Too cool for New York school

The Red Bull Music Academy is where aspiring producers and musicians go to learn new tricks. Jim Carroll joins this year’s intake in New York City


As takeovers go, the Red Bull Music Academy's annexation of New York City over the past few weeks has been comprehensive.

A four-storey building in Chelsea has been turned into an all-singing, all-dancing set of studios, lecture rooms and offices to house the Academy. Subway stations have been plastered with posters advertising the Academy's night-time wares, which feature a stellar cast of musical legends, shape-shifters and influential players. All shades of media, both on and offline, have reported on the Academy's comings and goings with very little snark in the mix. The city that doesn't sleep has been hit for six.

If the energy drinks brand is gets any change out of a couple of million bucks after this splurge, they’ll be doing well. Then again, if you can send a lad off on a rocket into deep space to take a big sky-dive or bankroll a Formula One racing team, what’s a few million dollars for a music academy?


But for all the starry live music events and happenings (involving Nile Rodgers, James Murphy Questlove, Erykah Badu, Brian Eno, Giorgio Moroder, Kim Gordon, Tony Visconti and dozens more), the Academy's real stars are underground. They are the 62 producers and music-makers plucked from more than 4,000 applicants to come to New York to see, listen, learn and produce music for a fortnight.

Over the past 15 years, the Academy has pulled up to the bumper in cities such as Toronto, Melbourne, Dublin, London, Sao Paulo, Madrid, Cape Town and elsewhere to put on similar shows. You find a smart building in a hip part of town, all the studio equipment a producer could possibly require and a couple of dozen newbies keen to see what they can create under their own steam or collaborate on with fellow students over the course of a fortnight.

What has marked the Academy out for special attention over the past decade is the subsequent achievements of those who've come through the door. Producers and performers such as Flylng Lotus, Aloe Blacc, Nina Kraviz, Jamie Woon, Katy B, Mano Le Tough and Lunice are some of the high-profile names to be found among the Academy's 700-plus alumni.

It’s an impressive hit-rate, which shows that the application process – which includes an idiosyncratic questionaire featuring Rorschach ink-blot tests and queries such as ‘what’s the title of your autobiography?’ – is finely tuned.

Irish producers and DJs have featured in previous Academy intakes, but it was folk singer Emma Bedford, who records and performs as QuietDust, who provided the Irish representation in New York.

She says she “stumbled” upon the Academy and what it was about. “I had never heard of it before and just came across it online and thought it sounded amazing,” she said. “I wasn’t really aware of it or who had been here already before I applied. I was really surprised when I was selected. I actually had to ask my mom to double-check the email to make sure it was true.”

And now that she is there: "Everything is so surreal. I'm hearing all this wisdom at the lectures – Julia Holter was great, Bernie Worrell was amazing – and then getting to work with really talented people in the studios and going to events in amazing venues around the city. It's quite mind-blowing to be here and to see what's possible."

Those lectures that Bedford mentions are the most academic aspect of the Academy, though they are far more laid-back and informal than any college classroom. And most educational establishments would probably be unable to justify having lecturers of this calibre talking to a room with just 30 or so people in attendance, even if the videos of the lectures that subsequently appear on the Academy's website attract a much larger audience.

There were many standout thoughts, comments, quips and asides from Brian Eno's lecture. Guided and prodded by interviewer Emma Warren, Eno talked about 77 Million Paintings , galleries, hospitals, "scenius" (a combination of scene and genius), surfing and much more. The quote of the session: "I've met 60 or 70 kids at this stage who've come out of the womb listening to Discreet Music . Brian Eno is better than IVF."

Masters At Work provided a colourful history of New York house, their own roots and the stories behind a brilliant portfolio of tracks from their back catalogue. Kenny Dope and Louie Vega talked in depth about the NuYorican Soul project, which was inspired by a Southport Weekender gig and Dope's desire to not make any more house music. Dope advised the attendees that "the mistakes worked", which is why The Bucketheads' The Bomb ended up being 14 minutes long.

Another lecturer who provided plenty of food for thought was Stephen O'Malley. The Sunn O)))) founder and graphic designer spoke with great clarity and insight about metal, drone, composition, LaMonte Young, DIY and John Cage.

You'd expect a night out in the Brooklyn Museum with Erykah Badu to be something else, and the Texas native, boho-soul queenpin and fascinating pop star delivered with customary aplomb. She rewound on a long, eventful career, talking about Baduizm , J Dilla, Common, James Poyser, The Roots, Jay Electronica, her spat with the Flaming Lips and shooting a video on the infamous grassy knoll in Dallas. These days, she's training to be a midwife and wants to become a "face-melting DJ". Still unique, then.

But it’s not all lectures. On previous stop-offs, the Academy has largely stuck to clubs and bars to provide its student DJs with work experience. In New York, it doubled down on its extra-Academy activities to provide grand-scale happenings nearly every night all over town, including Giorgio Moroder’s first-ever DJ gig in the city .

One of the best events was a night of improvised round-robin duets in the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn. It showed a fresh set of heels to the Academy's ambitions, pulling in a giddy list of musicians, including many from the city's downtown jazz and improv scene.

The cast included both names you know already (Questlove, Kim Hordon, Gleen Kotche, Andrew Bird, Robert Glasper, Bernie Worrell, Julia Holter) and names you should know (Matana Roberts, Roy Hargrove, James Chance, Don Byron, Joe Lovano and Mary Halvorson). While some of the duets naturally failed to connect, there were some great moments when the collaborations clicked.

Some of the best moments involved Funkadelic, Parliament and Talking Heads’ keyboard shaker Bernie Worrell. Whether he was striking up some keyboard boogie with Andrew WK or providing some smart guideropes for Glenn Kotche’s percussive twists and turns, Worrell showed he understood what improvised duet was all about.

Where it was once largely about house, techno, hip-hop and electronica, the Academy now seems to be stretching its music canvas much further. It has already been in business for 15 years; such a change should see it last well into the future.