So I’m peering through the glass into a studio decked out with priceless ex-BBC vintage mics, where Jamaican reggae legends Sly & Robbie, along with their aging but still ludicrously capable band, are jamming out a dub rhythm, occasionally accompanied by the excitable vocals of upcoming Croydon MC GoldieLocks. Nodding appreciatively next to me is Mala from Brixton dubstep posse Digital Mystikz, while plugging in the cables is one of the men behind the greatest drum’n’bass tune of all time, Ganja Kru’s DJ Zinc. This is the bizarre scenario conjured up by the Red Bull Music Academy–a kind of fantasy band camp for technoheads that’s been taking place in Barcelona for the last month.
GoldiLocks learning something
When the Academy first invited me to come and hang out during term-time, I was pretty skeptical. The rock school concept is always a little bit lame, however well-equipped and well-meaning. Croydon’s very own Brits School, of course, is infamous for giving us Katie Melua and The Kooks. But then I found out Flying Lotus was in the Red Bull Academy a few years back, which is altogether a higher class of graduate. What’s more, in the few days before I was in Barca, they’d had Chuck D, Bun B and Basic Channel’s Maurizio von Oswald come and lecture the sixty-four students, who, by the way, were there on an all-expenses-paid basis thanks to the energy drink-peddling sponsors, having successfully beaten 2700 other wannabe producers by negotiating the quirky application form.
Bun B lecture
“They asked us to design a piece of software in the style of Gaudi,” smiles GoldieLocks, who applied in the hope of getting some inspiration and honing her production skills for her forthcoming debut album. “I've had lots of shit going on at home so it's been nice to get here and have a blank canvas. I doubt myself a lot, but when you see legends come in and tell you that you're never going to feel as happy as when you make music, it's made me realise I am right in doing this and earning 50 quid a week instead of going to work in Barclays.” By the end of the first night she’d already knocked up a beat with Mark Pritchard from Global Communication/Reload.
With Zinc, Mark Pritchard and Russ Elevado (D’Angelo’s producer) on hand to provide technical advice, the whole set-up was frankly a bit surreal. “I always thought it'd be a bunch of fucking violin players talking about chord progressions – now I can't get enough of it,” said Zinc, who lectured at the Academy in Seattle in 2005 and has been coming back to help out ever since. “It's an amazing environment. Everybody’s working through the night, collaborating and making tracks. There's, like, 80 or 100 people here and maybe one or two pricks. When in life it's generally the other way round, innit?”
The idea was that, every night, a couple of Academy students would have a chance to play out in some Ramblas sweatbox alongside a guest pro. Fair play to GoldieLocks–she got up on stage at 2:30am in what was usually a metal club, without her regular DJ and with a lighting guy who refused to spot her for her entire set, and still totally went for it. The previous night, we’d crammed into a frontroom-sized club to hear a couple of budding bass DJs pit their wits against Mark Pritchard and Mala. It was rowdy and pretty bizarre, given that I’m normally used to seeing Mala do his thing at DMZ in Brixton, a mile from my house, where people are a bit more reticent about high-fiving you in the middle of the dancefloor. Earlier in the day he’d sat in the ‘lecture hall’ regaling us with the latest DMZ dubplates (Mala’s tunes = tropical / Coki’s tunes = mental) and claiming to hate saying the word ‘dubstep’. I’m thinking it might be tricky for him to shake that one.
Clearly, everyone at the Academy’s having a fun, productive time. It’s run with astounding resourcefulness and efficiency–"You go, 'We need a vibraphone'," says Zinc, "and an hour later they walk in with a big fucking box on wheels, like, 'Here it is!'"–while maintaining a thoroughly laidback atmosphere. Even the catering people are really cool. I'm still dubious as to whether you can incubate great music in this way, though. Pop music tends to be arrogant, awkward and ephemeral, not studied and wholesome. It's notable that most of the pros who passed through the Academy during the time I was there made their most vital, progressive music specifically because they were marginalised and untutored.
Of course, there’s probably nowhere else I’d get to see a virtually private Sly & Robbie concert. Even so, in the end, it was good to escape–via The Glimmers at Sala Lo*Li*Ta–to one of the plush warehouse parties that Barcelona does so well, where I and my newfound friends spiralled out to wholly unpredictable liquid minimal house until dawn.