Tony Nwachukwu is a music producer, DJ, lecturer and Music Technology consultant who produces and delivers a range of initiatives for artists, brands and learning institutions across the UK and Europe. Currently the Course Leader (Music Tech & Production) at UEL (University of East London) – UD’s Level 4 accreditation partner – Kat Friar met with Tony at Talent House to find out more about what to expect from our new degree level courses, music education and studying in east London…
Kat: UD are looking forward to their Level 4 courses beginning in September 2023, with UEL as the accreditation partner. As the UEL Course Leader, what about these two new Level 4 courses (Music Performance & Production, Music Technology & Production) excites you?
Tony: So, what excites me is that I’m based in Newham (and have been for a long time), I’ve also got a history with UD. As my career has moved from being an artist and a producer to an educator, I’ve always been interested in being able to create opportunities for producers and artists to grow and evolve. I do that very much in an academic setting at UEL, so because I had this link with UD, for me it was a fantastic opportunity to bring my experiences with being an educator locally, to working with UD, and with that comes this opportunity to actually connect what UD have done so well, for so long, into a formal setting. The fact that you can have people who are passionate about music, who are based locally and this opportunity [where] people can grow and evolve as artists and producers with UD, but also if they want to go the academic route, they can do that with us. [So it’s] this idea of working with a local university local partner who share the same goals as UD.
“…The great thing about being at UD and being at UEL is that you are in a supportive & experimental environment…”
Kat: Students will be studying at Talent House, UD’s new HQ, opened by the Mayor of London in the summer. What do you think of the space and how it will benefit students?
Tony: This space is ridiculous. In addition, it’s a space that Newham has needed for such a long time, and for me, again, it’s this idea that it’s been great to see how UD has grown and evolved in the 20 years it’s been around and Talent House really cements a lot of the growth and the ambitions of the organisation and the fact that this has world class facilities for local people – it’s huge.
Kat: Potential students might be interested to know that UD’s Talent House campus and the studios are kitted out with Dante Audio Over I/P Connectivity via Focusrite’s Rednet. Does the UD DAW set-up excite you? What difference does the DAW make to the creation process?
Tony: First of all, having a Dante set up is great because it gives [you] the opportunity to record anything, anywhere. All the studios are kitted with Dante, [it] just means they’re all plugged in. So somebody can be – say in the room that we’re in now, – and record directly to the DAW that’s in the studio. So Dante is fantastic, forward-thinking technology and the fact that Talent House is equipped with Dante is great ’cause it means someone can be anywhere and record in high quality.
Kat: So, how long have you been the Course Leader at UEL and what’s changed in terms of higher education, especially post-pandemic?
Tony: I’ve been course leader for the Music Technology and Production course for five years now and in that time, I think the needs of students have changed… On one hand students need more support than before – we’ve got to consider wellbeing much more than before the pandemic because this idea of being overwhelmed or under pressure, or really considering our health and wellbeing, [and] really focusing in on that, became a big thing during the pandemic, and moving forward, that’s been something that students really think about. So, they’ll be working on, say [for example] some coursework, and rather than just getting on with it and struggling in isolation, they will let us know. I think that there’s the wellbeing, which people are much more aware [of] and have a better vocabulary about, so as lecturers, we have to support students in newer ways: being a bit more compassionate than before, and a bit more understanding when it comes to dealing with deadlines…
Also to a certain extent, I won’t say there’s a skills gap per se, but this generation of students have grown up with the internet – for the last seven years or more – but definitely post pandemic – you’ve got a generation of people who learnt how to make music with YouTube, so YouTube has been the source of education. What that’s meant for us as educators is that more than ever before, we have to consider that students’ first port of call, most of the time, is YouTube. Not that we’re competing with YouTube – before YouTube was something that was just on the side, now it’s something that’s really front and centre – so we tend to adapt our teaching year on year, because we have to do that… But I think post pandemic, we’ve had to really consider the impact of online learning [and] that people can just – on their phones or computers – access YouTube straight away, learn from influences and the way they learn from influences is different to how you would learn in a classroom, so we have to basically take on board that people have learned in a particular kind of way, using YouTube, which has its benefits, but at the same time, ensure that the way we deliver and also the perspectives that we give are as engaging.
Kat: What’s the best advice you can give to students who are weighing up their options/ considering studying a Level 4 course?
Tony: The best advice I would give is that the great thing about studying is that you can combine your passion for music – whatever you want on the production side or a performance or whatever you want – but then you can contextualise it, you can get a solid grounding in the skills development, historic context in terms of the kind of people that made the music you’re passionate about, the kind of technologies that influence what you care about, and you get this kind of grounding that is really, really helpful as you move forward. But then, also you’re with like-minded people, you’re relying on people who also have a similar passion for music and there’s something about the creative arts. It’s about your networks, who you’re with, and the kind of people you are with and if you are in a creative environment, it’s the best way to help you discover what your passions are. If you are weighing up your options, coming to study is a great way to underpin your passion – both from a skills development side and from a historic, contextual side as well as obviously academic side.
Kat: After completing a Level 4 Course, one option students have is to finish their degree at UEL, what’s the UEL campus like?
Tony: It’s great. The UEL campus has got some really good facilities. It is based at University Square, which is just near Stratford Station. We have a studio with high end gear. We have lots of equipment that students can rent out: guitars, amplifiers, drum machines, performance controllers. What’s also good about the course is that even though it’s a music course, which has predominantly music technology students who tend to be DJs, producers and people more interested in the sound side of things, and music performance students, who tend to be musicians, singers, songwriters… We also have other departments. We have dance, we have Performing Arts and we have Drama and Applied Theatre and, because of the way the course is designed, there’s an opportunity for students to actually collaborate with other students. So even though they major in Music, they have an opportunity to build a collaboration with a dancer or with someone who’s a poet or someone who’s a performance artist. When you’re at UEL, we’re very creative and we’re very student centric. The idea is that it opens you up to the potential of what interests you – so you might go into UD wanting to think about what it means to be a producer or what it means to be an artist… You keep that with us, but then you have this other layer of academic prowess and look at what it means to be an artist or a producer in a deeper way, both in terms of who you are, your profile, but then also what it’s like historically from an academic perspective.
Kat: We can’t ignore that you’re many things to many people; a music producer, DJ, lecturer and Music Technology consultant, producing and delivering initiatives across the UK & Europe. What’s 2022 been like for you and what can we expect in 2023?
Tony: I think in some respects I’m a kind of a reflection of where things have had to go the last ten, fifteen years. The fact that you can have a skill that’s rooted in a particular area – so in my case it was music production – but in order to me to grow and expand, I had to extend my interests, in different ways, sharing knowledge and teaching music technology, consultancy, brand partnerships, all these kind of things – so for me, 2022 was a really progressive year. It was really nice to get back into being with people, whether it’s hosting events, having meetings in person, going to festivals and really being with people. So, for me, 2022 was a reminder how important relationships are, particularly in the music industry, ’cause I think in the arts per se, the great thing about the music industry is once you meet people a lot – unless you have beef with them – most of the time you are friends for life, and you must grow with people. Even if people don’t stay in music you still have a connection. So for me, 2022 was a big reminder of that. The fact that there are some good people in the UK Black music industry. There’s some good people who are committed to pushing things forward, and it’s just good to see them. It’s good to see people out there.
Kat: In the coming term we are sure to have students, such as yourself, who are multi-hyphenate creatives. Do you have any advice for balancing multiple things at once?
Tony: I would say take it easy. I think that the great thing about being at UD and being at UEL is that you are in a supportive environment and you are in an experimental environment – as in it’s an opportunity for you to really discover what your passions are and what your potential is and have the opportunity to try different things out. Whether it’s different genres, working with different people, working with different instruments, learning your DAW, learning how to use hardware.
With this development, we’re hoping that you’ll also see that your raw skills can be applied in lots of different areas. There’s no reason why a songwriter can’t be a podcast producer or a songwriter can’t write music for games so, I think for us, it’s basically giving this opportunity for people to discover who they are, but also learn how to work in different modes with different people [at] different skill levels. Different people from different backgrounds.
Kat: Let’s talk a bit about your project, CDR ‘The Night of Ideas and Tracks in the Making’, what’s it about?
Tony: So CDR is two things. First of all, it’s a club night that started almost 20 years ago and the idea behind CDR was to create an opportunity for producers and artists to showcase their music in a great environment with like-minded people. So rather than a lot of the time, where we hear the end result on radio or when it’s released or whatever, I was really, really interested in this idea that there’s a lot of amazing music being made on laptops, on MP drum machines that people are developing, right? And a lot of the time people only share it when it’s finished, but there’s a big process between the first kick and snare or those first melody ideas to when it’s actually finished. So I thought it would be really interesting to create an environment where people can actually hear music developing, rather than developed, and seeing what comes from that.
It’s an event I started in this club called The Embassy, which was in Islington – small club – and the way CDR worked, is that back then, people would give me a CD of their track, like a dubplate or whatever, they’ll burn it at home and then bring the CD down. The DJ set would be literally a stack of CDs that I’ve never heard before, so it’s all fresh music. I have no idea what it is (but I did to a certain extent cause I knew I could see in the crowd the kind of people who were coming down), so I had a good idea of what it would sound like, but in terms of the genres, the state of the mix, all these things I didn’t know, but it was always the opposite of what the industry expects. I’m DJing this music so I have to curate it on the fly. Tracks have got different levels, different stages of development, but I loved that. I loved the fact that it was almost like the opposite of what the industry was touting at the time.
For me it was a really great opportunity to hear music in [development], it was great to see producers and artists have the courage to share what they’re working on, ’cause a lot of the time – as you probably know – people would tend to not wanna share things until it’s finished or they’re really, really happy with it. It was great because they allow people to have the confidence to go, ‘you know what, I’m in a safe environment, where people like me who are just developing their music or production ideas or songs or whatever’… It created this really good community of people who are passionate about developing music.
So I went from The Embassy to a club called Bridge and Tunnel, which was in Shoreditch, and then from there we went to Plastic People and we were at Plastic People until it closed, and at that time, it was a really exciting time in London. We went from early dubstep, electroclash, broken beat, post garage when people were synthesising, and obviously hip-hop, and just people really experimenting with fusing styles… And because we were in East London at that time, an intersection between all these scenes – because we’re based at Plastic People primarily – and also just the zeitgeist where things were in terms of UK music at the time, it was really, really exciting hearing these artists and producers kind of coming through.
We had people like Floating Points, SBTRKT, Maya Jane Coles, Sampha, a bunch of other people who used to bring tracks down and there was this kind of community of people who grew together. Also for me as well, ’cause it came off the back of some of my experiences in the music industry, I wanted to create an environment that was almost like the opposite to the music industry that focused on talent development [and] focused on music development and giving artists permission to innovate and push ideas forward, rather than trying to fit into a box that a record company tells you to.
Kat: We hear that you recently managed to get Arts Council funding for CDR, congratulations! Going forward how do you plan to use it?
Tony: Thank you. We got the NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) investment and I’m really happy for two reasons. One, because I was going to go for it the last time but I wasn’t ready – I did spend the last three years getting our ducks in a row for that, ’cause I think a lot of the time for organisations like ours, who are traditionally focused on running events, we’re very much rooted in the music industry. So this idea of learning how to frame what you do in a way that funders understand is something that you have to learn and you can learn it yourself, or you learn it with support of others, and we had a kind of combination of both. I had a relationship with the Arts Council from some projects I’ve done in the past, and for me it was a great opportunity to get some investment into a project that obviously is close to me, but then also it gave us the opportunity to support a range of initiatives that we’re doing.
So, CDR is one of them, of which we do CDR in London, Bristol, and Manchester, but we also run a project called Music Producer Club, where we take digital music making and Black led music to schools. It’s very much focused on giving young people the opportunity to learn how to make music using a DAW, but then also to really listen to them as young people and helping them to articulate the music ideas that they’ve got, ’cause a lot of the time music is made with computers, samples or whatever, and there’s a big disconnect in a lot of schools where the focus is on acoustic instruments – and of course there’s a place for guitars and flutes and acoustic drums, of course there are – but with popular music, a lot of popular music – particularly if it’s rooted in Black music – utilises a lot of technology, and there’s a big gap in schools because kids wanna make music that they are familiar with, and the schools don’t have the tools or the expertise in the school to actually make it happen. So we plug that gap with that and we’ve got a bunch of other projects as well. We’ve got one called OTB – which fingers crossed we’ll be doing with UD – where we get producers who have traditionally made music in the DAW to learn about what it’s like to make music using hardware and mix on an analog desk.
We’ve also got a project that will focus on platforming female and non-binary music producers and engineers – [these are] the behind the scenes kind of roles that we want to push forward.
Kat: You’re also known as the producer of Attica Blues and project monikers NEPA Allstar & The Wach, with remix credits including The Cinematic Orchestra, Jazzanova, Duran Duran and U.N.K.L.E, how do you balance your work in education with your own creative pursuits?
Tony: I don’t. I’ll just say it’s a wonderful challenge. Let’s leave it at that.
Kat: It’s 10 years since your Boiler Room set, of which they said “if there was an award for exceptional contribution to dope underground music, Tony Nwachukwu would probably win it”. What does your typical DJ set today consist of?
Tony: I didn’t know that. I can’t believe it’s 10 years! That’s a madness. I’m flattered. So my DJ set usually is usually quite eclectic in the sense I try to go between stuff that’s around 97 BPM – rooted in hip-hop, classic hip-hop tempos and that could either be hip-hop beats but it could also be dubby – how can I put it? Dubby boogie at that tempo, and then it can go up to about 100 and 125, 127, 128, which is a bit more Detroit inspired but broken beat-ish. It’s either hip-hop tempo, atmospheric, or Detroit inspired, but with a focus on syncopation with a little bit of African music in there and percussiveness. I’m very much interested in music that just has really interesting rhythmic elements, whatever the genre is. I try not to stick to one genre. I’m not like a house DJ or a hip-hop DJ, I’ve never been that. I’ve always played different kinds of music because when I was growing up, the kind of DJs that inspired me were the DJs who could go from genre to genre, and then also, I think in terms of your identity if you can, try take people on a journey with you with the music that drives you. I find that particularly more interesting than a DJ that plays one style of music. I think that if you can demonstrate different styles, it gives the audience this opportunity to discover different kinds of music and again, that’s something I kind of miss. I like all kinds of music and I like nights where DJs play a particular kind of music, I do, but I also like DJs who can take people on the journey and will introduce tracks that you wouldn’t expect into their set and still move a crowd and those things that interest me.
Kat: How did you make the move from creator to educator?
Tony: Attica Blues were signed to Mo’ Wax, and then from Mo’ Wax we went to Sony, and then Sony dropped us, so for anyone doesn’t know: when you get dropped in the old industry, it basically means the record label doesn’t have any faith in what you’re doing and they just wanna terminate relationships. So, from an artist’s point of view, it’s humiliating. You’re like, “Oh okay, people who were invested in my future are now not invested in my future, what the F am I gonna do?”
I just literally had a friend of mine who was like, “You are really good at making beats. Do you wanna show people how to do it?” And I was like, “Okay.” So then I went to meet a company called All Change, who are an arts organisation based in Islington and I spoke to the then Creative Director there, her name was Suzanne, and she was like “I hear you can make beats.” “Yes, I make beats.” “What are you doing tomorrow?” “Nothing.” “Come to this youth club and bring your equipment.” So I went to this youth centre with my laptop and an audio interface. I sat in the corner and every so often some young person would come over, “Oh you make beats, make me a beat. I’ve got bars, we’ve got bars.” So I’d make a beat, I was really quick at doing it and started out just making beats in the youth club settings, then one project led to another, and then I was like, “I can show people how to make beats in a really interesting way,” so that’s how I started to share knowledge.
I did consider working in a school, but when I was at that time, which was a long time ago, schools weren’t ready for what I was doing and [in] new settings, you could experiment more. I think in new settings you can develop a relationship with young people in a way that you can’t in schools, so I really learnt about how to work with young people, how to engage young people, how I can use my skills as a music producer and create music or sounds or recordings that respond to the needs and aspirations of young people.
From working with them, I then started working for UD on lots of different kind of projects, whether it was a school project, half term project, album projects, all music production related and project on project, you get more and more confidence, you get more insight into this world.
I’ve had no formal teaching, but I think that for me – and this is again, one of the reasons why I set up Music Producer Club – is that I really do believe that there’s something about music producers, the innate skills of a music producer is almost set up to teach or to share knowledge because you have a technical background – you know how to make beats, you know how to make sounds, you know how to record, you know how to sample. If you don’t know how to use it, you can learn on YouTube, but then also you’ve got to work with other human beings, whether you’re working with a singer, MC, whatever, so you need to have personable skills with people and that combination of having personable skills and technical knowledge are really good skills components to to take that one stage further and to learn how to share that with other people, whatever their setting is.
Kat: Anything we’ve not mentioned that you’d like to discuss?
Tony: I’d say good luck with the application. If you’ve got any questions, just get in touch with UD.
“This is a great opportunity for people to follow their passion in a supportive environment.”
Words & photography: Kat Friar
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