Five Questions: A-Trak

The DJ, producer, and label head shares insights on the evolution of his remix work over the past decade
Image placeholder title

Grammy-nominated DJ/producer Alain Macklovitch’s career dates back to 1997, when at 15, he became the youngest person ever to win the DMC World DJ championship. After dominating turntablist competitions in those early years, and later, collaborating with Kanye West as the rapper’s go-to tour DJ, A-Trak cofounded Fool’s Gold records in 2007. And Duck Sauce, his collaboration with DJ Armand Van Helden, topped charts around the world with the smash 2010 track “Barbra Streisand,” widely considered EDM’s first viral video hit.

In November, A-Trak released In the Loop: A Decade of Remixes, a 13-track compilation of his most beloved remixes from the past decade, including reworkings of songs by the likes of Disclosure, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Martin Solveig, and Phoenix.

You learned to produce by first remixing. How has that perspective informed your production approach?

Generally when you do a remix, you sift through the parts of the original song and you look for these little nuggets. You look for bits and pieces that you can reassemble your own way. In recent years as I’ve worked more on my own original songs, I still approach the process the same way. I’m not like a traditional songwriter who grabs a guitar and starts strumming and humming. I’ll get in the studio with a singer, but even as I record them, I’m looking for those little nuggets again, that I can then turn into a song. When I made my song “We All Fall Down” with Jamie Lidell, I recorded his vocal to a simple kickdrum and bassline, and then I grabbed his vocal and created a whole new track behind it—I essentially remixed myself to create that song.

In the liner notes for your remix of Bingo Players’ “Cry (Just a Little),” you talk about it sometimes being harder to remix a dance track than to cross genre lines. How are the challenges of re-imagining a track like “Cry” different from say, remixing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

Right. If you take the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song [A-Trak’s remix of “Heads Will Roll” is included in the compilation], for example: The simple act of taking their vocal and adding a house beat and synth bassline already makes it sound like a remix. Then it just becomes an exercise in finding the best beat and best bassline. But for “Cry (Just a Little)”, they already had a great house track for it. My work consisted in producing it with different choices. I needed to figure out how to make it sound updated, and still be good! I often say that production boils down to choices: What kind of bassline will I choose to match the vibe of the vocal? Do I want a big, thumping kickdrum or a warm house kickdrum? Do I want a bunch of effects on the vocal or do I keep it dry? And so on. Well, when you’re remixing within the same genre, your range of choices is a bit more limited and you’re competing more directly with the original.

For the remix of Boys Noize’s “Oh!” all you had to work with was a talkbox vocal, the “oh” sample, and hi-hats. How does working within these kinds of limitations challenge you?

I actually really enjoy the limitations. Sometimes when you’re going through the original parts of a song and deciding how to approach your remix, you might get seduced by some great sounds in the original and it becomes a challenge to break away from them and create your own. You can sit there thinking, “Wow what a beautiful analog synth pad,” when you should be thinking, “What new sounds can I create here?” With the Boys Noize remix I had just enough bits and pieces to use and I was able to paint around them and really take it to a new place.

This compilation represents a broad spectrum of work over a decade; as you were curating tracks, what were the hardest to let go?

The only difficult part of finalizing the track-listing was, we weren’t able to clear my remix of Kanye’s “Stronger,” and it’s because that song itself contains a Daft Punk sample and their clearance agreement was only valid for Kanye’s version; it didn’t apply to remixes. We almost managed to clear it, but we were at the deadline to get this project out on time. Aside from that, I had a pretty clear idea right from the start of which ones to pick in order to tell the story.

I love your idea of remixes creating an ecosystem, a bond with artists. How has that ecosystem evolved over the past decade with a changing EDM landscape?

Ten years ago there were still factions in electronic music and DJs from one scene rarely talked to ones from another scene. For example, I remember the first time I reached out to Laidback Luke to remix a track on Fool’s Gold [Treasure Fingers’ “Cross the Dancefloor”]. In those days it was uncommon for a Dutch commercial house DJ to collaborate with indie guys in the U.S. like us—hip hop DJs who were getting interested in a sound called Electro at the time. Now, practically every release has a trap remix, a big-room house remix, a tropical remix, a twerk remix, etc. Every possible connection has been made and they become go-to choices. But still, the whole scene and the whole infrastructure have gotten so big that those bonds help it all grow in a healthy way.