17 Apr 2021

The Mixtape - David Atai

From Music 101, 5:20 pm on 17 April 2021

David Atai talks with Charlotte Ryan about his favourite music picks, and about Crescendo Studio's mentoring programme for youth.

Atai is an award-winning, multi platinum-selling artist from groundbreaking New Zealand hip hop group Nesian Mystik with a track record of producing hits. He's been involved in music since 1999, and is passionate about helping young musicians.

Mentor David Atai

Mentor David Atai Photo: Hunter Crouchley

He's one of the industry experts behind Crescendo's programmes that foster young people's love of music and creativity, and teaches them about music production and radio. It draws in youth who've experienced a difficult past, including homelessness, drug addiction, sexual assault, loneliness and gang life.

The journey's of some of those young people have been turned into documentary series The Collective.

Click here to watch all episodes of The Collective

The programme is a lifeline to the young musicians who star in this uplifting video series. They've all experienced the darker side of life and are working to heal the emotional wounds of homelessness, drug addiction, sexual assault, loneliness, gang life... everyone is welcome in the Crescendo whānau.

It's billed as a powerful journey of self-discovery guided by Crescendo Studio, a commercial recording facility that runs the free and funded youth music production and radio programmes, based in West Auckland. The outfit is run by Blindspott's Marcus Powell and Atai, with the aim to help rangatahi build a future in music.

Atai says the series is 'a great watch', and shows a behind-the-scenes human look at young developing artists trying to break out.

"I hope that it inspires some other young musicians out there to pursue the same path."

His first involvement working with a community programme was through the NZ Music Commission's mentoring in schools programme.

"We'd just share our knowledge and skills and help them write songs - I did a couple of those, and so did Marcus Powell the guitarist from Blindspott, our CEO who started the trust.

"It's a full time job for me, this is what I love to do - my career as part of Nesian Mystik is a passion for me, but when I was about 15, 16, I knew that I wanted to be a producer.  

"I'd sit in the studio till 6am with the engineers, just picking their brains - why did you do that? - and just training my ears, even on stage I'd be talking to the techs. My passion is the more technical or nerdy side of music. I love that type of stuff.

"What we do at Crescendo is all those skills that I've picked up I'm sharing both with young people - our main goal is we take this holistic approach to music, where we include not only the music - we have an 80:20 rule; 20 percent is dedicated to music and the other 80 percent is dedicated to everything else, things like mental health and wellbeing.

"For example, if a young person wants to be part of our programme and they say 'I want to be a singer or a rapper', basically we think 'how do we get you to that goal, to where it makes us redundant, and we just become a resource to you'."

Marcus Powell, David Atai, Cat Percy, Riccardo Ball

The Crescendo team, clockwise from top left; Marcus Powell, David Atai, Cat Percy, Riccardo Ball. Photo: Hunter Crouchley

Working in music means constant learning, and Atai said he's still seeking out new types of music to explore and learn about.

"It takes a certain craziness to come up with music - no matter how simple it sounds to the listener... for someone with my background it's like: 'how did you think of that?'  There's all types of levels of crazy in music, and some of the greats are the crazy ones."  

His love of dubstep came about after he was asked to create some dubstep with one of the young people who were learning at Crescendo.

"I did a lot of research, and it's way more technically advanced than I expected it to be. I learned to appreciate dubstep, and now it is one of the types of genres that I will seek out."
Atai's own first taste of music production was using a Music 2000 programme on PlayStation, with a limit of 10 audio tracks overlaid.

"It was broken too, so you had to put a shoe underneath it and tilt it to the side otherwise it wouldn't read the disks," he said.

"It taught me to appreciate the work that goes into getting an amazing sound. People were saying: 'here's a fresh sound', I think it was 'cause we had no choice."

The first Nesian Mystik album - 1999's four-times platinum selling Polyunsaturated, was mixed on that PlayStation.  

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David Atai picks Michael Jackson as one of his favourite musicians of all time. Photo: wikipedia

Now, Atai's sitting on 20 years experience and work in the industry.

"I think about Crescendo and what we're doing, and then I think had this opportunity been presented to me back when we first started music I don't know where my career would have been now, because I was actively wanting to pursue a certain part of music, so if Crescendo was back there I'd be a genius by now! To have all of all of that, [support, mentors, gear].  

"Whereas, back then you sort of had to figure it out for yourself ... we did have a few people supporting us, we had Che Fu, and DLT and Maree Sheehan. They were very humble dudes, and we do appreciate that from everyone who's helped out."

The motivation behind Crescendo is to provide that solid background and to launch their mentorees to give them the best opportunities available to them.

"If you've spent five years recording your album... and it sounds amazing, then you've only done 20 percent of the work, of what you need to do for your music to be known.

"That's why sometimes you'll hear about artists that are absolutely amazing, and amazing songs, but you're thinking to yourself 'why doesn't anybody know who this person is, well that's because they haven't focused on the 80 percent. And then you hear of other artists who everybody knows, who aren't as talented - that's the 80 percent.

"So, when I say Crescendo is trying to take the holistic approach. We're trying to introduce that whole 100 percent, so the young artists have a better chance of succeeding in music.

Things like media training, how to release a single, marketing, electronic press kits.

"These guys really really need to know this stuff, and the mental health stuff, how to manage your time, your emotions, prepare yourself properly for what this industry has to offer."

David's Mixtape: 

1) Remember The Time - Michael Jackson


2) Truth Is - Sabrina Claudio

3) Overthinker - INZO

4) What a fool believes - Doobie brothers

5) Chop Suey - System Of A Down

6) Kua Iti Te Marama "This song has so many versions. It's an old Cook Island Folk song. This is by far my favourite version"