“I like the unique dynamic that the turntable has.”
“I am going to be serious about not being serious on my next album.”
Part experimentalist, part turntablist, Kid Koala walks a fine line between hip-hop musical genius and crazed noisemaker. Most scratch DJs are obsessed with classic hip-hop and funk records, but Koala looks to another source of inspiration altogether. An avid collector of quirky bargain-basement vinyl, Koala is more likely to manipulate a Monty Python album or cut up a Cheech and Chong record than the usual LL Cool J and Public Enemy samples. All it takes is one listen to the oddball vocal snippets featured on his Ninja Tune album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome to realize that Kid Koala is an extraordinary turntablist who strives to take the art of record manipulation to new heights. Although the album features some very impressive scratching, it comes across more like a comedy record than the usual high-energy scratchfest.
Based in Montreal, Quebec, Kid Koala (aka Eric San) is involved in a wide variety of unusual and original projects. For the past seven years, he's been turntablist for the jazz/funk/soul band Bullfrog, playing with guitarist Mark Robertson, vocalist Blu 13, bassist Peter Santiago, drummer Massimo Sansalone, and percussionist Joanne Peters. He's also worked with Dan the Automator on several projects, including Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030, and the new Virgin release by Gorillaz. In 2000 he released his first full-length solo album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and he has put out a variety of inventive singles and EPs.
Kid Koala learned to play classical piano as a child, but his head was completely turned around when he first heard scratching while living in Vancouver in 1988. “I was just 13,” he explains. “I wasn't familiar with the sound, but I was immediately intrigued by it. I didn't know anything about the mechanics of scratching, and I didn't have anyone to learn from, but I could tell that what I heard was being performed by someone. I knew they had practiced making these noises and were using them to express themselves.”
Kid Koala eventually figured out that those sounds were made by manipulating records, so he got some turntables, taught himself how to scratch by watching competition videos, and started collecting records. As his record collection grew in strange and varied directions, so did his skills as a DJ. Soon Kid Koala was competing in turntablist competitions (he won the Montreal DMC Mixing Championship in 1995) and putting together his own mix tapes. His song “Static's Waltz” was featured on the influential Bomb Hip-Hop compilation Return of the DJ, vol. 2 (1996). Through some rather sneaky planning, he managed to get himself and his Scratchcratchratchatch mix tape into a van sent to a Montreal airport to pick up his heroes Matt Black and Jonathan More of Coldcut during a 1996 visit. Impressed with what they heard, the duo quickly signed Kid Koala to their Ninja Tune label.
Kid Koala's first Ninja Tune release was the 10-inch record Scratchappyland. He also produced the “Obsessive Behaviour” remix of Coldcut's “More Beats and Pieces.” More recently, he contributed two tracks to Ninja Tune's Xen Cuts retrospective compilation, worked with Mr. Dynomite D on the Bombay 2001 record, and recorded the new track “Prelude and the Kiss” for the Freezone compilation. He also completed recording an EP with Bullfrog, and he plans to do a few live shows with Deltron 3030 later this year.
Although he does not consider himself a strict turntablist (“Sometimes I am just playing records”), Kid Koala is one of the most acclaimed scratch DJs around. When performing live, he tends to put out more energy than he does on his records, often blazing through 150 records during a set. With influences and inspirations ranging from Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, and D-Styles to belly-dancing music, Maceo Parker, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, Kid Koala has proved that he is an original musical talent with a truly unique and interesting style.
Do you consider your music hip-hop?
Philosophically it is. Sometimes I go to a store, and I'll see my records racked under the rap section. Other times I'll see them racked under the dance section. It's as if they think, “Oh, he's a DJ, and he plays in clubs. Let's put him in the dance section.” Have you ever tried dancing to my album?
The attention span necessary to enjoy a rap record is about the same as what you need to enjoy a scratch album. Classic rap has rapid-fire lyrics — the listener has to pay attention to catch everything the MC is saying. It's the same thing with scratch records. It's a lot more work than just listening to an extra-catchy melody that repeats itself.
How did you end up signed to Ninja Tune?
They signed me in 1996 after seeing some live shows and hearing the tape I had made (1995's Scratchcratchratchatch). I think they were curious to see what kind of stuff I would record.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was in the making for a long time. Although that album came out four years after I was signed, it didn't take me four years to make it. The actual recording part took about eight months. I spent most of those four years traveling around the world, gaining life experience and collecting records, which definitely influenced how the record sounded.
Describe the recording process for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Most of it was recorded at home late at night, using headphones at low volumes. There was no necessity to keep a party going; I just wanted to put a bunch of records together. I wanted to use things I'd never used before — the weird, odd things in records. When DJing live, I can't bust out a duck-call solo while the break-dancers are dancing, nor can I play a guitar ballad when performing with Bullfrog. After I accumulated all these great records that I never found a place to use, Ninja approached me to do Carpal. I thought, “I am not in a club; this is not a live set, so let's use them here.”
Half my record collection is Cheech and Chong, Monty Python, comedy albums, stuff like that — all sampleworthy. I have as many of those types of records as I have hip-hop records. My taste in records is a reflection of my attention span, and this influences the way I approach making a track. Many of my songs are like a radio drama or a Monty Python track when they do a story with all the sound effects around the characters. I used that approach on some of the tracks on Carpal. If I felt that a section sounded a little bare, I'd work on a theme for the song and find ambient noises to put in there.
Some of the tracks on Carpal act as verses, and some tracks act as bridges. It's like a mix-tape concept. When I was recording it, I gave myself the restriction of doing everything on two turntables and a multitrack recorder, except for the tracks I recorded with Bullfrog. I wanted to see what I could come up with.
Are you happy with how the album turned out?
Yes. It was a huge gestation period, and it was my first album. Sometimes I thought it was too weird even for Ninja Tune to put out, but when I played it for them, they were very happy. Maybe they were just tired of waiting for it.
Do you have any formal studio training?
Not at all, if you couldn't tell from the album. When I brought it to a studio for mastering, the engineer heard all these weird noises. I didn't have a compressor or anything like that, so I couldn't take out the thumps your finger makes when you hit the record too hard on the pullback. I didn't even know you could get rid of that, so I just put it on tape. When the engineer heard the thumps, he was going, “What? Where is that coming from?” We spent hours trying to take that out. I finally had to tell him, “You know what, dude, that's just what it sounds like when you make records that way.”
Do you think of the turntable as an instrument?
Yes. I have always approached the turntable as an instrument, and I think it has developed into more of an instrument every year. People will have to accept the turntable as an instrument, if they haven't already. There are things we can't yet do with turntables, but maybe after practicing for ten years, we will be able to do even more things than we can now.
People say turntables are great because you can play the sound of any instrument, but to me it's still a turntable. You can't replace real drums by playing drums on turntables. You can cut up a kick, snare, and hi-hat, but it will still sound like a turntable beat. That's the charm of it. I like the unique dynamic that the turntable has. When I went into the studio, I didn't want to buy a bunch of equipment and learn to use it — the turntable is what I know. I have been DJing for a while, so I just played records. I like how that feels. It's on the edge, as if it could all fall apart.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Well, I don't sit under a tree with paper and compose songs. I do listen quite thoroughly to the records I have, and I am drawn to the odd things. Sometimes I'll hear something and go, “Wow!” I'll find some educational record that has a beat on it, a comedy record that has a cool bass line on it, or a children's record that has something I can turn into the hook of a track. The quirkier a sound is, the more it inspires me to mess with it.
Can you give me an example?
I was working very late one night on Carpal when I should have been in bed. I was in a half dream state, and I had a vision of this guy with two cell phones and a Palm Pilot spilling coffee on his lap in the carpool to work. I tried to capture that vision on the record.
How often do you practice?
About two or three hours a day. Practicing is something that I need to do. If I don't practice, I really feel that I have missed out. I like to practice my skills — it's quite calming sometimes. It's like when I played piano as a kid: I didn't enjoy practicing scales, but I really enjoyed what practicing scales enabled me to do.
How did the Deltron 3030 project come about?
I played at a Tibetan Freedom concert with Dan the Automator and Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and we started talking backstage. Dan and Del had arranged most of the songs, and the album was 80 percent done. They had a clear idea of where it was going — it's more of a concept album than my other projects.
Dan is great to work with. He is descriptive without being suffocating. He has been making records much longer than I have. He didn't want any straight-out solos, just layers of sounds. He'd say, “We are looking for this camel walking over the hill on a dewy morning.” I'd be like, “Yeah, when Del finishes his rhyme, I should sweep into this surf-boarder on an ice wave cut,” and I'd come up with the exact sound we were looking for. Dan isn't a scratch DJ who breaks things down into patterns. He just goes for moods, and I really enjoyed that part of working with him.
Will there be another Deltron 3030 album?
We have spoken about it. When we played live, the idea was solidified in our minds a little more. Things happened onstage, and Dan would say, “Hey, why didn't you do that on the record?” We didn't know what we were capable of together before. We know each other better now, and we know what will fit for the next record. We just worked together on the Gorillaz album, so we've been keeping in touch.
Did you learn anything while doing the Deltron project that may inspire future Kid Koala projects?
Definitely. I don't even consider Carpal Tunnel Syndrome an album. It was just an experiment for me to use beats and breaks that I couldn't bust on the dance floor. I forced myself into all these different areas — sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. I threw myself into it and beat-juggled some belly-dancing music. It's not like I practiced it at a belly-dancing seminar for a famous belly dancer. I just thought, “Hey, this could lift the track in a different direction.”
Do you prefer performing live to recording in the studio?
I like both. There are things that happen in one that won't translate well to the other, and I like that difference. Then there are the moments that work for both live and studio. With Bullfrog and Deltron, it is important for me not to get too heavy-handed, as there are other musicians involved. Every track wasn't about, “Hey, let's show off our DJ.” It was more about, “What are the main ideas of this song?” If I am working on a blues ballad, a 30-second combination scratch won't work. I am challenged then to think about what can I do to help the mood, and I like that challenge.
Jonny Greenwood [Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist] is a profound influence on me. What he does is very subtle. He uses layers to fill out the scope of Radiohead's music, especially when they play live. When Deltron opened for them on the Kid A tour, I watched what he was doing and what he added to the band. It was truly inspirational.
What do other turntablists and hip-hop fans think of your music?
It's conflicted. Some say that Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was not a scratch record, and I can see where they are coming from. The competition circuit is a big part of the genre. Competition has provided a forum and motivation for scratching to progress to where it is today. It gives it the standards by which it is judged. That's why you hear lots of turntablists playing the same scratch samples — everyone knows that sound, and thus they know and appreciate what someone is doing to them. I respect that and the tradition involved in it. It's like blues: there are standard blues scales, licks, and chord structures, and you don't deviate from them. Those elements are the roots of the music.
Sometimes I get flagged for being different because I am drawn to weird sounds, but people have a better understanding of what's happening with scratching now and can appreciate what I do. It doesn't bother me. I am inspired by music that is inspired. If someone is scratching the “fresh” sample, I can still appreciate it if they are doing it with a lot of soul.
Q-Bert and Mix Master Mike are very supportive of what I am trying to do, which is a nice reassurance. They inspired me when they came on the scene and won the DMC finals. I was totally checking their videos. They opened turntablism up and cracked my head open. They had a vision to take it somewhere else, to the next level. That was the trip that freaked me out the most and inspired me, like when I first heard scratching in '88 or when I first heard [De La Soul's] 3 Feet High and Rising or Public Enemy. Those were life-altering moments for me musically.
Do you have any advice for budding DJs?
I have met a lot of young DJs who are starting out, and they are stressed because they don't sound like Q-Bert, even though they've been DJing for two years. But Q-Bert didn't sound like he does now when he had only two years' experience, either! You just have to let it go and learn from the experience. It's not the beginning or the end.
If you hit a wall in your turntable skills, just go listen to some music or DJs that you like and remember why you started in the first place. If you can find that energy, you will be able to get somewhere. Always keep one eye on what inspired you in the first place.
What's next for you?
I have just started work on the next Kid Koala album. It won't be the same as the last one. It will be more focused, but then I always say that. Sometimes I take things too seriously, but lately I am appreciating more deadpan humor, so it may be a subtler album. I am going to be serious about not being serious on my next album.
Robin Smith is a former radio and club DJ. Lurking as a bedroom mixer and geek, he created the Online 1200, a Web version of the Technics SL-1200MK2's operating instructions (www.turntablism.com/online1200). He can be reached at email@example.com.
KID KOALA's EQUIPMENT
- Fostex 8-track analog tape recorder
- Fostex D-5 professional DAT recorder
- Rane TTM 54 mixer
- Shure M-447 and SC35C cartridges
- Tascam Porta-144, 4-track cassette recorder
- Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
KID KOALA: A Selected Discography
Scratchappyland (Ninja Tune, 1997)
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Ninja Tune, 2000)
Scratchcratchratchatch (independent, 1995)
“Insects Are Around Us” (Mo' Wax/Toys, 1998)
“Push the Button” (Mo' Wax/Toys, 1998)
“Emperors Main Course in Cantonese” (Ninja Tune, 2000)
Coldcut, “More Beats and Pieces” (Obsessive Behaviour remix) (Ninja Tune, 1997)
DJ Vadim, “Lord Forgive Me” (Vad Forgive Me remix) (Ninja Tune, 1998)
Return of the DJ, vol. 2, “Static's Waltz” (Bomb Hip-Hop, 1996)
Ninja Cuts 3 — Funkungfusion, “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” (Ninja Tune, 1998)
Xen Cuts, “Emperors Main Course,” “Drunk Trumpet” (live) (Ninja Tune, 2000)
Handsome Boy Modeling School, So … How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy, 1999)
Peanut Butter Wolf, My Vinyl Weighs a Ton, “Tale of Five Cities” (Stones Throw, 1999)
Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030 (75 Ark, 2000)
Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Virgin, 2001)
WITH BULLFROG SINGLE
“Bullfrog” (independent, 1998)
Bullfrog CD EP (independent, 2000)
Bullfrog CD EP 2 (independent, 2001)