Interview: DJ A-Trak
Vancouver, B.C. – At the ripe old age of 27, A-Trak has earned his stripes: the five-time World DMC champ was Kanye’s tour DJ for four years running and co-founded the quickly rising Fools Gold Records. Straight up, the kid’s got talent.
A-Trak’s pretty reserved: his tour manager warns photographers not to get in his space when he’s performing and this vibe carries through to a curt handshake without much small talk when he’s interviewed. He’s calm when questioned, serious when photographed and relatively modest: he even gets a little bashful when questioned about his modelling gig with Sixpack France.
But the mere mention of performance gets him animated and he explains how moving the crowd is what really moves him, hitting that point of symmetry as his expression is released into the world and the people respond. A-Trak holds true to the initial role of DJ, as rocker of parties and channel of lost tracks reborn.
HipHopCanada caught up with A-Trak in the quietest room of Vancouver’s The Venue, the girl’s washroom. Although we didn’t get any potty talk out of him, he did expound – in his charming French accent – on Quebec and the Separatists, working with Kanye and what went wrong with The Cool Kids.
HipHopCanada: There aren’t a lot of DJs who have made a worldwide name for themselves, but you have: what did it take to hit that cusp of stardom?
A-Trak: It depends for every DJ. Each has a different path. Mine was particular because I started a very long time ago: my name got established on the international scene 12 years ago when I won the DMC world championships when I was fifteen. For me, that was a direct thing: I won a championship and at the time DJ battles were pretty well publicized and really relevant to music, more so than now, so that simple event got my name out. It’s hard to stay relevant on the scene for more than a few years so it was a lot of work since then to continue to be active on the scene and to stay interesting to people. And of course working with Kanye did a lot also; but for a lot of other DJs it can be a question of producing a track that becomes really popular, especially in dance music. In dance music if you make one big hit you can have a career for your whole life, you’re booked for 20 years, so it depends. Other people can just be really good DJs and go from playing their city to other cities and over time start getting booked internationally and then if you’re good enough…
HipHopCanada: Where do you categorize yourself as a musician?
A-Trak: I’m a DJ first. I try to wear a lot of different hats but even as a DJ I play hip-hop, electro, house, classic breaks, and I went from DJing for underground Canadian rappers to DJing for arguably the biggest rapper in the world. And I run a record label, produce, do remixes, there’s a lot of different things that I do. But at the root of it all I’m a DJ. The music I produce is from the perspective of a DJ. There’s producers and engineers out there who spend entire days at the computer or in the studio and that’s their trade, they’re probably more apt and natural at certain production tricks than me cause that’s really what they do, but when I produce I do it in the way that’s a little bit special, maybe because it’s not my trade at first so I come at it as an outsider and it sounds a little different.
HipHopCanada: You’re Quebecois, from Montreal, so do you have any political views about Quebec’s relationship to Canada, or do these issues ever come up when you tour Canada?
A-Trak: As you’ll find with most people whose families aren’t originally French Canadian, I’m not a separatist. I think that separatism was something for people whose families were French Canadians for many generations: my family are immigrants so it’s different for me. You said in the question that I was Quebecois, and if this was ten years ago I would’ve stopped you and said, “I live in Quebec but I’m not Quebecois myself.” Because back in the era of the referendum of the 90’s, there was this climate in Quebec where if your family was immigrants you were made to feel like the issue of separation wasn’t your issue. That would make people like me feel like I’m not Quebecois: I live in Quebec, I love Quebec, but there was this distinction between being Quebecois and living in Quebec. That’s boiled over and it’s water under the bridge. So now I have no gripes in saying I’m Quebecois. Even working with some Quebecois rappers helped that. There was a Quebecois pride there, and I love their music, so being a fan of the music made it easier for me to have that pride too.
HipHopCanada: You were Kanye’s tour DJ for four years since 2004, what was that like?
A-Trak: It was great. Four years of intensive touring and I still work with him. It was a huge part of my career and I think it allowed me to grow a lot, not only in the sense of gaining a new audience or even gaining a certain amount of respect cause it’s a huge accolade, but just for myself artistically to be around someone like Kanye who’s really a unique individual. He lives and breathes music, and pumps out such an output. I think that really helped me evolve.
HipHopCanada: Did that play a part in starting your label Fools Gold Records?
A-Trak: Not at all. If anything it’s the other way around. Me starting Fools Gold made me leave. If you wanted to find a link it would be kind of convoluted but I guess I could say that when I started working with Kanye, right from the start it was a big concern for me to stay active as A-Trak, to not go from being 5-time DMC champion and this and that, respected turntablist to simply being number two to someone, even if it’s someone huge. There’s not a lot of MCs who hire DJs nowadays, if they do it’ll be for one tour, like Green Lantern touring with Jay-Z for one run or something like that. What Kanye and I built was a very multidimensional relationship over many years of working on records and 2-way inspiration for music, fashion, artwork, even culture as a whole. But it was important for me to be active as A-Trak. Kind of ironically, when I started working with Kanye is when I became more focused than ever to have an output, to put out mixes, produce records, all that stuff.
HipHopCanada: I’m curious about your work with The Cool Kids. They released one track with Fools Gold and Chuck Inglish is quoted as saying, “When your boss is on tour with Kanye West, it’s easy to have timelines missed,” implying that you were too busy to give them the attention they needed.
A-Trak: It wasn’t anything like that, their lawyer and my lawyer couldn’t get along. I’m still very good friends with them. It was purely a business thing. Essentially, we helped launch The Cool Kids, Fools Gold didn’t do it singlehandedly but we were in talks to sign them very early in their career. Those talks went on for a while so in good faith we started pushing them to people, getting them on our showcases and stuff. And eventually we couldn’t agree on contracts so they went to other labels. But Cool Kids were still associated with Fools Gold for a period of many months and we actually pressed up vinyl during that period and it came out a year and a half later, just a few months ago, from an agreement that we had at the very beginning. But it was purely business.
HipHopCanada: How do you feel that your self-expression comes through most strongly, what’s the crux of sharing your inspiration with other people?
A-Trak: The equipment is just a tool. The way that I DJ is very technical, so there’s a physical aspect to my DJing where I get so involved with my records. When I do a routine and nail it and everything is on, and it connects and it works, there’s a sort of balance that I can feel physically that’s pretty unique to my style of DJing. That feeling that everything is locking in, the routine is tight, the crowd likes it, it’s the right part of the night: then there’s a physical feeling that I get that’s almost like a release, like all right, we’re in. The stars are aligned, we’re good. But it can also be from a more simple point of view of just playing a good set, where every song just falls at the right point. Production is less of a direct thing for me because I spend a lot of time on my tracks so there’s never really one moment in the process of production where I feel like it goes from the beginning to the end and it’s a release; it’s a lot more drawn out, I’ll work on it for days and days and days. If anything, when I finish it and I mix it down and hear it then I’m happy. The most direct way for me to express myself is just playing a good set. A lot of DJs can play similar songs but I try to have an original selection and not go too much for the obvious choices and play in a way that’s pretty personal. It’s hard to explain to people that a DJ expresses himself by playing other people’s records. One could just think, “whattaya mean, he’s just playing the same set as the other guy,” but I don’t play the same set as the other guy.
HipHopCanada: You’re still really young and you’ve done a lot, are you having fun with all this?
A-Trak: It’s great. This tour feels like a growth for me, the light show is a huge new step for me in terms of performance, and it’s fun just to do these concerts where you feel that everybody who comes, comes to see your show. It’s not happenstance where it’s like people are just coming to a club that they like. These are concert venues where people buy their tickets and come to see you so it’s gratifying and when you put on a good show you feel like you give them what they deserve, or you surprise them, you surpass them, then it’s great. The label’s a lot of fun too, it’s growing so fast and it’s connecting so much, people are so receptive to it that it’s great. We’re literally constantly playing catch-up with everything we want to do, so it’s good to never be bored. I don’t remember what it feels like to be bored, I could just catch up with cataloguing my music, or replying to label emails: I could probably block out a week to do either of those things and not get it finished.
HipHopCanada: What are you working on now?
A-Trak: There’s a few things that I’m just finishing now, the Kid Sister album is just getting mixed and mastered, release date October 6th. And I’m working on a remix for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs which I’ll finish in the next couple of days. But the big next step for me is a milestone for me, doing an A-Trak album which is my plan for right after this tour. So I’m going to finish this tour, maybe take a week off, rest a little bit for once, then just start recording and see what I can come up with.
Written by Amalia Judith for HipHopCanada