In every music producer’s story, the journey has to start somewhere. Opening up Ableton or Logic for the first time can be overwhelming and even when you’ve laid down some sounds, it might be daunting to share your creation outside of your immediate circle. Luckily, as technology has made music production easier and social media has connected the world more intimately, it is easier than ever to find your clan, where your abilities can be understood and encouraged.
Create. Define. Release. [CDR] is one such collective that has opened doors for would-be music producers. Formed by DJ, musician and producer Tony Nwachukwu in 2003, CDR places focus on Black electronic music to give creatives the opportunity to find themselves in the world of music production. Its mission? To give like minded people a safe space to take risks with the music they make, to find their own unique sound. CDR rose from Tony’s time with the band Attica Blues, the result of his frustrations with their record label attempting to pigeonhole the band’s club-leaning tunes. “[CDR] was a knee-jerk reaction to my experiences,” Tony tells us. “I needed to figure out a way of creating a space for music and artists to grow and be nurtured in a way that doesn’t need to be connected to major labels. Creating the space for innovation.”
Setting up shop in London, CDR began life as a monthly club night at The Embassy, before settling at Plastic People, an infamous cultural hub where UK dance music thrived throughout the 2000s. Tony and crew would encourage would-be producers to bring their new productions to parties for premieres through Plastic People’s famous sound system, giving them the perfect arena for their ideas. Despite Plastic People’s closure in 2012, CDR has kept it moving, hosting free music production masterclasses and talks with the likes of Theo Parrish, Roska and Cooly G, while SBTRKT, Floating Points and others have honed their talents within its framework.
Now celebrating its 20-year anniversary, CDR has retained its original mission to encourage experimentation and creativity on your own terms. We spoke to Tony about the organization and music production as an art form.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach; it’s really about you as a music producer finding your workflow.”
Congratulations on 20 years of CDR! Could you paint a picture of the club and dance music scenes around the time the organization formed?
Tony: It was a really exciting time in London. You had the emergence of dubstep, electroclash, broken beat. East London was starting to emerge, especially Shoreditch. There was this emerging scene of independent producers and new music forms were evolving. Things like MySpace allowed them to build networks online which was revolutionary. CDR was the physical place to hear what they were working on. The great thing about Plastic People was that it was a hub for all of that music. It was 200 max capacity, pitch black and had the best soundsystem and door policy in London. You know when you got there that everyone understood the music, whatever the night was.
How important was it for CDR to place this music in the context of the dancefloor?
Back then, a lot of CDR was based around this thing called ‘Open CDR’ where producers burnt their tracks to CD, brought them down and the DJ set played on the night is just that music. I wanted to have an environment that was just about new music and works in progress. Give people a chance to share snapshots of what they’re working on rather than the end result. I believed there was value in having the courage and platform to share the music, especially in the quest for musical and personal innovation. Producers were combining styles; broken with garage or broken with techno. You would have someone like Daisuke Tanabe playing music that was more of a soundscape and textural but fit right in with Plastic. It would make you stand still on the dancefloor, close your eyes and immerse yourself in sound. These weren't usual rules or expectations for a club night so Plastic was very unique.
After Plastic People closed, what did the next chapter of CDR look like?
It was weird because Plastic felt like home, so when it closed it was almost like, “oh, there are other clubs in London [laughs].” We moved to Dance Tunnel in 2012 which was great and it allowed us to change the format. We had done this thing called ‘CDR Knowledge’ which was a track deconstruction with Bullion and Floating Points across the road from Plastic. After that I wanted to merge this aspect with a standard CDR session and that’s when the current form of CDR was able to take form.
How much value do you place on music production workshops and talks as opposed to an upcoming producer finding their feet on their own?
I’m super keen for people to really value the thinking process behind making music. Whether it’s a simple track with a kick, snare and reverb for five minutes or something way more complex, I really believe that the demystification of music production is really important. A lot of the time newer producers can get so overwhelmed, particularly nowadays because of YouTube, and get confused by so many approaches and styles. I want to shortcut that and look at how people make music, whether it’s chaotic or organized. There’s no one size fits all approach; it’s really about you as a music producer finding your workflow. Principally, the equipment is just the tools, because the ideas from the human beings is what makes the music.
What do you think are some of the biggest myths about music production?
That it’s difficult and challenging in terms of making sounds. History has taught us that, actually, it’s all about the ideas and how the music moves us. There are some tasks that are challenging to learn but the beautiful thing about music is that sometimes it is the happy accidents and naivete that pushes things through more. A lot of the music we know and love have come through because of this. The pumping sounds coming out of wonky in the early 2000s that came from sidechain compression was actually abusing the compression itself because its purpose is to control your bass elements with your kick drum. Someone decided to use sidechain compression on every element of a track which gave out a pumping sound that became a signature for wonky at the time. That’s the beautiful thing about music production.
That plays into the idea of simplicity and the fact that music production doesn’t have to be overcomplicated.
I like to use the phrase ‘deceptively simple’ which doesn’t have to mean lazy or carefree. It’s more about understanding what is needed for a particular genre. With dance music, there are certain elements that people need to move their bodies: a significant kick drum, low-end and melodic elements. But how you put your own spin on it is what makes music production so amazing. But that’s not to say that producers shouldn’t experiment with layering or creating nuanced arrangements or sound design, if you’re able to take the listener on a journey with you.
“You owe it to yourself to try different things and understand what is possible for your sound.”
What have been some of the more satisfying aspects of running CDR for you over the years?
One of the humbling ones has always been that, from day one, seeing the face of a producer when they're coming in for the first time and they’re handing over a CD or USB. You can see it’s their first time and they're nervous. Then when their track is played, I purposely look out for them and you can see this beam on their faces that their track is being played for the first time and they're not being ridiculed.
I’ve loved hearing music as it develops: producers would bring a track down in January that's maybe a raw track with a kick, snare and a vocal sample. Then they'll bring it again in February or March and it's a bit more shaped and involved. Then they bring it in July because it's finished and they want to test it just before they release it. You're really privy to the development of a track in real time. I'm really happy to know that, from the very first session at The Embassy in November 2002 right up to the present day, the principle of people coming together to hear music that's been developed is still intact.
What does the future of CDR look like to you?
Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years because I’ve just been getting on with it [laughs]. We’re based in London, Bristol and Manchester and looking to run sessions in other cities, including Sheffield and Leeds. We’ve done CDR in Berlin, Copenhagen and in Pittsburgh so partnering with like minded organizations internationally is something that I want to do. We’ve worked on compilations before but I think there's something more that we can do with the music.
What advice would you give to music producers that are trying to start out?
The most important thing is to know that it is a journey. You will grow in terms of your skills and your ability to listen technically to different kinds of music. A lot of producers nowadays are very fixed in their idea of the music they make. For example, if someone's a drill producer, they make drill and nothing else. If they make tech house, they make tech house and nothing else and they only watch tech house videos and only follow tech house labels. I think that's extremely limiting.
You’re entitled to explore what you want to but it’s also a God given right to listen to everything. Because what you're listening for is the techniques that have been explored, whether it's the arrangements or choice of sounds, vocal delivery or use of reverb. It opens up your sonic palette and your understanding of sound. So if you’re a house producer making 127 BPM music, try 97 BPM. If you make drill, record some sounds on your phone and use them. You owe it to yourself to try different things and understand what is possible for your sound.
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