Now in its sixth year, the Barbican Guildhall creative learning Box project comprises a collection of tools for imagination and innovation, and opportunities for collaboration; it brought Music, Drama and Visual Art school students who’d also worked with play-inspired live performance artists Hunt & Darton with music students supported by artist mentors Bellatrix and Omar Shahryar, to create their own compositions, and record them with Sem at Gain Ctrl, in a ‘super intense’ schedule over four days, before presenting them at a showcase event.
Listen to this year's Barbican Box album, created by students in East London:
Street sounds, a snappy pop sensibility and a vital sense of youth culture all fuel the work of acclaimed London-based producer Semothy 'Sem' Jones. These elements come into play across his multi-genre catalogue (which has included hit credits from Professor Green to One Direction and Little Boots), and they’re also key to Sem’s work on this year’s Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning Barbican Box project, where he produced an album of new recordings created by students aged fourteen - sixteen from several east London schools.
Sem evinces a dreamy, good-natured charm when we chat; he’s bashful when mentioning his musical achievements (from platinum discs to his inclusion in NME’s Top Twenty Hottest Producers, alongside established game-changers like Rick Rubin) – but he’s irrepressibly driven by music itself:
‘I grew up listening to all kinds of music at home; there’d be anything from The Prodigy and The KLF to Phil Collins,’ he laughs. ‘I always had respect for completely out-there artists like Aphex Twin, who’d take sounds in any direction, as well as the most brilliant kind of pop: where it might stick to a formula, but it doesn’t actually sound like the song you made yesterday. I’d take bits that I liked, and mould things together.’
Sem’s creatively playful approach stems from some of his own youthful music epiphanies – including hearing Soul II Soul’s 1990 anthem, ‘Get A Life’, at a family house party: ‘I remember being about eight, and hearing the kids on that chorus: “What’s the meaning of life?”, and thinking: I want to be singing on that track!’
By Sem’s teens, figuring out music was becoming more of a possibility, thanks to the advent of accessible/affordable software and DIY tech; even gaming consoles like the original PlayStation had the capacity to transform into musical tools.
‘The music lessons we had at school were more about understanding music than making your own,’ he explains. ‘We didn’t know how to play guitar or piano – but we knew how to play video games, and to move things around. I’d spend a lot of time messing around: 'if I can get my hands on X, then I can figure out Y'…’
‘The music lessons we had at school were more about understanding music than making your own’
Semothy 'Sem' Jones
That openness to experimentation and adventure led to further pivotal moments. Aged eighteen, Sem snuck backstage at an Eminem gig to meet his hip hop hero – who encouraged him to pursue music. Sem and many friends would also hone their skills thanks to a Camden-based youth service which offered free studio time to aspiring artists. One of these peers was Ben Drew, who would become award-winning rapper/singer/actor Plan B, and whom Sem would later support on a national tour. At one date, Sem and Plan B were approached backstage by a young fan of their work:
‘I was wondering how this kid got backstage, but really tried to encourage him with his music, in the same way that Eminem had for me,’ recalls Sem. A few years later, Sem would encounter the same kid at a mutual friend’s house, and would go to see the young hopeful play his own gig; ‘I remember thinking, wow, he’s really sick, super-talented!’ he exclaims. The kid, as it happens, was future stadium-filler Ed Sheeran.
Sem’s convivial style would also lead to catchy collaborations with fellow talents including Prof Green and Lily Allen (on ‘Just Be Good To Green’, based on The SOS Band’s glorious 1983 dance hit ‘Just Be Good To Me’, and its dubby 1990 cover by Beats International) – which won the approval of original legendary US producers Jam & Lewis. His formative studio experience also inspired him to set up his own North London studio project in 2014: Gain Ctrl both namechecks its gaming inception, and its intention to empower a new generation of musicians and vocalists.
‘When I was a young producer, we didn’t have a team around us; we were just kids, trying to figure it out – and I definitely got stung a couple of times early on,’ he admits. ‘Gain Ctrl was created as a project where young people would use this free studio space, and we’re also teaching them about the different roles in the music industry, including the business side of things like managers and lawyers.’
'It’s exciting to bring worlds together, and getting these young vocalists to work with live musicians'
Semothy 'Sem' Jones
‘We generally work with young people on a one-to-one basis; there’s never really been a whole group, so I knew this would be a massive challenge: I really wanted to do it,’ he says.
‘It’s exciting to bring worlds together, and getting these young vocalists to work with live musicians – creating something that feels much more ‘alive’ than a backing track on YouTube,’ he says. ‘I’d try to direct them through the recordings, but there would also be certain times where you’d see the kids take charge among themselves, and give each other feedback, in a supportive way. Those moments were really exciting: you’d potentially be seeing a future producer in the making!’
The seven original tracks created from these sessions pulse with strong young identities and expressions, across a variety of contemporary themes, from liberty to revolution and society (in response to the Barbican Centre’s recent Into The Night art exhibition) letting your voice be heard. As a producer drawn to resonant storytelling across any style, Sem is whole-heartedly enthusiastic about the quality of the kids’ completed work in recorded form, and their multi-genre musical and narrative range:
‘More than anything, I’m drawn to music with a message,’ he explains. ‘And when you listen to these Barbican Box tracks, these young people definitely have a lot to say.’