DJ A-Trak: It's Difficult to Be the Artist and the Boss

A-Trak, the famed DJ who has spun for Kanye West and teamed up with Obama "Hope" artist Shepard Fairey for the cover art of his newest mixtape, was among those who turned out at Brooklyn Bowl last night for an intimate birthday celebration of the late legendary DJ Roc Raida. The Montreal-born Roc Raida protege talked about his relationship with his mentor, what it was like to become the next big thing at age 15 and "Dirty South Dance 2" -- his latest mixtape.

We're celebrating the life of Roc Raida tonight-- how well did you know him? Roc Raida was a mentor to me, a big inspiration, a good friend for a long period of time. I met him when I was 15, and I'm 28 now so I knew him for about 12 years and remained close with him throughout that whole time period. So anything I can do for the family, I'm there. Originally I was supposed to be in Asia, and as it turns out the tour I was supposed to be on, I ended up postponing.

How did you first get your start in the DJ scene, and how much of an influence was Roc Raida on you? I won the DMC Championship when I was 15 and I had been DJing already for about two years. Raida had won the world championship about two years before me so he was definitely one of the immediate sources of inspiration for me even before I met him -- when I was just in Montreal DJing in my parent's basement. ... And then when Raida became sort of a mentor to me, nobody really knew that because I wasn't in his crew per se.

I came up in Montreal kind of disconnected from the heart of these couple of pockets of turntablism that were really blossoming in a few cities in America. And at the time it was really polar between the coasts but I was on neither coast. I was in Canada. ... I'm just some kid in Montreal who happens to catch the scratching bug, and I was in neither of those cities so I was influenced  by all of them.

As it turns out the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (from San Francisco), along with DJ Q-bert who was sort of at the helm, invited me to join that crew. So I was sort of their honorary member. So, by the book, I'm affiliated with those guys from San Fran, and I love those guys and I owe a lot to them, but a lot of people don't know how close I actually was to these New York guys at the same time.

How was it winning the DMC Championship at such a young age? Really what happened for me was that I was this kid who was learning how to scratch in Montreal, and I happened to learn really fast. Then I went to Italy in the summer of 1997 for the world finals of the DMC Championship and I won. It was the first battle I ever entered, and I won. I was just some nerdy kid in my basement and next thing you know the first championship I enter, I manage to win it. Next thing you know, I'm world champion basically overnight. That specific year, DMC happened to invite the champions of all the previous years, and they didn't do that every year but for whatever reason the year that I won every previous champion was there and that's how I met Roc Raida. I mean, I went there with my mom.

From that point, every time I would come to New York I would call Roc Raida because he was the man here. He would always open his door to me, literally. He would invite me to his house, sometimes in the Bronx or Harlem. Pretty much every trip I made to New York for years, I made a point to go visit him, show him my latest routines and he would show me his. It was like a ritual.

Do you feel like the turntablism scene has changed since you started out? Yeah, completely. In order for people today to understand where it all stood 10 or 12 years ago, you have to make a conscious effort in your mind to realize it wasn't in the same place culturally. For a period of about 5 years in the 90s, turntablism experienced such a boom that it was actually one of the most exciting things happening in music, period. ... It's because back then, in here was so much going on in this scene, in technical DJing, that it was just that interesting and everyone was paying attention to it. And it was tied into street art, or what have you.

I mean, a lot of ties I have until this day with designers, artists, and streetcar brands comes from a time when it was all the same thing. A lot of these subcultures are really similar. In the same way that I have a bunch of mutual friends with skaters. Skateboarding, tunrtablism, graffiti, design, street or whatever you want to call it, these are all kind of like cousins. That's why Shepard [Fairey], who did the cover art for my newest mixtape, and I know each other. It's all a part of the same subversive culture. For me, over the course of the years I was sure to take a path with DJing that was looking for the next step. Especially when it felt like turntablism was first dying down, I got into touring, club gigs, internationally, I got the Kanye [West] gig, I started producing my own music, started Fool's Gold, got into electro.

It seems you've slowly made transition from hip hop to electro, why is that? I think hip hop is stubbornly stuck to this grimy, dude-heavy style and it's not really as relevant anymore. So I started to turning to different music, but I never turned my back at anything. And a mixture like "Dirty South Dance" is a way for me to keep hip hop as a part of who I am even when I go into different genres of music. It's not the obvious juxtaposition nowadays.

Do you feel like your brother Dave, and his music project Chromeo, influenced you a bit to get into electro? I talk to my brother approximately 18 times a day -- we definitely don't do our own thing. We definitely have a big hand in each other's lives and musical path. When Dave started Chromeo with Pete, it was explicitly their non-hip hop project because they were both mainly hip hop producers. And it was like, they knew how to play instruments, and both used to play in bands, so it was like let's do some different s---. ... There was finally a point in about 2006 that our paths finally converged, but really all music started converging. but that was something that was really driven by the DJ scene in North America where suddenly these DJs weren't just playing hip hop, or house music, or indie rock, they started playing everything together and the audience started opening up their ears. Suddenly, it was totally possible to put Chromeo and A-Trak on the same bill, whereas two years prior that would've been a complete fantasy.

Your record label Fool's Gold is responsible for introducing Kid Sister to the world. Do you have any other exciting projects coming up? Yeah, lots of exciting stuff. On the one hand, we started signing bands this year which is new. There's Vega [Neon Indian's Alan Palomo] who is hugely talented and his EP is coming out at the end of summer and an album at the top of next year. There's a Japanese band called The Suzan -- who are produced by Bjorn of Peter Bjorn & John -- and they don't sound like anything else on the label but when you hear it it kind of makes sense for them to be with us.

How is producing other work differ from your own? It's weird because it's a bit more complex for me. It's difficult to be the artist and the boss at the same time. Part of me doesn't even want to think about the label or the cost side of it too much because I've put so much energy into making my record that I kinda just want it to be out. I just throw it out there and don't look and hope that it sticks, whereas when I put out someone else's record I really get involved and I'm hands on and I carry it as far as it can get.

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