The travelling roadshow is not unlike the Olympics, criss-crossing and city-hopping the globe, with the logistical support to match. This year's edition took place in October in Barcelona, with the predominately German administrative team—styled like skaters in vintage trainers, grey marl hoodies and flat-brimmed baseball caps—coordinating an impressive local programme of radio shows, lectures, public workshops and 40 gigs and concerts throughout the city's sweaty clubs for the 64 participants in the program. If you went out in Barcelona that month, more than likely you shared a dance floor with Academy participants and team members.
So. What's all this got to do with Red Bull? The company's marketing budget is rumoured to be one of the largest in the world and yet the Academy's beautifully designed gig guides, left in the doorways of record shops and clothing boutiques off Las Ramblas, feature only the subtlest outline of the iconic charging bull—the brand's bold red and yellow logo having been substituted for a restrained cyan and magenta. It's hardly the same in-your-face approach taken with their extreme sports, motor racing and curiously titled "aerobatic flying" sponsorships. The goal here appears to be partnership. Not indoctrination. The Academy's style is understated and philanthropic, optimistic and encouraging—like a cashed-up uncle cheering from the sideline.
Walking around the Music Academy, it is encouraging to see that artists—for once—are not the poor cousins. Housed in a recycled fabric warehouse, the Academy is equipped with eight recording studios complete with shiny new Macs and turntables; a radio station; art installations; a gear room with all manner of audio equipment waiting to be unboxed; a twenty sofa-strong lecture theatre and a gourmet kitchen serving up meals daily to the participants, staff and press. For an industry that normally survives on a shoestring, it's a nice break.
An average day at RBMA begins with a shuttle bus from the hotel to the Academy. Some participants will already be in the studio, having caught the metro there early, eager to work on their tunes. By the end of each two week term, participants are staying overnight, keen to maximise production time. Most attend the two lectures each day, breaking for lunch to compare music scenes in their respective home towns, or party stories from the night before. In the afternoon there are workshops, appearances on Red Bull Music Academy radio and then a communal dinner and shuttle buses out to the evening's gigs.
Despite the conveyor belt of activity, though, for the participants there are no explicit goals. This is no global A&R lab with artists signing away their work to Red Bull Records. It is education and inspiration in the best sense, an idealised escape from other jobs and obligations, where Chuck D drops around to talk shop with dancers and samplers twenty years his junior or session legend Dennis Coffey explains the history of Motown records and jams with participants. And it's all recorded and shared via Red Bull Music Academy radio and the Academy website, an archive of written, video and audio material that now rivals any magazine or media channel.
The lingering question, though, is a simple one: What's the rate-of-return here for Red Bull? Why bother? Just as no summer school can claim credit for a prodigy's prize-winning theorem, the reward here is loyalty and allegiance to the institutions that showed support before the breakthrough. Previous participants like Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke are held up as examples of the Academy's ability to spot and support talent. They're also a powerful inspiration for the current crop of participants. Lotus' Los Angeles is one of this year's best long players, while Mohawke has a hotly tipped album lined up for release on Warp next year. The Academy may not rate a mention in their feature interviews, but all the investment in hothousing this emerging talent is less than one crashed F1 car. And—from that angle at least—it seems like money well spent.
Of the 2008 class, some are already established. Goldielocks has graced the cover of Mixmag, while San Soda's Limited Gear EP was released a month before the Academy. But most, like 18 year-old Culoe de Song, are just getting started. The youngest participant at the Academy, Culoe arrived in Barcelona from Durban, South Africa. His breakthrough at the Academy came on Sunday night, when he charmed the Macarena dance floor with the syncopated drum patterns characteristic of his world afro-beat sound. One of the tunes that closed out his set, "Bright Forest," something he made at home on Fruity Loops, is now scheduled for release on Innervisions in 2009.
So you're from Durban, South Africa. What's the city like musically?
Durban is a city with a lot of independence, in terms of the music and the genres. There is a sound called Durban Kwaito. You used to find in South Africa there was a music called Kwaito. Now Durban is creating its own trend out of the music.
You've got a lot of groups from Durban making a big name in South Africa, in terms of the Kwaito scene. But house music also has a huge influence in Durban, even that genre is moving into the house beat. They're even having arguments if it should be called Kwaito anymore.
Durban, so I hear, has always been doing its own thing. But now it's really growing. People are able to record and release an album in the city now. Whereas before, everything was always in Johannesburg.
In terms of describing the music I make, and where it comes from, the inspiration, I find it difficult to explain. I really don't know. I grew up listening to a lot of local sound and international hip-hop. When I was growing up around 1997-1998, local hip-hop wasn't really big in South Africa... but now it is really cracking. I was influenced by many kinds of music. I just had this desire for the kind of house music that I make.
is going to be my path in life."
Were you able to play the clubs, before you turned 18? How did you get to come up through?
Yes. I moved into Durban when I started grade 8. I was in boarding school, [so] you are locked in. You can't go anywhere. My school was in Durban North, which is quite a distance from the city, but there was a club in the north, called Pop Art Café and luckily all of my DJ inspirations used to play there.
It was more in the white scene, though. It was owned by white owners. So on Fridays you'd have your white nights. That's what they'd call it in Durban back then, because black/white you know, they're still pretty... You never get a party that is a mixture of black and white people.
Why is that?
I don't know. When you speak of deep house in Durban, you are basically speaking to the black people. The legends that used to load that stuff onto their compilations were more solidly into the black scene. Also the radio stations—that's another thing in South Africa. You get one station that is influenced by the black market, and another that is influenced by the white market.
What age were you when you started to play in the clubs?
Not many people believe this... but 16, 17 and 18. Somehow when I walked into the clubs they didn't see that I was young. I was taught by a very good friend of mine, really brotherly and fatherly, DJ Kabila. He is a huge inspiration to me. He did everything from his wheelchair, his DJ'ing. I used to go out with him, and carry his bags up to the clubs, and sometimes I'd use the excuse that I was just guiding him, to check it out.
Let's talk about names. Your tunes have titles like "Super Afro", "100 Zulu Warriors", there is a recurring African theme, and your name has a meaning as well.
My name is Culolethu which means "Our Song." And every time I think about that, it's really amazing. Why did they give me that kind of name? I hear it is my grandfather that initiated that, that I should be named "our song" because I come from a pretty musical family.
For tracks like the "Bright Forest," I can't really explain why I called it that. It just sounded like I was in an area where you are free, you know... If you had to go into the Amazon it would be quite dark, but maybe because of the music itself, it would light up the place.
It's my first time outside of South Africa actually.
How have you found Barcelona?
Barcelona as a city... I find it insane. In a good way. I've never seen anything like this. I mean, every day is a holiday. In Durban, at 7 PM everyone is ready to go home and you just get those few people that are going to go to the club scene. In Barcelona every night is like the weekend, but every country finds a way to cope with the lifestyle. Here they have things that we don't have, like siesta.
What are you going to take away from the Academy?
Gee, I'm going to take away a lot. There is going to be a lot of growth, in terms of me personally as an artist, in terms of the knowledge and what's going on in the technical scene as well. I think I've got a lot of information to take back home. And a lot of the guys there I'm sure they are also looking forward to hear what I learnt from this side, and what's happening in this part of the world.
And does it raise your expectations when you go home? You're given a lot of support here.
It's tricky. There will never be a place like home. You can go live anywhere in the world, you know. But in Durban, you've got to earn a lot of respect. I don't think it's much use getting a lot of respect internationally, if there is not much respect for you back home.
I like the idea of the international thing, especially if you are in Europe. The countries are very close. Africa is on its own. Everything is so far away. But life is very expensive here.
So are you going to make your money and survive from dance music, or is it going to be something else?
I seriously believe that music is going to be my path in life. There was a time when I said I wanted to be an IT specialist or a doctor. But for everyone there is a moment when you say, "This is what I want to do." And, you know, it's me. It's in my name. I've been named after the music. I believe it's a huge blessing, and much respect man, much respect.
Header photo credit: Pere Masramon/Red Bull Music Academy
Lecture photo credit: Lander Larrañaga/Red Bull Music Academy
Goldilocks photo credit: Pere Masramon/Red Bull Music Academy
Culoe in lights photo credit: Lander Larrañaga/Red Bull Music Academy
Culoe in studio photo credit: Pere Masramon/Red Bull Music Academy