people from different musical backgrounds to come together and learn from each other,” explains the Academy’s German co-founder Mani Ameri. "It’s really nice to do something beautiful that makes other people do beautiful things as well. People leave this place with so many great ideas and so much confidence, the feeling that if they want to do something nobody can stop them.”

Tel Aviv rapper/producer Cohen, who boasts soulful beats and Hebrew-language lyrics, first cottoned onto the RBMA after hearing his favourite producer Madlib had helped out in Brazil. But interestingly, it’s not the big name speakers he’s excited about now that he’s here.

"It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong — Sly & Robbie today, Chuck D yesterday — couldn’t ask for more. But that’s the last thing on the list. We’re the musicians of right now so it’s exciting to hook up with them. I don't think anyone here will tell you they’re here to see Chuck D. That’s just the cherry on top.”

Speaking of, the Public Enemy front-man first participated when the RDMA was in Atlanta and returned this year to what he dubs "the cutting edge of musical schooling in the world” because, he explains after surprisingly sitting down beside me for lunch, "learning about what you do is a beautiful process. Either you sleep or you’re awake. Simple as that.” The rap icon spent most of his lecture "talkin’ about stuff before y’all were born.” Chuck explained the foundations of hip-hop to make clear that music-making "is not just snatching a sound, it’s about understanding the dynamics of a sound, where the sound came from and why it was made in the first place.” But he also told the kids that everything he has ever done has been a collaboration.

"Over the last ten years, do-it-yourself culture has reduced itself to do-it-alone culture,” Chuck decries. "The benefit [of RBMA] is that it lets people know they’re not alone, that they have a common thread of musicology, that there’s a rhyme and reason to what they do — and that people have a lot more similarities than differences.”

Back downstairs Cohen and South African Thibo Tazz are debating the merits of incorporating dubstep’s sub-low bass sounds into the beats they were building the previous night, inspired by today’s lecture from Mala, a dubstep DJ/producer. In a few hours, Mala will uses some acetate dubplates to absolutely destroy the packed, fire hazard-friendly dance floor of La Macarena, a tiny-ass club off Las Ramblas (just follow the tranny hookers, make a left at the Euro-gangstas and up the windy medieval road). After Mala winds up, he’ll hand the decks over to participant Luis Garban (a dreadlocked Venezuelan currently calling Barcelona home) who’ll keep the dark dubstep beats rocking frantically until well after five a.m. It’s Thursday. The Sunday opening party — featuring, among others, Canada’s lone participant, "electro-blues” act Piper Davis (see sidebar) — went even later. Over the RBMA’s two two-week semesters, there will be about 50 gigs and parties where the participants will get a chance to play out in front of a mixed crowd of fellow students and curious locals.

As you may have gathered by now — despite the corporate sponsorship — this school is run by bunch of self-described "big fucking hippies.” Albeit, they’re German hippies so shit runs on time and with spectacular efficiency — and has ever since they launched the first academy 11 years ago in Berlin. Even when they booked the third edition in lower Manhattan for the first two weeks of September, 2001, the Academy managed to pull through, though as co-founder Torsten Schmidt noted in his intro spiel, it was no longer "the most fitting place to talk about bass lines and drum breaks.” Originally, the Red Bull Music Academy was more of a DJ school. It was 1998, at the height of the global rave movement, and Germany, where the Love Parade had ballooned into a multi-million-person bacchanal, was techno ground zero. Wanting to support the dance music scene that had adopted their energy drink as its legal intoxicant of choice, but not understanding enough about the culture to do it themselves, the Austrian company approached Ameri. He brought a bunch of music journalists to Italy ("in a place with no cell phone reception”) for a three-day brainstorming session to figure out "how to find a balance between something that has a structure so you can hold onto it but is free enough that people who don’t like structures can still express themselves.” The first edition’s warehouse setting was similarly industrial-themed, but considerably smaller. And everyone spoke German. The idea was to bridge the sub-genre divides in electronic music that had kept house heads, hip-hoppers, junglists and techno fiends from sharing their experiences. The goal was talk technology, business and oral history, "to hear from someone who was raving in the fields outside London or at the block parties in the Bronx or in Jamaica when they decided it was too hot, let’s slow the music down,” Schmidt explains.

The corporate sponsorship was a bit of a roadblock in the beginning — after all, this was the era of Camel’s techno cigarettes. "We had all this cynicism in us so we were trying to be the exact opposite of that,” says Ameri. "The scepticism that comes up first is a very healthy part of this culture — we’ve seen a lot of nonsense happening around us. When you see people like [this year’s lecturer, techno-dub pioneer] Mortiz von Oswald or Underground Resistance or Matthew Herbert, who would rather burn logos onstage than have one behind them, when you see those guys coming to the academy and sitting on that couch, there must be something right about what we do.” Of course, there’s also the financial reality of putting on a project like this. "For a while I used to get really annoyed and rattled by how music and culture was being paid for and branded and associated with commercial globalized bullshit,” says Chilean/British avant-techno producer Christian Vogel, who has called Barcelona home for the last seven years, was a lecturer in year one and returned this year to help in the studio. "But these days it’s the devil we know — we need money for infrastructure because it’s quite expensive and it’s not coming from arts foundations or councils or even record sales.”

Guest lecturer Bun B, who jumped onboard after hearing about the academy from Toronto speaker DJ Premier, also thinks Red Bull’s motives are true. As are his own; lecturers get a $300 stipend and if they’re not performing an RBMA-related gig, which Bun did not, then their participation is pretty much pure altruism.

"Once I realized how in-depth this shit was I wanted the experience of being a part of something like this, not even so much the lecture but when you look around this place and see all the different rooms with pre-production set-ups and live radio. There’s no other way to get an Australian and a Brazilian and a Texan in the same room but with music. Who doesn't want to be a room with people that love the same thing they love?

"My man asked me, ‘what do you think Red Bull gets out of this?’ Maybe we could reach and say they just want us to drink Red Bull in the studio to stay up. But you don’t do something like this for ten years, and at this expense, without someone having genuine love for music. I have to assume whomever it is that controls the money for Red Bull wishes there was something like this available for them when they were into music. There’s a lot worse thing Red Bull could be doing with their money,” he points out. "Obviously there’s no monetary return for it. When you bring in Chuck D to speak but not to perform, it’s not capitalizing off of the artists but hoping that their love for music flows through this crowd and these people will then take that inspiration to their respective communities and make their music scene blossom as well.”

On day two, everyone gathers in the lecture hall to play some of the music that brought them to Barcelona (about 60 are chosen from over 2,000 applicants and the process involves both a demo submission and a massive questionnaire that creates an artistic and psychological profile). The participants briefly describe what we’re gonna hear and heads are soon nodding to the beats. And it’s mostly beats — though instrumentalists are here, when the participants introduce themselves and say what they play, it’s largely a laundry list of software. As someone who has to listen to a lot of crap label acts, it’s mind-blowing to hear such high-end music from so many untested, unsigned artists.

"I was so impressed with the quality and the different influences I’m hearing in everyone’s music,” agrees engineer Russell Elevado, an academy tutor whose opinion matters since he’s worked the boards for everyone from the Roots and Common to Al Green and Roberta Flack (not to mention mixing Alicia Keys’ breakthrough "Fallin’” and winning a Grammy for recording D’Angelo’s Voodoo). He was brought on as a lecturer in Toronto last year and though initially hesitant because of the whole "corporate thing,” wound up ditching his next-day flight and hanging around for the entire term and then signing on as a studio aide for this year’s class.

"I think there’s a lot of talent here, and really diverse, and everyone’s focussed — you can hear it in their music. Even sonically, it was like wow, this stuff sounds amazing. I’m definitely going to stay in touch with a few of these people and try and develop them on my own after this. This a great stepping stone for everyone and gets them believing in themselves.” There are indeed some serious undiscovered talents who may be brought to light from this experience — much like alumni Flying Lotus (Warp Records), Aloe Blacc (Stone’s Throw) and Spank Rock’s Xxxchange (Big Dada). But if Elevado is hinting at Natalia Lafourcade, he may have to get in line.

Vogel said he’d like to work with her if she was interested. "She’s exceptional. I actually went back in the lecture hall and got Natalia’s CD out of the pile and have been listening to it at home. I really enjoyed it, especially the Spanish stuff, it’s got really edgy lyrics,” he says, adding "but her face when her music was playing was quite like ‘what am I doing here?’”

She’s the only real pro — at 24, the tiny Mexico City singer has already had four Latin Grammy nominations and one win — and her Björk-ish "bittersweet pop” is by far this class’s finest music, but she’s a square peg in this room of beat-shaped round holes. Still, that didn’t stop her from jamming with students late into the night and, in fact, the challenge of working with more computer-based musicians is part of the reason she applied in the first place.

"To me [RBMA] means getting away and getting out of my world. I’m always trying to change and looking to see new things and meet new people and go to new places. I like to put myself in difficult situations,” Lafourcade. "That’s why I wanted to come — to get some different experiences. You can get stuck in a certain kind of life and after this I’m going to back to Mexico with a lot of new ideas that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t here. Maybe now I can go to Russia and say ‘hey man, I’m coming to visit you and we should play together.’ Before that wouldn’t happen.” That is certainly the ultimate goal of the academy — not to produce a few tracks to put on their annual Various Assets compilation CD or even to create, as one academy organizer phrased it, "a living archive of dance music culture” — but to foster growth in the dance music community. So far, they’ve held 128 one-day workshops in 48 countries, mostly organized by ex-participants, which are open to the public.

"When they go back, we try to help them to start a festival, to start a pirate radio station, to do workshops or find other people that might be interested in participating,” says Ameri. "The academy has become a some sort of a lighthouse, something that gives you orientation in a way. People can look at it and — whether you’re there or just picking it up through the radio and the web site — take inspiration. The academy is just the starting point.”