A Trusted Selector: A-Trak on the Future of DJing

"I want battling to still sound like the playground where new sounds are being tested and experimented with."
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A-Trak Interview

Being a good student of music means listening to a lot of music. This requires not only keeping your ears attuned to your preferred digital and analog streets, but to whichever streets are pulsing with life and anticipating sea changes before they happen. In a world where many are more inclined to let Spotify cull the internet for a quick playlist, A-Trak—born Alain Macklovitch in Montréal, Quebec, Canada—is carrying on that tradition with a smile. 

A love for the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill led to hours of disc-scratching practice, a handful of scratch battle world championships, and a gig as Kanye West's tour DJ through the mid-2000s. In 2007, he founded Fool's Gold Records with journalist and DJ Nick Catchdubs and the late illustrator Dust La Rock as a monument to the halcyon days of independent labels that were unafraid to take risks. Employing a DIY energy, the label was able to cultivate both the Kid Cudis and Armand Van Heldens of the music world. 

A-Trak's zeal for electronic music and his underground hip-hop roots would serve him well as he became as known for raucous live events like Fool's Gold Day Off and the upcoming Goldie Awards as he was for both releasing—and scratching up—records. 

And yet, while sitting next to him inside the TMWRK building in Lower Manhattan on a rainy Election Day morning, I was most impressed with the calm energy radiating from his person. 

Sipping tea and scrolling through Spotify searching for that one Sting album engineers always geek out over, the 36-year-old artist was open and thoughtful. Pulling answers to questions from damn near every corner of the music community and his life, it felt like a crossfader blurring the line between past and present.

It's no surprise that he's so excited to judge the second annual Goldie Awards competition, a chance for him to use his platform to bring producers and DJs from around the world together on one stage to show the future of turntablism. 

"I want battling to still sound like the playground where new sounds are being tested and experimented with," he explained. 

Not every 20-year veteran is still looking for the freshest sounds they can find, but what kind of DJ would A-Trak be if he weren't?

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below. 

DJBooth: What was the first record you ever scratched?

A-Trak: I think it was my dad’s copy of Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. Going through that record, there were so many different kinds of sounds on there. Like anyone who discovered hip-hop, especially in the '90s, I became more and more aware of scratching and knew it was a thing you did by moving a record back and forth. Pretty much anyone has tried to scratch a record on their parent’s player at some point. I think the surprising thing that happened with me is that where most people try it and it sounds like ass, I had it sounding like scratching right from the start. I was really lured by it.

I was 12-13 and the internet only existed at speeds where you could maybe send emails or wait 20 minutes for one image to load. There definitely wasn’t info on the internet about DJing, so I would look at album covers. I was a big fan of Pete Rock & CL Smooth and their album The Main Ingredient had a huge influence on me. Pete Rock was scratching on almost all of those songs so I would listen to those scratches and try to figure out what he was doing. On the album art, there were photos of his turntables and his record collection and I remember looking at his turntable and thinking, “That’s a different kind of mat then this rubber thing my dad has.” It really felt like looking for clues.

On the album cover?

Yea [laughs]. Also, P-Thugg, who’s in Chromeo with my brother Dave [Macklovitch], used to work at the Canadian equivalent to Blockbuster at the time and we’d borrow the VHS tape of Wild Style from him. I would watch the movie and pay close attention to all those scenes of Grandmaster Flash DJing while noticing the crossfader and even just how to hold a record and drop the needle, the physicality of it all. I was 12 or 13, so I couldn’t get into clubs, so that’s how I became enamored with scratching.

With that love and passion, what inspired the founding of Fool's Gold?

What I’m describing is the seed to pretty much everything I’ve done since. I went from discovering scratching to obsessively practicing it to becoming world champion within the first couple years of my official foray into DJing. Even in those early years, my brother and I started our first label in Montréal called Audio Research. Even with that project, we had already started pressing up our own vinyl and signing our friends to help spread their music. If you’re involved with something DIY, that sense stays with you forever. That was the precursor to Fool's Gold, which came years later. Once I started doing more remixes and delving into different forms of music as my career went forward, that came with a sense of "What does this look like?” MySpace was becoming a big part of the music community and the fact that anyone could design their own page really catalyzed some of that curiosity. All of that combined with the DIY aspect and my fascination with mashups and that genre-bending at the time proved to be a perfect storm of foundational ideas for Fool's Gold.

Most people still thought that you had to get with a big record label to be seen. Just putting music out was unknown because there were still gatekeepers. It’s so different from now where anyone can just get a TuneCore account and put their stuff out, which I absolutely love. This wasn’t as accessible 11 years ago, and my friends and I knew it wasn’t that complicated to put records out. For us, it was as simple as calling up a pressing plant asking for a 12”. 

I had met Nick Catchdubs at parties around NYC and through promoter Roxy Cottontail when I moved out there in the summer of ‘06. Roxy always had the illest flyers for her parties and this guy Dust La Rock was illustrating them. So Fool's Gold was a partnership between myself, Nick Catchdubs, my brother, and Dust from the jump. In those years, it was surprising to people that we were a young label that wanted to put out hip-hop and house records. We were thinking about Nervous Records, who had Black Moon but also had Armand Van Helden’s house records. Those types of NY labels from generations before us that were completely informed by the DJ’s ear were hugely influential to us. It wasn’t weird to put out whatever kind of music we wanted to put out on the same label.

A-TRAK

With that eye for curation, where did the Goldie Awards come into all of this?

The Goldie Awards came about practically 10 years into Fool's Gold. The big missing piece to this narrative was the EDM wave and how that bubble eventually burst. When we started Fool's Gold, even the electronic scene was fringe. Around 2011 or so, EDM exploded, which propelled DJs like Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, and David Guetta to superstar status. You had Skrillex on the cover of Rolling Stone. That finally brought DJs to the same level of artistic celebrity of any other kind of musician, which wasn’t the case before. Then there was something that happened on the hip-hop side where producers started to get more famous. Hearing Metro [Boomin’s] name on a record was very significant to me.

The real goal of the Goldies was to take all these incredibly skilled DJs with one hand and producers with the other hand and put them together. What I’ve done with Fool's Gold over the last 10 years, especially on the Fool's Gold Day Off side, has taught me how to put together an event that has an extremely diverse and influential audience and bringing an interesting cross-section of people under one roof and curate the lineup and the artwork. I felt like I was able to put something together that would circle back on my roots as a battle DJ.

I also think some people associated battles with a more classic era of boom bap, which I grew up on and love deeply, but the danger of that is that you’re not gonna get new DJs or producers who are listening to new music now if the battle scene is still tied to sounds from 10, 15, or 20 years ago. I think it was important for the Goldie Awards to embrace all new sounds and technologies so that more experimental artists feel like there’s room for them. I want battling to still sound like the playground where new sounds are being tested and experimented with.

After all the work you’ve done with Day Off and the Goldie Awards, and considering that rap and turntablism have bigger platforms now than ever, how important is it to you that these spaces be curated by people “of the culture” in an industry becoming more and more dominated by algorithms?

I’m glad you asked that question. I think it’s incredibly important now. We are led to believe by the numbers that music is expanding and booming and that the internet and self-distribution created room for everyone. But in fact, it’s extremely hard for people to break through now. The way these algorithms work, they end up creating a lot of feedback loops that over-amplify the same things over and over again. Whatever’s easily digestible and popular becomes omnipresent, and it tends to be material that’s not very challenging. 

It becomes challenging for artists who are doing work that pushes the envelope and may require a little more attention and thought to get into to even be heard. Luckily, I’m in a position where I have a certain influence to share and even create a platform for people to be heard, and a lot of what I do with Fool's Gold and the Goldie Awards has focused on that much more lately.

It’s extremely important for anyone who has a voice or influence to showcase what is interesting to them musically and bring attention to more artists who aren’t on the front page of whatever digital outlet. It would be dangerous for us to let Big Data govern so much of what we’re exposed to. We’ve seen the dangers of that politically, and in terms of artistic discovery, that also poses a huge challenge. 

The only way to fight that is to craft space for human curation and for any of us, my peers or myself, who have the privilege to be able to shine a light, to use that influence to push artists that are creating the sounds of tomorrow and to push for more women on the lineups. We’re at a point now where if we don’t do that, everything’s gonna become like The Lego Movie.

In an era where someone could just as easily throw on a Spotify playlist at a party, what does it mean to be a DJ in 2018?

A DJ’s real role is to do research and find a selection of music that’s original and has a personality to it. No matter how deep we get into the singularity and integrating with the robots, nothing’s ever gonna replace the human personality and human choices. Another huge part of the DJ’s role is to read a crowd and make surprising choices and literally read the energy of the moment song-by-song. If anything, there’s so much music coming out every week, I think most people really welcome a trusted selector, and that’s what a DJ is: a trusted selector.

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