Photo courtesy of Upbeat Academy

5 (ish) Questions With Upbeat Academy Director Matthew Zarba

In January, OffBeat presented the Community Music Award to Upbeat Academy, a recognition due in no small part to the organization’s director, Matthew Zarba. On Saturday, March 10, Upbeat Academy will perform two showcases in the Front Yard at the 2018 BUKU Music + Art Project at Mardi Gras World, where Zarba’s work with Upbeat’s student artists will be on full display. As an accomplished music producer and performer, Zarba has worked tirelessly to bring the mission of “providing underprivileged at-risk children with an opportunity to learn how to produce and perform the type of music they listen to and dream of creating with a focus on electronic dance music and hip-hop” to fruition.

Founded in 2013, the Academy has since outgrown its original home and studio space and is moving to the to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation building. In addition, Zarba is busy working on a compilation album of Upbeat Academy student-artists’ music. Ahead of BUKU, OffBeat spoke with Zarba about his background and role at the Academy, plus his own musical inspirations.

What are your three favorite things about the work you do?

The best part about my position at Upbeat Academy is getting to know the young men and women in our program and seeing them flourish. I really enjoy putting them in the position to succeed at a passion that they may not otherwise have access to because of monetary restraints, since the equipment can be expensive, or they don’t have access to similar programming in their traditional schools. Seeing the things our student-artists go on to do on their own is extremely fulfilling. To have a handful of Upbeat graduates pursuing college degrees in music production, releasing mixtapes and getting featured on blogs, and coming back to teach at Upbeat as paid instructors during holidays and summer breaks, that’s why we do the work that we do.

Who are the people in your life who motivated you in the pursuit of your own career?

Definitely people I grew up playing music with since high school and beyond. I don’t want to name any names, but they have some pretty impressive resumes and it’s great to see us all still going after it after all these years. I’ve got a great group of friends and we all encourage each other in our pursuits and collaborate regularly. As an educator, I was inspired to hopefully help young people have a more positive middle and high school [experience] than I had. I went to a handful of high schools in the greater New Orleans area and had my fair share of behavioral and academic issues. There were definitely good times and experiences, [including] going to NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts]. My junior and senior years may be the reasons I didn’t drop out of high school or worse. It’s my hope that we can provide the same type of nurturing, creative environment at Upbeat Academy that I had at NOCCA.

What can you tell us about the student compilation project you’re working on?

Beyond Beats is our first student-artist compilation. It’ll be available on Saturday, March 10th at the the BUKU Music + Art Project’s Front Yard stage and online soon after. The tracks on this album are extremely impressive and bode well for future releases. Our students should be extremely proud of it and it looks and sounds very professional. All proceeds from album sales will go directly back into Upbeat’s programming budget and help keep our classes free for all participants.

Who are the New Orleans producers you most admire in hip-hop? EDM? Other genres? What’s your favorite beat tape of all time?

Without a doubt, Mannie Fresh immediately comes to mind. He provided the soundtrack to my teenage years and his sound is immediately recognizable. Prospek, who mixed and mastered Beyond Beats, is a prolific producer who I am fortunate enough to know very well. He really enjoys teaching and sharing the tools of the trade, and I take him up on it whenever I can. He has also works as an Upbeat instructor from time to time. I definitely have to acknowledge the homie, Quickie Mart, as well. He’s been holding it down for as long as I can remember. I used to go to his sets at Nick’s Train Bar back in high school. Ernie K-Doe and Dr. John are two local heroes of mine, and I was definitely influenced by Mystikal. I had Mind of Mystikal on cassette in sixth grade. He was on the cover with a hockey jersey and I grew up playing competitive inline hockey. I had no idea that he was from New Orleans for a long time because he didn’t sound like anyone else from here. His originality really opened me up to the benefit of originality.

Where can folks learn more about your own music?

I do a couple tribute shows. I’m in the Beastie Boys tribute band, Sabotage, and have done A Tribe Called Quest and, most recently, an OutKast tribute with the Low End Theory Players. I used to be against covering other rappers’ songs, but I must say I’ve learned a whole lot from dissecting and perfecting the likes of Q-Tip and Andre 3000. These days I think of rapping as a young man’s game, but I do have a handful of friends and colleagues pushing me to release a new record. Maybe I’ll do it as Mr. Z instead of my former moniker: M@ Peoples. We’ll see. I’m really enjoying producing my own beats these days, and nothing brings me more joy than consulting Upbeat graduates and up-and-comers who reach out to me for tips. It’s kind of neat being an A&R of sorts. I’m on some cuts off of Derrick Freeman’s records, have been on some Jealous Monk records with my good friend, Nick Pino; and I’m always working with my main birdie, Drew Meez on the Keys.

Upbeat Academy is the official non-profit partner for BUKU Music + Art Project, so a portion of proceeds from all festival ticket sales will benefit Upbeat.