Everyone from M.I.A. and Questlove to American electronic music pioneer Bob Moog have sat down for spirited chats with the Red Bull Music Academy gang since the music workshop series was first launched in Berlin back in 1998. Perhaps it’s the captive audience of musically savvy students, the long-form interview set-up or that special secret ingredient in the Red Bull brew, but musicians invited to sit back on those comfy sofas to recount their illustrious careers are by and large extremely generous and entertaining. In the lead-up to next month’s RBMA Montreal lecture series to be held right here at the Phi Centre, we review 10 of our all-time faves.
1. Sheila E (Paris, 2015)
Prince, Herbie Hancock, Beyoncé, Diana Ross – this highly esteemed drummer, percussionist and consummate performer has collaborated with them all. Sheila Escovedo (daughter of Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo) covers tons of ground in this thrilling sit-down: the etiquette of life on tour; a key lesson she learned whilst accompanying Marvin Gaye to play What’s Goin’ On; and her big MTV debut in Lionel Richie’s Running With The Night video. Escovedo, who was praised for her recent tribute to Prince at the BET Awards (she’s his former musical director and once-upon girlfriend), even conducts a totally spontaneous exercise in rhythm with the RBMA pupils, after which she reminds them to “go ahead and try things you’ve never done before. (…) If it feels good and you’re getting into it, that’s infectious.”
2. Papa Wemba (Paris, 2015)
Less than a year ago, and mere months before he died after collapsing on stage mid-performance at a music festival in Abidjan, the flamboyant king of Congolese rumba and soukous sat down for this enlightening RBMA chat about his upbringing in the former Belgian Congo, the flashy Sape fashion movement (short for: Société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes) he helped popularize via dandy-esque music group Viva La Musica, his move to France in the mid-80s, and signing to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. He also makes the case that Kinshasa’s a very loud city that runs on music, “where we don’t need our neighbours to keep quiet, even at 10 PM, midnight, 1 AM.” Aw, long live da Big Papa.
3. Holly Herndon (Tokyo, 2014)
Devoutly experimental Bay Area producer Holly Herndon proves to be a fascinating guest on the RBMA couch. She unpacks her primarily computer-based, chopped-up cyber-pop by introducing us to a whole gamut of very contemporary, tech-savvy concepts from “sousveillance” to “net-concrete.” She revisits her church upbringing in the Bible Belt (her vocal training took her to all-state choir competitions!), shares takeaways from her Universität der Künste Berlin days (avoid “sonic sausages”), explores her preference for the Max/MSP visual programming language; and reflects on opening shows for the decidedly more mainstream St. Vincent. All of which will open new pathways into appreciating Herndon’s dizzyingly intellectual, poetic, NSA-ambivalent electronica.
4. Hip Tanaka (Tokyo, 2014)
If you grew up fingers glued to a Nintendo controller or a GameBoy’s arrow/A/B keys, this eye-opening extended interview with celebrated video game composer Tanaka will have you relive your childhood. A sound designer and musician who scored many of the era’s most beloved games (Super Mario, Tetris), Tanaka opens up about loving A Tribe Called Quest, covering The Beatles and Elton John with his high school band, and slipping in an homage to Jamaican duo Sly & Robbie in his dub-and-reggae inflected score to NES game Balloon Fight. Considering Nintendo was solely putting out arcade games when he first joined the company in 1980, it’s all the more remarkable that this master of the chiptune approached video game music as one would soundtrack a movie. Arigatou, Tanaka-san.
5. Philip Glass (New York, 2013)
Quite possibly the most successful avant-garde composer and pianist of our time, Philip Glass always brings his A-game to the few interviews he grants, and this RBMA talk was no exception. The American master of minimalist, rigorous, rhythmically punchy music for movie soundtracks, opera houses, the theatre and even airports recalled how irate listeners threw eggs and tomatoes at him in his early days; what made Paris in the 60s such an effervescent capital; how he came to collaborate with the musical enigma that is Richard James (aka Aphex Twin); and why he regards all music – from Australian didgeridoo to Indian tambura – as “local”.
6. Erykah Badu (Madrid, 2011)
The high priestess of modern soul has stories to spare in this sweeping Madrid conversation, which revisits the heavy blues influence of her Dallas hometown; how she played a mean tambourine in high school; why the label “neo-soul” was a pure record label invention; why she sees herself as part of the same tribe as The Roots; how art has been her lifelong religion and therapy; and why she considers her “imperfect” voice – recorded before auto-tuning had become the standard industry practice – to be a blessing. And that’s only skirting the surface of her many Baduizms.
7. Moodymann (London, 2010)
“You don’t know what’s around the corner if you don’t peak around that muthaf***a,” is Detroit house don Moodymann’s (né Kenny Dixon Jr.) reasoning for trying things and sampling bits of blues, jazz and soul in his dirty, dark, deep house concoctions. What a charismatic showman, that Dixon Jr. In what’s certainly the most unhinged RBMA sit-down yet, the mysterious producer from the D shows up sporting red shades and a four-woman-strong entourage, with one tending to his hair during the first half-hour. As he downs liquor and drops f-bombs, Moodymann muses about roller discos, mistaking Kraftwerk for 12 black men, and those MPCs, SB-1200s, bass and keyboards taking care of his business. A masterclass with heart, soul, spirits and swagger.
8. A-Trak and DJ Mehdi (Toronto, 2007)
Those who remember Montreal native Alain Macklovitch winning all those DMC championships as the “Canadian turntablist whiz kid” will get quite nostalgic watching this. Plus, it’s a heartbreaking reminder of the mega-talented and universally loved DJ Mehdi, a French hip-hop/electro producer signed to the Ed Banger stable who died in a freak accident in 2011. In this joint RBMA sit-down (recorded the year A-Trak co-founded Fool’s Gold), these two kindred spirits geek out about Daft Punk’s loop-driven samples inspiring them tremendously, how The Neptunes rendered distinctions between mainstream and underground hip-hop irrelevant and why the music industry was becoming more democratic.
9. Dixon (Seattle, 2005)
One of Berlin’s longstanding electronic pillars, Steffen Berkhahn (aka Dixon) dispensed a nearly 70-minute-strong German history lesson at the RBMA back in 2005. A born-and-raised (East) Berliner himself, this co-founder of the esteemed Innervisions label tracks how the city, post-wall crumble, became a musical hub, with a thriving underground scene to boot. Having held down residencies everywhere from Tresor to Weekend, this deep house purveyor takes us back to a time when Berlin nightclubs didn’t have the funds to fly in “superstar DJs from abroad,” so local talent like him had to work those decks all night long, clock in from downtime to peak time, and grow the cojones “to play a tune that isn’t a primetime tune.”
10. Erlend Øye (Cape Town, 2003)
A few years before he became a bona fide cult hero and gained mainstream notoriety with his acoustic folk duo Kings of Convenience, his melodic addition to the DJ Kicks series and his four-piece indie-pop act The Whitest Boy Alive, Norwegian composer, producer and self-proclaimed singing DJ Øye touched down in Cape Town for this offbeat RBMA chat. Among the most interesting bits: his reservations about dance music’s laughable lyrical content; a story about knocking on Röyksopp’s door, unsolicited, asking them to listen to what he had cooked up; and his completely deadpan answers to pretty much every question being fielded. He admits at the outset: “I’ve been in several bands trying to figure out how to be a famous pop star.” Within years, he’d carry out his half-joking ambition.
About Centre Phi
The Phi Centre is a versatile space with venues that adapt to accommodate the event at hand: launches, conferences, seminars, screenings, exhibitions, concerts, performances, interactive installations. It has creative studios and production suites equipped with the latest technology for all artistic needs. It’s a multifunctional centre where art can express itself in its various forms. It’s a space where people can exchange, learn, discover, launch, shoot, record, and more.