It’s always tempting to tout Montreal native, world class DJ, accomplished producer and pop culture tastemaker A-Trak as a cultural ambassador for the city. While there is a measure of truth beyond hyperbole to that descriptor, the Fool’s Gold label co-founder is more accurately described as a diplomat of the global get-down.
Celebrating 10 years of remixes with a 12-track, six-plate box set of seven-inch singles, In the Loop: A Decade of Remixes, A-Trak offers a retrospective of the production phase of his career with a range of collaborations showcasing the fluidity and forward-mindedness that have been his passport to longevity over a career that spans from scratch DJ wunderkind at the tender age of 16 to grown-ass music mogul.
Always a pleasure to chop it up with, Trizzy talked about 10 years of beats and grinds, as well as his views on The Life of Pablo, the evolution of electronic music, the art of the remix and what it takes to make the cut, figuratively and literally.
Darcy MacDonald: So having only heard the digital version of the box set, what is the physical release like?
A-Trak: Well obviously people can get it digitally or stream it on Spotify, there’s even a CD, but to me it also felt like the kind of project that should be commemorated with a special form of physical packaging. I’m a fan of these box sets, things you can really put on your shelf, you know? Or open up and explore, read the booklets, read the stories.
Not only did we press out a bunch of 45s but we created original artwork for each track. So when you buy it on vinyl, six records and 12 tracks, one per side, each side of every sleeve is the cover for that specific remix.
The booklet has a bunch of anecdotes and stories I wrote out, liner notes for the whole compilation. Because the thing that’s interesting to me in the bigger picture is that the 10 years that I’ve spanned by these remixes are the 10 years in the phase of my career when I got into production. I’ve been DJing for 20-plus but producing for 10, and everything took off for me on the production side with remixes.
So looking at this chronological track listing of 10 years of remixes is literally the path I took through the evolution of the electronic music scene in that decade, starting at a time in 2006 or 2007 when electronic music was starting to build a new sort of network, especially in North America. Connections (being) made through MySpace and blogs and emails through friends of friends without going through managers. Hitting someone up because you liked their song, and asking them to remix you, and then a friendship starts from there. Next thing you know maybe you’re playing their party, or you’re remixing their artist to return the favour. That network was the basis that enabled electronic music to become so much bigger in the years that followed.
And then you hear it as you go through the order of the tracks on the compilation, it gets to the point of the scene explosion that became EDM. And you can kind of hear how I chose to find my way through sounds that were changing. I wasn’t gonna just keep doing the same thing year after year, but I also didn’t want to make a transformation that was too abrupt. Everything in the course of my career has been subtle nudges, and me finding my way through changes of a scene in ways that I still feel comfortable as myself. My sense of identity has always been important to what I do and I think it’s been key to longevity. But it’s always a mix of keeping a sense of who you are, musically and aesthetically, and so on, and also adapting.
DM: As you went through the curation process, did you feel like you hit a point where you really heard, like, here is where I hit my signature sound in this art form?
A-Trak: It’s all sort of in steps. Because the first few tracks have some scratching on them. And I remember thinking, “I need to keep that ingredient as I make my sound more electronic because it has to still have an artifact, an attribute, that people will associate with A-Trak.” So at first I felt like I still had to scratch on all of them. Then there was a point where I felt, well, maybe I don’t have to scratch on each one of these. Maybe my production itself has an identity.
Then there’s a remix I did for Digitalism where the drums are kinda from breakbeats but the synths were very electronic. Now that sounded like kind of a turning point, and the ones after that continue to be more electronic but there’s this sort of funky element throughout. And then the more recent years, a little bit more house-y, but very song-based.
If I’m remixing a song that has a vocal, I chose it because I love that vocal. I’m drawn to vocals and I keep a good part (of those) on songs I remix. Certain remixes will only grab a line, or three or four bars, and the rest of the song is designed to be a dancefloor banger. And I play those in my sets, but my ear gravitates more toward song-based production, so for me, I pick songs where the vocals have a lot of character and I’ll use the majority of those vocals. The Lorde vocal on the Disclosure remix I did is an example of that alone being such an incredible vocal performance — that’s why I even touched it, you know?
DM: What about the song selection process specifically though, narrowing it down to 12 – there must have been some tough decisions there?
A-Trak: (with a very Larry David-like ‘Myeah…’ ) It wasn’t that tough! It’s part of what I do as a DJ. I have to select tracks and know how to distill something down to the essence. It wasn’t that hard narrowing down the tracklisting. One of these days I should publish like, a simple list, just a discography of my remixes, to show that there’s actually three or four times as many than are on this compilation. But I feel like this selection covers a lot of ground.
DM: Was there anything as you looked back where you were like, “Ah shit,” or “I wish I’d done this differently,” or whatever, in terms of stuff that didn’t come close to making the cut?
A-Trak: (laughing a bit) Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple of remixes that I don’t love. But I’d rather not name them, out of respect for the artists because I don’t want them to feel like I did a bad job. But there’s a few that were uh, easy to eliminate. I remember just, you know, it was as simple as me looking into my iTunes and searching “A-Trak remix” and making a playlist. And there were a couple of easy deletes on there. Just like, “Nope, not this.” And then you narrow it down more and more.
DM: When I was a kid, as a hip hop listener – especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the like, “cassingles era,” if you will — I wasn’t that into the remixes, for whatever reason. I guess I just liked it raw, uncut, or felt like it was tampering with the intent.
But it’s fun as an adult to go back and hear all those famous takes I slept on and see what I missed. When you were a kid – especially with the influence of your big brother (Dave-1 of Chromeo) and his line in on new shit, as a rap journalist and so on – were you into that aspect of the genre in a deep way? Because there is also certainly a reverse on that, too, where there was a whole culture trend of loving remixes and not necessarily wanting to know from the original.
A-Trak: Nowadays a lot of kids discover new music and — and especially in electronic music where you find different fingerprints on everything — remix culture is huge. And people discover so much music online, and so many young producers post their remixes — I think the young audience probably listens (now) to more remixes than original versions. You go on Hype Machine and other music aggregators like that, you see more remixes than originals. People get a trip out of seeing two names on the track info line. People enjoy the idea of a combination of names and what results out of that.
When you refer to older, more classic hip hop days, I understand what you mean about how you would just wait and anticipate the release of just one song and that was the one that you listened to. But at the same time I remember when I was growing up and getting into music, especially in the mid-’90s, and being really a hip hop kid, there weren’t that many remixes then. And the ones that existed were really special. If there was a Large Professor or Pete Rock remix on a 12”, you had to listen to it! Or when P Diddy started doing his version of remixes that had a lot of guest verses — those were events! Less frequent, less common, and more like events when they would happen.
DM: Man, you must have had a treasure trove of music as a kid with Dave getting stuff sent to him. You were lucky in that sense, I gotta guess.
A-Trak: Yeah, yeah, yeah! We were both in that sense just eating it up. I remember joining a record pool and like every two months when I would get that box of vinyls I’d just dig through it and discover stuff. Like as a Montreal kid, discovering Bay Area stuff through that – I don’t know how else I would have heard artists like JT the Bigga Figga or people like that without that record pool. And then Dave had the radio show on CISM when he was in high school, and then he didn’t even — he went to McGill! And yet he managed to have that show when he was still in high school. His buddy was in some sort of promo record pool, and we would just eat it up.
DM: Being as busy as you are, running a label, your career, all of it, do you have any casual listening time left over for yourself, in a year?
A-Trak: Yeah, I mean I have to. I’m a DJ. I have to always listen to new music. If anything searching for it is the part that takes more time, so a few friends and I share a Dropbox. What I get out of that, I mean, just like everyone else, when it’s Friday and new stuff comes out, I’m on my phone streaming albums.
DM: 2016 was bangin’ in terms of hip hop so let’s bring it back to that. This is the first year in forever that a top 10 is a challenge. What were your favorites?
A-Trak: Um…A Tribe Called Quest came out of left field and killed it. I think that was the best record of the year. I loved Frank Ocean’s albums. I loved Solange’s album. I really enjoyed Schoolboy Q’s album. (Kanye West’s The Life of) Pablo, obviously, is a very important album. The whole patchwork aspect of it is so dope. No one else can really achieve that.
DM: Let’s talk about Pablo for a minute. As a huge Kanye fan, I think the album is so polarizing, where you kind of have people who think it’s genius – which is where I stand – and then people who feel it’s lacking. But I think that keyword in understanding its significance is in that word you used, “patchwork.” I think that’s what’s complicated about understanding it.
A-Trak: You gotta listen to it as a continuous play. Because he’s masterful at revealing these beautiful moments, and he understood that it doesn’t need to last that one extra minute, sometimes. There’s all these sharp turns and it’s so cool to just listen through as an experience, to play it through. A lot of music connoisseurs appreciate that it’s very difficult to achieve that. And I think that a lot of very casual, kind of more instinctive music listeners, really enjoyed it.
It’s crazy, like, I saw so many Snapchats of girls bumping that album, but like Instagram girls. And what I mean by that is, like, that even though there is something very for the heads’ about the way he pieced together the album – and that’s when I say “girls” I don’t mean it as some sexist statement – but literally some chick on her way to a fashion photo shoot, with Kardashian-esque make-up on, would be bumping these abstract-ass songs! And that means that there is something undeniably universal about the music, and its fans and its audience.
Whoever is critical tends to be armchair critics who want to find something to say about the work, without listening to the art. They gotta just listen to it with their eyes closed and just feel it. I enjoyed it a lot.
DM: Did you get to see the tour?
A-Trak: Yeah, I got to see two cities. That was incredible, too.
DM: Incredible. Having been on tour with Kanye back in the day and seeing him evolve through these tours – I mean even, shit, back when you were (his DJ), you guys had an orchestra onstage and stuff and that was mad different, and if anything he has pared it down over the years – so assuming you’ve seen most of that evolution, do you ever put yourself in that perspective, like “I woulda wanted to do this or that,” type thing?
A-Trak: It’s kind of impossible to do the “If I was there onstage,” because the change happened so long ago. But I do remember, you know, I left the Kanye tours right before Glow in the Dark. And he called me at one point right before he started (that) tour, so this is he and I catching up old school. And I’m like, ‘How’s the new show shaping up?’ He said, ‘Well, you’re gone now so I decided to take everyone offstage.’ Like, ‘What?’ And then the tour happened and it was just him alone on the stage, the whole him-and-the-planet narrative.
The Saint Pablo show is incredible. It literally reinvents the experience of a live show. The moving stage, people being under the stage, the colour pallette and just the simplicity of it and the physical experience of being there. It’s nuts.
DM: I don’t wanna get into tabloid shit because I know this is your good friend we’re talking about, but when you look at what’s going on, are you concerned for him, or is this all overblown and we don’t get it?
A-Trak: I mean, yeah, I don’t wanna get into all that. But I hope he’s alright and I talk to him fairly regularly so I expect that I’ll talk to him soon. I just want him to be good.
DM: What about Chance (the Rapper), thoughts on the great year he had in 2016?
A-Trak: He’s great and I think he’s important.The album he made this year is his best work and he finally realized the intentions of the previous albums, he actualized it with this one. You know, “No Problem” is one of those really special songs that everyone likes. And even in terms of community activism and his presence in the community, What he’s doing is really important. Yeah, he’s great.
DM: What’s coming up for Fool’s Gold in 2017?
A-Trak: Next year is Fool’s Gold’s 10th anniversary, and I’m really excited about how the label has been growing. We just launched the new clothing line and moved to a new space that I’d been searching for for about five years, so that’s really great, too. We’ve got a lotta new music on deck, like, a lot, from new artists we’ve been nurturing and developing for the last year or two, coming out in the coming months. And the events just keep getting bigger and that’s fun because with Fool’s Gold, there’s such a community assembled around the events and even around the artists that are with us, you know. It’s a great foundation. ■
In the Loop: A Decade of Remixes is out now on Fool’s Gold Records.