The Evolution of A-Trak: From Scratch Nerd To Dance Tastemaker In Five Steps

David Needleman
A-Trak is one of the world's most effective musical tastemakers. These days, the Montreal-born DJ and producer is part of the braintrust behind the Fool's Gold label, which has a proven record of picking up artists like Danny Brown, The Cool Kids, and Kid Sister long before larger labels show interest, and pumps out dance hits in tandem with Armand Van Helden.

It's a world away from the days when he was seen as a nerdy turntablist who was likely to remain stuck in the indie-rap mire. Crucially, A-Trak has pulled off his musical migration not just by trailing the hip-hop trends of the day, but by helping to create them. So ahead of his DJ set as part of Vessel's five-year anniversary party this Friday (show postponed until May 18), let's take a look at how A-Trak did it, step by step.

1. Turntablist Tyke
Drowning in an oversized rap t-shirt, a 15-year-old A-Trak not only took the DMC DJ mixing world title in 1997, but was also the youngest-ever victor. It's a feat he achieved by showcasing startlingly precise turntable techniques -- an ability that caused turntable god Q-Bert to anoint him as an honorary member of the Invisibl Skratch Picklz that same year. As befits the era, A-Trak's scratch success was solidified with a vinyl release a couple of years later, the Enter Ralph Wiggum 12-inch on the Stones Throw label, and the formation of the Allies crew along with fellow jocks DJ Craze, J-Smoke, and Klever. Underscoring his dedication to the turntables, A-Trak also worked on a notation system for scratching.

2. Pledging Indie Rap Allegiance
A-Trak's success in the turntablism world helped springboard the formation of his record label, Audio Research, which he set up with his brother Dave One. (Yep, the same guy who later went on to ham it up as part of Chromeo.) 1998 saw the first Audio Research release, D-Shade's "Do The Math" (for which A-Trak contributed scratches), but Obscure Disorder's "2004" was most emblematic of the times, featuring Goretex and Ill Bill of Non-Phixion. At the time, hip-hop was in the midst of a split between the unabashedly jiggly sounds of P. Diddy and Ja Rule and the reactionary underground indie-rap movement. A-Trak was firmly aligned with the latter camp.

3. Kanye Calls
Audio Research continued to release records throughout the early 2000s, but the indie-rap scene had already started to stagnate by that point. Enter Kanye West. In 2004, he invited A-Trak to up sticks and hit the road with him as his tour DJ. The gig included a performance at the Grammy Awards, and culminated in an invitation to add his scratch expertise to the song "Gold Digger" on 'Ye's Late Registration album. Kanye was a big deal by then, but his decision to reach out to A-Trak wasn't all that surprising: 'Ye, after all, had production roots that went back to the mid-'90s with the Chi-Town rapper Grav, and he's since displayed a propensity to sign relatively uncommercial acts like Big Sean, Consequence, and spoken word artist Malik Yusef to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint. With West's music palatable to both the mainstream and underground rap scenes, A-Trak's promotion to the team seemed like a well-earned progression.

4. Chasing Fool's Gold
Flush off the success of Kanye's co-sign, 2007 saw A-Trak take a second stab at founding a record label, this time the Fool's Gold endeavor with Nick Catchdubs. Right from the get-go, the label had a radically different agenda than Audio Research: Early artists like Kid Sister, Kid Cudi, and The Cool Kids made music that aimed to get people on the dance floor, not sit around deciphering lyrics and gawping at the intricacies of scratch routines. A-Trak's own offering that year, Dirty South Dance, embraced electronic and dance music as much as hip-hop -- not unlike Kanye's own sampling of Daft Punk for "Stronger." The dance and rock kids were increasingly embracing hip-hop, and A-Trak was more than prepared to deal out their fix.

5. Dance, Ya Know It!
Just over a decade after since he endeared himself to the hip-hop world with his dorkish embrace of turntablism, A-Trak began to collaborate with house DJ Armand Van Helden and pump out full-on dance music. Recording under the Duck Sauce alias, the duo scored a stratospheric hit with 2010's "Barbara Streisand" track (it's fast approaching 70 million views on YouTube). It's a sound and musical mentality genres away from A-Trak's introductory days -- but one he's pulled off authentically and without losing his reputation. Salute!

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