Fresh Music: A-Trak

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Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written and Interviewed by: Jesse Carr

The 28 year-old Montreal native, A-Trak, is no stranger to being in the public eye. After he won the DMC World Championship DJ battle in 1997 at the age of 15, he found himself on tour with the world's best scratch DJs, including Q-Bert and DJ Craze. In 2004, after a steady regimen of international appearances where he dazzled onlookers with complex scratching and beat juggling routines, A-Trak found himself in London DJing at a place where Kanye West made an appearance. West hired him immediately, and A-Trak worked closely with Kanye for the next four years. He did the cuts on "Gold Digger" and has said in interviews that he was the one who suggested using "Harder Better Faster Stronger" as a sample source, which became the backdrop for Kanye's monster single, "Stronger."

In 2007, A-Trak directed his time and energy into a new record label, along with Nick Barat (also known as Nick Catchdubs). The two began Fool's Gold, a label that later launched the careers of Kid Cudi and Kid Sister and is the home to cutting-edge artists of multiple genres and styles. And beyond his duties at the label, A-Trak is still globetrotting and doing festivals and stadium gigs to thronging audiences, including a brief tour this year with Blink 182's Travis Barker.

A-Trak's DJing style is hard to pin down into a simple category. Before the term "mash up" was tossed around aimlessly by music journalists and before DJ Hero was released, A-Trak was experimenting with mixing genres in his sets. A-Trak developed a signature style for his routines, including dj battle segments like flipping Little Wayne's "Go DJ" into a double-time electronic track in the middle of a set. He also became one of the best at classy blends that didn't sound kitschy, even when combining songs with similar titles like Rick Ross' "Hustlin" with Simian Mobile Disco's "Hustler" on his 2007 mixtape called Dirty South Dance. At the time, hearing another blend from the mixtape Gwen Stephanie's "Yummy" over LCD Soundsystem's "Time to Get Away" may have shocked some people, but pop music now pulsates with an unmistakable electronic thump that you will probably hear the moment you switch on your local "urban" music station.

A-Trak recently released Dirty South Dance Volume 2, during which A-Track proves that there is still a talent for the choosing the right pairing of tracks, as seen, for example in the mixtape's first track. The track deftly blends a pop music mainstay, Soulja Boy's "All the Way Turnt Up," with Claude Vonstroke's "Vocal Chords," and the result is not too far away from some modern popular rap compositions and it sounds like the two belong together. Other combinations like Kanye, Consequence, and John Legend's "Whatever you Want" paired with the Bag Raiders' "Shooting Stars" even has, at one point, the bass hits syncopated with Consequence's verse a detail surely not accidental and proof of A-Trak's ability to do his blends with a bit more panache than most others.

We got the chance to catch up with A-Trak during his Stone's Throw x Fool's Gold tour to discuss the changing electronic and hip-hop landscapes, the challenges of running a record label, meeting Kanye, and much more. After the interview check out the Dirty South Dance 2 mixtape to get a taste of A-Trak's talents, and if you are in the area, don't miss his trademark energetic live set.

A Conversation with A-TRAK

You have seen a great deal of flux in the music world since you won the DMC DJ championship at age 15 in 1997. Can you talk about some of the ways that the role of the DJ has changed in the 13 years that have passed since then?

Sure. I remember around '97, the DJ was seen as the underdog. Rappers weren't using DJs for their live shows as much anymore, they were playing their backing tracks off DAT machines. So the DJ community became self-sufficient and started thriving by itself, but it was an underground subculture. The rap world wasn't aware of what hip-hop DJs were doing, in terms of the skill level at competitions like the DMCs. Also, hip-hop and dance DJs didn't communicate. Nowadays, all the genres intersect. Now DJs are dictating where popular music is going, and the mainstream is very aware of our scene.

I'm fascinated with the way that the internet has changed the role of a tastemaker. Now, people have access to tracks the moment that they're leaked. How have you changed the way that you prepare sets after the proliferation of online content?

Yes and no. With the way that I DJ, since it's very technical, there's more to my sets than just the song selection itself. So I can play a song that other DJs are playing but flip it my own way. I'm glad I have that up my sleeve because at this point almost every DJ has access to the same songs. However, I still find it important to play songs that are original and reflect my own personal taste. So a lot of times that becomes a combination of getting songs directly from producers before they come out, collecting bootlegs and edits that my DJ friends and I make ourselves, playing Fool's Gold songs that aren't out yet, and mixing that up with a few oddball selections.

Can you tell our readers the story about how Kanye West discovered you and how you began working with him?

Kanye saw me do a short turntablist set at a record shop in London in 2004, right after The College Dropout came out. I heard he was going to be there so I hustled to get an in-store that day. Right away he hired me to come on tour with him, as he was about to hit the road with Usher. From there on, he kept me on board for the following tours and we built a very tight relationship. I recorded scratches on his albums, I did all the award shows with him, and by the time he did Graduation, we were talking constantly about creative direction. At the beginning of 2008, I stopped touring with him to pursue my own projects.

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Your brother ran the label Audio Research (A&R) from 1997-2005. Did you get to be involved in the label? If so, what did you learn at Audio Research that prepared you to begin your own label, Fools Gold, in 2007 with Nick Barat?

Yes I was very involved with Audio Research. Dave founded it when I was still a teenager, but after a few years, it became our project together. We did everything, from A&R to project management to press. We even started distributing a few American labels in Canada. By the time Nick and I started Fool's Gold, I already knew the ins and outs of pressing vinyl, I knew distribution contracts and standard percentages, how to keep a release schedule, etc.

With your record label, Fool's Gold, you obviously have a lot on your plate. How do you discover new artists that you may consider for the label?

One of the reasons why Fool's Gold works so well is that Nick and I are engulfed in all this music in the first place. As DJs we're constantly looking for new music, so when we find stuff that isn't signed that we like, we approach those artists for the label.

With record sales floundering, what is the responsibility of a record label, especially a non-major, now that music distribution has changed so drastically?

Indie labels haven't suffered as much as majors because we work on a smaller, more manageable scale. But still, record sales aren't what they used to be, and nowadays a label has to do a lot more than just release music to survive. We do a ton of artist development, branding, and grooming. We do a lot of merchandise. We have a very dynamic blog with podcasts and regular columnists. We also organize tours both in America and overseas which push the artists and the label itself. It's more important than ever to really be in people's faces and have direct contact with our audience.

Can you tell our readers about Duck Sauce, your collaborative effort with house music legend Armand Van Helden?

Yes! Armand and I started Duck Sauce at the top of 2009, when he told me he wanted to make a couple tracks with me. I had a pretty clear idea of what kind of music I wanted us to make, which was a pretty stark in contrast to all the distorted, banging-hard electro that everyone else was making. We wanted to go back to a simpler, more musical approach of looping—something refreshing. It was really embraced right away, across the board. I love doing Duck Sauce because it's so straight-forward and I really have fun making those tracks. We have a new single dropping this fall called "Barbra Streisand".

In your latest release, Dirty South Dance 2, you sort of exemplify the post-genre music scene by melding artists like Joker and Yung L.A or Young Money and David Guetta. The results aren't so shocking, as electronic dance music forms the backdrop for many a contemporary pop rap release. Do you see these two worlds--dance music and popular hip-hop--growing to become almost indistinguishable?

There's definitely a big difference between the musical climate today and that of 3 years ago when I made the first Dirty South Dance mixtape. Back then it was pretty experimental to mix those genres. Now it's all we hear! But I wanted to give it my own twist, as I feel like the electro-rap that we hear coming from mainstream artists is too formulaic and predictable. I wanted to dig deeper and give it more character. I think that dance music and hip-hop are still distinct genres, but they intersect a lot more than they used to.

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Many of the instrumentals that you use on the mixtape aren't mainstream, or even immediately recognizable. Talk about the choices of your instrumentals for the mixtape.

That's where I had a chance to show more depth, because the acappellas had to come from popular songs in order for the project to work. The instrumentals weren't necessarily the newest tracks; I just looked for ones that matched the vocals well, ones that could take the songs to a strange place.

Can you predict what dance music will be like in 5 years? Where will Fool's Gold be?

I think dance music in America will continue to become a part of mainstream music the same way it has been in Europe for a longer time. The upside of that is that there will be room for more underground scenes within it as well. I'm not really interested in most chart-topping, fist-pumping tracks. But we're still at a stage in America where audiences don't have a profound understanding of the music yet, it's still kind of a mish-mash. The stuff I'm interested in is more nuanced, sometimes more musical and sometimes just weird, and I think with time there will be more room for it as crowds get educated. I'm not only concerned with dance music though, I'm a hip hop head first and foremost and I listen to all types of music. That goes for Fool's Gold as well. Already this year we signed 2 bands. Our first full-length album release is coming in October, the debut album by The Suzan, an all-girl Japanese band produced by Bjorn from Peter, Bjorn & John. In the coming years I see FG growing into one of the bigger indies, releasing albums by a variety of artists, regular compilations, reissues of classic or forgotten records, as well as being a household brand with our online community and merchandise playing important roles. It's all growing very fast!