Alain Macklovitch, better known as A-Trak, is a leader in mainstream DJ culture, an electronic music pioneer whose career spans 20 years so far. A-Trak is a powerful force behind the rising electronic music renaissance which, in the last decade, has landed him on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 50 most important people in EDM. The groundbreaking record selector was born and raised in Montréal, but now resides in L.A. He’s half of Grammy-nominated DJ duo Duck Sauce, and co-founder of the electronic/hip-hop label Fool’s Gold Records, whose roster of artists include Chromeo, Kid Cudi, and Run the Jewels, among many others. The champion turntablist and producer’s big break came as Kanye West’s tour DJ in 2004. Since then A-Trak has gone on to produce and remix tracks for Kid Cudi, Kimbra, and Jamie Lidell, among many others. After wrapping up an Australian tour in late 2016, A-Trak released his first-ever greatest hits album, In The Loop: A Decade of Remixes, which marked his life’s work as EDM’s most notable and charged electronic music-making machine. We caught up with A-Trak in early 2017, and talked with him about his evolving career and influence on worldwide electronic dance music culture.
Do you remember the first full-length album that you remixed?
Yeah, I do. It was for [Australian pop band] Architecture in Helsinki. Actually, I did one remix before that one, that I wasn’t able to fit on the compilation because of sample questions. I did some remix work for Bonde do Rolê, a Brazilian group on the Mad Decent label. I did the remix for them, then sampled… pretty heavily. So that one was never really “papered.”
Why didn’t it make the list?
Stylistically, that remix was more connected to my earlier style of production, where I would be doing purely turntable, and it was all very sample-based. When I started producing on the laptop, with more of a fusion of electronic sounds mixed with other kinds of sounds, I came to realize that “I’m a DJ,” and the music I’m playing in a set had been changing…
People from bands, and other DJs and producers, were [then] connecting around the world via MySpace. Remixing was a way to connect with people making cool music… When I got an e-mail from Architecture in Helsinki, I was familiar with them already, because I was playing one of their other remixes in my sets… I was just looking for ways to try to extend [my work] to production more, you know? I had ideas on what I wanted to do with tracks, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was comfortable enough in the production exercise to make full songs by myself yet.
At the time, I was very established as a DJ for 10 years, a World Champion, Kanye’s tour DJ, all this stuff. But… as a producer, I saw myself as a novice. I had ideas and a certain understanding of how production was done. I had watched my [older] brother [David Macklovitch] produce for years, even before Chromeo, when he was just making hip-hop beats in Montréal. I knew the basics of producing and how certain things are done, but when it came down to just knocking out a track, I felt that doing remixes were an ideal way for me to just try stuff out.
The first one came from an e-mail. Most of them came from direct contact. Nowadays… there’s an infrastructure, right?… It’s an industry, a huge industry. So, things go through managers and, you know, sometimes label reps, and lawyers, and all this stuff… In those days it was like, “Hey my friend gave me your e-mail. Can I send you a download to the file? See what you can do with it.”
You started as a turntablist, with mostly a hip-hop kind of influence, and now here you are 10 years later celebrating remixes. Looking at you now, compared to 20 years ago, it’s a little bit different, right?
It happened progressively… Music evolves. I’d say around mid-2005 or so, I liked new music… I started discovering versions of electronic music that appealed to me, that appealed to my hip-hop ear. Prior to that I wasn’t that interested in electronic music, because a lot of it just felt too cold for me, but a fusion happened around that time where indie bands started making electronic music. And then this sound of like electro that had riffs, musical riffs, and distortion, and things like that. It was breaking rules between genres, and when I heard that, it was exciting to me.
Music evolves, and so did I as a DJ. I’m always gravitating toward new sounds that I find interesting, that catch my ear.
So, I started… on some tracks that were more electronic, but that I felt I could fit into my new set somehow. And I remember at first I felt like I needed to literally connect them to the hip-hop in my set, so I started making mash-ups, which were a big thing… [I’d] put a rap vocal over an electronic track to make it fit into my set better. And when I had enough of those, and accumulated a certain amount, I made a mix tape out of them called Dirty South Dance that came out in 2006, with the help of the clothing brand OBEY…
Two months later, I started the Fool’s Gold label, and I was producing Kid Sister. We signed Kid Cudi and got some remixes for him, and the fusion of electronic music and hip-hop was just beginning before us. And this time I no longer felt the need to put rap vocals over everything I was playing, and I started having sets that included more and more house music, and electro, and this and that… Then I started Duck Sauce with Armand Van Helden, which makes a very sample-based version of house, in some ways…
And I remember when I started implementing more and more electronic selections in my sets. I was taking a bit of a leap, in that some of my prior peers – the people who were doing DJ battles and stuff alongside me – weren’t really jumping for that sound yet. And I remember I was playing to a new kind of audience, and there was a bit of a separation happening, but I was reassured two years later when a lot of those DJs, who used to only play hip-hop, followed suit and started mixing genres in their sets, too… It’s just that music evolves, and so did I as a DJ. I’m always gravitating toward new sounds that I find interesting, that catch my ear, and then I figure out how to put them in context with everything else that I do musically.
Music creators often refer to a melody, or a lyric, or a certain sound, as starting point for creating a song. From a DJ or producer perspective, how do you create new music? Where does it start for you?
If I’m sitting down in the studio we’re at the starting point to create a track… I don’t have a method… I think if I was predominantly or only a producer, and making beats every day, I’m sure I would have a method that would emerge naturally. But I’m jumping around between DJ-ing, touring, running Fool’s Gold, working on artwork collaborations, and producing and remixing. So because it’s one of many things I do, I always kind of have one foot in it, one foot out. And what I like about that is that every time I make a track, I try something new, and I think you can hear that on the compilation; each track had an idea, each one was like: “This is the one where I’m going to try X, Y, Z…”
With production, I like the idea of not fully knowing where I’m going with it, because I think that happy accidents are behind some of the most graphic songs of all time, and I like that. So as far as “how do I start” a track, it varies. I always have something in my head, and sometimes it could be a remix where I’ve isolated the part I want to use, or it can be an idea for a drum part. Sometimes it’s literally just about finding a sound… It really, really, varies.
Does it change at all when you’re producing a remix?
I’m always very conscious of the idea that the original version of a track achieved one thing, and my remix is supposed to take it to a different place. So, I’ll take into consideration the production style and even the tempo of the song. A lot of my remixes are kind of house[-music] tempo, but if someone asks me to remix their house song, then chances are I’m not going to want to keep it at that tempo. I’m going to think of how I could take this tempo and take it somewhere else. Or if I keep it in tempo, then what am I going to change about the production style to really change the identity of it? So, a lot of times I’ll start by thinking of what the intention is… Once I have the intention, then… I’ll use a few of the parts that I want to, and build it from there… If you’re grabbing something from a song that exists, and is done, and enough people liked it, you’ve got a starting point that you can trust. Part of the biggest challenges for us, I think, is that trusting moment, where you decide to dive in; where you think, “Okay, this starting point is good enough for me to build on top of it.” So, it helps you conquer that first step.
As a remixer and producer, do you find that you have a lot of creative freedom?
It’s great that there’s an element of trust that comes with remixing that’s really cool, it’s kind of sacred. It’s another artist or their label, someone reaching out to you and saying, “I trust that you would do with these parts, just do your thing with it.” And then it’s exciting.