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?