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How Becoming a Music Director Took Kojo Samuel to Glasto

From the Sugababes to Stormzy... Music director Kojo Samuel gives us an insight into what the MD job actually entails and how he started working with the stars.

Published: 29 November 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM

There’s no doubt it was a moment. Stormzy’s Glastonbury show was remarkable not just because it was the first time a British urban act had headlined the festival – nor even the way it seamlessly mixed grime, pop, gospel and ballet – but the fact it genuinely was as good as everyone wanted it to be. Certainly, it united critics, fans and even politicians to hail it as a triumph, and confirmed that the South London rapper is now in that rare space that few artists ever reach: not just at the top of their game creatively, but also commercially successful and critically adored. 

But the live performance was nothing if not a team effort, and two weeks later the man responsible for fitting all the show’s musical parts together is sitting in front of me in a South London pub. Kojo Samuel is the Music Director for a range of acts such as Plan B, Jess Glynne and Rudimental. He claims he felt no pressure prior to Glastonbury, even though it was his debut show with Stormzy. “From my point of view it was just something exciting to do,” he shrugs. “I’m from a different generation to him, but growing up in that hip-hop era I know what usually happens with those shows, and I always felt there was an opportunity for those things to be better.” 

Both artist and Music Director had agreed they wanted it to be a multi-part extravaganza involving a DJ, live band, dance, interludes and spoken word that would still, despite all that, retain a fluidity. A cast of 90 people were involved in all – an organisational feat that went far beyond those of the other Pyramid Stage headliners. “I think that considering the scale of it, to do that first time without any hiccups of note – well, I felt everyone felt pleased that we managed to get through it and pull it off.” 

From producer to music director

A career highlight then, but one he’s spent many years working towards. Music is in Samuel’s blood – he’s the son of PP Arnold, the soul vocalist and studio stalwart whose long career has encompassed work with a small army of high profile acts, and Calvin ‘Fuzzy’ Samuel, bassist to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, among many others, and a stellar musician in his own right. “Music was always there. It was never pushed, but I guess you want to follow in your parents’ footsteps, especially when you’re younger. You grow up around rehearsal rooms and studios and you want to be involved.” 

The first instrument Kojo gravitated to was the keyboard. He worked his way through various school bands, but when he moved to the UK in the late 80s he decided that, rather than pursuing pop stardom, he’d move into production work. Thus began a period working in the r ‘n’ b/pop field, helming tracks for Mica Paris and the 90s boy band Damage. “I did everything that you do when you’re a young producer in London,” he recalls. “I was writing, remixing, got a couple of cuts on albums here and there, but nothing that was ever massively successful. I was always working though, trying to find the right artist and the right project to get involved in, trying to get that big hit.” 

The move into MDing came after he arrived back in the UK after a stint in the States. He was still producing and hustling, but people started offering him live work here and there. He found himself gradually drawn into the life of the jobbing live musician. 

Then one time he went for an audition for the Sugababes touring band and got the gig. “It opened my eyes up to another world I didn’t know existed. It had never dawned on me to be a keyboard player on one of these type of affairs. My thing was always production and writing behind the scenes.” 

What does a music director do?

After four years, as many of his bandmates were leaving or had already left, Kojo was asked to be the group’s road MD. “It involved recruiting a new band and dealing with things on a day-to-day level. I wasn’t sure if it was something I could do but I was happy to give it a shot. Early on I remember saying to someone ‘actually this is like producing a band isn’t it?’ I was like ‘hmm ok I can do that’.” 

Many musicians (and indeed Musicians’ Union members) may not be aware of what the MD role actually entails. In its most basic sense it revolves around how you adapt the sound of an artist’s record to the live performance setting. However, in the pop market that glib definition scarcely does justice to the complexity of the task at hand. 

“It varies from project to project,” Kojo explains. “Say you’re working with a solo singer who’s worked with producers and writers in the studio – those people aren’t going to be involved in the live thing. So your job will be to listen to the music, understand it, select and audition musicians. Then you have to rehearse them and make decisions about how you’re going to transfer it live. So that could be: is it going to be fully live or involve technology? Is it going to be two keyboards or one? What’s the line up going to be?” 

There is a technical aspect too. “You get the stems from the record company, and your job is to decide how you are going to deconstruct this record and build it back together in a live context. That’s where my production background is useful, because deconstructing and putting back together is very within my comfort zone. 

“You could play it exactly like the record. But usually people go [bored] ‘Oh yeah great… why are we here?’ I think live performance is an opportunity to showcase not only the record but the talents of the artist. So you could start a song off the same as the record, or you could give it an intro. But how long is that intro going to be? Slow or fast? Or something expansive? Maybe you want to start with the strings. Maybe you could take the strings from the middle eight and put them at the beginning.” 

Live performances: knowing when to innovate

The answers to these questions often depend on where an artist is at in their career. “When people don’t know a song and don’t know an artist you can’t go around changing everything. You might try some fancy arrangement and end up seeing a row of puzzled faces out there. The irony is you could do exactly the same thing with the same artist a year down the line and it’s genius ‘cause you’ve done something amazing with this record that everybody’s bored of now!” 

Some artists are very much hands-on regarding their shows, others are more open to suggestions from their MD. “I’m happy to work either way. My job is to help facilitate their needs, not to dictate what I want.” What is important, he suggests, is some sort of rapport with the artist: “You don’t necessarily need to be their best friend, just to have a good professional relationship, a good musical understanding and a sense of trust.” 

The biggest challenge, claims Kojo, is the sheer variety of things you have to deal with. “You’re trying to be a bridge between the artist and the band, and the artist and the label and the management. They all have different expectations. And everybody will need something from you that sometimes has nothing to do with the music. If it was just going in and working out arrangements it would be easy!” 

The importance of getting involved with the MU

Kojo has been a member of the MU since the late 80s. “Since I’ve been doing the live thing I’ve tried to be more involved with the Union. The last few years I’ve become aware of lots of issues with live music. I think there’s a need for an updated understanding of what session musicians do now, especially in the pop field. For example, in a three-hour rehearsal an orchestra will have a certain number of breaks, whereas pop session musicians can end up rehearsing for up to eight to ten hours at a time. 

“One thing I’ve always tried to get across to younger musicians is how important it is to actually engage with the Union. A lot of the time members go, ‘Oh what are they going to do for me?’ But a union is only as strong as its members. It’s important for them to understand that the way the Union does things for you is for you to engage with it and engage with each other. That way the Union is stronger and in a better position to help everybody.” 

Getting into live performance at the right time

Kojo has a few as yet unfulfilled ambitions: “At some stage I’d like to move towards artist development. In an ideal world I would maybe co-manage with someone else, or co-develop. But I’d also love to do a proper international touring artist’s world tour. You know, one where you go everywhere: America, South America and Asia.” 

He’s aware he’s lucky to have made the leap into live performance work just as it began to flourish in the UK. How long can that boom continue? “Well, there’s a need for it certainly. Making records: that’s something that everyone understands now. I think the genie’s out of the bottle – everyone has Apple Loops or GarageBand on their phone! But the one thing that is harder to replicate is somebody standing in front of you impressing you and creating a one-off experience that is special and unique. And I don’t see that going away any time soon.” 

For more info on Kojo visit kojosamuel.com and his Instagram @kojomusicofficial.

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