Published Jul 01, 2005Trusting records to airlines is a hazard of being a highly-travelled scratch DJ, but when carriers lost A-Trak's booty four times in three weeks, the polite Montrealler pulled a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
"I call them my babies, so yeah, I have an emotional attachment to them," he says. "[When they lost my baggage], and three of those times were in one week, seriously, it was just like, No! Give me my records now before I murder you!'" Sitting in the muggy summer heat of his Mile End condo, the slight DJ looks like he couldn't kill an ant if he tried.
Paradoxically, A-Trak (born Alain Macklovitch) is known for decimating fellow scratch DJs with bang-on beat juggles, sweet samples and timely scratches. That's why they call him, as he puts it, "the technological nerd wizard."
He began at 13 using his dad's copy of Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life on a belt-drive turntable in the basement, using the vertical output switch as a fake mixer. "I remember seeing my older brother and his friends stop the record and catch a snare or a kick drum and scratch a little bit," he says. "One day after school, I picked up that same record and I figured out some stuff and I just kept doing that for a couple of days, until I showed that to him one day, and he was like Woah, how'd you do that? I can't do that.' And I was like, I dunno. But check this out, and check this out too, and check this out.' And he told me, You need to do this seriously.' And that was it."
He begged his parents to use his bar mitzvah money to buy a used Technics 1200 from a record store owner, and shortly after scored another Technics and a Gemini Scratch Master mixer. At 15, he entered and won his first battle, the DMC Montreal regionals, and then won the National and the International DMC titles in 1997. The following year he lost to DJ Craze, but the two soon started to work together as part of the Allies crew. That same year Q-Bert invited him to join the world-class scratch crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz.
"When people first heard about me, it was There's this kid from Canada who is 15, who looks six, and he won the world championship and he works with Q-Bert,'" he says. "People had all these different interpretations, like He's Q-Bert's protégé,' but I had only met Q-Bert twice before he brought me into the Skratch Piklz. But people knew there was some sort of relationship there and that's what people heard, and that jump-started stuff really fast."
A-Trak beat back scenster animosity by proving it was all about practice, practice, practice. In 1999 he won the ITF advancement battle (the overall title) and the Vestax title. 2000 brought the successful defence of his ITF title and a DMC team battle win with Craze. Last year he became Kanye West's DJ, he's on Common's new album, and he's been running the Audio Research label with his brother since 1997. (He also shows up on Chromeo's album She's In Control under the name Kool DJ Alain M.) This fall he plans to release a DVD called Sunglasses is a Must. (Keep your fingers crossed, this DVD has been "coming soon" for two years.)
Throughout, he's been loyal to his gear. His two starter Technics 1200s are still in use in his custom-built studio, although the mixer is now a Rane TTM56 or his latest toy, a Pioneer DJM 909. He's segued his ongoing love of Shure M447 needles into a sponsorship. His slipmats? Forget it. They've been in action for seven years.
"If you watch the 1998 DMC, it's the same ones," he says. "I realise that one day I'll lose them and it'll be a sad day. I'll probably get over it and find a new pair that works, but when you make a routine that's really intricate, the last thing you want to be worrying about is getting used to different resistance on your records. When you get a routine down, you almost don't even think about what you're doing, you just remember the feeling of how it goes."
The computer program Seratto Scratch Live expands the possibilities of what he can throw into the mix. Licensed to Rane, who also sponsors him, it uses two control albums with time codes instead of music, and hooks up to his laptop to tap into the vast recesses of his MP3 collection. He's swapped whole collections with other DJs, and now he can skip most of the worry about losing his babies to the airlines.
The technology is simply a means to an end; A-Trak stays true to his vinyl. "I make everything off of records, all out of scratching," he says. "I don't have a single synthesiser. The only time I feel limited and it's not coming out is if I'm still looking for that one sample. Or I'll have an idea like, Man, I want this kind of sample for this kind of vibe.' But that's the whole fun of working with records. You go through all your shit and you're like, Awww, not this! Not here, not here,' and then at one point you're like, Ahh! This is the one!'"