Red Bull Music Academy Melbourne – an outsiders view


Story by Guido Farnell

Like almost everything in Melbourne, many of the warehouses around Richmond have been converted into apartments. Yet one seemingly deserted and rather bleak red brick warehouse overlooking Richmond station came to life late last year when the esteemed Red Bull Music Academy moved in, making it the focus of international attention. The trio of Germans comprised of one time DJ and promoter Many Ameri, music journalist Torsten Schmidt and filmmaker Christopher Romberg who dreamt up the RBMA concept were on hand to roll out the red carpet for the sixty lucky participants, hand picked from two and a half thousand applicants, that would attend one of the Academy’ two terms.

Bleary eyed on a Monday morning after a series of RBMA allnighters, I wondered what the Academy would have in store over the next couple of days. The RBMA had put Melbourne on blast over the weekend with gigs that included memorable sets from Skream who slammed it to us hard, Joe Bataan who mixed it up with the Bamboos, Alex Smoke and of course Patrick Pulsinger who slugged it out with Marco Passarini in the early hours of Sunday morning. As I wandered about the complex taking in the state of the art facilities and some of the beautiful wall murals created by some of Melbourne’ premiere street artists, the RBMA seemed like a textbook example of a large multinational buying into underground cool, in the nicest possible way. While the drink is banned in France where the government refuses to approve the sale of so-called vitamin enhanced foods, Red Bull remains one of the world’ most popular energy drinks.

“We were approached by Red Bull to set up the RBMA. The RBMA is Red Bull’ way of giving something back to club culture and the clubbers who have helped popularise this drink,” explains Many Ameri with a certain earnestness. Although the buzz about the building could have been attributed to the large quantities of Red Bull freely available in bar fridges around the venue, there’ no doubting that the thirty participants who choose to attend the second term of the RBMA were all genuinely excited about just being there. The Academy brings together like-minded people who are passionate about music and making music, providing them with a unique opportunity to hone their musicianship, learn from leaders in their field and network with people attempting to do similar things from all over the world. In the enthusiastic sparkle of the participants’ eyes one would like to imagine that they are seeing the potential leaders of a new generation of electronic musicians. Although Ameri is somewhat effacing when it comes to talking about the Academy’ success stories, he describes the typical applicant as “somewhat confused about their personal goals and career ambitions” and sees the Academy as a place that gives them some focus and helps to sort them out.

While gulping down a coffee and munching on a muffin before the first lecture of the day, a rather suave Aloe Blacc walked up to me with a welcoming grin to find out if I was another participant who had joined the second term late. Ironically I had been listening to the Stones Throw compilation Chrome Children all weekend and had come the conclusion that Blacc’ contribution What Now was one of the compilation’ stand out tracks. My eyes widened slightly when I realised who I was talking to, but I was puzzled that Blacc was attending as a participant and not a tutor at the Academy. After all, he had only just released his rather brilliant debut album entitled Shine Through on Stones Throw. Torsten Schmidt later explained to me that because of the calibre of the applicants this year the RBMA was seeing a blurring of that distinction which is usually made between the role of the tutor and the participants in the class.

Conscious of the fact that my muffin was rather embarrassingly sending crumbs flying in all directions, Blacc and myself headed for the lecture theatre where the Mizell brothers were warming with some irresistible funk and soul grooves on the P.A. The word “lecture’ might bring to mind some incredibly boring hours spent at University, but at the RBMA lectures are highly informative and entertaining sessions in which highly respected producers have the opportunity to discuss their art. Over two days the lectures swung from examining seventies rare groove to the latest developments in dubstep, whilst contemplating electro punk and Chicago house and Detroit tech along the way. Since its inception in 1998 the RBMA seems to have revolved around these lectures, which are expertly conducted by highly experienced journalists and media types. Anyone remotely interested in this kind of music would have found these sessions absolutely fascinating. Weirdly, this year seems to be something of a turning point for the RBMA with many of the participants seeming more interested in producing their own tracks than examining historical aspects of dance music. Many Ameri suggests that the affordability of recording software has created a generation of laptop producers who are more interested in attempting to express their ideas through this software than anything else. Indeed it was laptop-a-go-go as the participants started to fill up the lecture theatre and I felt distinctly old-school breaking out a clipboard to jot down my impressions of the lectures.

In full flight the Mizell brothers were unstoppable, dealing a potted history of their achievements via Powerpoint presentation. The Mizell brothers may not be household names, but it seems that they spent most of the seventies in the studio producing a magical string of hits for the likes of the Jackson 5, Donald Byrd, the Blackbyrds, Bobbi Humphrey, Rance Allen, and A Taste of Honey. Music flows freely through the Mizell bloodline with brothers Larry, Fonce and Ron being related to Andy Razaf who wrote Ain’ Misbehavin’, Jam Master Jay, Don Mizell and of course The Ronettes. In between the photos, family videos and sound clips Larry slipped in an unreleased song called Woman Of the World, which the Mizells wrote for what was intended to be Marvin Gaye’ follow up to What’s Goin’ On. Marvin Gaye’ voice reverberated through the room to devastating effect, producing a moment that was simply magical.

Lunch was served on the rooftop, which afforded breathtaking panoramic views of the city. Aloe Blacc confided that his friend Georgia Anne Muldrow’ musical ability intimidated him while Greg Wilson talked about electro at the other end of the table. Demo CD’ were traded like business cards. Russian DJ princess Nina Kraviz brought us up to speed about the scene in Moscow while Aloe Blacc reflected on the state of things in L.A. The vibe was distinctly international. When I complained about the lack of Australian tutors Many Ameri could have accused me of being parochial, but instead he politely reminded me that the RMBA had come to Melbourne with it’s own agenda and was not necessarily here to sing praises of the local scene.

After lunch Emma Warren guided an extremely nervous Skream (yeah the dude was really sweating this interview) through a fascinating excursion into London’ dubstep scene. Barely out of his teens, Skream developed a wild fascination for music at the tender age of fourteen. It was El-B’ garage classic Buck-N-Bury that inspired Skream to get busy with Fruity Loops and start producing his own tracks. Hatcha, who worked at Big Apple Records saw Skream’ potential and it was not long before Skream was providing Hatcha with exclusive dubplates for his DJ sets. I felt as though as I was entering some kind of alternative universe as Skream talked about London’ dubstep scene and his experiences at pirate radio station Rinse FM. In this era of downloadable music, as we all become part of the iPod nation where music is fast becoming a personal soundtrack that is played across our ears on headphones, it was refreshing to see dubstep wilfully rebel against this aesthetic with music that is primarily intended to be played in clubs with big soundsystems and enjoyed as a shared experience. As Skream played Check It, his collaboration with Warrior Queen and the infamous Midnight Request Line I wondered if any original kind of aggressive urban sounds could ever evolve from our own inner city sprawl. Emma Warren and indeed maverick BBC radio presenter Mary Anne Hobbs seems to think that it’s just a matter of time before someone lights the match that will ignite the popularity of dubstep. Perhaps then we will have a legion of local dubstep imitators.

Marshmello Blackbird, who’ sitting next to me looks amused. I get the impression that dubstep isn’ really her thing. “Me mom lives up the street from Skream,” she laughs in a thick inner London accent. “He will get a surprise to see me here.” Marshmello invites me back to the studio where she is collaborating on a track with Fred Cherry from Perth. After the days lectures participants inevitably move upstairs into state of the art break-out studios, working late into the night on their creative endeavours. Curiously, Marshmello becomes very self-conscious while singing some very saucy lyrics for the track she is working on and asks me to leave but not before she’ handed me a mix from her radio show on Rinse FM which features her hilariously titled track Wash Ya Butt. As I’m leaving I bump into Chez Damier who with a wink and a smile says, “Have a chocolate sweetie” while holding a box of assorted goodies under my nose. The studios are a hive of activity and the RMBA students are lapping up all the studio knowhow Steve Spacek, Patrick Pulsinger, Marco Passarini and Skream have to offer. Later that night the Mizell brothers returned with legendary keyboard player Wally Badarou and the Bamboo’ Lance Ferguson to pump out some gloriously funky vibes. A joyous end to what was an intense but hugely enjoyable day at the RBMA.

Guido Farnell


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