The origins of Urban Classic

An interview with Nii Sackey and Claire Whitaker:

Where did the original idea for Urban Classic spring from?

Nii Sackey, CEO Bigga Fish: At the time [2005], Bigga Fish was already a major producer of teenage events, and we had been supporting the development of acts such as Dizzee Rascal and N-Dubz. So we had a big rapport with urban audiences, and we were working in a lot of schools - which is where we noticed that there was a gap between what young people were learning and connecting with in the classroom and what they were listening to outside.  

From our perspective, it also felt like there weren't enough resources being directed at the urban sector. So, I had this idea of putting an urban artist together with an orchestra. I spoke to Claire and she was already looking at ways of getting orchestras to reach new audiences, so we came up with the idea of Urban Classic.  

The idea was to act as a bridge between polarised communities - whether that’s young and old, or urban audiences and classical audiences. It was also a means of getting the urban artists that Bigga Fish worked with access to the resource of the orchestras.

Claire Whitaker, Director at Serious: Serious had a long track record of developing and growing new audiences for a whole range of contemporary music genres.
Many of those projects had involved leading young people towards unfamiliar musics - but always via a more familiar starting point, such as urban music. For instance, in schools we would use DJ workshops or deconstruct mainstream pop songs to show the range of genres and cultural influences that lay behind them. We’d do that with artists such as Courtney Pine who, incidentally, would have had a a teenage Dizzee Rascal in one of his workshops when Dizzee was still at Langdon Park School. 
Through this work I got know Nii. I really admired Bigga Fish’s ability to reach out and attract young people and together we came up with the idea of Urban Classic. 
I suppose I came at it from the point of extending the reach of classical music to new and younger audiences and developing some of the methods we had already used to take classical music to young and diverse audiences through the lense of urban music and cultural integrity. Whereas, I think Nii and Bigga Fish came at it from the point that giving urban artists access to resources of an orchestra that would potentially expand their audience reach and give a different sort of validity to their craft.

How did the relationship with the BBC come about and how has that developed?

NS: The BBC has always been a fundamental catalyst for the project, they had the resources and had the foresight to understand the vision. They basically facilitated the project. I think Urban Classic is a really good example of how organisations can work in partnership with an institution like the BBC.

CW: Serious has a very longstanding and close relationship with BBC Radio 3. However there was also an element of luck here. After Nii and I had our initial discussions, we were on a train from Gateshead to London. Thanks to engineering on the line between Newcastle and York that became quite an extended journey, and it ended up with us talking to Radio 3’s Controller Roger Wright. 
Roger immediately saw the potential of the project and pulled out all the stops to get the BBC Concert Orchestra and Radio 1Xtra on board. His vision and enthusiasm have been a running thread throughout the development of the project. He is now, of course, also running the BBC Proms - and so after the success of the 2012 Urban Classic events a new edition for the 2013 BBC Proms was the natural next step together

Which audiences were you aiming to reach with Urban Classic? 

CW: Originally my hope was that Urban Classic would bring a new audience to classical music. But, to my enormous pleasure, the project has also reached out to the more adventurous elements of classical audiences. People of all ages from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds have loved the Urban Classic concerts.

NS: There's a great power to orchestral music that young urban audiences don't always get to experience. However, the audience for classical music is traditionally aged 30 plus so we wanted to bring the two groups together. 

To some extent, the idea was to overcome a challenge that is sometimes referred to by producers as 'hard to reach audiences'. In terms of classical music, that usually means young people under the age of 25. And, if you segment it further, it means young people living in inner city urban areas. 

It's like, you don't have lots of golf players in inner city areas, because people don't have access to golf courses, and, for much the same reasons, you don't have a lot of access to orchestral music within urban communities. It's also an issue of culture. The cultures were very different, not integrated, and not accepting of each other.

The first Urban Classic event took place in 2006 at the Hackney Empire, how challenging was that to pull off? 

CW: There was a lot of sizing up from both sides, but what took us by surprise was how well the two worlds meshed together. 

The underlying principle that was very important to Nii and I was that Urban Classic was created predominantly from an urban perspective with the integrity and edge that those genres bring. Too many times when genres are brought together, however well intentioned, the results are bland. To overcome this challenge we partnered with experts at every level - for instance, with BBC Radio 3 and BBC 1 Xtra - and used Jason Yarde, who is a brilliant composer, arranger, producer, musical director and saxophonist, as a bridge between the two different worlds. 

NS: It was very exciting because, to our knowledge, no one had tried it to the scale or ambition that we had. We were prepared for the clash of cultures, but what we weren't prepared for was how well the two sides would gel musically, after their initial sizing up of each other. Through music, there was commonality. 

All of the urban artists were really excited about being involved because they wanted access to the resource of an orchestra. I think some of the orchestra members were a bit hesitant at first - but it was really good to see the way the two groups came together. 

CW: In the first rehearsals we found some common ground with chickens! It turned out that some of players and some of the urban artists kept chickens. So that became a bit of a water cooler topic! From there, the workshop process, where we worked with a small group of orchestral musicians and the urban performers, was hugely successful and through that process the excitement of the project was spread to the rest of the orchestra and everyone involved. 

The evening itself worked like a dream, the clash between the sumptuous and often melodic arrangements and the amazing energy of the vocals was hugely successful. The room was full of ecstatic young people, peppered with many of the great and the good of the arts world - one of whom congratulated us on creating a totally new musical genre! Everyone around the project was thrilled but the challenge was how to develop such an ambitious project going forward.

Following the success of that first performance how did you develop the project? And can you explain how Urban Classic become part of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival at the Barbican and Waltham Forest?

NS: Because it involves an orchestra, the big challenge for Urban Classic is resources. So when the Olympics came up, that allowed us the opportunity to stage an event, and we were able to get lots of partners round the table: Create, The Barbican, Waltham Forest Council, the BBC, and so on. 

CW: Nii is spot on. By its very nature, Urban Classic requires considerable resources. However the Olympics gave everyone the chance to think bigger. 

So, when The Barbican approached us to create a new version of Urban Classic, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, we jumped at the chance.  We also took the project outdoors with our partners at Create and Waltham Forest Council. 

At the Barbican Hall the excitement reached fever pitch and the orchestral players brought cheers and screams as if they were the latest boyband. It was a true mix of audiences and genres all having a great time and all entering a new sound world. It brought huge pleasure to me that the urban artists all loved the vast orchestral sound and the new energy and scale it brought to their work. 

NS: The Barbican was completely sold out. You couldn't say it was an urban audience, a young audience, or a black audience - it became an expression of modern culture, bringing together the old with the young, and the traditional music with new interpretations by young people.

CW: The BBC were also fantastic and broadcast the project live on Radio 3 and Radio 1 and we became more adventurous by placing some exciting but quite challenging contemporary classical music, such as Mosolov, in the heart of the programme. To my knowledge this is the first time that classical  music has been played on Radio 1.

NS: Urban Classic became part of the Olympic offer to London, and was billed as one of the Olympic events. At Walthamstow Town Hall we had around 10,000 people see the show, which was fantastic because we got to do the full production, we had Ed Sheeran as a special guest and we had fireworks at the end of it all. Urban Classic is such a big musical statement that the Olympics was a fitting setting.

What next for Urban Classic?

CW: We are hoping to do a new edition of Urban Classic in 2014 and discussions are taking place for it to tour internationally. 

NS: We definitely see there's an international dimension for Urban Classic, we'd like to see a new platform for it in the UK and abroad. We also see it as translating into other music forms following the same kind of concept. 

What the live music experience really embodies is that fundamental thing of bringing people together. People can get really struck in their culture. But Urban Classic really transcends those barriers, and it brings it back to experiencing something new and different and of a really high quality.