Tony Nwachukwu grew up in South London obsessed with music and technology. He studied computing, sold synthesisers, threw parties, worked in studios, formed a band called Attica Blues who toured Europe, North America and Japan, and were signed by a major record label, then dropped by that major record label, he then helped Red Bull launch the Red Bull Music Academy.
This is all prelude to CDR, the club night he co-founded in 2003 which combines his passions and sits at a unique (and sometimes uncommercial) nexus of music, technology, community and education. Knowing that CDR was about to turn 20, I wanted to chat to Nwachukwu about his life prior to Attica Blues and how in subsequent years he’s inadvertently become, and increasingly recognised himself as, a CEO.
Can you talk about your early relationship with computers?
My teenage years were the early 1980s, when the silicon chip and the microchip started permeating society at the dawn of home computers. There was a big explosion of micro computers from British companies like Oric, Dragon, then BBC Micro and Acorn.
Sinclair Research made the ZX80 (1980), ZX81 (1981), and I didn’t have either, but there was a shop called Buffer Micro in Streatham and I used to catch the bus there on Saturdays. It was like going to an arcade, but they sold computer games and you could try them out.
My best friend Jerry-Onn got a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982), and having access to the Spectrum really opened my eyes to the possibilities of a computer, and the possibility of having the knowledge to build programmes. If you were my age, you either had a Spectrum, because it had loads of games, or - if your parents were more academic - you had a BBC Micro.
I eventually got a Camputers Lynx in 1983, which was a wildcard computer made by a young company from Cambridge and marketed as a business computer. Aged 13, I’d decided I was going to be in computers, so I needed this “business computer”, but then I had to work out how to convert Spectrum or BBC games into basic language for Camputers Lynx. I converted a game called Football Manager which took about ten sleepless nights.
And were you getting into music at that point?
So I grew up in a Nigerian household who wanted me to focus on a professional life. I’d brought home a clarinet from school and my dad sent me back with it, and told me to concentrate on English and maths. Being into computers was great because technically it was maths, but to me, it was a way into music. At 13 or 14 I was into electro funk, artists like Jonzun Crew, Captain Rap, Egyptian Lover, Soul Sonic Force. Then on the British side, things like Human League, Eurythmics, Steve Strange and Depeche Mode. I loved that it was built with computers, and it was synthesised.
I decided that music was my thing when I saw Peter Gabriel on the Southbank Show. They were filming him at his home studio in Bath and he demonstrated using a Fairlight. He sampled himself saying “Money” and then played it on the keyboard. I can’t remember what I was doing that day, but I fell over in shock and excitement, like “that’s the shit right there, that’s me.”
I started buying records and magazines, looking at album covers like Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, where you could see all of the synth gear laid out, and the record sleeves became a map for what instruments were used. In a similar way to the computers, Jerry-Onn and I would go to Soho Sound House or Rose Morris in the west end, and stay there as long as possible playing with a Memory Moog or a [Roland TR-]808 until someone kicked us out.
If you were black in South London, you either went “south of the border” and got into reggae and Jamaican culture, or you went “over the bridge”, and you got into hip hop and jazz funk.
From about 15 I’d worked in Safeway on Kings Road where all of the punks used to congregate. I later got a job in a shoe shop, so I always felt aware of Kings Road culture, whether it was the latest trends, going to clubs or significant people coming to the area. I was never really deep into either the fashion world or the music world, but I was aware of people in both.
So when did all of these interests start to converge?
First year of university, I went to what’s now called Oxford Brookes to study computing, and within a few weeks I was DJing and I’d set up a club night. It was 1987, just before the summer of love and rave culture, and I’d been immersed in a scene and shopping at Groove Records since I was about 13 or 14, so I came with a London sensibility to this small town. I got a reputation as a guy who put on a quality night, students and people from town would come together and get on. I met some cool people, like Simon Richmond, who worked with Neneh Cherry and James Lavelle (Mo’Wax, UNKLE) who was about 17 and worked in Holy Cow Records.
My plan was to do a computer degree and shoehorn in anything to do with music. I had an Atari, and bought my first keyboard, and a sampler. I started making music in my bedroom, taking inspiration from the hip hop, rare groove and electronic records I was buying. It was the best time to have access to a sampler, and they were just becoming available to the public. Run DMC, LL Cool J, De La Soul and later A Tribe Called Quest were all using breaks, and because I was into rare groove, I could start making music like their records. It was using technology, applying technical skills to music, and it wasn’t important whether you had grade 8 piano, which really appealed. I knew I wanted to be in music, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it.
What happened after you graduated?
I got a job as a programmer, working in a room with a terminal building banking systems, which is basically what my degree had entailed. I hated it, I had come from being part of this community and putting on parties, and I think I lasted about a month.
I took a job in a [music technology] shop called Turnkey on Charing Cross Road. I gravitated towards a corner with an Atari and a little MIDI setup. I became the go-to person for computer systems, setting up samplers to demonstrate things in the shop. The money was shit, but we got to take home equipment to learn how to use it, so I could take a £5000 Moog and work on tracks at home.
People would come in from the production houses and because the [major] record labels were nearby, newly signed artists would come in and buy equipment with their advances. We all worked on commission, and there were two types of salesmen, Sharks, who looked you up and down, or found out you had just signed a 40-grand publishing deal, and kerching.
Then there were people like me, who were quite geeky. We had all the shiny new stuff but we also had second hand stuff, and I was more drawn to people who were like, “I’ve got 150 quid, how much is that second hand drum machine?” It was the kids coming in buying the cheap stuff, floppy discs or cables, who were into what I was into, hip hop and dance music. They’d come in and give me tunes, or get signed to an indie label and give me their records.
That’s how I first met Charlie [Nwachukwu’s bandmate in Attica Blues]. Charlie was working in Cuts, we got talking and he knew James [Lavelle], who I knew from Oxford, and our opportunity to work together came after James had got some money to start Mo’Wax and gave Charlie and I some money to go into the studio, and that’s how Attica Blues started.
Around the same time, Mykaell Riley [Steel Pulse, Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra] came in looking to buy a Tascam 688, so I demonstrated it, sold it to him and as part of the deal went to his house to help him set it up, and he offered me a job programming a Bob Marley remix album. He booked time in a studio with 2-inch [reel-to-reel] original recordings of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and ‘Exodus’ with the background chatter and the pre chorus count-ins, like you’re in the room with the people who recorded it. My job was to sample the vocals, sample the drums and make a library of sounds.
I started to see how a programmer like me could work alongside producers, engineers and musicians. I felt like I was born to do that job: it’s music, it’s creative, and taps into all of the things I’d been interested in my whole life, and so that was the start of working freelance for Mykaell for the next seven years.
In the early ‘90s, pop music in Britain was being inspired by American R&B, which had been taking influence from hip hop. So my job really became a thing, I was able to pull in my passion for breaks before sample packs or breaks became common knowledge. I had a manager and was on good money as a programmer on pop records with big string sections in studios like Air or Metropolis, working on big SSL desks was incredible, it was really, really, really insightful. It’s an incredible feeling when you hear a record on the radio and you’ve been part of it, you know that three and a half minutes took 6 months, or that second verse was recorded in one take.
How did that end? When did Attica Blues really begin to take off?
The more I worked in pop music, the more I was disconnected from what I actually wanted to do. As I said, I’d met Charlie and started Attica Blues, I knew Kwame from D’influence, I was involved with a label called Dorado Records and I was touring with [pianist] Matt Cooper triggering samples in his band, so I had my own artistic world which was more and more in contrast with Mykaell’s pop world. So I need to make a decision, and when our first record was signed to Mo’Wax, I paused working with Mykaell and focused on my career with Attica.
It was the first time I’d been able to focus all of my energy on being in a band. I moved into a warehouse off Old Street. I was on the fourth floor, Charlie was on the second floor with Jonzi D who’s now Artistic Director at Sadler’s Wells, and Will Bankhead from Trilogy Tapes was on the floor below, he used to do all the artwork for Mo’Wax. Charlie would come upstairs after breakfast, we’d play FIFA 95 and then use the studio in the corner to make music all day. The Blue Note had just opened, Dazed & Confused was down the road, Alexander McQueen was just emerging, the YBAs were exhibiting, it was a fantastic time to be in London.
At the Blue Note in Hoxton Square there was [Goldie's] Metalheadz, Dusted - the Mo’Wax night, Talvin Singh’s night was there, you’d see Björk or Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite who was making an album with A Guy Called Gerald, it was exciting, and it felt like everyone was moving in the same direction. In my immediate circle everyone was progressing together, whether it were Trevor Jackson, Psychonauts, DJ Shadow or Pressure Drop, all of these acts who found music through hip hop and manifested it in different ways.
Tony and Charlie were joined in Attica Blues by singer Roba El-Essawy and grew a following in the late 1990s after releasing a series of singles and an album on Mo’Wax. They toured in Europe, North America and Japan. Attica Blues signed a record deal with Sony but were dropped after just one album in 2000.
Having spent a decade in recording studios, Tony began DJing again, as a student he’d only played vinyl but now, venues were equipped with CDJs meaning that instead of scouring record shops, he could easily burn tracks directly to CD. Tony had always played his own productions, but realised he could sneak unfinished music into his DJ sets without totally clearing the dance floor.
In 2003 - and partly in response to the treatment he’d received at the hands of a major record label - Tony launched CDR, a club night at which he’d play works in progress handed to him by audience members during the course of the event, it soon became a sort of open mic for London’s aspiring producers. CDR found a long-term home at Plastic People, the night’s regular attendees included Floating Points, Maya Jane Coles, Sampha and Daisuke Tanabe.
CDR developed a reputation as a testing ground for exciting new sounds, and an open-minded musical community grew around the events, but it's not always been straightforward, after the closure of Plastic People in early 2015, CDR bounced from home to home. Early success had allowed CDR to scrape by without any real business plan, but London was changing and CDR needed to evolve.
Tony eventually enlisted help, and alongside the traditional Open CDR nights, he began chairing talks in which established artists break down production techniques. CDR has expanded overseas (North America, mainland Europe) and Tony has launched Music Production Club (MPC) which gives South London school students access to music software and hardware.
CDR reaches 20 in evolved shape, its community still sits at crossroads of music, technology and education, but it's become a more sustainable business. Tony remains the organisation's figurehead, but CDR's now structured to give agency to a new generation of team members, who are helping a new wave of countercultural music producers to share their work.
Aside from reacting against the industry, what were your motivations when starting CDR?
All the music I've been into has been innovative in some kind of way, whether it’s Soul II Soul, Yellow Magic Orchestra or Art of Noise, whether it's changing perceptions of digital music through using a Fairlight, or perceptions of jazz through Japanese funk music or whatever. What's always interested me are people who push things, push boundaries, and in order to do that, people need to be able to take risks.
So my thought was: if you can create an environment that gives people the opportunity to take risks in a way that is non judgemental, but also make them feel driven - where they can hear their music on a great soundsystem with like-minded people - then we could see what happens.
Where everywhere else in your life there might be barriers, barriers to what music you can make, who you can work with, what genre you can work in, I wanted people to know that in CDR, those rules and restrictions don't exist. Quite the opposite - by giving people this opportunity, things will form from it.
Can you talk about the landscape at the time?
Being at Plastics at that time of a triangulation of stuff, the emergence of the East End; the emergence of dubstep, electroclash, broken beat, wonky; and the emergence of the internet and the democratisation of music, all these things happening together was really exciting.
There was a wild west-ism to it. Like the beginning of the microprocessor and the home computer in this burgeoning scene of new computers and new possibilities, it was like the same thing with the internet.
When CDR started people were talking about Napster and Audiogalaxy, burning CDs was a thing, and people were realising you could download every track by… .The internet was happening, Myspace was starting to bubble, but all of these things were online. CDR felt like having something in real life that made sense of the digital world.
Whenever we did CDR, people came along and this community grew, and it was brilliant to see and hear people’s music on the regular. One month, it was a kick and snare. Next month was kick and snare and a bassline. Next month was a kick, snare, the bassline’s changed and they’ve got a vocalist. The month after that, it's almost finished, then it’s finished. Everyone hearing music developing in public is just a fucking amazing experience. It's brilliant.
There was camaraderie, but there was also a bit of rivalry in the room. What’s Sam [Floating Points] bringing this month? What’s Daisuke [Tanabe] bringing this month? It gave people a reason to come and up their game. In order to create sonic innovation, I think you need a few things. You need people to not give a shit, and you need to be driven, whether that’s by your own ego or competition, or whatever.
How did you make it work financially?
I didn’t like the idea of “pay to play”, so I knew it had to be free. Luckily I was able to sell the idea to the venues, because they all bought into the concept and could make money at the bar. I had this weird conundrum, because the draw was always you coming to the event, rather than the name of the headline DJ.
So I started to build the company, and suddenly I’ve gone from being a musician and a DJ to a promoter and now I guess I’m a director, but I’m a director with no money, I had to think about hiring staff and paying staff and paying for offices. We had some sponsorship in the early days, but the dance of how to sustain CDR has been about since then. Every so often we would get more sponsorship or grant money or an opportunity, so things would come and go, but it was just me, Gavin [Tony’s business partner] and some volunteers.
One of the toughest things has been sustainability: what is the business model? I was always determined for it not to be a record company, or a publishing or a rights management company, but rights exploitation and tickets are the main foundations of the industry I’m in!
There was a time before Facebook where we were thinking of becoming an online community, we made a super crude site and we never launched, but we were going to go down that route. Soundcloud came along and solved [the music sharing] aspect but not the community, and the more that started to boom the more I wanted to focus on human beings in a room, which felt more powerful and more significant.
For a long time CDR had a really bad relationship with the internet. The first couple of websites we had were atrocious because I didn't give a shit, I was just very stubborn about the need for people to be in a room together.
CDR’s moved home a few times since the closure of Plastic People…
Yes, when we were at Plastics we were in a bubble. I didn’t go raving anywhere else in London, and the world had changed. The East End had expanded, the internet had shifted and social media had become much more prevalent, so I’d been in this cocoon with CDR, the CDR community and word of mouth, to suddenly having to go ‘oh fuck, the world’s changed’. The [generation of] people who’d come to CDR aged 20 were now 27 or 28, and there was this cultural shift.
Gavin had emigrated to Toronto, so I was running CDR on my own and financially it was in a precarious place. I was like, I love what I'm doing, but I haven't got a dime to show for it. Not that I really care, but to grow, you need to have money, right? Unfortunately, you need money to build and grow and scale and hire people and all the things that money does, so I needed to figure something out.
I met Dan Beaumont and he let us do CDR at Dance Tunnel which was amazing and felt like a second home, but it was a different environment, London had shifted, and I definitely needed some help. I’d met a guy called Pete, who’d just moved to London and worked in marketing. He introduced me to his partner Georgie who was a project manager, and between them, they helped me basically get CDR back on track. Pete had a lot of expertise in social media so we began to build a presence online with a Facebook page. We started thinking about posting in a strategic way and you know, building content and content marketing, things that were completely alien to me.
I started to think about income as we started doing CDR in Berlin, which put me on the radar of [Berlin-based music software and hardware companies] Native Instruments and Ableton, CDR brought this way of connecting with producers and artists that [NI and Ableton] hadn't thought about. They knew me as Tony from Attica Blues but now I was talking to the marketing department as someone who could be marketing support or a product support, and that was an interesting shift because then I could then see the value I could bring to those companies.
Whether it’s work on projects that have got a budget, or helping with marketing strategy or product strategy, what I can bring with this [CDR] community is opportunities, and these opportunities can bring in income. So between this mix of brand partnerships, sponsorship, and product opportunities, we kind of coasted, but we never became an agency, we never went over the tipping point, I think for the better, because CDR would be a different thing. I’d probably be a lot more financially… Look, it was never about that, it was always driven by this opportunity to nurture.
Ironically, the more online the world has become, the more the need for IRL has become more and more important. Touch wood everyone who's had a connection with CDR can talk about what it's meant to be in a room with like-minded people, hearing your music on a sound system, and how that's moved you in a way that online experience never can.
How do you think you’ve changed over the time you’ve been running CDR?
In a lot of respects, I'm the same person that started CDR 20 years ago. Someone who's very curious about the impact of technology on the creation of music and how it manifests itself on human beings in different ways. I’m relieved CDR is still around, I thought about giving up on a couple of occasions, just because it takes up a lot of time, I don't regret any of it at all, but sometimes I think, ‘Oh, what if I devoted that time to my own music production?’ I don't say that with regret. I've enjoyed every day of doing CDR, but I would say over the last few years, I've recognised that in order for it to grow and evolve, in a way that makes sense … you know, the classic record It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop? Well CDR is bigger than me, it always has been, so I need to create an environment where it can live without me, as any institution should. It shouldn't rely on one person. It relied on me by hook or by crook at the beginning because it was the only way it could exist, because it wasn't a business, it was a response to a personal circumstance, that manifested itself in touching other people or connecting other people, and navigating what it could be.
There’s been merit in keeping it going, there's been times when it's been rammed, and it's been exciting and stressful. And there’s been times when there's 10 people in the room, and it's equally as stressful, but those 10 people could have their life transformed. Because I've kept it going for 20 years, I've got a perspective on music, culture, human behaviour and personal development that lots of other clubs and institutions haven't got. Of course, I don’t have that 5,000 people hands-in-the-air moment that brands might want, but I’ve got moments and memories that are more personable.
What do you feel CDR’s legacy is?
Well if CDR was to disappear tomorrow, then I'd like to think there are hundreds of people who have been moved and transformed by its existence. Anyone who thought they couldn't make music, anyone who has the confidence to put music out into the world risk-free. There've been lots of CDR marriages, a couple of CDR divorces, lots of CDR babies, you know, and there's lots of music that’s connected to CDR in lots of different kinds of ways, which is great.
CDR’s 20th birthday party is at Loki in Brixton on Friday 27th January.