A-Trak on Learning from Kanye West, Fool's Gold, and Life #AfterEDM
Photo by Matthew Williams
Email interviews are often terrible. So we were disheartened when A-Trak was too busy touring Europe and filming a new music video to speak by phone. But it turns out the Montreal man is just as good a penpal as he is a DJ.
In his chosen career, A-Trak's a legend. He won the DMC World DJ Championships at 15. He spent four years as Kanye West's official mix master. And now he's a dance and hip-hop star who's also the face of Fool's Gold Records. Oh, and would you ever guess he was a physics major?
This weekend, Mr. Trak's bringing his wildly successful Fool's Gold Day Off party back for Art Basel Miami Beach week, along with heavy hitters Danny Brown and DJ Mustard. So just to get you all riled up, we here at Crossfade got inside his brain on everything from Kanye to hip-hop, the art of mixing, being a label boss, his latest album, and life #AfterEDM.
Crossfade: You recently had something quite positive and interesting to say about the EDM movement, how it's been mostly good for music because it opens people up to better things, how it's breaking back into little subgenres that are flourishing. Was that inspired by a particular moment or conversation?
A-Trak: I would say the opposite: not that EDM is good for music but that music is good for EDM! In other words, the genre needs to expand, and I think it's starting to. It's not really a new thing for me to write down some thoughts about DJ culture on my Instagram, it's something I've been doing for a few months now. These are topics I think about all the time anyway, since this is my passion and my livelihood. I've seen a lot of things come and go. But basically, in this instance, I started with the question of "Is the EDM bubble going to burst?" and pontificated on that.
On one hand, the business is huge and isn't showing any signs of slowing down, no matter how inflated the numbers might seem. But on the other hand, there's this idea that EDM isn't even really definable anymore. As DJs, we can make any kind of music we want, and that's the part that's exciting.
You mentioned how you yourself felt pressured to play "big room"-style music. Why would a DMC World DJ Champion ever feel that kind of pressure? Why succumb to it at all?
I should clarify: I would never, ever, ever play something I don't like. Your question is pretty loaded, though. To me, being a DMC world champion has nothing to do with my ability to rock a crowd. I won the DMC's 17 years ago, it's basically what put me on the map. I'm still proud of it. But knowing how to scratch well and being a technically skilled DJ is completely separate from having good song selection and knowing how to read a crowd. Reading a crowd is important, especially when you play a range of events that are as varied as I do. I play clubs, live venues, and festivals; within those clubs, I might rub shoulders with big-name EDM guys one night and crate-digger purists the next. I love keeping myself on my toes like that.
Now, to give you a Miami example, say I'm playing at LIV, which I do a couple times per year. The venue I'm playing inevitably influences the style of my set. They have a regular clientele, I'd be a fool to go in there and play stuff that that crowd isn't into. The whole art of what we do -- as DJs who also have our own musical agendas -- is to find that perfect balance, where you keep the crowd happy while also playing a set that is original and that reflects your style all throughout. So at a club like that, I'll definitely play more banging electro-house, which is nicknamed "big room" because it's what you hear in bigger (relatively mainstream) clubs. For the record, I like a lot of big-room house. I handpick songs that fit my taste, my style. A lot of other DJs are lazy and pick the 15 most popular songs in that genre. I prefer to find personalized selections that have the energy to keep the crowd happy without making me feel like I'm homogenizing. So when I wrote that a lot of us felt a certain pressure to play more big-room house in the last two or three years as EDM exploded, it's not necessarily a bad thing -- it's a cool challenge too. But after a while, it's also gratifying to see venues and their clientele expand their taste as well. It opens up even more avenues for us.
See also: Five Signs You Might Be a Shitty DJ
As a DJ, what do you make of services like Spotify and Pandora that only introduce listeners to music they already like or will like, based on algorithms? And with blogs following the leader as to what to post or even being paid to post, where can kids go to hear real, edgy, forward-thinking music?
I don't think blogs are sheepish like that. Maybe some are, but there are enough that aren't. The advent of blogs did so much for opening up people's tastes. I think a ton of people still discover great new music on Hype Machine, and that's based around blogs. SoundCloud has been a huge tool for music discovery too. I'm not even saying anything groundbreaking here, but I really do believe that consumers are more open-minded than ever when it comes to music. I don't see anyone staying within a narrow scope, everyone's horizons are expanding. It's actually cool to put your friends on to some new artists. I use Spotify, but I think they could still improve the discovery process on there.
Your Infinity +1 was a mix marketed as if it were an album. I think it's a classic and perfectly captures the spirit of the time, and I thank you for that. These days, mixes are a dime a dozen and they don't really get that same kind of treatment. Has that sort of thing become obsolete because of SoundCloud? Have you heard any mixes recently (or for fun, classic mixes you'd suggest) that capture a spirit and energy in time, as you did?
Oh, wow, thanks so much. For those who don't know, Infinity +1 was a mix CD that I did back in 2009, and it had the same kind of marketing setup as an album. There was a lot of work that went into making it too. All the songs had to be licensed and then I spend a long time assembling the mix; I remember I wanted every transition between every song to be unique and distinct. So it was more than just a DJ mix, I would call it a megamix. I haven't actually listened to it since it came out!
It's hard to do something like that nowadays because music is consumed so fast. There's upsides and downsides to that. For the most part, I like how dynamic things are nowadays: you can make a song one day and start promoting it the next. But the downside is it's harder to build this type of robust release. Especially when you make a mix, songs become old fast. As far as my recommendations, check out Jackmaster's Master Mix 2014. He does this every year and I could recommend them every year. Jackmaster is from the UK, and in this age when DJs are expected to be producers, he's one of the rare examples of a fantastic DJ who remains simply a fantastic DJ.
Is it important for artists to work with independent or imprint labels so they can have creative freedom? I get the sense there are a lot of producer groups just making what labels want to hear, and I don't think that's very good for creativity.
As the owner of Fool's Gold (an independent label), maybe I should answer "yes" and call it a day, but I think this is a bit of a simplified view. I'm a firm believer that artists should get in where they fit in, and for every scenario, there's a good fit out there. For the most part, yes, independent labels are a better breeding ground for creativity. Indies don't ask artists to fit in any kind of mold. That's the beauty of being fully flexible and scalable. But honestly, there are some very creative artists on majors too. Even Beyoncé's last album was very forward-thinking to me. I never seem to get tired of using this example, but look at Avicii: the guy made a country song. How much more "out of the box" can you get? That was on a major too. That being said, I'm a fan of weirdo indie rap, from Danny Brown and Run The Jewels to Migos!
Last year's Fool's Gold Day Off was very rap-heavy, with Danny Brown, Trick Daddy, Young Thug, and the tracks that people played in general. I think it surprised some people. I loved the "Dipsh*ts" track you did with Cam'Ron. Has Fool's Gold consciously beefed up its hip-hop presence? Or is the perception of "more" hip-hop just a misconception? Maybe the hip-hop side of Fool's Gold was always something you took pride in?
I would say Fool's Gold Day Off is a rap-leaning festival. Part of that is just how the events naturally evolved: Nick and I kind of play fantasy camp when we put together our lineups and we just really love to book rappers. We like having proper headliners and there's something very manageable about putting a rapper in that slot. But also, we quickly realized that this was a relatively open lane for us. There are very few people putting together tasteful rap lineups out there. We definitely mix it up with some cool DJs and a few curveballs. But to us, that part of the spirit of hip-hop anyway.
That being said, the events and the label have a big of wiggle room with respect to one another. In other words, FG isn't necessarily a hip-hop label. Danny Brown's success definitely attracted a lot of rappers to us and we're more than happy to welcome them, but we don't restrict the label to one genre in particular. Maybe it just boils down to the fact that we grew up on hip-hop and we're down to encourage this wave of artists that are coming to us.
Kind of relating back to your old DJ and hip-hop days, you and Miami's DJ Craze have a long and storied personal and professional relationship. He's a legend around here and beyond. What do you admire about him as a person and as a DJ? Do you have any fond memories of your time together, like when he freaked out at your house because you asked your mom permission to smoke weed?
Craze is one of my best friends in life, period. He's also the best DJ. He's frighteningly good. I've known him since 1998. We have a ton of fond memories together. I practically grew up with that guy, even though we lived in different countries. (Haha, I never asked my mom permission to smoke weed, maybe I asked my mom permission for him to smoke weed? I don't remember. I don't smoke, though.) I admire a ton of stuff about him, from "real life" things like watching him raise a child very young, to professional things like the way he's evolved musically over the years. He's endlessly curious while always doing things his own way.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes or lessons you took away from being Kanye West's tour DJ? I know you hooked Craze up with that job too, at one point.
I have a ton of Kanye anecdotes. I don't even know where to start. I spent four years of my life with him. But stories are just stories, I'm more interested in the lessons. Kanye never sat me down and taught me anything directly; in fact, I think we both learned things from each other. I definitely picked up a lot by osmosis. He's one of the most visionary artists that I know. He's got 360-degree vision. He knows exactly what kind of video he wants to make for every song, what the artwork should look like, what the message of the song is and what demographic he wants to reach. He had the titles of his first 3 albums ready before he even made the first one. That level of thoroughness and devotion was super inspiring. I also saw the amount of infrastructure that goes into an operation of that size, I was coming from the underground DJ world. But I think what inspired me the most about Kanye was just the way he always put art first, always did what he believed it; those are the best values to me.
I've seen you do hotel reviews, although I don't think you've done them in a while. I know Fake Blood is also a street artist, and I know Laid-back Luke is really into Kung-Fu. Is it usual for your peers to have serious hobbies or maybe even side jobs? Do you have any other hidden hobbies or passions?
My hotel reviews were never a hobby, it was more like a weird art project to document jetlag. It wasn't really about the hotels! I don't really have any hobbies outside of music. I think a lot of DJs do, though. DJs are naturally inclined to be collectors. You'll find a lot of DJs who also collect sneakers, vintage t-shirts, comic books, etc.
At what point did DJing go from hobby to career? Has or does the "job" title ever effect your love for the craft?
I think that transition really clicked when I stopped school. I already knew that DJing was my calling, so to speak, but I was trying to keep a plan B going. I was studying Physics in college in Montreal. (Great plan B!) But once I started touring with Kanye we would leave for many months at a time and I couldn't keep my studies going.
Let's leave with info about the upcoming Fool's Gold Day Off. Danny Brown was a surprise last year, will there be more surprises this year? It's the first year you're charging, which I assume is due to popularity. Are you planning some extra cool stuff to make the fans feel like tickets are worth it?
I forgot that Danny was a surprise last year. I think that was only because he had a ticketed show in Ft-Lauderdale or something, so we couldn't announce him. There will definitely be some surprises again. I mean, this year in New York we brought out Cam'ron, Makonnen, Bobby Shmurda, in LA we brought out Big Sean, in Atlanta Young Thug and TI... it's going down in Miami!
As far as charging tickets, the decision mostly comes from wanting to make the events run smoother. Our events were free with RSVP for years, and you had these insanely long lines where they check the RSVP and people couldn't get in, they would rush the doors, etc. Now with tickets it's a lot more orderly. But frankly the other reason was that we didn't get a major sponsor this year that could cover all the costs. We charge for tickets because we can't lose money. Our tickets are cheap, from $15-25 depending on the cities. We just cover our costs.
Anything else you'd like to say or mention that I didn't ask, either about upcoming projects or to the people of Miami?
To the people of Miami: thank you for welcoming vacationing French-Canadians for so many years. My people are thankful.
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