Alain “A-Trak” Macklovitch leads the most charmed of charmed 21st century musical lives, and DJs (with openers Salva and Alex Young, plus Mista Selecta and Royal) at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club on Thursday night, June 19th. As a fifteen year-old DJ, he was already a DMC competition World Champion, soon adding ITF and Vestax championships at competitive turntablism to his plaudits. As a producer, he’s produced for and with every major name in both rap and EDM of the moment, but you probably owe him the biggest debt of gratitude for turning Kanye West on to Daft Punk’s 2001 single “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which eventually became 2007’s stronger, the Louis Vuitton Don’s mainstream breakout single.
The achievements don’t stop there, either. Alongside Nick Catchdubs, A-Trak has helmed Fool’s Gold Records since 2007, a label that has done everything from introduce the world to his brother Dave-1’s (and partner-in-crime P-Thugg’s) “Fancy Footwork” as retro funk pair Chromeo, given Danny Brown, Juicy J and the Flabush Zombies a “Piss Test,” paired influential 90s house producer/DJ Armand van Helden with A-Trak as retro-disco tandem Duck Sauce and reintroduced the world to “Barbra Streisand” and if that wasn’t enough, cleared a path to allow early turn of the 21st century Harlem rap don Cam’ron to re-enter mainstream relevance.
Basically, A-Trak is your favorite DJs favorite DJ, and more than likely a person we would all ideally like to be for a day. Thus, it was absolutely a pleasure to speak on the phone with him about his current Gold Gone Wild tour, the art of DJing his creative inspirations, thoughts on popular music, time management, rapper Travi$ Scott, and so much more. Enjoy!
You’re just about halfway finished with your Gold Gone Wild Tour (which comes to Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club on June 19th). What are your thoughts so far about the tour, and has it met expectations?
I’m really happy with the way the shows have been going so far. There are certain venues that I haven’t played in awhile, like the 9:30 Club, which I think I have only played once. I’m excited to play 9:30 Club because it has so much history. As far as the show, I’ve created some new visuals and some new stuff for my sets, so it’s been exciting. As a DJ, you’re sort of always on the road, so it’s rare for me to actually pause for a second and prepare a not of new material. I’m usually jumping from club to festival to venue, so I’m adding incrementally to my set, but for this run – because it was one cohesive conceptual kind of tour – I was able to really add a lot, so it’s exciting to be able to go out and roll out all of this new stuff.
As far as the sets themselves, you’re doing something a bit different this time. The first half is the traditional “EDM” show with lights and lasers, and the second half has more of a party feel. Why did you decide to pursue playing in this manner on the current tour?
I’m at a point in my career where I need to keep stuff exciting. I don’t want [the fans] to get something that they’ve seen before. So with this tour, we came up with this concept where at least half of the set, especially the later half of the set, becomes increasingly freestyled. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s two separate parts. I’m DJing up there for 90 minutes or two hours, so it’s one show. Near the beginning of my set I try to play my hit songs and my recent songs, and I present them in a certain way where there are visuals playing with them.
Typically, I like to go over my set time (laughs). There’s a point when I decide, “now I’m going to take a sharp left turn and see where it goes.” Every night I’ve been freestyling at least half of my set, and I’ve been posting the playlists [on Instagram and Facebook], showing how unpredictable each night can be. There are some cities where I’ll do a whole block of disco house, there are some cities where I’ll do a block of old school hip-hop and party classics. Then there are other cities where I’ll play more Jersey club and things like that.
I’ve come to realize that in the current landscape of DJing and electronic music that a lot of DJs play the same set every night, and there are a lot of DJs that are known for one genre. I don’t necessarily knock that, because, to each his own, but I came up in the tradition of DJing where you’re supposed to be able to adapt night after night. I also know a lot of music, and really enjoy switching around and doing different styles from night to night. I wanted to make that explicit with this run of shows. I want [the fans] to explicitly see that what they’re getting that night is tailored to the feeling that I’m getting from them. Whatever spark, or whatever lightbulb goes off at that moment, that’s what they get.
In certain cities I’ll get a tweet before the show with a suggestion that will spark an idea, which will inspire the freestyle portion of my set. Afterwards, I’ll post the playlist and say, “yeah, I played an Ed Banger (renowned French independent dance music label) record, because someone said they missed that stuff.” It may come from a suggestion from a fan, or, it may be me thinking “what have I not touched yet on this tour?”
Speaking of genres of music, between working on your own dance-friendly material, 2014 involves you producing with legendary trap rap producer Lex Luger as Low Pros, working with Dipset, and also assisting in running Fool’s Gold. How do you balance your time and workload?
There isn’t a specific technique to balancing it. I kind of thrive in having a full plate. I like to jump between projects a lot, and [jumping between projects] keeps me inspired, too. I might go to Atlanta for three days and do a Low Pros session with Lex Luger, Young Thug and those guys, and then I might go to LA after that and get into the studio with (electro house producer/DJ) Wolfgang Gartner and make an electro track. That keeps me on my toes and it keeps my inspiration fresh. The only thing I have to worry about with that approach is to make sure that I finish the projects and that stuff gets wrapped up and released.
As far as Fool’s Gold, it’s a part of my everyday life. I have some good partners at the label, but I’m still very involved. I spend a considerable amount of time every day on calls during the day looking after the label. It’s part of what I stand for, it’s part of the umbrella for me. Each side feeds the other. For example, with Fool’s Gold, we have these outdoor events called “Day Off” (that occur every Labor Day). I think it was three years ago that we booked Juicy J for our party, really before he crossed over again, just as he was having his renaissance. Booking him at a Fool’s Gold event kind of finalized my relationship with him, so that I could get him into the studio and make a song with him. The relationships I have with Fool’s Gold open up doors for what I can do on an A-Trak record. [Similarly], relationships I have as a touring DJ have opened doors for the label.
I wanted to ask you about the connective tie that makes a great song. There’s a great space being cross-pollinated with rap, R & B, mainstream pop and EDM, and somewhere in there there’s a connective tie that links them all together. Given that you walk in all of those lanes now, what do you feel makes a great song?
One of the main things that’s been happening in recent years is that these genre barriers are really breaking down and a lot of hybrid sounds have been spreading. As far as a great song, a great song should be a great song regardless of how it’s produced. If you have a great song that’s electronic you should be able to play it on a banjo and it should still be okay. I think there’s some interesting juxtapositions and textures that are happening. I think a great example was that last Beyonce album. The production is pretty damn futuristic, on the cutting edge of experimental R & B. It sounds closer to the production on the Kelela record (DC area born artist Kelela released highly-regarded album Cut 4 Me in 2013 on indie label Fade To Mind Records) than anything else in major label R & B, except she just dropped that big songcraft there. I like stuff like that.
To me, the main thing to keep in mind when you start messing with these genre mixes is to remember that the quality of the song is the most important thing. There shouldn’t be meshing of sounds and genres for the sake of it. A great song with really forward thinking and experimental production is the best. I couldn’t be happier (then when I hear that). Kanye’s been doing that. The whole Yeezus album is just really forward thinking.
Now, on the other hand, your Duck Sauce project with Armand van Helden is the opposite of futuristic in many ways. It’s centered very much in one specific, and classic style (soulful disco boogie records from an era somewhere between 1977-1983 that were popular in the New York City). The 2014-released album Quack is probably one of the most exciting releases of 2014, and I wanted ask about the creative method behind producing those tracks, and putting together the album overall?
Thanks, man! I appreciate that. What’s important to remember about Duck Sauce is that we were very aware that we didn’t have to make an album. We made an album because we wanted to make an album. A little while back, we honed in on “what is Duck Sauce?” As you said, there’s actually a pretty specific definition of what a Duck Sauce record. We don’t have to sample disco specifically, we can sample an Italian folk record. But the way that we produce it and add a sense of humor to it is where we can feel the richness of a sample in the middle of a record. It’s also not strictly retro, as we try to throw in a modern twist with it. Sampling old records while bringing in new production techniques, while having a sense of humor in it. That’s the Duck Sauce strategy.
So when we made the album, we just wanted to create a full journey into that world, this “Duck World,” sometimes we call it “Duck Mountain.” When Armand and I get together, the fact that we sample makes it feel like you’re time traveling. You’re almost haunted by all of these voices, walking through the Twilight Zone. There’s voices singing on records and dialogue you’re hearing in your ears, and that’s the spirit we wanted to have with the album, walking people through these record crates, basically. All of the character and personality that comes with that.
You’ve collaborated with an incredible number of people, from Kanye West and Damon Dash to Armand van Helden and Dillon Francis, and a number of artists including Danny Brown, Juicy J and so many more. You definitely have your finger firmly on where the zeitgeist is headed when you collaborate, so I wanted to ask about people you’re interested in collaborating with in the future, as well, I think it will give people a sense of where things are headed?
The easiest place for me to think about collaborations currently is with Low Pros, my project with Lex Luger. It’s a revolving door, Lex and I produce the bulk of the beats, but we bring in other producers, other rappers and stuff. I like to reach out to very regional rappers, especially in areas like Chicago and Atlanta that have very new sounds with hip-hop, so that’s where my radar is turned right now.
On the EP we put out a few weeks ago, we’re working with Travi$ Scott, Young Thug and even Juvenile. That’s what’s really exciting to me these days, these guys with new and powerful voices for rap. I think Travi$ Scott is incredible. At the same time, I’m working on some solo A-Trak records with certain guest vocalists. I’m not going to name a ton of names, but I just finished a single with Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow. That’s what interests me, being able to reach out to a singer from a band that I’m a fan of, who has a really unique voice, and pairing him with a nameless top-of-the-line writer who a lot of folks in my world turn to.