Q&A: Montreal's A-Trak on staying relevant in unforgiving world of club music
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TORONTO — Serving up curve balls to club kids is a skill that DJ and producer A-Trak considers his speciality.
The Montreal-native, known for mixing hip hop and electronic beats, has whisked together sounds for Kanye West and created hits like 2010's "Barbra Streisand," as part of the Duck Sauce duo.
But he says staying fresh in the evolving world of party music isn't as easy as it looks.
"I've had to be keenly aware to not be some sort of passing fad," the 34-year-old performer says.
"It's a delicate game of nudges and shifts."
Twenty years ago, A-Trak, born Alain Macklovitch, got his first experience in surprising listeners.
He was a scrawny 15-year-old kid when he stepped behind his turntables and demolished the competition at the 1997 DMC World Championships, becoming the youngest-ever winner of the record scratching title.
It pushed him into playing more shows, first with guidance from his brother Dave, who's one half of electro-pop duo Chromeo. Later he was taken under the wing of rapper West who hired him as a tour DJ.
Since spinning his experience into a solo career, A-Trak has drafted numerous club bangers, many which appear on his recent greatest hits collection "In The Loop: A Decade Of Remixes."
The DJ recently spoke with The Canadian Press about stirring up the party scene:
CP: Club music is notoriously unforgiving, with many DJs lasting only a few years before they sound stale. Do you think that's a challenge with the genre?
A-Trak: It's a bit more of a topic in hip hop than in dance music — and my career spans both genres. In hip hop, every three to five years there's some sort of reinvention. In dance music, there's a lot of career DJs, like Armand Van Helden and Tiesto. Maybe hip hop is just a bit more youth-driven and unforgiving, it's even more important to stay ahead of the curve.
CP: Is there a secret to survival?
A-Trak: You've gotta stay up on new music — that's our job as DJs. You don't want to ever become the guy who's too nostalgic, who says, "I miss the way music was 15 years ago." But that can be tricky ... I'm 34 and some of my friends are 21. I definitely ask them all the time, "What's your jam?" You have to — it's research.
CP: What do you think is the next trend?
A-Trak: Everyone loves to say the (electronic dance music) bubble burst — all the way to club owners changing the programming of their clubs. But it has not. If you look at the (Top 10) charts every week you see DJ Snake, the Chainsmokers and Major Lazer. I had a conversation with a friend recently who was like, "I'm not sure what kind of music to make right now." Me personally, those are my favourite periods of time. More than ever I tell myself I'm going to make what I hear in my head and not even think of comparing it to what's out there.
CP: Your remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song "Heads Will Roll" has appeared in video games, movies and TV series. How does someone like yourself get a remix job like that?
A-Trak: With official remixes the original artist or their manager commissions it. So I'll accept a request, receive (audio) files and make my version. There are also a number of remixes done "on spec." So a label approaches a remixer who might have a little less standing and say, "Do you want to have a try? I can't guarantee we'll pick it up and pay you, but give it a shot." So the remixer will try it. They can say, "Cool we love this, here's (some) money" or "Eh, we don't love it. You can put it on your Soundcloud."
CP: Is that really fair to young producers?
A-Trak: Eh, well, it's a market. And there's plenty of producers more than happy to receive those files and just have a go at it. In the Soundcloud generation there's always an outlet. Even if the band doesn't decide to actually sell it through their label, the remixer (can say,) "Cool I'll just give it to my friends and we can play it (at our shows)."
CP: You've favoured making original tracks in recent years. Why the shift away from remixes?
A-Trak: I came to realize the way I approached my remixes could be applied to original songs. A lot of people don't realize when you make a remix it doesn't belong to you. We get a flat fee for hire. For the remixer it's a way to get our name out. But there's a point where you start thinking, "I should keep some of this work."
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In Focus: Richard Crouse