Local DJ takes part in boundary-breaking Red Bull Music Academy

Music springs forth from a Roman monastery several hundred years old. A reverent hush falls over a congregation. These are no Gregorian chants, however. The music is hip-hop, and the parishioners aren't monks, though they have dedicated themselves to a life of worship.

Throughout the building's corridors and courtyard come the sounds of booming bass, drum machines and MCs toasting. Thoughts of serenity are thrown out the window onto the cobblestones below. This monastery, located in the historical Jewish ghetto of Rome, mere minutes from the Tiber, is playing host to the yearly Red Bull Music Academy, a meeting of diverse musical minds where up-and-coming artists, working in a number of different genres, get to study with some much-sought-after, behind-the-scenes music makers. The goal is to foster collaboration and expand traditional musical boundaries.

This year, one of the attendees was Atlanta-based DJ/producer Rasta Root. He was born Dion Liverpool in Canada, but is currently calling Decatur home. In his first week at the Academy, Liverpool has heard anecdotes from speakers including drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, who, in a five-decade-long career, has played with James Brown, Steely Dan and Roy Ayers, among others. Liverpool has also had the chance to work with renowned turntablist Cut Chemist, a compatriot of DJ Shadow and a DJ for the hip-hop group Jurassic 5.

These are enviable opportunities, and gaining entrance to the Red Bull Music Academy, which started in 1998, was no mean feat. Each participant had to submit to a lengthy application process, including a 15-page personality assessment. Questions included a range of things from "When was the last time you cried?" to "How would you explain to your grandparents what you do?" Candidates were also asked to "Draw a diagram of your musical universe, and where you fit in to it."

Overall, 2,000 people applied. This number was then whittled down to 60, which included folks from the U.S., Britain, Kazakhstan, Columbia, South Africa and Peru, among other places. Their interests encompassed nearly every genre of music from hip-hop to house, techno to drum 'n' bass, and reggae, funk or glitch. Ultimately, 30 were selected to attend one of the Music Academy's two two-week sessions.

Once the participants arrive, what they see is no ordinary schoolhouse, or, in the case of Rome, no run-of-the-mill monastery. The Academy, organized by a Munich-based team for the Austrian energy drink company Red Bull, drape the area in swatches of red and blue, the official colors of the caffeine-injected, fluorescent-looking drink. Opalescent rooms are cast with exhibits from local artists and crammed with Apple computers and an array of software and assorted music machinery that almost any gear junkie would envy. In nearly every nook and cranny is a cooler of Red Bull.

The Academy is where most of the lectures and music making takes place. Many of the people giving lectures aren't household names, but are nevertheless revered by music heads. On this year's lineup were jazz pianist/funk arranger Captain David Matthews, mix engineer Bob Power (D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, India.Arie) and mastering engineer Howie Weinberg (Bjork, Prince, Nirvana).

But the experience doesn't end at the Academy. "Many of the best lessons are learned outside of the class, when you're walking home or getting pizza and talking about how music is here in Rome, how things are politically around the world," Liverpool says. "I think that's an important part of this Academy, what you learn from here to your hotel. Having access to the gear is great, but [it] ... can't explain how you get ideas from your head to your headphones to your CD."

At 33 years old, Liverpool is at the older end of the participants' age range. In his 14 years as a DJ, he's worked with Atlanta-based A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg, done production for local hip-hop-soul songstresses Slick & Rose, and been associated with Spitkicker.com, Smokin' Needles Records, WRAS, WREK and WRFG, and more. But he was drawn to the Academy by the potential to make contacts which could further his career. His motto: "The secret to success is access."

Liverpool plans to take what he learned at the Academy and try to apply it to the Atlanta scene. He was especially energized by the association with so many different musicians from all over the globe.

"The most valuable experience was to see the thought process of 'world music,' not just hear it," Liverpool says. "I heard how people achieve their sound, their process. I saw songs go from baby to full-grown adult. It wasn't even about talking, but listening.

"I found a lot of people were sad to leave the experience," he continues. "[But] at the end of it, I was ready to come home. ... It made me want to get back and work. I've seen there's so much great talent both at home and around the world ... and I want to be an integral part of Atlanta's part in that."


To see more from the Red Bull Music Academy tutors and participants, including Rasta Root, visit www.redbull musicacademy.com.