In the late '70s, Quincy Jones was working on what would become Michael Jackson's seminal album, Off The Wall. Stevie Wonder had written a song for it called "I Can't Help It," and Jones had entrusted a young keyboardist named Greg Phillinganes, who was in Wonder's band, with having a go at junior producing it. Phillinganes was over the moon and went into overdrive with instrumentation, including recruiting the drummer Sheila E. to add percussion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Phillingagnes's finished version ran at an excited pace. But when he played it for Jones, he got a shake of the head. "Slow it down," said Jones. "Let us hear every note in the melody. Let it be sexy." It was a turning point for Phillinganes, a crucial early lesson in not over-egging the pudding.
Mentorship can come in many, sometimes fleeting, forms, but its impact can last a lifetime. Phillinganes is now 60, and has four decades of writing, arranging, and performing with some of the world's biggest stars under his belt. When he recently gave a lively and inspiring lecture at Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, he told the above anecdote with the most relish, jumping on a keyboard to give a demonstration of his rejected version of the song for flavor. Quincy Jones, he said, was always looking for the music he produced to give him goosebumps. If a song didn't do that for him, how could it do it for the public?
Here, some of the participants, performers, and mentors at this year's RBMA in Montreal share the lasting lessons that made them the artists they are today.
Find someone to root for you
Thundercat: A person who was very instrumental for me was Erykah Badu. In a very real way. Not just because she's a name that people know, but because she saw what was coming with me and helped me with understanding and protecting myself. She helped me in the definition of what it was to be an artist. She gave me a very front row seat to it. In almost literal terms, she put me right up in front of the stage with her. She would make me walk out and take a solo, and she would dance with me as I was playing. She made me sing with the mic right next to me, always had a part for me to sing.
Obviously, she's a big artist and used to the ropes, so it was like getting a crash course — 100 m.p.h. — but she kind of held my hand through the beginning stages. I would be nervous in different respects because it wasn't just about the playing at that point for me. It was the way I represented myself. There are so many options to why you make decisions, [but] she would try to understand how I was about things. I still get nervous around people a lot, but I always hold onto the things that she told me. She was very, very instrumental. I could never thank her enough for that.
Treat being in a band like bootcamp
Angel Deradoorian: I've been a musician since I was a child and writing music since I was a teenager, but I really wanted to get a lot of experience being in bands and playing live, learning from my bandmates. I learned a lot about rehearsing, writing, and touring — all of the things that go into how to practice and become self-disciplined. And then, when I was 25, I had to make a decision to actually pursue my own creative endeavors. It just seemed like it was the time.
I considered myself a student for so long, in a way. The hardest thing I've ever done was transition over after being in [Dirty Projectors], and having to take ownership and responsibility of what I do and not be self-deprecating about it. I worked through a lot of those insecurities.
I think one of the most important parts about [mentorship] is just talking and sharing information and experiences. I'm not necessarily the kind of person who is like, "You should do this, this, and this." I'm more of a person who's like, "You have to know how to do this yourself and trust yourself," or "I trust you."
Don't replicate your idols
Suicideyear: My friend Chris was someone I met in high school, and the only person I've probably ever clicked with musically, as far as high school goes. He was probably the only person I knew at the time who listened to Lil Durk and Chief Keef and stuff. At least where I lived in Louisiana at the time [in 2012], listening to something like that, you had to do a little bit of homework, you know? It wouldn't be such a norm like it is now. I remember at one point, when we first started hanging out together and making music, we always did this thing where we compared ourselves to people. We were always like, "Aw man, we've gotta get the same sound Young Chop used in this one song. If we can't get that, then the song doesn't sound poppin'."
I remember one of Chris's cousins coming over and [being] like, "Stop trying to go for that. Stop trying to sound like shit." The way he broke it down was really funny because he was very blunt about it. He was someone I had met like 45 minutes prior to him saying this. I just realized that you get caught up in trying to replicate your idols sometimes. With music, it's always a growing process, it's always a learning process throughout the years. It takes time to formulate your sound. One of the things he taught me was don't try and replicate your heroes because you have to find your own lane.
Embrace the unexpected
Kelsey Lu: My cello teacher Tanja Bechtler always really pushed me. She made me feel like I was really special, but not in an obvious way. She would give me pieces of music that were outside of the norm of what most people would be learning in cello lessons. Like, everybody learns this sonata or everybody learns this concerto, [but] she would give me other pieces that I'd never heard of. And to me, it'd seem impossible for me to play. It made me feel like if she believes that I can do something, I guess I could do that — and I could do other things that are outside of the norm.
When I went off to school, that was sort of when I really started questioning everything, beyond just like music, but life and my place in the classical musical world. But in the end, I think probably my biggest mentor that really helped me to be myself is Kyp Malone. We were living in the same neighborhood and we would see each other around a lot and we'd kind of like give each other a nod. [Later,] we found out we were raised the same way. It was just immediately this unspoken bond we had. Immediate family. He was like, "I believe in you." I think it just led me to trust in myself. It helped me build my own confidence in myself, and in exploration. I mean, that's kind of where it all started for me. Through exploration. I don't want things to be too expected. I mean, what's the fun in that?
Remember that being an outsider can give you a unique perspective
Matias Aguayo: I grew up in the countryside in Germany, coming from Chile. Obviously, it was difficult growing up as a kid that comes from somewhere else so I was kind of an outsider, which helped me in a way. I realized that if I care too much about these things then I won't really be happy. So as a reaction, I developed the skin to really not care about what other people think about what I'm doing.
I see what I do always as a continuation of this fight against this conservative movement of the mind. I recognize the small town, closed-mindedness of the people and I want to break this. I try to break this with establishing work with my label that focuses on diversity and people who do something that doesn't fit into a genre, and to be kind of be an advocate for all of these outsiders.
Establishing some counterbalance against this heteronormative and very northern-hemisphere-interprets-the-rest-of-the-world thing that's going on. This is something that motivates me and puts me in a very special position of having the privilege of being able to build some bridges between different social and cultural places.
Listen with your body
Pan Daijing: I've been dancing since I was three years old; since I knew how to walk. I do a lot of performances that have dance elements so for me rhythm is the key. I actually take rhythm as a mentor for me. Like, my understanding of rhythm and the structure of how I express rhythm with my body, how I put that in sound, and how sound is inside of me.
Where I'm from is like the southwestern part of China; we have the most tribes around and a lot of minorities. [In terms of] the music I was dancing to, I didn't have internet when I was growing up. Not because of my age, but because of my family; it was very restricted. I loved Michael Jackson, that's the only good stuff we could get from the record shop — at least for me. With Chinese music, we have these tribal beats which really resonated with me. That's why now when I use the drum machine, I love tom more than kick.
I think to be able to really dance to music makes me want to challenge myself [creatively]. You can dance for 10 hours, but you don't want to keep repeating yourself.
Make your own rules to grow by
Jacques Greene: I haven't brought up fashion in an interview in a long time, but I got quite obsessed with Raf Simons and Ann Demeulemeester — the Belgian school of fashion designers that speak to creating one world and then every piece makes sense within that. I got obsessed with them and, in general, film directors who, if you didn't like their movie six years ago, you wouldn't like the next one. But if you're about it and understand the internal logic of why it's good, you'll love it.
In fashion, it's a little closer to music because some things can move fast and be taken by trends and fads, and then there's the few true creators; the ones who have an obsessive definition of how they want their version of a guy and a girl to look and dress and walk, and they'll explore that for years and years and years and slowly move forward. If you go to a Rick Owens rack, it looks like Rick Owens everywhere; it just looks like that. You can tell so much that there's this singular vision. He's moving forward, but moving forward within his own set of rules. I find that so inspiring and reassuring. The Rick silhouette is almost clownish and some people will make fun of it, but the disciples are believers.
Early on I had a Resident Advisor review that was like, "Jacques Greene, he flips vocals. What else can he do?" Kind of just calling me a one-trick pony. I wasn't hurt by it, but I was like, Yeah, I'll do it better than anyone else. When I go to see Rothko, I don't want to see a portrait; I want to see Rothko. I'm not like, What else you got? I'm like, No, he's a master of this. Instead of getting insecure and feeling like I had to course-correct for a trend, I hunkered down and was like, Yeah, I agree that other people were doing vocals flips — that's as early as dance music itself — but this is actually what speaks to me, this is my set of rules. I'm going to double down. This is me. If you didn’t like the last record you won’t like the next one. But if you like the last one, I'm going to go a little deeper and push that a little further. If you want to come with me, we can go there together.
Read your way somewhere new
Dani Shivers: Around 2011, I was in film school and I had been making music as a bass player for bands and some electronic music, but wasn't really in love with it. I remember one time I was sitting in the classroom and I was reading an interview with Owen Ashworth from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and he was saying that he was in film school, as well. He had a moment of realization where he wanted to say all these things and tell stories, and the only way that he knew was through film, but at the same time it wasn't cheap. So he started making music [because] in his music he could tell a story within two or three minutes. That's a beautiful thing to share, and people can visualize it in different ways, and everybody has a different interpretation. So he dropped out of film school.
I was like, I don't want to drop out of film school, but I do get how this wanting to get a message through can be very hard if you can't film it. So I went and bought a Casio, and I was like, "Okay, I should be telling stories right now." So I started making music with Casio keyboards, which is basically what I do now. So I think that he's been a mentor to me because, in a very simple way, he said a lot.
Study your peers
Kamron Saniee: I learn a lot from people implicitly, without explicit, spoken advice. I learn from observing people and observing the way that they play their instruments and from the choices they make in certain situations. [With] electronic music, there is this amazing power of the choice that you make, of what sounds to introduce, because you have unlimited possibilities. Any choice is really defining, in a sense. It's not the case with acoustic instruments or music, where traditionally the instruments constrain, to a certain extent, the worlds that you can produce. Every choice, I think, highly defines the person, their aesthetics, what they want to hear, and what they want to give to other people. These choices can be as simple as the choice of synthesizer or the choice of a certain field recording to use.
The choice of non-sounds and where you leave open space for the listener to breathe is also important. A lot of my favorite music, some of it does have a lot of negative space and it leaves your mind to fill in the blanks; I think that is really special. When there's sound and then an absence of sound, it's a really powerful thing. Each of these choices really defines someone's desire, and I learn a lot from observing the desires of other musicians, and also how they play.
And don't forget it's ok to ask for validation
RP Boo: I never had nobody criticize my music as it was being developed because the audience and the people I seen dancing was the feedback. And it was always like that. There's nothing wrong with asking somebody for criticism, but I never got to the point to where [anyone] would say, "You need to do a track like this," or "You need to do it like that." But I did recently ask Paul Johnson because I love his work. I finally got to meet him right after Rashad's passing. So this year, I said I would like to come learn some stuff and be an understudy because I know Paul Johnson is a great DJ. And he sent me a response back that I never thought I would ever hear. He said, "What you need my help for?" He said, "You are the man. You doing something great, and a lot of people love what you do, so don't never think that you need somebody else's help. You're fine doing what you do." And that's the only person I ever asked something from. He just gave me confidence to say, "Well, stop trying to identify if there's something wrong."