“It doesn’t matter if you George Clinton or you’ve just cracked your first copy of Ableton, we’re all on a journey and its music that brings us together”
It’s fair to say that people know Tony either through his work with Attica Blues, or for CDR (Create, Define, Release), but rarely both. As the founder of CDR, he’s been uniquely able to create a safe and nourishing environment for budding producers for over 15 years. And as a musician, Tony achieved notoriety with the trip-hop group Attica Blues, releasing a string of EPs and albums on Mo’Wax and Columbia, before later focusing on DJing and a solo career. We sat down with Tony ahead of his set at Sassy J’s Patchwork on Friday.
Tony grew up on a combination of Fela Kuti, Jim Reeves and Handel’s “The Messiah”, which was played in his house every Sunday without fail. While classical music wasn’t his thing, he appreciated the dramatic soundscapes, and the contrast with other styles like country, which were being played by his parents, alongside African rhythms. “One of my aunties had a party, and she played Roy Ayres ‘Running Away’. There was something so amazing about it, I had to ask if I could borrow it, I never gave it back, sorry aunty!”
Roy Ayres – Running Away
Working a paper round from the age of 13 led Tony to stop ‘borrowing’ records and start collecting. He was accumulating early electro by the likes of Egyptian Lover as well as Kraftwerk. “Electro had a big influence on me growing up, but I also listened to stuff like Depeche Mode, Flock of Seagulls, Herbie Hancock, anything that used electronics… I was into beats, anything with loud drums and basslines.”
Fresh out of university and with a passion for beats Tony began creating extensive sample libraries, programming in many high-end studios and working with numerous labels including London Records. But it was whilst working at Turnkey, a music tech shop in central London, that Tony was approached by Charlie Dark with a proposition to make music for the newly created label by James Lavelle called Mo’Wax. “Charlie met James and the first record we made was “Vibes, Scribes N Dusty 45s”. The record came out in 1994 and answered a lot for Mo’Wax’s early success.
Attica Blues – Tender (Organized Konfusion Remix)
The early 90s seems to be an influential time for Tony. “Looking back, the dance music explosion in 88-89’ was brilliant because for the first time in a long time there was a focus on drum machines and samples in Acid House, on one side. And on the other side, you had the golden era of hip-hop.” Shortly after this Attica Blues were given an advance to record their first album for Mo Wax, the self-titled Attica Blues. “It was great to be able to stop working and go and make a record. I was able to pull in my contacts from working as a programmer, so we got to work in quite big studios.” Tony reached out to the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra, who recorded strings for Soul II Soul. Coming from a beats background, working with live strings was a learning curve for Attica Blues. “One of the best experiences is hearing the differences once the crescendos and harmonies are all added and played live. I have really strong memories of the strings on Blueprint, particularly on Tender”. After the release of their debut album, the band toured extensively, playing with the likes of Plaid and Moloko.
Attica Blues – Attica Blues
When it comes to DJ’ing, Tony says that during the Attica days he didn’t DJ, having taken a break since finishing University. “I felt my Achilles heel was being that geek with records and sounds. I really wanted to perfect the craft of beat-making and production.” Tony says he remembers the exact moment when DJ’ing took a more prominent role in his career. “It was after our second album came out on Sony, it was the early 2000s, and loads of requests were coming in for DJ sets. I was like, oh sick, you’re going to pay me to DJ on my own for two hours!”. His early sets were largely made up of his own productions, that he was road-testing. This, in turn, provided the inspiration for the legendary CDR nights. “I thought it would be great to have a night for new stuff, it was interesting because I always considered DJing as a way of presenting music”. Describing his general DJ craft, Tony says he relishes the opportunity to present new music and ideas to the crowd, whether its unreleased tracks or new interpretations. He talks passionately about the notion of diversity within sets, saying artists like Sassy J, who is able to weave an aural journey, deserve credit. “All my best club experiences have been when the people playing have been able to mix it up. Whether playing different styles of 4×4 or changing tempo totally.”
When it comes to Plastic People Tony likes to reminisce. “The system was amazing and you were taken into this world of music. It doesn’t matter whether it was FWD, Voices, CDR, Balance or Co-Op, you knew you were going to be taken on a trip, with a rich tapestry of all kinds of music”. Plastic People proved the perfect home for Create, Define, Release: “It provided a fertile ground for CDR to grow if you came to Plastic People you had no choice but to explore your music-production aesthetic”. Beyond the music policy at the club, Tony says the location and zeitgeist of East London in naughties added to the feeling at CDR nights: “It was before the internet, you had to make a commitment to go to a night”.
The CDR project began a reaction to Tony’s experiences with the industry and what was happening with technology. “Back in the analogue days having your track on a CD was still quite a new thing”. The convergence of these factors, along with the space, enabled young producers to explore their music in new ways. “There’s something quite magical about hearing your track and knowing you can go and tweak it. As well as seeing someone else with their eyes down enjoying your track.” The nights brought artists like Floating Points, SBTRKT, Maya Jane Coles, Dark Sky, Om Unit, and Wulu. As Myspace developed and music became shared widely over digital platforms, CDR’s offered a space for like-minded people to share music in public but in a familiar and safe environment. “What was cool with CDR was that you really heard people’s production aesthetic grow and evolve as a result of coming to the night… It got to the stage where I was given a stack of tunes, having no idea what’s on them, and could be totally confident that the quality would be high, which as a DJ is amazing. I could also tell, oh that’s a SBTRKT tune, as I got to know peoples sounds!”
Floating Points – Vacuum Boogie
While over the years there have been countless inspiring moments, Tony says hearing Floating Points’ Vacuum Boogie was special. Aside from this, it’s not the big tracks that leave the biggest impression on him. “For me, the biggest thing is when someone comes for the first time, gives you a CD and they’re all coy, and then they hear it for the first time on the soundsystem, and you see their face transform.” This aspect of nurturing talent is central to Tony’s work and reputation as a teacher. This resulted in CDR Knowledge, a spin-off from the night that provided a forum for people to share production techniques. At these events, artists like Bullion and Floating Points brought along their project files and talked about their production process. “CDR Knowledge was the beginning of other projects. I’ve always been a big fan of Dimensions Festival, and a lot of people that came from CDR were beginning to play there.” This led Tony and Andy Lemay to come up with the idea for Knowledge Arena.
“You’re on holiday spending the day sunning it and the night caning it to Marcellus Pittman so we weren’t sure if it would work, but people were really up for it.” The arena was set up in a way that enabled people to make tracks, with assistants on hand to guide people with less experience in creating something fresh. Beyond this, the arena provided a platform for Tony to interview some of the acts who headlined. “The best one for me was George Clinton. That was incredible because I had a strange experience where during the interview Atomic Dog was played, and I was like Oh shit, you did this tune! You’re the person! I had to hold my inner fan-boy down!”
George Clinton – Atomic Dog
Despite the challenges, CDR has continued for over 15 years, outlasting many of the clubs, scenes and sounds around it. “CDR is the home for forward-thinking producers and always will be.” The future for Tony and CDR look bright, and he has plans to be more transparent about the tracks he receives, moving away from the notion that you have to be at the night to hear the music. This is going to develop into an online streaming platform for up-and-coming producers. He also plans to work more closely with the artists, supporting them more openly. “A lot of the stuff I’ve done with artists has been very cloak and dagger! But I’m looking to be a lot more open in the future.” He also plans to tour CDR around the UK next year, so watch this space.
Tony Nwachukwu plays at Patchwork with Sassy J and Tony Nwachukwu on Friday 21 September. His set will include a live PA. You can find tickets here.