A Conversation With Russell "RTMixediT" Chirau: Talking His Journey Into Music, Representing Africa In The EngineEars Mixing Contest And Working On Risky Life

When it comes to music production, there are a lot of 
background actors that we truly never take notice but, before the product is handed to us, the final consumers - it passes through several hands that are all involved in its composition though most times, it is unknown to the fans. In music, artists are at the forefront followed by producers and beat makers, then rest of the behind the scenes team that rarely get a spotlight. Such is the make up of many arts though.

There are many background unsung heroes in music and Russell "RTMixediT" Chirau is one such person. Born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe before moving to South Africa as a teenager, he has donned many different hats in the music space. Currently plying his trade in Cape Town, Chirau is a rising star in music production and mixing. We got in touch with him for a conversation and here's how it went:

So how did this journey with music begin?

My dad wanted to be a drummer but you know, back in the day it was either you go to accounting school, become a lawyer or  a doctor. "Don't come talk to me about guitars." So he never got to live that dream but he had such a passion for music. 

I think this is such a trip with Zimbabwean dads, because whenever we are travelling on the road, Dads are always blasting something. Whether it's Tuku or whatever, there's gotta be music. My childhood was very much similar. 

Earliest memory of me personally getting involved in music, I was probably like 10 years old. I started writing this song. You know nobody told me to do it, I never even knew how to write my own song. I just sat down and this melody came to my mind. From that day on, I realized okay, cool I could write music. From there on in high school, I was part of this acapella group and I used to sing tenor. We got really good and the Headmaster even had us performing at different events but then 2008 came and the Zimbabwean economy buckled under the pressure, I moved to South Africa and the journey continued from there.

What made you choose your program after high school?

So I wanted to go to flight school and I actually did go to flight school. I went to the UK to train for Qatar airways. They had a sponsorship program that they were running when I started but during the program funding was pulled. So next thing you know, we had to pay the remainder for course ourselves, £100,000 and that was a lot for my parents, so they said come back and let's figure things out. So flight school didn't work out but this music bug had never left me. 

In 2015, I applied to Cape Audio College because my parents had said, "You can go to flight school but you should have a backup." So when I returned from the UK, I was lucky enough to find out that I had been accepted and I just went from there.

So how did you find the transition from the more soulful side of music to the technical aspect?

So initially I had skipped quite a big part of the portion of the story in the answer to your first question because I didn't want to give you my whole history with music but, when I came to South Africa, I got into rap a bit so, I was exposed to different facets of music as an artist. Even when we were singing in high school, I was part of the choir and we did quite a bit of vocal training, you know the do re mi fa sol...

I was exposed to all facets of music as a performer and transitioning to the technical side was very challenging because I went into it without any prior knowledge of how to produce music. I never had a dream of becoming a producer. Even when I started studying it, making beats, I realized it took a lot of time, energy and effort. I have lots of respect for music producers and beat makers because, it needs a lot of patience that I did not have for it. So, it was quite a difficult transition but the thing is, it's something that you can learn and when I started learning, I fell in love with the process of what happens after a song is done.

At the end of the first year, I remember we had our first mixing lecture and right after I was like, this is what I want to do, this is what people have been talking about back home. We've been saying "the song isn't mastered well" whilst we meant mixing.

How was your first entry into the music after you were done with school? Working with artists and so forth?

Well fortunately I didn't have to wait till I finished studying to start getting my feet in the industry. I worked with one of our facilitators, her name is Kay Faith, she's quite a popular producer this side and she was one of our teachers. I was working really hard because I wanted to be the best, so I was one of the top students in the class and also ran a hip-hop society with her. She would get a lot of sessions but then she was always busy so, she would pass on to me sessions she didn't feel like doing. I started gaining experience that way. The other day, I actually found a recording I did with Rowlene way back in 2016 before she was the Rowlene we know now. 

That transition happened quickly for me and I made a lot of mistakes. You begin to charge or get paid too quickly and it's all like a process. I didn't understand the concept of relationships at the time. Relationships in music are pretty much on the same level as money. It's a weird balance of "you need to eat and you need to get paid" but you gotta build these relationships and keep them. 

Russell says he was afraid of calling himself a professional while he studied but after completing his program, he fully owned it. A couple of people had already heard about him and so the transition into the industry was as smooth as possible. The principle RTMixediT lives by is that we live and we learn. He has some bridges he burnt that he regrets to this day but that's all part of the growth. "You should surround yourself with people that value what you do," to quote him. He says he owes people like Kay Faith a lot for their guidance early on, in his music journey.

A while back you were representing South Africa & Zimbabwe and to a greater extent Africa in the EngineEars tournament, how did it feel to be part of the 32 selected for it?

To be honest that was unreal. I had actually called a friend of mine who produces for Takura and I had told him to apply because he would definitely win the $5K which was the prize money. And he asked me "but, did you apply?" I said no bro I'm not good enough I'm not as good as you are and he said "no bro, I've heard your work, you're good." So, I sent through a song I really worked on myself, a project I worked on alone instead of a song that was big but I only did a bit on it. I was like if I don't win at least I submitted something honest and true to me.

The day of the announcement came and I stayed up until 3 am to watch it because you know, they're on the East coast in the US. When I heard my name I was shaking. I couldn't believe that Derek Ali, Kendrick Lamar's engineer and Young Guru, Jay Z's engineer were saying my name and saying they liked how I worked on this song.

Let's talk working on Risky Life, the whole experience of him being out there in Cape Town how was it for you?

That again like I alluded earlier to about relationships, that came about through a relationship. My good friend Lance, we actually met through this football group called PressPass. Shoutout to PressPass man. That group for me is probably one of the best football groups ever and I might be a little biased because it's full of my homies. 

Well me and Lance just hit it off, he's into tv presenting, he hosts events, he's an MC and he has a foot into music. So Lance is actually colleagues with one of Holy Ten's managers and he told me Holy Ten was coming to Cape Town. I had actually sent Holy Ten's team a message, telling them that if they're ever in Cape Town, they should come through to the studio you know, so we can meet, chill and just checkout the music in person you know and they didn't respond. 

So I told Lance all of that and he said "cool, let me talk to the manager and he'll put you through to his entourage." So I got the contacts and I called the manager and he put me through to the road manager who said they'll come through. But I just thought it was one of those we'll come through but without actually showing up. 

But damn they really came through and the connection with Holy was instant. You'd be surprised how cool he is in person, more than you would imagine, because with a lot of artists in the spotlight, if someone is enjoying success, sometimes there's an ego and it can be hard to relate to them. But with Holy, the moment he walked in, he was super respectful, friendly you know, dedicated, focused and he knew what he wanted to do.

In a few minutes I had him up on the mic and before we knew it was 6/7 hours later. We had recorded like we had always worked together. We worked on the album as much as we could in such a short time. And it was such a journey for myself and such a challenge to get things done in such a short time while maintaining quality.

I think based on the response we've gotten and the numbers we're getting I guess it turned out good. The thing that I'm most proud of is that I was fortunate enough to be involved in such a historic time in music. Because I don't think Zimbabwean popular music, and by popular music I mean the urban genres like hip-hop, RnB... I don't know if there's a time when a single artist has been this big for the movement and put the country on the map.

I've got friends in Kenya who're saying they listened to the album, we're playlisted in Kenya and for me to be part of that has been really unreal.

So about these unreleased tracks which were supposed to be part of Risky Life (Including a Holy Ten x Poptain collaboration scrapped for poor recordings) what can we expect? 

I don't know how much I can say (laughs). What I can say though is that they're a couple of songs that have really dope features. I think it's all up to him, what he has on his mind is just getting this tour done, they're doing an international tour for Risky Life. It's going to be proper and a great time, I think people should really come out and rock with Holy. 

I think we're only going to plan about what we're going to be doing next after this whole touring season. 

What would you say has been the biggest moment of your career so far?

Oh that's tough, that's tough man, that's tough. I don't think I can put it to one moment. I think the EngineEars thing was huge and that's what really started me on this journey. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be a tie between the EngineEars thing and Risky Life but for me, on a personal note, I really felt accomplished when I worked with Courtney Antipas. I was always a fan and for me on a personal level, that'll always be one of the best moments of my career. 

What do you think the future holds for you? What are your projects, plans, what do you have going?

For me, for the future... I think it's really shedding light on people like me and particularly in my country I think engineers are people we don't really talk about. There's a lot of talk about the producers, there's a lot of talk about artists but I think engineers are scarce or we really don't understand their role, like this person is an engineer because they wear so many hats. 

I think of people like C.O.G who's a qualified engineer who taught himself everything, he also makes beats and sings. I think the work that we do gets lost because we wear so many hats. So for me the next thing is shining a light on people like me and trying to set up something in Zimbabwe that trains the next generation of engineers. 

Project wise, I'm working on another album, I can't really say much but along with it they're singles coming through. My next big thing will probably be working with someone local and when it comes out you'll know that's what I was talking about.

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