I’m one of the few guys who really knows where DJ’ing is from and where it’s going . . . I’m just as versed in hip-hop as I am in electronic music. So I have this sort of bird’s-eye view of where this is going, and I’m also a participant in it. A-Trak
If EDM has taken some not entirely unwarranted hits for its reputation for excess, fans need only point to A-Trak for legitimacy. The 33-year-old DJ-producer is one of the genre’s most innovative creators and represents how it could continue to push forward musically.
A former teenage DMC World DJ Championship turntablist, A-Trak (né Alain Macklovitch) is deeply rooted in hip-hop, specifically the art of scratching, yet he is free of the constraints of that, or any, genre. Early on, he had a notion that merging electronic music and rap was the wave of the future, and in fact, his influence in this regard should not be underestimated for the simple fact that he is the person who introduced Kanye West to Daft Punk’s music. As Kanye’s official touring DJ starting with The College Dropout tour in 2004, A-Trak turned him on to experimental sounds that found their way into the rapper’s work, and he later contributed to tracks on Late Registration (2005) and Graduation (2007).
In 2007 A-Trak followed his electro-rap muse to Brooklyn, where he and fellow DJ Nick Catchdubs founded indie label Fool’s Gold, whose roster now includes Danny Brown, Run the Jewels, and the electro-funk duo Chromeo (of which his brother, Dave 1, is a member), among others. A couple of years later he partnered with DJ-producer Armand Van Helden to form the disco-house duo Duck Sauce, who gripped the coolest of dance floors with their euphoric 2010 hit “Barbra Streisand,” and released their debut full-length, Quack, last April.
Nowadays, when A-Trak isn’t lending his hand to remixes of Phoenix and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, collaborating on streetwear lines for Nike and Zoo York, producing Kid Sister and Dizzee Rascal records, or spinning somewhere in the world, he’s spreading the gospel of DJ culture—from vinyl turntablism to Serato DJ software. After all, as he tells the liberationist philosopher of partying Andrew W.K., his entire career is “centered on this nucleolus that is DJ’ing.” His love of DJ’ing is why he produces and why he runs a label—so to keep it relevant, it’s important to him that we understand it.
ANDREW W.K.: The track of yours that I was first completely blown away by, in a way that is right up there with a lot of the most favorite music, is the remix you did of Lil Wayne and Birdman’s “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy.”
A-TRAK: Oh, wow. Okay, cool.
W.K.: Can you tell me about that remix?
A-TRAK: That one was kind of a bootleg or a little more of a mash-up. I did this mixtape project right before I started Fool’s Gold, around ’06 I think. It was called Dirty South Dance. At the time, I was getting interested in electronic music. Electronic music had been very cold sounding when it was more like the electroclash sort of thing. And then in the 2000s, it became more gritty, and it appealed to my pop ear more, because of the drum sounds. It was even a little more rock ‘n’ roll inspired. The sound of electro around 2005, 2006—there were riffs, like, distorted bass lines. That’s when I got into that sound. And the nature of the music I played in my DJ sets at that time was shifting a lot. I was working in a lot of records that were more electronic. I come from a hip-hop background, and part of the way I wanted to bridge the gap and find a way for these songs to fit in my sets was to start making edits and bootlegs—grabbing vocals from rap records and throwing them on top of electro songs. I made a bunch of these remixes where I was grabbing from a track that already existed in dance music, and I would add a bit of production element to it and throw an a cappella of a rap record over it. At the time, it felt really experimental to put a rap vocal over electronic tracks. It was like playing Fantasy Camp with music. Because I wanted to hear hip-hop with this electronic sensibility, and it barely existed at the time, I was just making my own versions of it for fun. It was almost like a mission statement in the timeline of Fool’s Gold. When Fool’s Gold started, a lot of the early stuff on the label straddled those lines between rap and electro.
W.K.: It’s a brilliant song and it shows how, when something is done at that level, there’s an infinite amount of inspiration to pull out of it. And of course, beyond that, it was a groundbreaking concept. Now, looking back to when we first started hearing really big synth sounds in hip-hop and pop—which before that seemed to me was more isolated in the techno and dance scenes and also heavily isolated to Europe—it seems that there was an entire cultural shift that has finally opened up North America to what people in Europe have been comfortable with and embracing in terms of sounds and tones and attitudes. Where people here, I think, would hear a really heavy synth sound and it would just instantly be dismissed as not even an option, and in Europe it’s almost like a default element that was the base of many whole styles. What do you think allowed North America to finally take advantage of all these other great sounds?
A-TRAK: You’re definitely right in saying that dance music, electronic music, really only broke into America in the last three, four years. In the ’90s and the early 2000s, if you grabbed a random kid off the street here and asked him what he listened to, it would either be hip-hop or some sort of rock, you know, punk-rock hybrid. Whereas if you went to Spain in 1999 and grabbed a 16-year-old and asked, “What do you listen to?” he’d say techno. The whole rest of the world has been listening to electronic music for much longer, even though, ironically, it was birthed in Chicago and Detroit. But for the longest time, dance music didn’t really have a place in mass culture in America. It was kind of a subculture, and in a lot of ways, was corny. Like, you heard house music at clubs with dudes who wore muscle shirts and had gel in their hair. It was … What’s the SNL skit?
W.K.: The Roxbury Guys.
A-TRAK: Yeah! It was the Roxbury Guys. It was either that or straight-up rave, like, kids with pacifiers. That’s what dance music was, aside from, you know, if you went into the right neighborhood to see where the cool shit was. I think what really made it break into America were these gateway sounds that broke through. A lot of times it comes from the flashy stuff, right? So it’s this sort of pop EDM style—and the word EDM wasn’t really used until a few years ago. On the pop side, you had stuff like David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris, and even the Black Eyed Peas. These artists broke through with songs that were really just pop songs but sonically sounded different and new to a whole generation of kids. And at the same time, maybe four, five years ago, dubstep became really popular—dupstep being very flashy and aggressive sounding. That’s something that really caught people’s attention. Like, “Oh, what is this sound? It sounds other-worldly.” And then, from there, people started discovering the rest of the sounds. Dance music has, like, a dizzying amount of subgenre names that really don’t make any sense. But, anyway, the dam was broken by a combination of the pop records and some of the really in-your-face, aggressive-sounding records. And from there people just started going to festivals. I think North America flirted with electronic music a little bit when it was more of an indie-type thing, when it was, like, Justice and MSTRKRFT. My brother is in the band Chromeo, and when they were blowing up at first, in 2007, 2008, that’s when North America started flirting with electronic music. But it was still kind of a subculture. It was still, you know, cool, in a sense—there were dudes wearing leather jackets and, you know, rocking cool style. Now it’s just, like, straight-up suburban mainstream, which is fine as well. It’s just different. And also on the hip-hop side, there are a couple of producers also who should be credited for the way that they introduced certain synth sounds: Lil Jon for sure, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, Kanye, and I always say Pitbull, man. I think Pitbull is like the uncredited artist that brought the sounds together for a lot of people.
W.K.: And T-Pain and Mannie Fresh.
A-TRAK: Totally! I remember when Lil Jon really blew up with the crunk sounds. He was saying something in interviews like, “Yo, I just went to the Guitar Center [laughs] and asked them to sell me whatever Rackmount synths people were using for those rave sounds. And I started using them in my beats.” That was a really novel idea. That’s why his shit sounds so big. The sounds that are engineered to be enormous.
W.K.: And a hip-hop beat has so much space; there’s so much silence to fill in. The energy that is in that note … I’m sure he was having so much fun with that new set of sounds to work with. Just holding down one key is like an explosion just in one note.
A-TRAK: Coming from a hip-hop background, I grew up in the aesthetics of sampling. And in the classic days of hip-hop, there were all these unwritten rules about what you’re allowed to sample and what you’re not allowed to sample. Producers used to frown upon other producers who would sample drums from another rap record. You were expected to find the actual, original vinyl copy of the drum break and sample from there. You are not allowed to sample it from a DJ Premier record or a Dr. Dre record. And keyboard beats were considered corny at the time. What I love about the current era is just how DIY everything is. When I started making beats, I used to sample everything as well. I made tracks that were inspired by DJ Shadow, J Dilla, Madlib, RZA, and that kind of stuff. I would make these tracks that were just layers of samples, and everything came from vinyls—I was scratching the bass line. And I literally could only produce at home if my whole record collection was there. And then around the years of the Dirty South Dance mixtape and the beginning of Fool’s Gold, I started wanting to make tracks that I could actually put in my sets. That was my motivation: “If I’m going to produce something, I should be able to play it.” So I started integrating synth sounds. I didn’t even know how to use a synth at first; I remember just messing around with a couple of the synth pieces of software. But once I figured out how to produce on a laptop, the freedom that came from that was incredible. To no longer be restricted to my vinyl room and to be able to produce on the fly, that’s really what’s beautiful about the way that music is made nowadays. I’ve been spending some time in L.A., working on music here, and someone asked me recently, “What studios do you work out of?” And I don’t have an answer for that. Every day I’m just with my hard drive. Maybe I’m collaborating with a songwriter one day, or an engineer, or someone that might be able to help me make a certain synth sound that I don’t really know how to do myself. I’ll go over to a buddy’s house and we’ll work on that sound together. Then I’ll bring it back to my house, just on my little home speakers, and mess with the production some more. And I’ll use a mic at another studio that I don’t have at home. As long as I have my hard drive, that’s how the song grows. Just yesterday my manager asked me to send credits for a song that I made. You know, like, the traditional type of credits that say, “Recorded at XYZ studio by some engineer in some city.” And I’m like, “This song has been on my laptop in various forms for the last four months. Do you really want me to remember every hotel room and every studio where I plugged in an eighth-inch jack cable to work on the song in increments?” The whole process has changed so much. I love it because there’s no limit, you know? It’s completely free.
W.K.: What’s really interesting is even the very idea of initially sampling other records to make a beat—that also was a complete breaking away from tradition, and then that needed to be broken away from too. And that has always been about liberating the spirit, you know, liberating one’s ability to get that feeling out into the world. And that’s what’s truly exciting, and what’s so beautiful about music—that no matter how many people will try to pick apart different genres or say, “This isn’t as real-feeling as an acoustic guitar,” it’s all these ways of getting to that place. It’s very hard to describe what that sensation is. Fortunately, we don’t have to, because we can do it by playing a song. When you’re producing, are you consciously aware of trying to bring that out in another artist? Or do you feel like it’s already there and you’re just trying to capture it?
A-TRAK: Do you mean when I’m producing for another artist?
W.K.: Yeah. Because when you’re by yourself, there’s no break in the channel—what you want to do, you make happen. You don’t need to explain it to yourself. When you’re serving someone else’s vision and facilitating them, it’s a completely different experience. Do you approach it very differently each time? I’m sure some artists have more of a sense of what they want, some have less.
A-TRAK: One thing that I learned in recent years from working more with other people is this idea that part of a producer’s job is to make people comfortable and confident. If I’m in the room with someone who’s a great singer, maybe this particular person isn’t used to recording with someone else in the room. Or maybe some of the songs are great, some of them not so much, and you’re not sure why. And as a producer, part of our job is to put them in a place where their best work comes out of them. It’s really interesting how important that actually is. To get the best performance out of someone, I’d say it’s equal part feedback, like, “Sing this line over; you could do it better,” and equal part vibes, like, trying to find mutual ground in records that you both like. You’re like, “Oh yeah, I love that song; that gives me the same feeling as X. Let’s try to do that.” You’re like planting little seeds in their heads. And then you try to get the best performance out of them.
W.K.: From my experience, it seems like it’s hard for things to get to the place they need to be for that quality to emerge without becoming friends, almost more than friends. Do you have ongoing connections with the people you worked with?
A-TRAK: I know what you mean, because I have some friends who I made songs with years ago, and maybe we only touch base every six months, but when I see them, there’s this sort of warm kinship there. Like you shared this experience that is much deeper than people might think. Creating music is so personal; it’s figuring out a way to express yourself in a metaphor, in a sense. The release you get from crafting a song, it touches things inside of us that we’re not even thinking about.
W.K.: Getting even more far out in this realm, do you feel the need to address the experience of being human in the world now? I’ve talked to people who say that their music and their creative work is a much needed and appreciated escape, where they don’t have to think about the state of the world; they’re not even thinking about themselves so much. They’re not trying to express their own experiences of that day or relationship strife or anything. Do you feel that? Or do you feel that your work somehow goes hand-in-hand with your experience as a human in the world?
A-TRAK: I’d say more on the hand-in-hand tip. For me, everything that I do in my career and in my professional life is centered on this nucleolus that is DJ’ing. I love DJ’ing. That’s what I discovered when I was prepubescent. I started scratching and that’s what led me to be a DJ. And I produce because of that. I have a label because of that. And I get involved in all these other side things because of that. And as a DJ, I just really enjoy the feeling that certain songs give me, and I love channeling whatever emotions I’m going through on a given day through that experience. If I’m performing live, I like to fully give myself in the performance. I don’t think it’s an escape; it’s sort of like a channel that I can speak through. And when I produce, I try to create a piece of music that sounds like the ideas in my head, you know? I like to get shit right. I like to craft stuff, and I like to tinker with a piece of music that I’m working on until it has all these subtleties and sonic characteristics that, in the finished product, moves me in a certain way and hopefully moves other people. I look at it as creating a sculpture. I have this idea of what I want it to be, and I’m just trying to get it just right. But it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the outside world as I create. I’m not blocking those things out. I’m just sort of focusing my attention on one thing and trying to craft it in a way where I can step back and be like, “Cool, I nailed it.” Or, “Fuck, messed it up.” One way or the other.
W.K.: I totally understand. I mean, people talk about getting natural highs from a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and there are few more visceral than creating music, where you can feel it physically. It’s not like a mood or an idea; you feel it in your body.
A-TRAK: Yeah, yeah. And just a sort of side thought on another tip—one thing that I thought before this conversation is that there’s something that you and I have in common in respect to our crafts. I think we’re both classicists, in a sense. You’re carrying forward a tradition of rock in a very sort of stripped-down way, and you stand for something. You think Andrew W.K., you think party. You have a mission statement that’s very explicit. I carry forward this tradition of DJ’ing that’s from the vinyl era—scratching and all these tricks that come with battle DJ’ing. And it’s my mission to keep that going and to keep that relevant—for it to never be old-school. And I think it’s interesting how we both have almost an aesthetic or a very pure form of what our respective music is. And we sort of carry it into the present and the future without being, like, retro in any way. Just being, you know: This is what you get when you come to an A-Trak show. This is what you get when you come to an Andrew W.K. show. And just, like, enjoy.
W.K.: Well, thank you. I appreciate you recognizing that. It’s a good feeling to have something to stand for in any part of your life. It’s like personal integrity. The only way that I’ve been able to get motivated and energized to do anything in life was to feel that it was for a cause that went beyond just what I wanted at that moment—that it was something, hopefully, that a lot of people could feel something from. And I’m also glad that you brought up this tradition of DJ’ing because I wanted to ask you about this. Because of how mainstream electronic music has gotten and because DJs can sell out stadiums, sometimes I wonder if people really understand what a DJ really does. Sometimes people don’t realize, for example, the incredible achievements and success you’ve had just with scratching, which is a whole discipline and an art form really as advanced and as evolved as any instrument I can think of. But I think sometimes people think it’s like a DJ from a radio station who just plays a prerecorded playlist. Does it bother you if people don’t take that art of DJ’ing seriously?
A-TRAK: What you just described is my cause; that’s the most important thing in my career at this point. I’m working on a book about the phenomenon of DJ’ing right now. I’ve started to realize that I’m in a very unique place. I’m one of the few guys who really knows where it’s from and where it’s going. And I don’t mean that in a pompous way or whatever, but I’m just as versed in hip-hop as I am in electronic music. So I have this sort of bird’s-eye view of where this is going, and I’m also a participant in it. There’s this giant paradox right now where the whole of America is infatuated with DJ’ing, but nobody really knows what the hell DJ’ing is. It’s kind of funny, but part of me also wants to take it seriously. There’s this education process I’m trying to maintain, but without ever being too tedious about it. Literally an hour ago I put an image up on my Instagram with just text that said, “What is a DJ?” In the comment section, I wrote, “Leave a comment!” And I’ve been doing these posts with the hashtag #RealDJing. It’s kind of a census—I’m just curious to see what my followers and fans have to say about it. I don’t even pretend to have the full answer myself. But one point that’s important for me to clarify when I bring up this topic is that just because I come from this branch of DJ’ing that happens to be hyper-specialized, you know, like a Joe Satriani level of intricacy in the performance, doesn’t mean that I frown upon a DJ that doesn’t scratch or that plays a set that’s technically very simple. I’ve listened to DJs who are sloppy that I love; they just have their own flavor. The thing that’s important to me is that the new fans get the information to understand who does what and who stands for what. And, you know, when you’ve got a guy playing at a stadium that has pyro and light cues and video cues, and timed down to a second, you’d be a fool to actually live mix the whole thing. Of course those guys should have pre-timed sections of their set. If they’re doing a theatrical show, it doesn’t mean that they’re fooling the audience. If there’s a beautiful light and video show, and in order to achieve that, they have to prepare certain parts of their set, more power to them. As long as there’s craftsmanship somewhere—there’s artistry. As long as the DJ/artist puts their own artistic vision in what they do in some shape or form, I can respect it. I just think that a lot of the audience needs the information to even understand what’s what. What sucks is when you have a DJ who will go to a festival and have a one-hour set and will play all the biggest bangers. And then the next day they will play a 500-person club, where people would be open to a more adventurous set, and they play exactly the same thing. Then you realize that they had a premade set. The essential component of being a DJ is setting the mood; it’s playing to the context. So that if you’re not able to adapt from one context to another, then you’re not a DJ. Once you have that understanding of what your task is at a festival versus at a commercial club versus at an underground club versus at a weird art show, or whatever setting you might be asked to DJ at, and you can do something really cool and original each time, then that’s the key to being a great DJ. And the technical stuff is just sort of an added perk. Like having an extra Swiss Army Knife and being like, “By the way, I can also do this.”
W.K.: That’s a great way to approach life in general—just try to amass as many skills as possible and have the sensitivity to know when to use them. You know, as a human.
A-TRAK: Absolutely. Like, knowing when to break out one skill and when to fall back on one skill. To have that sort of tact. Knowing what fits where.
W.K.: When to be a certain version of yourself and when to be another version of yourself, you know?
ANDREW W.K. IS A MUSICIAN, WRITER, AND SELF-DESCRIBED “KING OF PARTYING.”