Published Jan 01, 2006Every DJ has their signature sound. Grandwizard Theodore made his by "scratching" a record back and forth.Cash Money found a way to rhythmically flick the toggle switch on his mixer, so he could mimic the sounds of the Decepticons "transforming." In more recent times, Q-Bert, the leader of West Coast DJ crew Invisible Skratch Piklz, innovated a way to cut his records up with the claw-like sharpness of a "crab." But the case of Kid Koala is a little different - his signature isn't in his sound, it's in his personality.
When he walks on stage, he doesn't come strutting like he knows he's all that. He doesn't hide his head in a hood like he's out to stalk the crowd either. Instead, he's pulling a knapsack over his shoulder, looking like he's on his way to school with over three hours worth of homework in the bag. When he gets on stage, he pulls out his records and drops the needle on beats from A Tribe Called Quest, orchestra riffs from Monty Python records and words of wisdom sampled from Yoda to go. Sure, he's scratching, he's cutting, and he's beat juggling (mixing the same two records and tossing the sound back and forth between them) too, but that's not the reason why the crowd's cheering him on. The Kid isn't just playing his records, he's playing with them and he's not self-conscious about it either. Rather, he's always amused with the funny sounds his records make whenever he touches them.
There's a natural expression of playfulness in a Kid Koala routine that's rarely seen in turntablism, especially with its emphasis on mix-off battles and tendencies to celebrate DJs like they were guitar gods of old. Koala throws out a fresh vibe that makes you want to smile, and smile
hard, rather than moan "whoaaa-oh!" when a cat tears it up. Yet, with his tracks on compilations like Return of the DJ and Beats & Pieces, as
well as regular gigs accompanying the Beastie Boys keyboard maestro Money Mark and Montreal jazz-funksters Bullfrog, the world-travelling
DJ, otherwise known as Eric San, isn't out to prove that he's The Man. He's much more content to just be the Kid.
"I just want to have fun. The second I stop having fun, it's time to do something else." He says this while sitting at his desk in a New York
hotel, where he has his portable toy turntable set up with a stack of seven-inch singles, as well as a mess of drawings that he's working on
for the cover of his much-anticipated debut album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. He talks about how he got into doodling - "it was my first
scratch" - his childhood fascination with candy, the Bachelor of Education degree he picked up from McGill University in Montreal, and
a host of other topics that don't have anything to do with his DJing, all with a phenomenal use of sound effects in their descriptions.
He goes "miniminimi" when he's recalling an argument that followed a car accident or "zhughzhughzhugh" to demonstrate the art of rapid tooth brushing. The list goes on, but they all show an uncanny similarity to the noises that he makes on his turntables. The Kid's hyper sense of onomatopoeia makes me wonder what comes first: his scratches on the record or the sounds in his mouth? San isn't really interested in the
connection, but when he talks about his influences, his sounds of nonsense - in conversation, but more importantly on record - actually start to make sense.
"I'm a big fan of Jim Henson," he admits. "He took not being serious very seriously. Like he would have Gonzo humming 'Flight of the Bumblebee.' 'I will now eat a rubber tire to the
"Flight of the Bumblebee!... And you'd be like, 'That was the most retarded thing I've ever
heard, but I have to hear it again!"'
The Kid Koala experience is just as visually
absurd on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. His scratches on "Fender Bender" cast images of Becker running amok in Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's lab, while the sleepy horns on "Drunk Trumpet" are distorted in a way that sounds like the Muppet Show band at a
speakeasy. In general though, the samples on his tracks come across like animated voices with a range of expressive personalities that go from obnoxious to maniacal to just plain silly. The giddiness of it all casts a different, less intellectual light on the whole genre of turntablism. It also illuminates the attitude that makes San often the last DJ to step
up and identify himself as a "turntablist," despite being among the best - alongside fellow Montrealer A-Trak - in the world.
"I don't know what turntablism is," he says in his defence. "It sounds like a religion! I mean, I'm inspired by Q-Bert, the X-Men and all of those
guys, and I suppose we all do the same thing, in that we use the same instruments: records and turntables. I can sort of live with that part of it, but I would never be so bold as to speak on behalf of all these kids doing this." San appears much more eager to fulfil his ambition as the
first "DJ muppet." However, his desire to not be taken seriously arguably makes him a stronger recording artist than most of his turntablist contemporaries. He may not be the best at beat juggling and other forms of vinyl acrobatics, but for him, the art of mixing records isn't about maintaining those traditions, so much as reinventing them each time he drops the needle.
As a result, his sound collages are skillfully designed and consistently find new ways for expressing that old school feeling of hip-hop
dopeness. On his highly-prized mixed tape, Scratchcratchratchatch and the subsequent Scratch Happy Land EP, he puts himself forward as the
Kid who will eat anything and with his fingers too. He beat juggles the funk out of Björk and Genesis, cuts up Cantonese music over a breakbeat waltz, and then scratches the "I got a rock" line from Charlie Brown's Halloween special and brings it back like a lyric from a Twisted Sister song. He also cuts these routines without relying too heavily on Wild Style -era breaks and the other classic beats that his peers tend to favour. Instead, he digs for those odd pieces of vinyl that have nothing to do with hip-hop - or even music for that matter - and flexes them back
with b-boy charm.
"I like all kinds of music, " says San, "I love hip-hop, but I love jazz and different kinds of vocal music too. I also buy a lot of comedy records and children's stuff from the Salvation Army and places like that. They'll be like, 'Hey Eric, here's all the kids records that have been trashed!' Records that have been driven over with Tonka trucks and stuff. But I'll buy it even if it's crap, because it's 50¢ and I can usually get two or three copies of it to play with. Eventually, all of those things get filtered down
when you make a track:'
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a strange progression from the Scratch releases. The beats are much more abrasive, the samples are much more obscure with fewer hip-hop references, and the scratching is often just plain loopy. At times, it's so percussively un-funky that it almost leans close to the erratic textures of John Oswald and Negativland. Whether any of this makes the record artfully adventurous or annoying is not San's concern.
"I wanted to set the parameters of this album," he explains, "so that it's like 'Here I am, and here are these records, and let's just dig little bits of each one and put something together that makes sense.' What world or what genre that makes sense in, that's not really an issue to me, as long as it makes sense."
And indeed, the eccentricity of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome does make sense. There is a narrative composed within each track, but it's never
inscribed in a way that's overstated or too arcane. Instead, it's like a theme that transcends from the madness of voices scratching up against each other within Kid Koala's mix.
"Music For Morning People" grabs an assortment of sound bites centered around someone demanding coffee, making eggs, watering the plants, etc., but then beats them in the blender and cooks them over a shuffling rhythm that expresses an image of people being stuck in traffic. "Nerdball" lifts the line from Revenge of The Nerds, stating
"we're nothing but the nerds they say we are," and then suddenly spotlights San cutting it up at athletic speeds while hitting you off with
hard bits of jazz drumming from the background.
"Barhopper Parts 1 and 2" features Bullfrog simply jamming live on a straight-up blues. It could be one of the more chilled-out tracks on the
album, except San starts scratching up a dialogue made up entirely of pick-up lines. His best coupling is produced when a man who, after
emptily professing his love to a woman, is met with the sharpness of "I wish you weren't so ugly." And then on "Naptime," San makes his finest
autobiographical statement with a voice parodying a National Geographic documentary. Over a warped record of Hawaiian music and beats to go, it narrates, "and then there are those soft lovely
creatures, the koala bears. They sleep by day, and make love by night, as we do mostly."
This visual aspect of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is further elaborated through a black & white comic book that serves as the album's liner notes, drawn and doodled by San himself. It's a story about a kid who lives with his grandmother in Scratch Happy Land, until one day he gets
lost in the city and a thug named Negatron smashes his records. He escapes into the city's underground through the black hole of a tunnel, where he arrives in a ninja training academy. There he is trained as a DJ to assist a crew of vinyl-slinging, roof-raising ninjas who fight for
society's right to party. The central scene of the story takes place during a showdown between the kid and Negatron at a dark discotheque, for which the song "A Night At The Nufonia" is the soundtrack.
"Nufonia is this club where these Nufons hang out," says San. "Nufon is really a code for 'no fun' and so Nufonia is a place where people like to go to shows and not have any fun. Nufonia is also led by this guy Negatron, who's not a positive person - he's just not very happy. When the kid is thrown onstage, he does this little solo on the turntables and they just boo him. They throw stuff at him and hurt his arm." San pauses and laughs. "It's sort of a nightmare of mine!"
The remainder of the story diverges from Carpal Tun nel Syndrome, but its imaginary depiction of the kid in Scratch Happy Land is truly a
parallel expression of San's boyish personality and positive vibe, onstage and with life in general. When he says "I don't like to alienate
anyone or make them feel bad," it explains why - unlike Q-Bert and Mixmaster Mike, whose records often indulge in turntablizing words like
"bitch" and "motherfucker" ad infinitum - there's rarely an utterance of profanity in a Kid Koala routine. There isn't really an inclination on his
part to defend his skills as a battle DJ in the mix-off arenas of turntablism either.
"I have complete respect for the battle scene," he says, "but I also respect that I don't belong there. I tried battling for about six months, but
it just wasn't me. My stuff is much more juvenile and corny, and that's just the way I am. Self-reflexive, self-deprecating, obsessive, and in my
room, practicing ten hours a day with my nerdy records and incessant clicking. I've always been kind of a wimp that way' "
The Kid's humility may not be hip, but it has the honesty that should make his tracks the future sound of the Children's Television Workshop.
It may not be for hardcore heads, but they convey the kind of nonsense that only makes sense to kids - especially the kid in Kid Koala. And at
the end of the day, that's just what San ultimately is.
"There's no way I'm ever going to be an adult," he asserts. "Can't be. I mean, kids are way more fun. All the friends I graduated with are
teaching now, and whenever we hang out, they bring pictures of their kids and their classes. They're just buzzing on this crazy energy all of the time and it's really funny. I remember when I was doing the last year of my teaching degree at McGill, and I had a first grade class. At the end
of the day, you have to line them all up, put their boots on and take them home and they're like 'Goodbye Mr. San,' and it's like 'Yeah, I'll see you tomorrow! Woo-hoo!' They'll get on the school bus, I'll get on public transit and suddenly I'm surrounded by all these people who are just bumt out. Yeah, I've been working all day too, but there's so much energy there. At the end of the day, that's what you're trying to keep in touch with."