Inside the electronic mecca of Red Bull Music Academy
It’s a breezy Monday morning in Shibuya and I’m standing and looking at a contorted, glittery sculpture of a rectum. “There’s the stomach,” Red Bull’s media liaison tells me, pointing at an adjacent sculpture. “And that’s the anus. That’s not me speculating, you can fact check that all you want.”
One floor below, the near-mythical Red Bull Music Academy has just begun its first official day for 2014. Thirty ‘participants’ – which is what Red Bull calls the producers it selects out of thousands of applicants to take part in their annual academy – are finishing breakfast, ready to kick off the first day of the best two weeks of their lives.
Up here, though, we’re admiring some kawaii-inverting Japanese art on a tour of Red Bull’s Tokyo office, which is decorated at every angle by Japan’s most innovative creators. Around me, videographers are editing footage from the previous night, photographers are uploading shots and plans for extra shuttle busses are being made, to transport participants back to their hotel when tonight’s forecasted typhoon hits. For the next month, the RBMA is all systems go and this is ground zero.
For the serious electronic aficionado, Red Bull Music Academy needs no introduction. For the past 16 years, Red Bull’s taken their Music Academy around the world, holding a new month long event in a different city each year. This time, it’s in Tokyo, marking the Academy’s debut visit to Asia.
A Big Brother house for producers
Closed during the daytime to participants only, RBMA is only made public at night, when different shows take over the city’s most iconic nightspots – from the obvious likes of WOMB to the Shinjuku karaoke bar featured in Lost In Translation. For those who call Tokyo home, the Academy’s presence would be hard to miss: all you have to do is stroll through the iconic Shibuya Crossing to be hit with 360 degrees of RBMA signage.
If there are some sore heads around, it’s only because last night’s headline act Kerri Chandler didn’t finish his set until 11am this morning. Luckily, caffeine is one thing this building has in no short supply.
And if you have to be hungover, this is a pretty good place for it. If you’ve ever spent your last cent on a white label, lined up for hours to get into that one club, or spent a week staying awake until 4am in the bedroom of your family home learning to beatmatch, this is the place for you. Everywhere you turn, there’s someone ready to delve into a conversation about the finer points of production, point out the directions to Tower Records or compliment your Body High tee with a knowing smile. For the garden variety electronic nerd it’s elating enough, for the producers who are sent to collaborate, learn skills and grow as artists, life doesn’t get any better.
Not to mention the extra touches Red Bull puts in. The glittering anus is just one of the countless art installations found throughout the building – from the musical instrument constructed out of two electric guitars, a couple of vinyl players and a blender that greets new arrivals in the lobby, to the neon yellow stuffed rat placed on display as a nod to the Shibuya streets. There’s even a pair of real, living birds, set free to fly around the building as they wish.
All four floors of the building being used by the Academy were designed by a world renowned architect – Japan’s Kengo Kuma – and it shows. On the ground floor is the Academy’s custom-built super-studio, where the likes of James Holden and Richie Hawtin will lead participants in group sessions over the coming weeks. One level up, there’s eight smaller “bedroom studios” – named in anticipation of the all-nighters they’ll host – and a candy store-esque room full of equipment for loan, from the basics like headphones and microphones to Prophet 5 vintage keyboards and Maschine MIDI controllers.
Ride the lift up once more and you’re in the cafeteria, where chefs serve three meals a day, drizzling miso reduction onto pieces of fish with utmost care. Turn to the left and you can watch the RBMA radio studio going live to air. Turn right and you’re in the lecture hall, where participants will spend upwards of six hours a day listening to electronic music’s greats discuss the craft.
At the end of the day, the participants will retire to the same hotel, ride the same shuttle buses together to the near-daily nighttime shows and support each other at the gigs they’ll each play while here. The intensity of the shared, insular experience – and the omnipresent cameras, there to capture every moment – earn the Academy more than a couple of comparisons to the Big Brother house while I’m there. That, or the musical summer camp of any producer’s dream.
Entering the double hangover
This year, RBMA’s 60 participants are split across two terms. There’s 29 here in the first term, representing 22 countries between them. Six thousand budding and established musicians applied to be part of this year’s Academy, so it’s no surprise that the level of talent on display is staggering.
There’s even some famous faces among the class of 2014, like “queer hip-hop” darling Zebra Katz, Berlin-based Xosar – whose track The Calling we dubbed one of 2013’s best – and Nick Weiss, who produces as Nightfeelings solo and together with Logan Takahashi as Teengirl Fantasy. But there’s just as many artists here who’s Facebook like count hasn’t yet hit three digits – as the Red Bull team tell it, making it in comes down solely to the potential they see in you.
While there’s two Australian participants set to hit Tokyo next term – Mark Maxwell, a now former-civil engineer who quit his job when he got into the Academy to pursue music full time and Summer, a 20-something from Brisbane – this term there’s only one, Melbourne’s Lewis Gittus, who releases music as Lewis Cancut.
“I’m now entering the double hangover,” Lewis tells me the first morning I see him in the Academy, where he’s tinkering with a bassline alongside another participant in one of the bedroom studios. “So drum beats is exactly what I want to be listening to right now.”
Lewis has been making music for the better part of five years, but this was the first year he applied for the Academy. He’s spent the first half of his 20s running a small label with friends, collaborating with his pal Danny (you might know him as Swick) and, as it turns out, accidentally producing for J-Lo and Iggy Azalea.
“Diplo was really into Danny’s first EP and was playing it out so the three of us started trading music online – half finished ideas – and then we ended up all doing an EP together for Mad Decent. It’s called Dat A Freak, and it’s recently been reinvented as Booty by J-Lo,” he tells me nonchalantly, explaining how the popstars got hold of the track, did away with the original rap, put a new topline on it and spat out one of the most talked-about tracks of the year. Thankfully, they’re pulling in royalties: “That’s the good thing about working with Diplo. Diplo has a good lawyer.”
This is the first official day of the academy, but for Lewis and the rest of the participants, things really got underway yesterday. Before Kerri Chandler kicked off the first RBMA show at Tokyo nightlife institution Air, the participants spent five hours sitting in a room and listening to each other stand up to play and talk about their music. “Everyone was pretty nervous. There’s a girl from Moscow, she was the most nervous to play her music yesterday and it was just absolutely mindblowing,” Lewis says. “It was music that if I had’ve found that on the internet, I would have freaked the fuck out.”
‘Your name is Blinky Bill and you must work with me’
Participants hit the ground running when they touch down in Japan, with each day at the Academy stretching for at least 12 hours and 24 hour legs entirely likely, if not flat-out unavoidable. With Tokyo only an easy ten hour flight from Melbourne, Lewis has it relatively easy. One participant, Lewis tells me, lives on an island off the coast of Brazil. To get here, he had to get a boat to the mainland, then a bus to one of the major cities and hop on a longhaul flight from there. Another, Deltatron, had to get a ten hour bus from Peru to Bolivia, then fly to L.A and catch a connecting flight to Tokyo from there. “Be prepared for less sleep than you’re used to,” the RBMA welcome booklet warns.