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A-Trak Is Becoming Dance Music's 'Real DJing' Evangelist
The star turntablist talks mixing, crossover & why "there's no more rules in music."
Alain Macklovitch is a rare breed of purist, unapologetic yet inviting to those who haven’t seen the light.
The five-time DMC World Champion -- known to his fans as A-Trak -- has emerged as spokesperson of sorts for DJs who treat mixing as an art form rather than an afterthought. His soapbox efforts started three years ago with a Huffington Post editorial in which he challenged artists to take risks and encouraged fans to approach shows with open minds.
Fittingly, he’s quick to point out that his new tropical-tinged single, “We All Fall Down,” was born in a “real-life, human-interaction studio session” with English soul singer Jamie Lidell, who nailed the vocals in one take.
“This was not an emailed song. It’s funny, nowadays you see a lot of guys coming up with tracks and then sending it to management to get the vocal done. No disrespect to management, but I really like to work with vocalists. It’s a bit of a new process for me even though I've been making music for a very long time.”
Indeed, A-Trak has traversed a long and nonlinear road to his present prominence. The Montreal native has successfully executed a number of transformations along the way -- from teenage star turntablist to Kanye West’s DJ and taste-shaper, from whiz-kid remixer to one-half of Grammy-nominated electro house duo Duck Sauce.
He also became one of Billboard’s EDM poster children in 2012, posing for the cover alongside Skrillex and Diplo after their Grammy breakthrough. But Macklovitch’s music has never lent itself well to unwieldy labels – he’s been blending hip-hop and electronic music long before doing so was en vogue, and he’s happy to see the industry finally catch up.
“On the production side, I think the tempo’s been broken, in a sense,” he says. “I think everything was 126 or 128 BPM for many years and now anything goes. And I think the sonics of dance music have kind of infiltrated pop, hip hop and everything else, so EDM isn't one sound anymore.”
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Fool’s Gold, his Brooklyn-based record label and event brand, reflects this musical melting pot. Founded in 2007 with seasoned curator Nick Catchdubs, the tastemaking indie has become a platform where Midwest MCs (Kid Sister, Kid Cudi), trap titans (Flosstradamus), electro and house producers (Crookers, Tchami) and experimental up-and-comers (Madeaux, Giraffage) can all coexist.
“I never pay attention to genres,” he says. “I sign music to Fool's Gold regardless of what the genre is. I play records regardless of what the genre is. I just look for shit that I like.”
Trusting his own tastes has paid off for A-Trak. Since launching out of a Soho parking lot in 2010, his Fool’s Gold Day Off touring series has scaled to Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta and Austin.
“Day Off had its biggest year yet this year, so I want to expand that,” he says. “Fool’s Gold ends up being the umbrella where I do clothing collaborations with brands that I like, so it’s a whole lifestyle company in itself.”
Dance music's current growth climate is ripe for realizing such ambitions, but it also threatens some of the scene's core values. Pre-recorded sets, cookie-cutter track lists and the prioritization of stage production over mixing prowess prompted Macklovitch to write in 2012 that "the hair metal soap opera of EDM risks devaluing a culture that has waited for its big break for 30 years."
While A-Trak's essays on "real DJing" do feel professorial at times, he's the opposite of an Ivory Tower out-of-touch. He feels a sense of responsibility to educate an up-and-coming generation of dance fans who may have never listened to a vinyl record, let alone mixed two together.
“I've sort of taken on this role of a mouthpiece for DJing in a sense,” he says. “I really enjoy talking to the younger fans and putting into context what's going on now. Because I love what's going on now, and I like to explain the lineage that it comes from. There's a few projects that it's a little too early for me to talk on yet but I’ll be getting even more involved with DJing as an art form in itself.”
Although A-Trak can't yet reveal his plans to preach the DJ gospel in 2016, he says fans can expect more solo material. He also confirms that he and Duck Sauce cohort Armand van Helden will "try some new stuff next year" after intentionally taking 2015 off, but cautions that there's "no real timeline" there.
If cryptic about the future, A-Trak is more than happy to reflect on the year at hand. Asked about 2015's overarching trends, he answers without hesitation.
“I think America kind of discovered festivals in the last couple years and this is the year where the structure was shaken up a bit. Some festivals are gonna survive, some won't. But it's amazing to see the touring plot of some of these producer/DJ acts. Even people who are making music that's more mellow and chill are really building a solid touring career, which is awesome.”
He trails off, grinning.
“What else? I don't know, man. Hoverboards?”
A-Trak plays at Terminal 5 in New York on Saturday (Dec. 11). Tickets are available here.