A Conversation With Tom Caruana

Tom Caruana is a British hip-hop producer and the boss of Tea Sea Records, whose unlicensed Wu-Tang Clan versus the Beatles mash-up album brought him some unwanted legal attention. M3 got in touch with Tom to hear his story, and got some pointers on running a successful small label in the digital age…

They say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but is that true even of publicity that leads to major-label lawyers threatening to sue you for damages? That was a question that British hip-hop producer Tom Caruana was forced to confront in 2010 when, a few days after the publication of an interview he gave to the New York Times, he was contacted by Capitol Records. The subject of the New York Times interview – and the strongly worded email from Capitol – was Caruana’s unauthorised mash-up album Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers, a beguiling seventy seven minutes of music that sets Wu Tang Clan vocals to beats built around samples taken from cover versions of Beatles songs (and a few snatches of Beatles’ originals). It was originally offered as a free download from Caruana’s own Tea Sea Records website and Bandcamp page.

Speaking via Skype from his home in Lancashire, UK, Caruana remembers making the album: “I was doing it at the most hectic time in my life, when I was doing my teacher training. I realised that being a music teacher was not really what I wanted to do – I just wanted to be making music – and I think subconsciously that might have had something to do with [making the album]. With a project like that, they’re both such huge bands that it’s fairly inevitable that it’s going to get a good response, if it’s made well.” Although he expected the project to be well received and take his talents to a wider audience, the scale of it’s popularity still took him by surprise. “I looked back on my Facebook timeline the other day, to when it was released. It’d been up for twenty four hours and there had been a thousand downloads, and I was like wahey; time to celebrate, open the champers! and then it just went on and on..”

In the month before he was obliged to remove it from his own sites, Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers was downloaded more than fifty thousand times, attracting the attention of national newspapers in the UK, complimentary tweets from the Wu’s Raekwon, and the interview request from the NY Times – the first interview that Caruana had ever been asked to give about his musical endeavours. The interviewer asked whether he had been worried about the legal repercussions of the project. Caruana remembers his answer: “I was like, ‘well no, not really: I’ve put it up for free and the Beatles’ lawyers will be going after people who are bootlegging the original music, and I’ve used lots of cover versions’.”

When an email arrived from Capitol Records, who own rights to the Beatles back catalogue in the United States, stating that Caruana should remove Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers from his website within twenty four hours or they would start legal proceedings to force him to do so, he saw his own words in front of him: “They had quoted me, from the New York Times interview, where I’d said ‘they’re not going to be bothered about me because I’m giving it away for free,’ and they were saying ‘this is where you’re wrong.’ They basically said that I was damaging their reputation and undermining their relationship with their customers, the people who actually buy licences to use the Beatles’ music..”

On the same day, Caruana also received an email requesting his phone number, from a business associate of the Wu Tang Clan. “He said he’d listened to it with RZA and Method Man and they all really liked it,” Caruana remembers, “and he said that the only things I should have done differently was to put a Promotional Use Only sign on it, and make it a bit shorter.” As well as praise and friendly advice, the Wu associate made some suggestions for collaborative follow-up projects, offering contributions of exclusive performances from members of the extended Wu Tang family. “It was surreal,” Caruana says, “It broke down a wall of possibility; made me realize that people are just people and anything’s possible. I think that was the beginning of thinking that I can actually reach people with what I do. It was an exciting time. But at the same time, it was kind of like, ‘well, I only got this success because this album has Wu Tang and Beatles in the title; it’s made up of Wu Tang and Beatles music and all I’ve done is piece it together; there’s not really a lot of me in it’.

Caruana complied with Capitol’s demands and removed the offending audio from his website. Capitol contacted his internet service provider and accessed his account themselves to confirm that he had done so. Then they informed him that they were going to proceed with a claim for damages.

Reaching a substantial international audience with an album that so flagrantly flaunts copyright law would have been impossible in the pre-internet age, but Tom Caruana was performing alchemical acts with extracts of other people’s recordings long before the world wide web was commonplace in day-to-day life.

Growing up in Forest Row, Sussex, he started recording on a four track tape machine at the age of 12 or 13, playing his father’s drums, bass and guitars, and using tape speed manipulation to warp the sound of his vocals. Graduating from four to eight tracks, and getting hold of a basic sampler whilst studying for his GCSEs, the teenage Caruana produced dozens of albums, complete with artwork, each in a limited edition of one single cassette tape. “I was my own biggest fan,” he chuckles, remembering how he would sometimes play the tapes to friends, but more often just stick them in his Walkman and head out to the woods.

In those days, he sourced records to sample from a local house clearance business where he would help out. “It’s really romantic, thinking back to it,” he reminisces, “There’d be a stack of records in the corner that everyone knew was there, but when they’d just done a house clearance they’d chuck it all in this big room and I’d go round on my hands and knees, climbing amongst all the junk, finding different boxes of records. That’s where it all started, for me.” Those early days instilled a crate-digger’s ethic in Caruana – “it was always about sampling the unknown, the obscure” – that he adhered to zealously, and says he will “always go back to,” despite the gloriously deliberate and playful transgressions heard on the Wu Tang mash-ups, and  similar projects.

Meeting likeminded individuals fuelled his development: “Somebody I went to college with, called Dutch Courage, had an MPC and was more into digging than I was at the time. I used to go round to his and he’d play me beats, and that opened up my mind to what I could do. Then I got a better sampler and moved to London and started doing things with rappers up there.”

His time in London saw Caruana hone his skills as a beatmaker and work with numerous collaborators, but also forced him to consider his relationship to the aggressive attitudes and shallow machismo that can seem to dominate hip-hop. “I can remember periods of just feeling fed up with having rappers round, and feeling I was being used for beats,” he says, “I was fed up with the aggressiveness of London rappers because I didn’t feel it was me, or anything I particularly wanted to carry on with.”

A period back in Forest Row gave him the chance to concentrate on sampling folk music and develop his own Bombadeal lyrical persona. Following that he moved to Brighton and, once he’d settled in, he hit something of a purple patch, and Tea Sea Records was born.

“Yeah, I know Tom,” confirms the man behind the counter at Brighton’s Rarekind Records – a hub for the city’s hip-hop scene – when asked if the name Tom Caruana means anything to him. “What can I say, he’s a great producer and he’s probably the most prolific person making music that I know. He’s always got new stuff coming out, always got a load of different projects on the go. And he’s versatile, you know: he can make that freaky fairground shit, or the real hard drum-driven stuff. He’s a proper musician, which is not unheard of for a hip-hop producer, but it’s not exactly the norm. And he’s a bit mental. In a good way.” Pressed on what he considers to be Caruana’s best, or definitive, work, Mr Rarekind scratches his head, “That’s hard to say, ’cause he makes so much. For me, it’s his work with Dr Syntax, or the Menagerie album. Then of course there’s the Beatles / Wu album..”

It’s a few years since Caruana moved away from Brighton but he maintains a strong working relationship with several rappers from the South Coast town, even though he now lives 250 miles to the North. Many, though not all, of these projects are released through Tea Sea Records.

Launched in 2007 as an outlet for Caruana’s productions that weren’t being released on other labels, Tea Sea is currently thriving, thanks in no small part to the success of Professor Elemental’s unique brand of steampunk flavoured chap-hop. Caruana and Elemental have known each other for a long time and collaborated extensively over the years, including in the Menagerie, the group in which Elemental rapped and Caruana contributed beats. Elemental originally adopted his Victorian mad-professor guise as part of a concept album that Caruana was producing in which the tracks were themed around different eras, from caveman times to a space-age future. The persona stuck and proved popular, with the video for Cup of Brown Joy, an ode to the wonders of tea, becoming a YouTube hit with over a million views. Despite not being finished when Brown Joy was in it’s first flush of viral success, the album on which the track features, Rebel Without Applause – Tea Sea’s thirteenth release, on which Elemental is still in the process of becoming the Professor – became the label’s biggest hit to that point. Without the numbers at his fingertips, Caruana estimates Tea Sea sold about two hundred downloads in the first couple of years of the album’s availability, with a greater number of copies being sold on CD.

Then came the runaway success of Magical Mystery Chambers and the legal threats from Capitol. Faced with the threat of a claim for damages, Caruana wrote an apologetic letter in which he explained that he hadn’t understood the implications of what he was doing, and that it was an art project – intended for friends only – that had got out of hand. Capitol did not pursue the threatened legal action and Caruana was able to get on with working on his own music and releasing it through Tea Sea Records.

“There’s definitely still money in sales,” Caruana says, on the subject of his label’s current fortunes, and the possibility of small independents making money from their music in 2012 and beyond. “The majority of artists on Tea Sea bring in peanuts,” he says, but the success of a few of the label’s releases, most notably Professor Elemental, make the operation financially worthwhile. “As a label, I don’t really have the money to do promotion beyond social networking, and the mailing list,” he continues, adding that “the mailing list is now my biggest tool in terms of being able to make a profit.” The tireless performance schedule of the Professor is continuously adding to that list, which also includes the email addresses of the fifty thousand people who downloaded Magical Mystery Chambers before it was withdrawn. “Professor Elemental is gigging most weekends, and sometimes a few in the week. The two things [live performances and sales of recordings] work together.” The videos for Cup of Brown Joy and Fighting Trousers, made by an individual known as Moog, have also played an important part in Tea Sea’s success. “We’re paying him for the next one,” says Caruana, “but he made those first two for free, for the love of making videos. To be honest, the whole record label is built on blags, on politely asking people. I owe a lot of favours.”

As shown by the shelves full of records behind him in the Skype window, his happy memories of teenage crate-digging, and the warm crackle in his beats, Caruana is a life-long lover of vinyl. He says he’d like to make Tea Sea releases available in that medium, but has doubts about the economic viability of it. The care that he takes over sequencing and blending the tracks in his releases, and the over-arching concepts present in many of them, indicate that he is committed to the album as a form, regardless of physical format. And he says that purchases from Tea Sea Records attest to the fact that his audience is too, with around 50% of people buying full albums as opposed to individual tracks.

Looking to the future, Caruana talks with typical enthusiasm about a plethora of new releases. There’s a new album with Brighton hip-hop crew the Menagerie ready to drop when a video is completed, a new Professor Elemental album lined up for later in the summer, a “straight up, fairly serious” album with Longusto, an EP with Clev Cleverly, an album with Dr Syntax on which every track ties in with dialogue from the films of Edgar Wright, a non-rap mash-up project he refers to as Motown Goes To The Movies, the long-gestating Bombadeal album… Considering that he says “I make twice as much as I end up using. I’ve always got lots of leftover bits and beats,” the man’s productivity is astounding. Or as he puts it “As long as there’s records that I haven’t heard, there’ll always be samples to take…”

Interview by Joe Venables

For more information about Tom Caruana’s music, you can visit the official Tea Sea Records website and find the label on Myspace, Twitter and Bandcamp. Also, be sure to check out M3’s recent interview with Tom’s colleague Professor Elemental.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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  1. Pingback: Interview – Professor Elemental « M3 Event

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