Thomas Dolby is a Professor of the Arts at Hopkins. He is also an 80’s pop star. He is also the reason your phone plays Shaggy’s “Wasn’t Me” every time your grandparents call.
Rising to popularity as MTV flooded living rooms across the world with music videos and special features, Dolby began a career defined by media and its relation to music. Even as his 1982 hit “She Blinded Me With Science” became an almost campy, frantic zenith of a shift in pop, Dolby was more concerned with building the tools to push the electronic genre further.
Dolby bridges the divide between technological innovation and the artistic output—part engineer, part virtuoso. His talents as a keyboardist (playing onstage with the likes of David Bowie) eventually gave way to his founding of Beatnik Inc., which licensed embedded software to Nokia, creating the first synthesis “polyphonic” ringtone capability. This software would be introduced into every single cell phone. For twelve years, Dolby served as musical director of TED Conferences, staying with the project as its “talks” became a global phenomenon.
This semester at Johns Hopkins, Dolby is teaching “Music for Filmmakers” at the JHU/MICA Film Centre, after completing a series of press stops for his recently released memoir, The Speed of Sound. The detailed, nostalgic book is put together "more like a diary," according to Dolby, with original notes drawing back the curtain on an era of innovation. "I just blundered into things...people appreciate the parallels between music and tech as represented by my misadventures..The book is based on what's been kept in Filofaxes and Apple Newton's and Palm Pilots, and that sort of thing. I've strung them together to create a narrative," said Dolby. Not to mention, he’s got all the retro stories from backstage rooms and club corners that you’re desperate to hear.
The Baltimore music scence is still getting Dolby at his best; he is currently designing a local program to give kids and adults a chance to access professional tools and create their own tracks. His wealth of knowledge in the artistic, business, and academic worlds aid him in launching an array other community projects, including the expansive Light City Festival. Even with a hectic schedule, Dolby invited WJHU into his home for an enlightening conversation.
Looking out from the wide window of his family’s apartment onto Thames St. (much different from the one he knew in London), Dolby opened up about the way he works as a creative, his new book, and Baltimore’s thriving electronic community. Listen to the exclusive WJHU interview with Jessica Moog and Will Scerbo here:
By Jessica Moog on April 3, 2017, 1:39 p.m.