Tokyo prepares to get schooled in the art of beats

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

Although the major spectacle looming on Tokyo’s horizon is undoubtedly the 2020 Olympics, there is one event this year that will be eagerly anticipated by anyone who spends longer on their gym playlist than their workout: The Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) is set to take place here in October.

The 15th edition of the annual celebration of electronic music and underground culture will feature lectures (some exclusive, others public), the club scene will get a boost from nightly events featuring overseas acts and participants will reap the benefits of tailor-made studios and infrastructure. The lucky few who are chosen for the academy (60 each year, split into two groups of 30 over fortnightly terms) have access to the latest technology and state-of-the-art equipment. And, of course, there’s an endless supply of the eponymous energy drink, which fuels late-night recording sessions. Graduates from previous years include artists who have gone on to become big names in electronic music, such as Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke. The production credits on one of this year’s biggest releases, Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” read, unofficially, as a roll call of RBMA alumni.

Of course, it’s hard not to be sceptical when a major corporation steamrolls its way into the arts. “We had a bunch of people who absolutely hated the idea of Red Bull being involved in culture,” says Torsten Schmidt — who co-founded the academy alongside Many Ameri after being approached by the company in the late 1990s.

Schmidt, while articulate and measured in his speech, is no stiff-collared bureaucrat. His love for electronic music and technology is well known. One of the vintage synthesizers from his personal collection is prominent in the background as we video-chat on Skype.

“When we saw that (Red Bull) were serious, we came up with this academy concept. At the time (in 1998), everywhere you could learn about popular music was a disastrous nightmare. German universities were so incredibly dry that by the end of each session — let’s say at the social department in Frankfurt — you’d rather commit suicide than create a record,” Schmidt says. “The Internet wasn’t happening yet, there weren’t many books around and we figured it was important that all this culture gets documented while the people are still around and not suffering too much from the after-effects of their lifestyle.”

It was from this desire to document important cultural moments that the academy’s basic didactic structure was born. “We assembled groups where people can learn first hand from the people that were really there: There when the wall fell in Berlin, raving in the fields in England, slowing down records in Jamaica and using power leads from lamp posts in New York,” Schmidt says.

The academy experience can be split into three segments: The lectures, in which participants have the opportunity to learn from experienced artists, including the likes of American composer Van Dyke Parks (2013), funk star Bootsy Collins (2011) and veteran selector Norman Jay (2010); the studio-time, where participants are encouraged to collaborate with each other on projects; and the nightly events, which showcase performances by academy participants as well as overseas stars, and are open to the public. The highlight of the recent RBMA “weekender” in Tokyo saw electronic producer Henrik Schwarz conduct a chamber orchestra at the Tsukiji Honganji Temple, which was lit up with stunning projection mapping. Schmidt suggests that this is only the tip of the iceberg with what they hope to achieve this year.

As well as this, there is a reason why cities across the world clamor to host the academy. In Cape Town, in 2003, RBMA constructed a studio as well as a community radio station.

“Yes, Red Bull funded it, but we put together a local board of artists, journalists, writers, and applied for a license for a 24-hour community radio, and then we could bring in all the township people and so on,” Schmidt says. “All of a sudden we had something that was championed by the entire community.”

Since then, every edition has gifted bespoke studios on the host cities. These can be used by graduates of the academy, but also by local creatives. “First you have the academy, but then we leave a creative hub for the city,” says Schmidt, “to the degree that when we did it in Barcelona in 2008, Madrid got really jealous saying ‘Woah, they got a new community center.’ ”

Schmidt mentions how a lot has changed since the inaugural academy in Berlin in 1998.

“The very first edition was German-speaking people only. The year after, we invited people from eight countries and there was a totally different dynamic,” Schmidt says. Nowadays, RBMA receives around 4,500 applications. The successful 60 can expect to have a room to themselves in a boutique hotel, but this wasn’t always the case. “In the years that we had people sharing rooms, there were bathroom fights and all sorts of drama in the mornings.”

In order to prevent the academy resembling an incident-packed season of reality TV series “Big Brother,” they developed what has become its hallmark — a lengthy written application process with questions that span from musical knowledge to abstract psychology. Applicants should expect to interpret Rorschach inkblots as well as listing their Top 10 albums.

“Basically the application is one long bullsh-t filter. An asshole filter, if you want to call it that,” Schmidt says. “We actually do have German scientists on board, who have studied psychology. Every application is read at least two times, by two different people, and then marked. We write little evaluation paragraphs, and after you’ve met those people for two weeks, it’s pretty shocking how accurate they are.”

The academy encourages collaboration between the participants and does everything it can to nurture the process. “On a simple human level it’s a fantastic thing to hang out with like-minded individuals from all around the world. We sometimes jokingly call it ‘the school camp for people who hated school trips,’ because a lot of the participants were the odd one out where they were growing up. All of a sudden, they’re around a lot of people who have had that feeling.”

Of course, the depth — both figurative and literal — of the application documents presents a challenge for non-native English speakers.

“We need to have it in English and hand-written so that we know it’s you and not your cousin, or English teacher, because by the time you get to the academy, if you’re not able to communicate with your peers then you’re wasting a massive chance. But you get people — including the ones we’ve picked from Japan — who make up for a lack of language skills with great character and enthusiasm.”

One of those was Chiba-based Yosi Horikawa, whose album ‘Vapor’ appeared on many a 2013 end-of-year list, including the Japan Times staff writers’ own best picks. Horikawa is an alumnus of the 2011 edition of the academy, which was originally set to take place in Tokyo but moved to Madrid following the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“I wondered whether the academy itself would even go ahead. Apparently they only had six or nine weeks to sort it all out, but even considering what had happened it was very impressive,” Horikawa says.

Despite initial concerns about whether he would cope with somewhat limited English, Horikawa ultimately found such worries unfounded. “There are lots of times where English language skills aren’t even necessary — you do your talking through the music.”

He pinpoints the upcoming Tokyo edition as an opportunity for Japanese artists. “There should be plenty of Japanese people working as staff, so it should be a reassuring presence. Of course it will still be important to know English to understand the lectures, but at least Tokyoites won’t have to worry about getting lost in the city!”

Red Bull have continued to support Horikawa since he graduated from the academy, something he is grateful for. “I was able to play on the Red Bull stage at Sónar (music festival) in Barcelona in 2012. They really take care of you. If I have any new projects on the go then they’re always keen to hear about them.”

Likewise, Nic Liu — originally from Northern Ireland now based in Tokyo, and who produces under the alias Pleasure Cruiser — found that his positive experience at the academy in New York last year crystallized his aspirations to make music on a full-time basis.

“I don’t think it’s as easy to be a musician in Tokyo as in other cities, because it’s really expensive — you have to fight for your life to be here. (The academy) gave me the motivation and drive to really get back into my music, believe in myself and put myself out there,” Liu says.

Just as importantly, Liu suggests that the academy will be beneficial for the Tokyo scene as whole. “They try to show music — specifically electronic music — in a culturally sophisticated way. It isn’t dumbed-down. They try to educate people about what the scene is about, that electronic music can be a really good way to exchange ideas. I think it will hopefully educate a lot of people in Tokyo that music events and nightclubs are a great place for art. And it’s great for tourism as well.”

Given that Tokyo’s underground scene is currently under threat from outdated anti-dancing laws and legislation, it is RBMA’s ability to educate that could ultimately benefit the city the most — something that Schmidt recognizes.

“We can be of help in this current struggle regarding the anti-dancing laws. Take for example, the book that we did,” he says, referring to the recently published “For The Record,” a hardback compendium that features peer-to-peer conversations by artists such as Mulatu Astatke, Lee “Scratch” Perry and DJ Harvey as well as critical essays by journalists.

“(‘For The Record’) has been really helpful when we talk to authorities in Tokyo, and show them that this is not just a bunch of crazy kids like you see on TV — these are serious thinkers, creative people, and you should see what they’re contributing to the community and the economy,” Schmidt says. Even politicians are waking up to the danger that Tokyo could be seen as a boring city by the time the Olympics arrive.

Schmidt is conscious that he and RBMA are in a unique position to influence public perception of underground culture.

“I have a feeling that lots of people actually cherish quality once they are confronted by it,” Schmidt says. “People on decision boards don’t give the general public enough credit. I think there’s room for making better content — better TV, radio, events, concerts. Because everyone is always afraid of not breaking even, people are just aiming at the lowest common denominator. If you provide courageous radio programming, people will listen to it. If you put good films in the cinema, people will go and see them. Quality will always cut through.”

Applications for Red Bull Music Academy will be available from Jan. 15. For more information on how to apply, visit www.redbullmusicacademy.com/academy.