Toronto·Video

This blind DJ taught himself to produce music. Now he's helping other youths do the same.

A hip-hop studio in Markham, Ont., recently launched a program that will teach visually impaired adolescents how to produce music — and how to do it blind. 

Toronto hip-hop studio launches program to help visually impaired youth perfect their production techniques

George Quarcoo, 24, the event coordinator for a youth program at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), is helping with a new project that will teach visually impaired youths how to produce music. (Julia Knope/CBC)

George Quarcoo didn't have any help when he taught himself to produce music.

The legally blind producer, who has only five per cent vision, says he "messed around" with various knobs and sliders until he figured it out three years ago.

"When you don't have anybody to really show you exactly what buttons do and pretty much the whole technical [aspect] behind producing, it's very hard as a visually impaired producer," he said.

Now, Quarco, 24, has a chance to pass down that hard-fought knowledge to other aspiring blind producers together with hip-hop studio Majur Musik. The studio, with locations in Markham, Scarborough and North York, recently launched a program aimed at teaching youth and adolescents how to produce music — and how to do it blind. 

The youths, all involved with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), will have the chance to work with an audio engineer from the studio, specializing in R&B and hip-hop music, about once a month. 

Helping mentor them is Quarcoo, who's also a DJ in Toronto and an event coordinator for the CNIB. 

Watch how this low-vision producer uses accessible technology to construct his songs: 

Geroge Quarcoo uses a software with voiceover capabilities, inverted colours and increased font size. 0:57
 

The software Quarcoo now uses has voiceover capabilities, which means an electronic voice reads menu options aloud to him as he goes through each step of production. He also uses inverted colours and increased font size, allowing him to somewhat distinguish words and audio levels through his extremely limited vision. 

Now, with the help of the CNIB and Majur Musik, he hopes he can teach aspiring youth tips and tricks of the trade that took him years to learn.

"There's a lot of obstacles that I'm still trying to get through, but I always have the motivation to overcome barriers," he said. 

George Quarcoo pictured at his North York home studio. He uses a music production software called Logic, which allows low-vision producers to use functions that will help them through each technical step of production. (Julia Knope/CBC)

Those barriers aren't just technical, Quarcoo points out. They're social too, he says. 

Passed over and outright insulted by employers who have judged him by his disability, Quarcoo says those experiences steered him toward the CNIB in the hope of making it easier for blind young people passionate about music to break past the barriers.

Hip-hop genre inclined to be more accepting, producer says

One of those young people is 23-year-old Gavin O'Sullivan.

He's one of about 10 youths involved and took part in the program's first session in March.

Gavin O’Sullivan, 23, says he hopes his hip-hop songs one day make it to the radio, which is why he's taking part in education sessions that will teach him how to assemble his songs. (Julia Knope/CBC)
 

O'Sullivan says this is the chance he's been waiting for — an opportunity to turn a passion into a career. 

"I've been working so hard on my songs," said the aspiring Toronto artist who's partially sighted. "I've been trying to get my songs out there." 

That's not always easy in the music industry, says audio engineer Joshua Young, who's leading the sessions. But in a genre as subject to prejudice as hip-hop, he says visually-impaired producers like O'Sullivan could find acceptance. 

Joshua Young, an audio engineer at Majur Musik Studios, is now the leading the music production program. Thanks to technology, he says being a blind producer in Toronto has never been more feasible. (Julia Knope/CBC)
 

"In spite of the prejudice that people have towards the hip-hop genre — that it is violent — people in that community are more willing [to accept blind audio engineers]," he said. 

"As a demographic that has been overlooked, or assumptions have been made about us, we'd be more sympathetic," Young added.  

'You can't let anything limit you'

A big city like Toronto can be a breeding ground for stigma associated with sight loss, says Brittany Manu, one of the team leads for the CNIB's youth program. She hopes to protect youths from the isolation and self-doubt that can emerge as a result.

The music production program will not only teach the skills, it will also teach the confidence to counter that self-doubt, she says. 

Quarcoo, she says, is role model who's done just that.

Brittany Manu, one of two team leads of a youth program at the CNIB called Pursuing your Passions, says: 'Youth aren't as aware of different opportunities for artists, especially when it comes to smaller communities or members of the sight loss community.' (Julia Knope/CBC)
  

"George is a perfect example of someone who makes a living and inspires people," Manu said.

Eventually, organizers at both the CNIB and Majur Musik hope to expand the project to include more youths and studios in the city. 

"To anyone who feels their specific ability prevents them from pursuing their passions or pursing any career or art form or something they'll enjoy, I'll just say to that person you can't let anything limit you," Quarcoo said.

About the Author

Julia Knope

Web writer

Julia Knope is a web writer, radio reporter and assignment producer for CBC News. Have a news tip? Contact her at julia.knope@cbc.ca.

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