It was a chance for all those who had burning ambitions to hear their music heard on the best system in London to bring a CD and have it played at high volume. Over the decade that followed, a community evolved around these monthly Thursday nights that was multi-genre and truly diverse in all senses – a family of fledgling talents gathering to hone their audio production skills and share knowledge. At the high point in the mid-2000s, the event was an anti-industry utopian platform for creative development, the success of which has been partially proven by the numerous alumni who went on to bigger and better things, namely Floating Points, Sbtrkt (then known as Aaron Jerome) and Maya Jane Coles.
There were plenty of other great acts that orbited the party too, that are probably less familiar to readers, such as Soundspecies, Kay Suzuki, Guynamite, Breakplus and Bergs, whilst others, such as K15, are only just starting beginning to break through now. We caught up with Tony Nwachukwu after a CDR retrospective guest mix on NTS radio to reflect on the closure of Plastic People, the evolution of CDR and the legacy it has had on London music history.
How did CDR start out?
So the first ever party was at a space called The Embassy Rooms, in Islington [now yet another branch of Costa Coffee]. But before that, the reason I started CDR was I had just come out of Attica Blues. In Attica I was the producer, the guy behind the mixing desk, and Charlie Dark was mostly DJing. By the time we’d finished, I’d gone from a live context, from the guy running the band, to realising “you know what! I need to start spinning some tunes,” realising I needed to play records in front of people as well, and tell the story that way. But I was never just content with playing other peoples records. Because I was always making beats, I wanted to shove a lot of my own productions in there, and with the exception of clearing the floor every so often it would usually work. And then, what was more interesting in fact is that you might know something was fresh off your hard-drive, just a loop, but you could bring it into the mix – this piece of music that isn’t finished yet, but it actually works on the dancefloor, and helps you to think about how to take it further.
What year was this?
Around 1999 – 2000, when Attica separated from the Sony deal we had. I knew I wanted to make music still, and the whole MP3 thing was starting to bubble – it was exciting in that respect, new possibilities were opening up.
“Clearing the floor is never a good look, but I’m comfortable doing that.”
The CDJ was just coming in to clubs as well, in the early 2000s. The choice of the name “CDR” – playing home burnt CDs – was still quite a new concept around then.
Yes, and the future seemed very interesting at the time, this idea that you can make music on your laptop or in a home studio and distribute it yourself over the internet. I wanted to create a platform or space for this kind of concept, thinking about what that would look like – a night with no headliners, no need to play all banging tunes, let’s just make it about the music, new music. And also the fact that I just knew a load of producers, a lot of artists who were making fantastic music, and it was about creating a platform where people had confidence to share these ideas.
Cause as you know, a lot of us make music in isolation and are very protective about ideas, shy about things like “It’s not quite finished yet, so I don’t want to share it.” So I wanted to do something that was the opposite of all that, and actually there’s something quite powerful about a space where it’s all about the ideas developing, and seeing how that happens. I had no idea how it would turn out, what the outcome would be, I just wanted to make it happen.
The first parties that drew a crowd happened down at the second venue you had, down the road from Plastic People, at the Bridge and Tunnel club. How did the nights work?
The format was just, bring a CD and it will get played. There’s always been an “open CDR” – a part of the night where you bring down tracks – but in those days I used to get more of a balance, with the open CDR bit as one part of the experience, and then building it tempo-wise. Downtempo stuff early doors, trying to filter it by tempo basically, with faster stuff by the end of the night. If people did things where they reworked a classic, or a vocal track, anything hooky, then I’d feature those a bit later on as well. I should say as well, I wasn’t coming at this like a promoter, I wasn’t coming at it to make loads of money – there’s just a need for producers to continue beyond the bedroom, that was the need.
The goal was all about creating this space that was about the music, and the music is the focus, regardless of genre. About music, not personalities – I was really sick and tired of seeing genres die because of egos. If you look throughout history, a scene emerges in a small place with a small crew of people and classically the personality that’s the biggest and the loudest tends to be the focus of journalists, and the silent genius that speaks through their tools tends to be the person that gets ignored. That’s partly why, for a long time, I didn’t have my name attached to the project in communications, no mention of Attica Blues either – I wanted it to be about the culture, not me.
In the early days the team was just you behind the decks, and Gavin Alexander out there on the dance floor hanging out, making people feel at home. How did that come about?
I’ve known Gavin Alexander since day one, from clubland – he was that other tall black guy in the dance, always – he was always that guy at Dingwalls, or Jazz Café, or wherever. He’s a very charismatic guy, he knew who I was from Attica. He was the only person I knew at that time who was so passionate about music – didn’t know a snare drum from a conga, but still so passionate about music and people sharing their productions. I felt that I needed someone to work with, and he shared my passion. I could be the studio geek, and he could be that person out there on the floor. And it worked really well – when it comes to doing events, it’s about personalities and environments. In a club, if people are warm and inviting that’s important. Doing a night is this balance between the music policy being really strong, having characters in the crew who are amenable, and your audience feeling part of something. Gavin was great at making the crowd feel part of something.
That icebreaking technique was especially important in the early years at Plastic People, when the crowd could be as few as 10 to 20 people at times, each stood in separate corners. How did the event end up moving to Plastics?
Bridge & Tunnel closed down. Fantastic space, it closed because of where it was located, opposite Juno on Shoreditch High Street, the neighbours complained because of the noise. Sav, who ran it, was really passionate – a likeminded guy. So anyway, I needed to find a new home for the night. I got introduced to Ade from Plastic People, originally around doing The Blueprint Sessions with Charlie Dark. We started doing nights there, a residency, which was brilliant for me – again, at that point, I had DJ-ed from time to time but I wasn’t really a DJ, more of a musician who likes playing records. I liked to mess with people’s heads there, give them something they know then something they don’t, I’ve always been that kind of person.
Clearing the floor is never a good look, but I’m comfortable doing that – “if you don’t get it now, you’ll get it in 6 months” – that type of thing. Charlie always plays straight to the floor, so the styles completed each other really well. There were more people who played there with us too – Morgan Zarate, A-Cyde, Dobie – that was the core of it, and then people like Trevor Jackson, Herbert, Pepe Bradock joining us as guests. Playing at Plastics gave me that confidence, learning how to give people something they feel connected to, and then something they should know about. Because the system sounded so amazing, most of the job was done already – the kick would sound so full, an 808 tune would sound ridiculous. The policy there was always the same – it drew a special kind of crowd with a certain kind of philosophy, you knew you didn’t have to win them over or convince them of anything. So Blueprint Sessions was inspiring and I approached Ade about doing CDR – I think I literally said about 3 sentences to him about it and he said “I’ll do it.” And that was it, done. “Come and do that on Thursdays”.
It felt to me – and I sometimes wonder if that’s just nostalgia – that 2004 to 2009 at the club was a particularly vibrant time, and especially at CDR, where it was impossible to keep up with the amount of talents coming down the stairs every month.
Doing this retrospective show tonight on NTS radio was insightful in fact – I spent some time going through the CDR archives, cause I’ve got loads of the music from the sessions, and there’s something really powerful about 2004 to 2009. Looking back, I need to do some more research – I think if you align it to where London was, during that time, and Plastic People as well, you had FWD>> on alternate Thursdays, Co-Op on Sundays, Balance on Saturdays, Nonsense every so often. That was the heyday, and with CDR culture, new music was becoming more prevalent – new electronic music forms, dubstep, electronic fusions.
There’s something about the mid-2000s – digital distribution, bringing your music to audiences really quickly and having a platform to do that, with the invention of CDJs. I think a lot of my reason for doing it was knowing that it was just an important thing to do – I got a buzz out of all this new music, creating a space for it, whatever the tempo was – in this space, it’s all about new electronic hybrids. And getting that kid, a hardcore dubstep fan, to listen to some techno, and get him to think “if I flipped what I’m doing just slightly, I could do that.” Creating a community of forward thinking, maybe even arrogant, producers, without talking about it in those terms. I think this has been one of the biggest challenges for me – I’m not a big talker, I’m a do-er. I do events, create and seed opportunities. I’ve always been that sort of person, even in the Attica Blues era. Let the culture speak for itself – cause that’s what will last at the end of the day. Unfortunately, the way the world works people need stars, people need to jump on bandwagons, people need to sell magazines, people need to fill venues.
It was an experiment, and a utopian one, away from the grind of the music industry. I wonder if maybe the experiment had different results to what you expected, in that it ended up leading to some major careers along the way.
At some stage, culture becomes an asset and someone will pay for it or exploit it – that’s always been the toughest nut to crack. On a much simpler level, you know how it feels to be at Plastics, to hear a banging tune or an amazing idea, and it might or might not have a home or a release date – whether it will convert to cash is anyone’s guess. Particularly in that era we’re talking about – post-broken beat, post-nu jazz, dubstep and house influences creeping in – CDR did exactly what it was supposed to do, [provide] a safe environment to explore in. I didn’t want a pecking order or a hierarchy or anything like that. Obviously, though over time at each night, you’d get a Daisuke Tanabe moment, a Soundspecies moment, a Bergs moment, an Aether moment, and even a Mr Beatnick moment, as well as all these other people you are referring to.
I remember parties where Karizma showed up and played ‘Twist This’ for the first time, early Simbad tracks, the first Floating Points tunes anyone in London heard, Aaron Jerome testing out his Sbtrkt alias for the first time, Maya Jane Coles back when she was called Nocturnal Sunshine.
Yes, and Mark Pritchard, Dego, Steve Spacek. It’s interesting for me because I’d been in a band and inside the industry just before – anything to do with the industry was like, “fuck that man, fuck that.” I didn’t want any of that baggage that came with labels or signing records, I wanted to create a safe space like I said. You can’t deny that at some stage the industry will come knocking, whether you set it up that way or people come sniffing around it. But had I focussed more on that it side of things, it wouldn’t be what it was or what it is. Sometimes I think maybe that was to my detriment, but today the needs are the same as they were back then, people still need a canvas. That’s what I provide.
This part of the convo is relevant to Plastics too, because I never had much sense that Ade was in it to make money. It didn’t seem high on the list of priorities, or certainly less so than creating a space with a community around it.
I’d switch it round and say there’s no harm in that. If you don’t create platforms where you have a strong music policy that’s not driven by cashflow – I mean no one wants to lose money, the profit and loss needs to be on an even keel – but surely if music matters to you and the silent philosophy behind the music, then that’s what drives you and what makes you happy. I know for me, CDR was about giving these isolated people a home, in the same way that Plastics was for us, a home where you could turn up every night and know the music was going to be of a certain standard, and aesthetic you had a connection with. And also striking the right balance between education and entertainment. Every night you went there was always an “oh shit! What the fuck was that?” moment.
“I was really sick and tired of seeing genres die because of egos”
How did your DJing style and the night evolve between 2004 and 2009?
Over all those years, the format was the same. Early doors, Gavin would play his archive selection of favourites from previous weeks, whilst Charlotte – in the early days, and then later on Olivia – would register the submitted tracks. Once everything had been handed in I’d start playing through the CDRs, which back then was most of the night, all the way through ’til 2 am. Always a rush of stuff to get through before 12, so some people could get the last tube, and then reworks and re-edits towards the end.
I was always impressed at how you developed playing those sets as well – it seemed to me that after a while you’d got to know the people who were coming down, and over the years you got better and better at cobbling together sets from all these records you hadn’t heard, which was definitely a challenge to say the least.
I’m glad you spotted that. It was so hard and still is. For ten years of my life I’ve been DJing in a blur, frantically skipping through CDs – “Okay that’s got a drop, here’s a peak, breakdown there. Has this one got a deceptive intro?” So many elements to think about and yeah, after a while I got to know a Breakplus vibe, or a Kay Suzuki vibe, or a Richard Brown vibe, or a Maya Jane Coles vibe – I developed a system. But importantly though, I always tried to throw wildcards in there. A Daisuke Tanabe track was always a wildcard, like “okay everyone’s on a hip hop vibe now, let’s flip it completely.” Drop the Daisuke and fuck with everyone’s heads for a while. It was so fantastic, in fact that’s one thing that hasn’t changed – it’s always exciting for me. Always. “What the fuck has everyone done this month? What they got for us?” There’s never been a DJing format like it – a stack of tunes and you have fuck all idea what’s in there, but right there in Plastic People, it makes sense.
I think it’s incredible the effect it had on everyone’s writing, not just learning to craft sounds for that system, but also the regularity of it, knowing that you had to write something worth exhibiting, once a month – a great routine for producers to get into.
Very true, and I will say as well, the internet hadn’t really kicked in. Producers and artists could still develop in this bubble. And yes there were tracks played there that went on to become successful, people got signed and what have you and set up labels – that happened later after 2009 in fact. Up to then, it was the incubation phase, the R&D phase of CDR. I mean at that time you still had to know about Plastics, the nights weren’t mass promoted – only heads knew it about it really. So if you knew about this place where you could play your tunes, you came down. It was a great filter in that way too, in the people that came down – we did very little marketing back then.
In my mind, the night and in fact the venue has a second phase, from 2010 onwards when the club was threatened with closure by the police, to Floating Points taking over the reins from Ade on Saturday. It felt like a new generation were coming in, because by that point many of us had been going for a decade. The main thing that really struck me on that note, whilst we were doing this research, was how the club means such different things to different people, of different ages.
Club culture always evolves and change is always happening. People get older, they get more responsibility, families, and you have to make financial decisions, especially if music doesn’t pay your bills. With Plastics, if you map the musical output, the producers, and the changing area – I mean Old Street was the heart of London from 1994 to around 2005 – from 2005 onwards, things began to move further east. I think that’s also related to music and destinations in life. The same guys who were making drum’n’bass in the late 90s in their 20s were now in their early 30s.
I would also point out there was a generational shift in terms of artists and producers who earned their keep from selling vinyl. That three pound wholesale price to Goya Music or Kudos, where you could still sell 2000 copies – between that and a few DJ gigs, you were sorted. As digital began to creep in, it created a shift, and there’s a generation of DJs and producers who don’t know that world and who have come into it cold, like “I can just make a track on my laptop, and I’m good to go.” One ecosystem was replaced by another, and to me, that was the shift.
We now have the mass democratization event horizon, where even my mum could put a faux-Berghain techno tool up on Soundcloud if she felt that way inclined. Do you agree with those who say maybe things have gone too far in that direction, and that it’s mostly led to dilution rather than innovation?
Well, true but then there’s also this whole layer of branding that needs to be embedded. What mattered at Plastics was the music. It didn’t matter what you looked like – the music spoke. Producers are mostly articulate through their music, and that ecosystem allowed you to speak in that way. However, in this age of the internet, so much energy is taken up by coming up with schemes to get people to listen to your music, sometimes it feels like that side is less important – the music is less important than how you are perceived.
I think a lot of producers from that old generation don’t have a clue how to do that and are baffled by it, there’s a generation of digital natives who are naturals at it, and then there’s also those that spend more time on that side than they do making music, because they know that’s how they will get heard. For places like Plastics, that shifts the power, the perception – the headliner becomes more important than the culture. It’s important to remember that Plastics was consistent in its booking policy for all those years – in this day and age, that’s a real blessing.
What’s your plan for the future?
CDR remains the same. We’re talking to a number of venues in fact, so watch this space. What’s been fantastic about Plastic People closing is being reminded of what’s important, more than ever. Playing the closing party the other week, on Saturday, with Ade, part of me wondered “maybe I should just stop CDR right here, tonight, cause it’ll never be the same.” But that philosophy, that stubborn focus, that attention to detail is needed more than ever. CDR wouldn’t have worked without the philosophy that we all shared, that belongs to all of us, that we all contributed to, but you have to be mindful of the world around you and the fact is, the world is very different now.