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"Yeah, you can say that," says A-Trak when it's noted that he's had a meteoric career. "It's been a fun little adventure, a fun ride down the park."
You can view A-Trak's trajectory from happy-go-lucky French-Canadian teenager to DJ-on-the-make in the recently released documentary Sunglasses Is a Must. On the DVD, the 24-year-old dons a white bathrobe and sits in a white and tan recliner chair as if it were the leather throne Alistair Cooke once occupied for Masterpiece Theatre.
Sunglasses Is a Must is an hour-and-a-half-long highlight reel. It shows pictures of Alain Macklovitch at his bar mitzvah, where he got the money to buy his first pair of Technics 1200 turntables. It features his initial performances as A-Trak at various spots around Montreal. It includes the award-winning routine he used to win the 1997 DMC World Championship, as well as the 1998 mistake-filled routine that helped him lose the title to Miami DJ Craze. In fact, most of the DVD is full of scratch lore, illustrating just how much A-Trak's reputation rests on his turntablism career.
This may be news, though, to people who just know A-Trak as that white guy on the turntables behind Kanye West. Kanye hired A-Trak after seeing him perform at an in-store in London. A-Trak has served as his tour DJ ever since, from Kanye's gig opening up on Usher's "The Truth" tour in 2004 to the "Touch the Sky" headlining trek last year.
"My role is to back him up, play all the music that he raps over, and also be involved in putting together the whole show as far as the set list, how the music flows," A-Trak says by phone while driving through New York. (He splits his time between the Big Apple and his native Montreal, Canada.) But he stops short of calling himself Kanye's musical director. "On every show, the music comes from my setup and from what I'm playing . . . I'm the DJ, that's all."
Sunglasses Is a Must doesn't get too deep into Audio Research, the record label A-Trak formed with his friend Willo and his brother and hip-hop journalist Dave 1 (a name some may recognize from the pages of Vice magazine). Since 1997, Audio Research has issued consistently strong releases from such names as Obscure Disorder (A-Trak's onetime hip-hop group), D-Styles, and DJ Serious. "I run most of the day-to-day operations of the label," says A-Trak.
In the past, A-Trak dabbled in music production as well, occasionally issuing scratch-oriented instrumental pieces, like 1999's "Enter Ralph Wiggum," and full-fledged songs such as "Don't Fool With the Dips," a 2005 12-inch single featuring various members of the New York rap crew The Diplomats. Until recently, however, when he finally began work on a proper debut album, A-Trak's main gig was being a professional DJ.
Right after winning the 1997 DMC World Championship, A-Trak got an invitation from Q-Bert to join legendary hip-hop DJ crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz. The next year, DJ Craze recruited A-Trak, DJ Infamous, and several others to join in The Allies, a supergroup designed to stomp out rival DJs.
Amazingly, A-Trak continued to attend high school full time throughout "The Battle Era," a period that lasted until the early '00s. He's currently working on a biology degree at the University of Montreal. "When I started touring with Kanye, I had to take some time off, because I would have to go away for three months at a time," he says, explaining why he's still in college.
If the Invisibl Skratch Piklz were mostly a collective in theory (the members' individual schedules kept the group from realizing its full potential before splitting in 2000), The Allies were extraordinarily active. In 2000, The Allies released D-Day, a solid album of scratch routines and dark beats. More important, they won nearly every competition they entered -- at the time, it seemed as if they won battles by just showing up. Talking shit to opponents and stocking their award-winning routines with choice gangsta records, the crew cheekily called themselves "turntable thugs." "The heart of The Allies was battling," says A-Trak, who notes that the crew is officially still together but is no longer active.
"Turntablism" may be just another meaningless term for those who didn't experience the DJ craze in the late '90s. Back then, turntablism seemed like the wave of the future, and a legitimate chance for DJs to create a narrative separate from the MC, the dominant figure in hip-hop culture. People like Q-Bert and DJ Shadow (to name two of the best-known turntablists) were often singled out by futurists for their innovative, groundbreaking work.
Today, the turntablism scene is a shadow of what it once was. No longer taken seriously by topflight mixologists, DJ competitions are an arena for beginners looking to build up their skills, a steppingstone instead of a plateau. (However, this isn't to denigrate current scratch stars like I-Emerge, the reigning DMC World Champion.)
A-Trak says, "The turntablism scene was getting increasingly insular. It was like a subculture that wanted to be experimental, but after a while, it started alienating people. It was, like, a little cult scene where some people were into it, but the majority of people didn't even know it existed anymore. For me, that's cool, and I respected people that did that. But I like to try and take what we all invented in turntablism over the last 10 years or so and keep that relevant with music today."