Montreal-born, New York City-based DJ A-Trak has been winning DJ battles since he was a teenager. He's seen the culture grow, and he's grown with it, while also pushing it forward. In addition to collaborating with artists like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, and making his own music with Duck Sauce (a duo with DJ Armand Van Helden), A-Trak also runs the Fool's Gold label with his partner Nick Catchdubs.
Founded in 2007, Fool's Gold exemplifies the recent crossover between pop, electronic dance and hip-hop music. The label's diverse roster includes Danny Brown, Kid Cudi, Chromeo, Kid Sister, and Vega, among others. Like A-Trak's work on the tables, Fool's Gold doesn't just ignore categories, but happily attacks them.
As you can imagine, A-Trak's a busy dude. But, along with Z-Trip and Jazzy Jeff, he has found time to be a guest judge for the 2013 Red Bull Thre3Style DJ contest. Following the next few rounds of regional battles across the country, the national championship goes down in L.A. in April. At the Red Bull Thre3Style regional battle in Philadelphia two weeks ago, we spoke with A-Trak about the evolution of DJ culture, how weird Danny Brown is, and Fool's Gold.
RedBullUSA.com: You've been participating in DJ competitions since the late-1990s. How has the scene changed since then?
A-Trak: Yeah, I've been doing this for 16 years now, and it's changed a lot. My first big win was the DMC battle in 1997, and that was an era when DJing was having a moment. People who were just general music fans, and the general music press, became really curious and excited about DJing. And then, again, it took a backseat to other styles. In the last couple of years, there's been another big wave of people getting excited about DJing. I've seen a few of these DJ waves now, and the one we're going through now is the biggest in North America.
RedBullUSA.com: How is this DJ wave different than the previous waves?
A-Trak: People are really into the personalities of the DJs this time; now there's a cult of the DJ. In the mid-to-late 1990s, there was a very pure approach to DJing. Then, in the 2000s, there was a lot of progression in terms of music selection. Slowly, but surely, genre barriers got broken down more and more. In the last few years, DJs have come out with mega-hits, and now DJs are stars.
RedBullUSA.com: Regarding the breaking down of barriers, do you think audiences have become more open-minded in recent years?
A-Trak: Definitely. I remember playing gigs 10 years ago -- coming at it from a hip-hop background -- and starting to mix up my sets more. I played some gig where I think I was playing a Michael Jackson record, and some hip-hop purist girl yelled, “Why the fuck are you playing that? Play some hip-hop!”
I remember when people belonged to only one scene, and only wanted to hear one genre. But, now, people's ears and minds are much more open. People want to hear things they've never heard before -- not to say people have never heard Michael Jackson before.
RedBullUSA.com: The label you co-founded, Fool's Gold, seems to be interested in knocking down genre barriers, too.
A-Trak: Absolutely. The important thing to keep in mind about Fool's Gold is that it's run by two DJs. Nick Catchdubs and I were the creators, and we sign stuff that we like. We don't sign stuff because we think it's gonna fit in with anything else, or because we think it's gonna sell well. Those questions don't matter to us. We only care about it if it's dope, and we don't care if it's a band, an R&B singer, a weird rapper, a not-so-weird rapper, techno or whatever.
RedBullUSA.com: When you say “weird rapper,” are you talking about Danny Brown, who's on Fool's Gold?
A-Trak: He's definitely one example of a weird rapper. What's amazing about Danny Brown is that people celebrate his weirdness. It's really cool to see. I've been able to watch him grow more confident in his own weirdness, too. When I first met him, he'd just changed his hair, and was just starting to dress more flashy. A few months before that, he was wearing football jerseys and braids. I saw him start wearing his weirdness proudly, and I believed in him as soon as I saw him. I remember thinking, “Man, this guy is it!” And now people love him so much. He's also an excellent rapper.
RedBullUSA.com: What new Fool's Gold signee are you most excited about?
A-Trak: There have been a few great new signings that I'm really excited about. One of them is Party Supplies, who we signed about two years ago, and he's now finally finishing his album. That's gonna be great. People only know little bits of what he's capable of, but his new album is amazing.
RedBullUSA.com: Party Supplies produced Action Bronson's 'Blue Chips' mixtape last year, right?
A-Trak: Yeah, but that's just him making hip-hop beats. He has a very wide range. His own album is him singing love songs. There are a lot of new Fool's Gold signings, and each one gets its own custom treatment. We don't try to fit the artists into the mold of someone else. We don't sign a rapper and say, “Oh, we'll just do what we did with Kid Cudi.” We focus on the individual artists.
RedBullUSA.com: What about your own music? Any big plans this year?
A-Trak: The Duck Sauce full-length album, man! I put the 'Tuna Melt' EP out in late November, but we're still at the beginning of that campaign. There are remixes, videos, colored vinyl and all this other stuff that's still gonna come out. But the Duck Sauce LP is gonna be the benchmark. I've never done a full album, so I'm thrilled.