A-Trak on Remixes, Dance and Hip Hop's Differences & the Blog Era's End
In The Loop, which arrives in physical form next month, celebrates a decade's worth of remixes from the influential DJ/producer/Fool's Gold label co-founder A-Trak. Reading an amusing, informative booklet that accompanies the release, you might be surprised to learn that A-Trak had a serious problem with punctuality: many of these dancefloor fillers were turned in weeks or even months after the due date.
"I handed things in late many, many times," A-Trak tells Billboard Dance. "There's that great Frank Ocean interview that came out in The New York Times: he said something like, when you're making music, when it's all said and done, no one remembers how long it took -- people remember the work. That's always how I've approached my work, sometimes to the dismay of my management."
Though remixes are often treated as secondary to original compositions -- even if a remix climbs the Billboard charts, for example, the original artist is usually credited, rather than the producer who realigned a song's elements to make it more popular -- A-Trak's In The Loop argues for their importance on several grounds. He credits remixes with teaching him how to produce original songs, and perhaps more importantly, with fostering a sense of community, which in turn aided the growth of his label, Fool's Gold. "They create an ecosystem," he writes of remixes. "… They connect bands to DJs, producers among themselves, and all of them to new fans."
A-Trak spoke with Billboard Dance about his decade of remixes on the phone from L.A.; these are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you first get into remixes?
Remixes were like a way for me to try my hand at producing. In 2006 or 2007, the music scene was going through transition. Even going back to 2005 or 2006. The music scene was going through a transition. Genres were starting to mesh, and hip-hop, electronic music, everything was merging with indie bands. There were a lot of exciting new sounds, and I was discovering a lot of exciting new sounds in electronic music through blogs, where remixes were like a currency.
What sort of blogs were you reading at the time?
There was a French blog, Fluo Kids, and a Swedish blog called Discobelle. We would get to know via email or MySpace messages the people who ran those blogs, and we would do tracks and send them to them, and they would premiere them. Even the remix process, in terms of the requests, it often didn't even go through the powers that be and management. A lot of times I would just get an email from someone like, I'm so and so from this band in the U.K., and I'd be like, oh shit, I know this band, and they'd ask me to do a remix and we would just set it up. That was exciting.
There's more of an infrastructure now. The remix process goes through management and labels a lot more. The whole scene didn't even have an infrastructure in those years. Everything was a lot more direct. But sometimes business was sloppy, contracts were overlooked. There's pros to how things are handled now, but I think it's just cool to remember how it was done when were laying the groundwork for how it is now.
You have a hip-hop background -- what did you like about the sound of electronic music?
It was about the energy of the tracks. Not as much the production rules changing -- about making tracks that had the energy that would make people go off a certain way at parties. There's a lot to that from sound engineering to track structure, how to create a breakdown. Hip-hop songs don't have much movement to them generally: structure-wise or dynamically, it's pretty linear. Hip-hop is just the culture of the loop. The best beats are just amazing loops, whether they're sampled or not. You hear that loop once and you can hear it forever. With electronic music, there's a lot more highs and lows, ups and downs, tension builds and releases, things like that.
Did your remix work help fuel the start of Fool's Gold?
2006 was a very crucial year for my music. By the end of that year, I was making my first remixes, a mixtape/remix project called Dirty South Dance. Those were unofficial remixes, I was just grabbing a capellas of rap records and sort of doing mash-ups with electronic beats. That felt sort of like a mission statement: I had ideas for ways to mesh hip-hop and electronic music that weren't cheesy. The Dirty South Dance tape almost felt like a manifesto. And then as 2006 turned to 2007, we started Fool's Gold. It all went hand in hand.
Very quickly as Fool's Gold came to be, my network of DJ connects and production work and remixes intertwined with Fool's Gold's and it became one big network. I might do a remix and have them play one of our parties — it was fluid between all this activities and those networks.
That mixture of hip-hip and dance music is pretty popular now.
Around those years also, a lot of the bigger hip-hop parties started finding out about the parties that my friends and I were DJing at. They would come and hear our homemade remixes and it presented a futuristic sound for hip-hop. A lot of producers then went and created their versions of it. When Fool's Gold released Kid Cudi's "Day N Night," the remix from Crookers, that was a huge remix -- an electronic remix that appealed to any kind of fans and listeners. Tracks like that laid the blueprint for a lot of the music that got made in the following years by Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO.
In terms of the music being made now, some parts of it went 180. Electronic music hit a bit of a ceiling in the last year or so. A lot of people in the scene are trying to figure out what the next sound will be. Everyone kind of realized that people were making songs that all sounded the same because everybody was trying to get on the charts. That feels like it's going through a transition. And right now hip-hop feels so full of inspiration and fresh. It sounds like it's from outer space. The tables turned a little bit.
I love straddling the two genres. Dabbling on one side, going on the hip-hop side and making tracks that are informed by my electronic production, then going into electronic music and making tracks that are a little bit off kilter. That's been my thing as long as I've made music, that plurality.
Do you still look for music on blogs?
I think music blogs are less where it's at. Even simply because blogs don't give music away anymore. In a sense, streaming music, the full arrival of streaming music to where it is now, I think had this side effect where it made all the music on the internet legitimate. There's barely anymore sites where you can just illegally download tracks. Everything is regulated; there's a legal alternative.
There's a lot that I love about streaming: I love that artists are making some money, and I love that there's a quality control, it's the right quality of files that are disseminating, whereas a lot of times on blogs it was like shitty rips, which sucked for the artist. But the downside is there's certain things that don't even exist on the legal services, which are being sort of wiped out. It's hard to find some of these secret stashes on blogs in this regulated climate.
Are you better with remix deadlines now?
I've definitely become more punctual with my deliveries in the last two years. They're less painstaking; I've learned a few lessons. In the early days -- even for the ones where I don't talk about how late they were -- I still spend a month on one. Now I can knock one out in like three days. Then I'll sit on it for a few days, tweak it the following week. Then I'll hand it in. There's a fine line where when you're delivering something to someone else, and you're being late, that can be disrespectful of their time. That's never been my intention.
Even though you're focusing more on your own original tracks, do you still find time to remix?
I still like to do them. It's like if you're looking at the monopoly board -- you've got more pieces. I wasn't even making original A-Trak songs in the early years of the stuff that you hear on the compilation. Now that's more my priority. But I don't know how my songs are gonna perform. I do my best and I throw them out there. By making a couple remixes a year too, it puts more chips out there. And I still just enjoy the exercise. It's like solving a puzzle.