CDR is the London-based club night responsible for helping nurture the careers of producers including Floating Points, Maya Jane Coles and SBTRKT. Its founder talks to Attack editor Greg Scarth about his evolution from Mo’ Wax artist to electronic music educator.
Like so many good teachers, Tony Nwachukwu is modest about his own talents. The Londoner had a successful career as a member of trip-hop group Attica Blues, signed to James Lavelle’s iconic Mo’ Wax label, but when his relationship with the music industry turned sour he decided to direct the majority of his energy towards inspiring others.
It started with a simple idea in the form of CDR, a club night where producers could bring their works in progress and discuss them with friends as Tony strung them together in a DJ set. That basic concept turned into a full-time career in music education, and the club night evolved into CDR Projects, a multi-platform operation that now encompasses a variety of events.
The Knowledge Arena at Dimensions Festival and Outlook is perhaps the biggest project Tony and his team have been involved in to date, offering a broad range of daytime sessions where anyone with an interest in production – no matter their experience level – can find out more about making music. As the day draws to a close, evening sessions with artists allow a unique insight into the creative processes of some of the top acts at the festival.
I sat down with Tony for a chat about his story so far and what you can expect from Dimensions Knowledge Arena this year.
A version of this feature appears in our Dimensions 2017 annual, available at this year’s festival.
Attack: When did you first come up with the idea of getting into music education?
Tony Nwachukwu: I was in Attica Blues in the mid 90s, touring with people like DJ Shadow, Moloko and Plaid. It was a really exciting time, but then that all came to an end around 2002. We went from Mo’ Wax, which was very eclectic and open, to Sony. In some respects it was great because we were on the same label as people like DJ Rap and Leftfield, but being in a company like that has repercussions: you get dropped if you don’t sell records or if you don’t chart.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, after that experience you obviously come to a crossroads where you decide the music industry is not for you and you want to do something else. I knew I wanted to continue making music but I also wanted to think about how artists can develop without having to play this whole game with the industry, which is basically do some demos, play it to some A&R person and they decide your fate. Things have changed a lot now, but I wanted to get away from all that and create a space for new music to exist.
So the birth of CDR as an idea was very much based on feeling that you’d had your fingers burned by the way the industry worked?
Yes, definitely. Also, up until that point, I was the guy in the band with the [E-mu] SP12 and [Akai] S1000 [samplers] all linked up by MIDI and program changes and all that kind of stuff, so I was up there with a lot of technical responsibility in Attica. I wanted to actually get back into DJing again – just have a couple of tunes, some CDs and just play music.
Whenever I was DJing, I was always fascinated that if you’re playing good music people actually don’t care or don’t know who it is. I thought what would be really interesting for me is to create an opportunity for that to happen somewhere you consciously know that the music is new and it’s developing. So I decided to start an event and call it CDR because that’s what people used at the time for burning tracks. I told a few friends who were producers at the time – some of them well known, some of them not so known – and started putting up a few flyers, putting them in record shops. The very first flyer actually had a blank CD in it – we just posted them around London basically, asking people to burn some of their tracks [and bring them down].
Usually, the whole idea of DJing is that you prepare in advance and you've got this box of records that you have a connection with. But this was the complete opposite.
I will never forget the first session because it was really poignant. We did it at this place called the Embassy, which was on Essex Road – a small club, maybe 100 people in there, but it was a really nice vibe in there. Usually, the whole idea of DJing is that you prepare in advance and you’ve got this box of records that you have a connection with. You have an idea of what journey you’re going to take people on, right? But this was the complete opposite. I had this stack of stuff with no idea what it was, and I found that really inspiring. It was just taking this big risk, but because I knew who was being invited – friends of friends – I knew what the quality would be like.
Playing that first DJ set was just such an inspiration. So we stayed at the Embassy for a while and then we moved on to a club called the Bridge & Tunnel, which was run by the guys from Nuphonic. That’s when it really took on a shape of its own because it really galvanised this really good crew of people.
And the CDR sessions quite quickly started attracting people who have gone on to pretty big things since?
Yes, totally. To me, the most important thing was the development of artists and producers. A lot of the time with producers, sharing what you’re working on is something you don’t do, do you know what I mean? Particularly back then. This idea of sharing music that you’re working on with like-minded people is really powerful.
The Bridge & Tunnel phase was almost like when it was really taking form. It was great. We had a cool set of people who used to come down and it got a bit of traction but Bridge & Tunnel closed down – that was the beginning of the Shoreditch gentrification.
Plastic People was at a very, very special place. You had FWD going on one Thursday then CDR on another Thursday, then you had maybe Theo Parrish or François Kevorkian playing on a Friday.
Same old story that we’re dealing with today.
Yeah, same old: people in the flats upstairs were complaining, court injunction, blah blah blah… So that closed but then I knew Ade [Fakile] from Plastic [People]. I met him for a coffee and I remember he said yes before I even finished the sentence.
“I do this thing, CDR…”
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
Plastic was at a very, very special place. We’re talking like 2004, 2005. You had FWD going on one Thursday then CDR on another Thursday, then you had maybe Theo [Parrish] or François [Kevorkian] playing on a Friday. In London it was a really exciting time. Dubstep was new, all this new kind of London stuff, you had grime happening as well. CDR was almost like the barometer for that. When something was emerging, you could hear it at CDR.
It was so powerful and what was also beautiful was that we had lots and lots of regulars coming down, so it got to the point where you could hear a track and be able to tell who made it. “Oh, this is a Floating Points tune…” Obviously, the system was fantastic. It was beautiful. It was really, really beautiful. A whole bunch of labels and connections have come from that whole period. People like Sampha, Floating Points, Maya Jane Coles, Eglo Records.
For me what’s more important than anything is creating this level playing field for new music to flourish and for people to gravitate towards each other. You could be Mark Pritchard or whoever, and you’d be the same as a 16-year-old kid who brings a track down for the first time from their bedroom.
Everyone’s on exactly the same level.
Yes. It’s about the music and about the use of technology and about ideas flourishing. That’s been the strap line forever. Likewise, there are times where we’ve have had like 30 people at an event and there were times we’ve had 400 people. To me, it doesn’t matter. Things were obviously great at Plastic until the end in 2012. I am sure in history, once people start writing about it a lot more, London between say 2003 to 2008 was a really, really significant time.
It takes a bit of time before you can look back with a bit of distance from it and see how things took place historically. That must have been around the time you decided to start running the Knowledge sessions?
Yeah, in 2009 I had this idea to extend CDR’s propositions, because a lot of the time at CDR, apart from listening to music obviously everyone geeks about what equipment you’re using and your process and your workflow. So I thought what would be fantastic would be to create this other idea which looks into that. Hear the track at CDR, then you can talk about it at this other thing. So I started this thing called CDR Knowledge, which is basically an opportunity to get some of the people from CDR to show a track that you might have heard on the radio or at CDR and just break it down. But alongside that have an opportunity to make stuff and for people to hang out with each other.
The first Knowledge session was Bullion, Simbad and Floating Points. What was brilliant about that event was that all of the tracks they shared were ones that were either just hot at that point or really resonated with people. I hosted the thing and we had people like SBTRKT working on stuff and Morgan Zarate working on beats in real time. That was the seed of this education attachment to CDR. I did a couple of others, one in Birmingham with Danny Red Rack’em and a couple more with Funkineven and a few other people.
I've been involved with festivals in the past, but there was something really special about being in Croatia and particularly with Dimensions.
So those were really the roots of getting involved with Dimensions and Outlook to put on the Knowledge Arena.
Whenever I saw the announcements, I’d look at the line-up and there’d be a lot of people I knew from CDR. I liked the line-up, I liked the vibe. Then it turns out that Andy Lamay, who was the marketing manager, was a big fan of CDR and wanted to get us involved. Obviously we jumped at the chance because it was a good opportunity to extend CDR’s values beyond a few geeks in a club on Curtain Road. And knowing that CDR had this reputation, it was just good to take that somewhere else and see where it goes.
We first went out in 2014. I’ve been involved with festivals in the past, but there was something really special about being in Croatia and particularly with Dimensions. Outlook was great as well, don’t get me wrong, but I think to me Dimensions resonated more.
Dimensions is more in keeping with your own taste musically, right?
Yeah. It just really worked. There’s synergy in terms of artists that come through Dimensions and CDR, there’s huge synergy there. We decided that we would do two things. One would be to create this project #LocalAudio, which was to get people to represent their area in sound. You record a sound and compile this pool of samples, then people use those sounds to make a track. The producer of the outstanding track gets an opportunity to perform or DJ at Dimensions.
The other thing was to deal with the programming side of things in terms of what the education proposition would look like. The beauty of it being a festival is there’s a huge opportunity because there’s a lot of DJs and artists there. It was just almost like a match made in heaven.
You can just cherry pick the highlights from the existing line-up and get artists involved with Knowledge Arena sessions.
Totally. It wasn’t easy, but the idea is simple. The day is split into two, so in the daytime people can make stuff independently and we do Ableton workshops, Maschine workshops or workshops around particular skills, whether it’s compression or whatever. Knowing that most of your audience are fans of music as opposed to producers, the daytime sessions have to almost be tasters for non-producers.
Regardless of their level of experience, anybody can drop in for five minutes to see what’s going on.
Exactly. The Knowledge Arena team that I’ve recruited all have this balance: if there’s someone who’s a complete beginner, you mentor them. If they’re a producer and they know what to do, let them do their thing then check in with them. We get people who’ve wanted to make music for years and there they are in their swimming trunks and some headphones, learning what 808 kick drums and 909 hi-hats sound like. We’re really able to give people that connection to music making in a way that they hadn’t had before.
What about in terms of artist sessions in the evenings? What have been the highlights over the last few years of those for you?
Obviously, because it’s at the festival, we can pick who we’d like in terms of artists, but without a shadow of a doubt my favourite has been George Clinton. That was unbelievable for a couple of reasons. One, because I didn’t know he was going to do it until literally an hour before. I’ve done my fair share of last-minute preparations, but obviously with George Clinton, as you know, given his fantastic history, how do you even pull that off?
You definitely don’t want to fuck up when you get that opportunity.
Exactly. I needed to go to my chalet and decide the approach I would take with him given the time. Knowing a little bit about him in terms of interviews, I thought the best thing to do would be to do it chronologically, but to really highlight a couple of tunes and pick some stories from those experiences. Speaking to him backstage before we went on, I got a sense of his character and obviously his very dynamic personality. As you know from interviewing people, if people are dynamic that’s almost half the story.
It makes it so much easier.
He’s obviously a fantastic personality, but on the other hand I was absolutely shitting myself, because you have to be on it when you’re interviewing someone like that. He had fantastic stories for every question that I asked, and I topped and tailed it with tracks. So I’d be sitting there playing ‘One Nation Under A Groove’, everyone knows the track, everyone’s having a party, and I’m preparing for the next question while going on a nostalgia trip.
Every track was this kind of fantastic fanboy moment, but also trying to be professional and articulate in my questions. I was getting all these memories and the guy’s sitting next to me, do you know what I mean? I was like, “Fucking hell, OK, this is quite surreal.” I’ve done lots of interviews in the past, but this one, just this combination of sitting there with him and every track we play is a banger. It made me remember when I heard his music for the first time. Things like ‘Atomic Dog’, that was one of the records when I was growing up that made me want to make music.
He was brilliant. He really broke it down for people, particularly around the whole idea of sampling. You would have thought that someone of his age and history, a lot of his contemporaries are very anti-sampling, but he was definitely 100% down with it. He has a quite interesting take on it, because a lot of the Parliament/Funkadelic rights he doesn’t actually own, so he’s like: “Do your thing!”
A lot of younger people first heard his music through hearing it sampled on G-funk and Dr Dre tracks and stuff like that.
We touched on that. He’s happy for people to sample him because it helps his career. It was just one of the best interviews I have ever done for all those reasons. That is definitely a highlight, but all of them are very special in their own way. It’s just quite a special time – you’re either catching people before they go and perform or after they perform, so they’re thinking about what they’re going to do in a few hours, or some kind of reflective element that can only happen at a festival.
The setting helps to shape what the event is.
One of the things that has been interesting in terms of getting support for Knowledge Arena is the question of whether people would want to stand with headphones on making music when they could be sunbathing. You could argue that that’s a possibility, but actually it’s quite the opposite. You could sunbathe whenever you want or go and eat some wonderful fish in Pula, but actually you might be inspired by what you heard Kode 9 playing last night.
Even just the chance to check the gear out as well. I think it’s quite exciting that you’ve got a load of stuff like Ableton and Native Instruments hardware there so people can come along and play with things they might not have seen before.
And we can link that to the music at the festival. “OK, who did you check yesterday? What did you like about it?That banging kick drum? OK, do you want to learn how to make a banging kick drum?” I can basically respond to people’s experiences. That to me has been a really good benefit of doing the Knowledge Arena at festivals.
Is there much artist involvement in the daytime as well? Do people come and check it out?
We’ve had some artists who want to participate.
Just to check it out and hang out?
Yes, exactly – you nerd out. “Can I just borrow your computer for a minute? I’ve got a wicked idea for a beat.”
How much have you got planned for this summer then?
That is a really good question. You have to wait and see.
That means you haven’t figured it out yet!
It has to respond to the festival. The framework is there and it’ll be refined in terms of the education offering and the artists involved. Some artists are bang on it and 100% confirmed, then some confirm a lot later on.
It sounds a lot like putting a magazine together. Pretty similar experiences.
Exactly, mate. It’s all held together by a thread, as you know. The good thing is that there is a framework in place and the framework is responsive. If there is anything that I’ve learnt from doing Knowledge Arena – and you must know this running a magazine – it’s about 70% intent, and then it’s 30% just by hook or by crook. You just have to respond to whatever curveball is coming at you – negative and positive curveballs. At the end of the day, the experience and the output will always be to a good standard with the resources that you’ve got.
What about the future plans, then? How about five years down the line, what would you like Knowledge Arena to be in doing beyond what it already does?
I think for me it’s definitely about it being a stage at the festivals. Knowledge Arena starts at 11 and the daytime activity goes on till about five or six, then we take all the equipment away, switch it up to a kind of a living room situation for the artist talks.
We’ve had a couple of situations after the artist talks where we’ve been open for a little bit of a party, which has gone down really well, so the next step would be to think about having a stage. Maybe some of the artists who worked on stuff during the day present stuff on stage. There’s a connection between the creation of music and the performance that happens at Dimensions. For me, that is where it needs to go.