Three years ago, then-18-year-old King Bruce made a decision to pursue a music career and not a career in soccer. He wanted to produce tracks like his idol Carl Craig, the Detroit legend who gave the world techno and laid the foundation for drum ’n’ bass in 1993 with his track Bug in the Bassbin.
Now King Bruce is sitting next to Carl Craig in a lavish recording studio in Shibuya, Tokyo. It’s 2 a.m. and they have spent the last six hours recording a track together. “What do you think?” says Craig, who’s wearing a black T-shirt, black leather trousers, black trainers and black sunglasses. “Let’s listen to it.”
King Bruce clicks a mouse and bass drum comes booming out of the speakers. Then come the hi-hats and some heavy synthesizer, which makes the speaker cover vibrate. Craig nods along. A couple of minutes later, King Bruce takes a break and gets a bottle of water from the fridge in the studio corridor. “If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be working through the night in the studio with Carl Craig, I’d have said they were mad,” the 21-year-old South African explains. “It was completely chill, like hanging out with a friend. But at the same time, I’ve probably never learned as much about music as I did tonight.”
This is the sort of thing that happens all the time at Red Bull Music Academy. Nowhere else do rookie musicians get as close to their heroes. Every year since 1998, the music camp has invited two groups of 30 young hopefuls from all over the world to come together for two weeks at a time in a big city. And whether it’s New York, London or São Paulo, the plan is always the same: An old building in the center of the host city is rented and rebooted, outfitted with recording studios and a lecture hall.
During the daytime, music legends give talks; at night they make music in the recording studios with the Academy participants and perform with them at the best clubs in the city. Last autumn, the Red Bull Music Academy set up shop in Tokyo, for 28 days and 28 nights, which meant 28 lectures, plus 25 gigs and nights out.
Out of the Comfort Zone
Chelsea Jade is 25. She has a dainty face and long blond hair. Three years ago, she uploaded a demo of a song on her website without thinking too much about it. A year later, she won the most important music prize in her country, New Zealand. She’s been seen as the next big thing on the New Zealand music scene ever since—a successor to Lorde, with whom she’s already worked. Now she’s sitting on a gray futon in the Academy lounge and studying a piece of paper covered with hand gestures that look like sign language. “It’s the instructions for tonight’s show,” she says.
Tonight’s show features Yamantaka Eye. He is the vocalist of Japanoise band Boredoms and quite the star in his home country. The 50-year-old has been making music—that sounds like an exorcism set to the accompaniment of electric guitars—for 30 years now. Seven years ago he performed in a show alongside 77 drummers. For the Red Bull Music Academy he is conducting a concert for laptops. The players are all Academy participants. Eye has developed a 30-sign system of gestures as instructions. “If Eye makes the peace sign, we turn the oscillator up,” Jade explains.
She is used to working with synthesizers, but an improvised gig with laptops is new territory. “But that’s exactly what I find exciting about the Academy,” she says. “The fact that you’re ripped out of your comfort zone.”
The gig begins four hours later in a 50-year-old ballroom with wooden floors and dark red walls. Waitresses in blue dresses and butterfly masks serve drinks. The stage is in the middle, around which an eclectic, colorful crowd clusters. There are about 500 people in all: hipsters, men in suits, elegant older ladies. Eye’s music isn’t thought of as noise in Japan. As one concertgoer explains: “Noise is ever-present in Tokyo. Boredoms’ music is our blues.”
Eye hits the stage, followed by the Academy participants. The conductor takes his place on a swivel chair in the middle, while the young musicians sit around him in a circle with their laptops on their laps. All eyes are on Eye. He raises his left hand like a puppeteer.
A hum of bass fills the room. Eye shoots an arm into the air and high-pitched sine waves come screeching out of the speakers. It’s an extreme physical experience. The high squeak drills its way into your brain, while the low frequencies churn your stomach. Thirty minutes later, Eye bows theatrically. The noise fades out. Frantic applause.
Samba Bikini Tank Dance
Over dinner on the third-to-last night of the Academy, Briton Joe Wills and Valesuchi, from Chile, discuss what they’ve seen of Tokyo so far and are quick to agree: not enough. The only trips they’ve made other than to the clubs hosting events have been between the hotel and the Academy itself.
“High time we changed that,” says Wills. He asks fellow Academy participant Albino Sound, who comes from Japan, for a recommendation. He answers, “If you want to see something really weird, let’s go to the robot restaurant.”
Half an hour later, Wills, Valesuchi and Estii/Yale, a participant from Australia, are at a bar that looks like a Kubrick movie set full of Swarovski crystal. Everything sparkles, from the rounded, snail-shell armchairs to the short dress worn by the bar hostess delivering a quiet Japanese version of “My Heart Will Go On.” She finishes and an announcement in English comes over the P.A. “The show is about to begin. Everyone please take your seats.” The lights go out. A battle cry.
Robot warriors dance with Japanese dragons amid a hail of flashing lasers. A glittering model of a horse, some six feet tall, is led out onto the stage. A young woman in the saddle sings a Lady Gaga song. Two mitten wearing Power Rangers have a boxing match. Robots who could be Daft Punk’s cousins start attacking a man in a panda suit riding a huge cow across the floor. All set to the theme from Jurassic Park.
A tank, flashing multicolored lights, comes onto the stage. Ten women in bikinis are dancing samba on top of it. The show lasts for 30 minutes. “Holy shit!” says Wills, with a dumbfounded look on his face. “What was that all about?” The three Academy participants are still dazed and confused on the journey home. “It was like a computer game had come to life,” says Valesuchi.
Gotham City, No Batman
The eight recording studios on the fourth floor of the Red Bull Music Academy headquarters are not large, but they each have state-of-the-art equipment. They spring into life every evening after the daytime lectures have finished. The entire floor becomes a hive of creativity. Producers dash from one studio to another carrying drum machines and headphones; DJs show each other rare records they’ve bought at a flea market. In the studios’ kitchen, two singers are bent over a sheet of paper and humming the lines of a song, crossing out lyrics and scribbling in new ones.
Over in studio four, Tollcrane, an Academy participant from Pakistan, is working on a noisy techno track. For the gangly, mustachioed 28- year-old, the Academy is an exciting collection of firsts. It’s his first time abroad. Four days ago was his first time in a nightclub and he shared the decks with one of his musical heroes: BBC radio DJ Benji B. Most importantly for him, it’s the first time he has been able to make music with like-minded souls. “Karachi, my hometown, is like Gotham City,” he says, “but there’s no Batman.” He lives in a country where the government blocks YouTube. Where you have to make sure you don’t get caught up in a riot on the way home from work. “I can think of no greater luxury than being able to dedicate myself solely to music for two weeks,” he says.
Tollcrane has produced three tracks over five nights in Tokyo, and helped out on a whole lot more. He has recorded vocals for Austrian Academy participant Mimu Merz and a bass line for King Bruce. “When I’m not getting anywhere with a track of my own, I wander around and look in on the others in the studio and start working with them, just like that.”
There are no limits on the time that participants can spend making music. The studios never close. Last night, Tollcrane was in the studio until 7 a.m. and could then only snatch four hours sleep to be back in time for the lecture by techno veteran Robert Hood. But that’s something the head of the Academy, Torsten Schmidt, hinted at in his welcome speech. “He said, ‘Don’t try to understand the Academy. Just take advantage of everything. And don’t sleep too much,’ ” Tollcrane says. “ ‘Sleep is for losers.’ ”