DJ A-Trak: Trak Jewels & Kanye West

Not yet 25 years old, DJ A-Trak has had a world of colorful experiences. His DJ Battle titles could fill your favorite athlete’s trophy room. He had an integral hand in one of Montreal’s biggest Hip-Hop crews, Obscure Disorder. Amidst Kanye West’s elaborate stage shows, it is A-Trak that mans the cuts and scratches. All […]

Not yet 25 years old, DJ A-Trak has had a world of colorful experiences. His DJ Battle titles could fill your favorite athlete’s trophy room. He had an integral hand in one of Montreal’s biggest Hip-Hop crews, Obscure Disorder. Amidst Kanye West’s elaborate stage shows, it is A-Trak that mans the cuts and scratches. All of these chapters and duties have been logged on video, now edited to view on A-Trak’s DVD Sunglasses is a Must. With appearances from everybody ranging from Kanye to KLC to Non-Phixion, the DVD covers a lot of miles, a lot of time, and a lot of Hip-Hop.

In 2006, A-Trak is hard at work on his album. As a man of diverse influences and friends, he’s promising an album that boasts shots from Little Brother and Diplomats alike. The Canadian prodigy aims to equally change the face of scratch music. The man who laced the scratches on Common’s Be and currently has the “Drive Slow Mixtape” with GLC, spoke to about his DVD, his past, and how he’s bringing good music over the board, under the needle, and into your ear. Before your solo album comes out, why release Sunglasses is a Must as a DVD?

DJ A-Trak: I’ve been working on the DVD for close to two years. I’m at the point now where I’m working on an album and I wanna reintroduce myself to some of the audiences. Some of the people know me from battles I did between ’97 and 2000, and there’s a whole new audience from the last couple years that might not know about that. It was a point where I wanted to make a retrospective. I knew that I had all that footage… Yeah, as a teenager, were you really into technology? The amount of archiving you did is crazy…

DJ A-Trak: It was almost a trend in the turntablist [community] in the years that I came up in. Like, around ’97 – the year I won my first DMC title – also the year I got affiliated with Q-Bert and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. That was a time when that crew, from the Bay area, they reigned. They came out with all the futuristic styles and everything. They would put out these videotapes called Turntable TV and they would film themselves scratching, hanging out, going on tour, pulling pranks…just random s**t. All the younger DJ’s that were coming up, started buying video cameras too. It was really a sight to see at one period, where at given DJ events, everybody had video-cameras out. It must’ve been just good timing when video-cameras became a lot more affordable. It wasn’t just me, everybody in the DJ scene was documenting stuff. The digital editing is wild, as is the coloration. This must’ve taken some serious time and money…

DJ A-Trak: I’m happy that you see the DVD that way, as far as on-point with the editing and all that. But I think, what it is is this is a homemade project that I made with my boys here in Montreal – with basically the guy who does all the artwork for my record label, [Audio Research] and the guy who does my website. I did this with a couple of dudes who don’t normally do video editing, but always had ideas and a vision. They’re very visual. On one hand, it took us a hell of a lot of time to do it, but at the same, we had a bunch of stuff we wanted to throw in there, whether it be animated titles and other stuff. We tried to keep a balance. After all, this was all filmed on a home-video camera. We just wanted it to look fresh. You spent time out West, working with people like Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, and Peanut Butter Wolf when you were in your mid-teens. Looking back, do you think people would’ve embraced you the way they did, had you not been so young?

DJ A-Trak: That’s a good question. You know, making this DVD allowed me to take an objective step back and realize just how generous those dudes were with me. They took me in like family as a 15 year old who could scratch pretty well. The DVD shows all these experiences building with dudes who were like five to ten years older than me. I can’t really tell if it had been different if I was older. Some of those dudes met me before my voice changed. It must’ve been a trip for them to meet somebody that young, who was so into the music. You mentioned Peanut Butter Wolf: I would go out in stay in his crib when I was doing shows in Cali. He was one of the first dudes to put me onto a lot of older records. There was a phase in the scratch world around ’97 and ’98, when a lot of DJ’s used to scratch over fast Electro beats. So I would go to Wolf’s house, and he knew that I was into scratching on those kinda beats, so he would play me a record like World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s “Surgery” which was some old school, early 80’s Dr. Dre Electro s**t. I can remember, in the late 90’s, when you battled a dude by scratching his name, then scratching “can suck my d*ck.” That was a whole new style and emotion to DJ battles. Why’d you go that route?

DJ A-Trak: I came up also with a crew called The Allies. That was like from ’99 on. That was a period where DJ’ing was already going through a really big boom. There was a strong sense of community in the DJ scene and the battle scene, to the point where you’d show up at a battle and people’s mentality would be, “Oh, we’re just here to elevate the art and push the art forward.” [That] was great in itself, and better that than everybody hating each other – but after a while, it got so extreme that it got a little bit generic, and me and these dudes from The Allies, we all grew up enjoying the true b-boy aesthetic of Hip-Hop, we wanted to bring back the dissing in battles. If you see me in person, you wouldn’t expect me to call somebody out. But in the context of the battle, you may as well make it funny. At every one of our battles, we’d call somebody out. Really, it’s a creative exercise – how do you find the records to say what you wanna say, using somebody else’s words. I remember noticing that in the years after [that battle], everybody was dissing again and it was really funny. Then that became generic. Some battle MC’s treat the battle like a boxing match – and really learn to hate their opponent for that day. Did it ever get that way with you?

DJ A-Trak: There was never any animosity between any of these DJ’s at a battle. I’m kind of a competitive person, and I really remember listening to Mobb Deep the morning of a battle and coming out of the hotel room like, “I can crush all these dudes. F**k ’em!” It’s not personal, but that’s the mindset you put yourself into. In battle DJ’ing, part of the way people perceive you is how you come off on stage – your presence. I’m a kind of a shy dude, I’m not a guy with tons of presence. But if you look like you’re confident and you look like you believe you’re better than all these dudes, it’s really a bonus. Tell me about the album you’re working on for this year?

DJ A-Trak: Basically, the way that I’m approaching this album is I’m producing most of the songs out of scratching. I won’t really use a sampler that much. It’s not a bunch of scratching in your face the whole time. It’s not non-stop scratch solos. But if you have a producer’s ear and you’re wondering why that hi-hat sounds that way, it’s because it’s scratched a little bit. Traditionally, scratch production has been very slow and gloomy. That’s just been the sound associated with scratch records. But my whole thing is, I wanna hear a real Tunnel banger, made of scratches. I wanna make like a RZA type-beat or a Just Blaze type-beat or a Kanye type-but just made out of cuts. Half the songs on the album have featured MC’s. The first white-label that I leaked was a song [“Don’t Fool With The Dips”] I did with the Dip set. People assume that scratch DJ’s are backpackers. But all those separations in the Hip-Hop landscape such as underground and mainstream or between coasts, that stuff is bogus. If I wanna do a song with Dipset, I’ll do it. At the same time, I got a joint with Little Brother and Consequence. My whole thing is making an album where those two songs don’t seem like extremes. It’s probably a question you don’t want to hear, but is Kanye gonna be on your album?

DJ A-Trak: I can’t say for sure until it’s done. All I know is he’s been very supportive of my music. There’s specific beats that he’s really liked. There’s one beat in particular that he almost put on Late Registration. He told me he’s down where he’s down to hop on stuff. I haven’t really gotten to the whole label world yet. If it gets to the point where he actually records on a song – which would be incredible for me – then I realize that it’s still gonna have to be cleared by Hova the God [Jay-Z]. [laughs] We’ll see. Being from Montreal, how did you link with Kanye West?

DJ A-Trak: I met Kanye in London about a year and a half ago. I was doing an in-store performance at a store that pairs up different artists. On that particular day, they had me and John Legend. This was a pre-album John Legend. At that point, any hardcore Kanye fan knew who John Legend was. Kanye was in town to promote his record, and came [in] to support John. I did a quick little routine, and I used a Jay-Z record. Kanye later told me, “What I liked about you was, you were using a record that I knew. A lot of these turntablist kids, they use some s**t that I don’t even recognize. You picked up a hit record.” He caught up with me afterwards. He said he wanted to take me on tour with Usher. He didn’t have a DJ, and that’s where it all started. Kids learn rapper’s DJ’s. I’ve been to Common shows where DJ Dummy is the star of the show along with Common. Did that experience create more interest in you or your previous work?

DJ A-Trak: Maybe not at first, but it’s catching on. I definitely think, I know that there’s people who’ve seen me at Kanye shows and found out who I was, after that. This is great. Kanye’s audience is obviously a whole other audience to my audience. That was the appeal of working with Kanye was the challenge of taking this turntablism stuff that I came up, and bringing it to these audiences who aren’t familiar with it anymore. In the 80’s, it seemed common to have the most skilled DJ’s behind the most skilled rappers. You had Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, DJ Scratch and EPMD, and DJ Aladdin with Ice-T. Do you see that coming around again?

DJ A-Trak: Umm, it’s hard to predict. But that’s something I’m proud of. A lot of us come from a certain background in Hip-Hop where the DJ really had a presence, and when the MC had a DJ, you knew about him. The 90’s brought the DATs, and the DJ got phased out of the picture. Your [earlier] example of Common and Dummy is a good example. Those two really gel together to create an entertaining concert. I really hope that by Kanye having me perform with him at these events and on TV, that it might motivate more people to do the same. During his show, what’s your shining moment, or rather, the moment you wait for?

DJ A-Trak: [laughs] There’s a part at the end of “All Falls Down” where, after the last chorus, I grab the acapella of the chorus and break it down, then I go back and forth with the background singers who imitate what I scratch, while the rest of the

band plays along. [humming] That’s my favorite part, because we managed to integrate what I do into his show without the crowd going, “Okay, I wanna hear the next Kanye song.” Lastly, the DVD title is interesting. Especially since recently, we’ve seen you on the cover of Urb and other places, wearing sunglasses. Your style and image seems to really have jumped up. I don’t normally ask fashion questions, but what’s good?

DJ A-Trak: Sure. It’s funny because this all started with the title Sunglasses is a Must which doesn’t mean anything. It’s really just something my boy said years ago, out of nowhere. [My brother and I named it this in tribute to that]. By the time it came close to the release, I started buying sunglasses, knowing this was gonna come out. I never owned any. It’s taking the title and running with it. It’s not on some goofy Groucho Marx s**t, more on some flashy s**t.