Even Now, A-Trak Wants To Go Places He’s Not Allowed
“There’s a real sociological element to being a DJ. You have to be able to be able to walk into a room and figure out exactly what kind of music they want to hear,” A-Trak told me over the phone last week, on the heels of performing at New York’s annual music festival, Governor’s Ball.
“Even more than that,” I said. “You have to know better than your audience what they want to hear. That’s the difference between a good DJ and a great one.”
“Totally,” the great DJ agreed. “I’m too stubborn to listen to my audience sometimes. I’m like, ‘You don’t even realize what you like,’ and then it’s like, see? I told you so.”
A-Trak is not only one of the best DJs in the industry—although he is a prodigy who won an international DJ competition at 15, went on to DJ Kanye West tours, found the record label Fool’s Gold, then consistently and expertly straddle the line between mainstream, pop, hip hop, and electro—he’s speaks about his craft in a manner accessible to those of us who’ve never ‘scratched’. Rather than say much, the best thing to do is let Alain Macklovitch, producer, record exec, DJ and turntablist, spit knowledge about what he knows better than we do.
A-Trak spinning (and winning) the DMC World DJ Championship at age 15.
His process of writing music:
I get my ideas for songs in little spurts. I’m not the guy who can sit down for 11 hours and just create a song. I have really clear ideas of what I want to do, but they come in chunks, and there will be windows where I’m working for 3 or 4 hours. I’m in so many different settings, and surrounded by different people, but I think that works for the way I make music. I’ll usually lay out a few ideas, then get to a point where I don’t know how to move forward. I can obsess over a snare drum for hours, you know? That’s how my creativity flows—my mind just works best when I’m doing 5 things at once.
“I’m the kind of person that sees a potential lane that might not exist yet, see how I could create that lane, then make it work. I get excited by the idea of going places you’re not supposed to go.”
How that process has changed over time:
I collaborate a lot more now. I started producing about 10 years ago, and I think for a while, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do anything else I wanted to. In recent years, I’ve figured out my strengths and weaknesses in terms of collaborating, and and where I stand to gain from having other people around me. I started doing things on time. That’s a big thing for me. It’s funny because some of the songs I put out, and even the stuff that people know me best for, they’ll say to me, “Oh my God, I love that track!” but I’m so scarred from the process of finishing it 4 months late. There’s a whole side to my songs like that, that people don’t know.
A-Trak’s latest collaboration with AraabMUZIK
The romanticized idea of a DJ:
I think everybody has a romanticized idea of a DJ, like, ‘Let me hop on this private jet, open up my laptop, make this sick beat in 2 hours, sip some champagne in a hotel then have dinner with my best buds at the party with girls everywhere, then repeat. It’s just not really like that. There are so many challenges that come with being a DJ—and I’m not complaining, it is pretty incredible the way DJs have become this ultimate vector that brings new music to people, then mingles with fashion designers, gets involved with the art world, then even might produce. We’re so involved with culture that NPR will ask about about our take on things. It’s cool the way the DJ plays such a central role in culture, but the act of balancing all of that work can be super difficult.
On aging DJs:
I don’t think there’s much of an age limit to DJing—it’s more of a personal decision. A lot of the big names, Carl Cox, Tiesto, and Swedish House Mafia are still killing it, and they’re older. As much as there’s a whole new wave of producers that are like 19 to 21, there’s definitely very much an age group of DJs mid-30s and up that are around. The audiences don’t mind. It’s kind of more about whether or not you want to travel the world and have super late nights at the age of 42. Some people do, some don’t.
“DJs can operate at the speed that people are consuming music— the minute A$AP Rocky decides to leak a song, is the same minute I can customize or make an edit of that track, then play it at a concert. All I need is the file. Bands can’t move that fast”
If I went into a time machine and told 21-year-old me that I’d play techno, 21-year old-me would laugh or turn white as a sheet, you know, because musically there’s really been a progression in my work. Professionally as well—running Fool’s Gold, which is really more of a company than a record label, has allowed us to do so many different things. We have a shop in Brooklyn. We host pop-up events and art shows. We just sort of figure out what we’re doing along the way. I’m the kind of person that sees a potential lane that might not exist yet, then see how I could create that lane and make it work. I’m way more excited by going places you’re not supposed to go.
He still scratches:
People are so used to seeing DJs with laptops, they forget that people used to DJ with vinyls. I still scratch a lot of my shows, which a lot of younger DJs don’t know how to do anymore, but I’m all about new music and I love music technology. What’s amazing about digital libraries, or using Serato is how quickly we can work. I mean, DJs can operate at the speed that people are consuming music— the minute A$AP Rocky decides to leak a song is the same minute I can customize or make an edit of that track, then play it at a concert. All I need is the file. Bands can’t move that fast…they have to go and record in their room that’s mic’d a certain way. Same with rappers, because they have to deal with their engineer.
And remembers his first mix:
It was a cassette. I did this thing with Biggie’s “One More Chance”, and there were two versions out at the same time. One of them was a hip hop version, and another was r&b. So I had both versions playing synchronized on the turntables and switched between the two. That’s kind of all I remember. I also remember I started over often because I kept messing up.