Welcome back to Virgin Hotels Chicago.
I flew in late last night, so I’m still a little spaced out.
How does this cold-pressed juice compare to the juice you make at home we see on Snapchat?
The Juicero? It’s different. This is delicious. When I travel this much there are little things that make your body feel a little bit more balanced.
You won your first DMC World DJ Championship when you were 15 and a total of five by the time you were 18. Were your parents driving you to your competitions?
At the time, no. They were all overseas. All this was a while ago. I’m 34 now, but I started scratching when I was 13 and got involved with the music scene in Montreal at the time. At first my parents were supportive enough. They were not fully understanding what I was doing but said, “Hey, you love doing this so… cool, fine.” I was pretty serious at school, too. My dad would just say, “If your grades stay up, you can do this stuff too.” And then my brother [Dave 1 of Chromeo] was in music as well, so he was encouraging me a lot too. At first it was gigs around Montreal or neighboring towns: Ottawa, Quebec City, things like that. Once I started entering these competitions that quickly took me to the worldwide stage. The first championship that I won was in Italy. It started with a prelim in Montreal, which took me to the Canadian finals and then they said, “Hey, you have to go to Italy for the World Championship with DJs from 30 countries…”
Was that the first time you traveled abroad?
For DJing, yes. I’d been abroad for family trips, but now I was going to participate in this competition. My mom came with me. When I was 15 and 16 I would always travel with my brother or my mom. My dad goes to sleep early. He’s just like, “Okay, good luck!” Once I was 17 I started traveling by myself a bit more.
What do you remember most about your first performance?
With the perspective of 20 years of touring since… the way I remember those early couple of shows and competitions now is that I felt like I was in my basement but just not in my basement, you know? I wasn’t really thinking about the big picture or existence. The more years you put into it the more you put on the line. Once I was competing for three or four years [I would think] if I lost I would be the World Champion from the year before that lost. The first year I went up there I was like, “This is fun! I won!” I was a little more innocent.
Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that you’d be here today running Fool’s Gold, the record label you co-founded, and working with artists such as Kanye West?
It took a while to even think that far ahead. In those first couple years DJ’ing itself was kind of having a renaissance. I was able to ride a wave and there was definitely something going on at the time. In a sense I was at the right time, at the right place. And those kinds of moments only happen every so often. At that time we all knew it was a moment in time too, so my friends and I would sometimes think, “Let’s see how long this goes.” The amount of attention we were getting for something at the time was so niche, it was a little uncanny, even from a press standpoint. It’s like sometimes skateboarding might be en vogue… now it’s Pokémon. People talk about it and you think, “Oh cool, you guys are paying attention. I don’t know if you’ll still want to talk about it in five years.” At that time I remember thinking, “I’m going to stay in school, I’m going do this for a few years, hopefully it works out, hopefully I can get my name established in a way I can keep doing it for a while.” But when I was 16, I remember thinking, “I really should get some sort of degree so that when I’m 40 I’m not looking for something to do.” I remember thinking, “For when I’m 40.” That was sort of the thought process. I remember thinking, “Alright, let me take this one year to go at it full-time and see how that goes.” And then I went to college and I met Kanye right after that when I was 22, so that kind of threw a new jetpack in my life because that put me on much bigger stages. With ‘Ye it’s like, “Hey, by the way tomorrow we’re at the Grammys.” The visibility got so much bigger. It was right when his first album came out in 2004.
Did Kanye really just see you performing by chance in London and hire you on the spot?
Yeah, and even with all of the right place at the right time stuff, there’s always a little bit of hustle involved. I talked myself into being at this one record shop where I heard he might be. I made sure I was going to be there and do a little showcase so he would see me. I knew that something could happen, but still the fact that we were in London at the same time was the coincidental part.
Were you surprised when you realized you were actually going to tour with Kanye?
No. Surprise makes it seem a bit more innocent than it was. I knew what I was trying to get, but I did think, “Oh man, it’s happening.” It’s that kind of feeling. This was also around the same time when social media started becoming a thing because those were the Myspace days. Myspace was the first time you had to present yourself in a certain way. I’d been DJ’ing for maybe eight years at that point. I already had all of these accolades, world championships and a good reputation in my scene which albeit was a bit underground scene, but in my world people knew me. But then ‘Ye put me on the big stage. Everybody in the music scene was building these Myspace pages. You had to have some sort of artwork that comes with an aesthetic decision about how you are representing yourself. Is your logo going to be reminiscent of this or of that? What are your references? Where do you stand in the scope of aesthetics? That’s the first time a lot of us had to think about that.
Did the aesthetic decisions for your brand come easy to you?
Yeah, I loved it. But it’s the first time I really went gung-ho with it. Suddenly I had a logo, a page design, I’m making fliers for my tours, I’m starting to put out more mixed CDs and things like that because for all those years prior to that it was a live experience. You come see A-Trak live, and I’d scratch. The era of 2005-2006 I started also meeting kids making clothing lines just for fun. Streetwear was having a boom so I collaborated with a few people and made t-shirts for the first time. Fool’s Gold is a record label, but now we make clothing. Art direction is a big part of what we do. There were a lot of seeds that were planted at that time. That’s also when I started discovering electronic music. I was strictly a hip-hop DJ for a long time. Around 2005 I started noticing some electronic music that I liked that wasn’t cheesy. I started playing this in my sets, and a lot of my peers in North America weren’t paying attention to electronic music and I started playing this stuff. This is music that is made to make people go crazy. When you’re a DJ and you start playing certain types of records and people go crazy, you can see the power of it and you’re like, “Whoa, this is nuts.” I’m used to people bopping their heads to some hip-hop and then I play some electro records and they’re literally jumping. I thought, “This is cool.” I still wanted to tie it in with some of my rap lineage, so I would make these mashups and take the vocals of a rap record and put it over an electronic record, things like that.
How would you describe your work style?
Some things have stayed the same and some things have progressed. What stayed the same is a certain level of focus. I’m pretty dedicated to what I do. I spend a lot of hours on it. What has evolved over the years is the broadband aspect of what I do. At first it was not even fully DJ’ing, just scratching. Then it became actual DJ’ing that included scratching and then you know with the Kanye thing it became more. This year it’s been 10 years since my first remix; there’s been the addition of production and Duck Sauce being one of my projects also.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Yeah, for sure. Everyone does. I think of this more as an umbrella or this vehicle where everything has a role or a place. DJ’ing is still the center of what I do. It’s just these dimensions that are added. I run a record label where I can sign people, but then I play their music in my sets. Maybe this afternoon at my show someone will tell me about an artist and I’ll end up signing them. I produce my own music, I remix for other people, Fool’s Gold puts on events, Fool’s Gold does clothing, we do all this stuff. It’s all interrelated. When one thing does well it shines on the other aspects too. Everything kind of helps each other out.
What do you believe makes a star?
I think it’s a combination of talent and hard work. You can’t go around those things, but also the people who end up being successful have some sort of sense of good instincts. Sometimes it’s a sense of who to surround yourself with. Sometimes it’s a sense of when it’s time to switch things up. Maybe your sound’s getting a little tired, it’s been a few years, you switch it up. Some people don’t have those instincts. Again, being at the right place at the right time. Having that little extra radar that tells you what’s right and what’s not right.
How do you fight jet lag?
I was in Australia two weeks ago and I kept thinking about that. I just kept thinking, “Why isn’t there a trick yet?” There are a few tricks and there’s one that I failed at on that trip to Australia. The best trick you can do is when you get to another continent or time zone stay up until nighttime. That’s the best thing, and also go outside a little bit. The sun does something to your body clock. This is good for me right now [sitting on the roof at Cerise]. I just flew in from L.A. late last night and this is telling me, “Okay, it’s the middle of the day right now.” When I landed in Australia at 6 a.m. the objective was to stay up until nighttime. I just couldn’t do it. I took what I thought would be a quick nap at 5 p.m. on the first day and I ended up sleeping three hours. That really reset me at the wrong moment and then I was off for a week. It took me a week to get over that one nap. The thing with jet lag is it creeps up on you. If I get back from a trip where I should be jet lagged and on the first day or two I think, “You know what, I’m fine.” I know that all that means is I’m going to suffer in a few days. You can’t escape it.
Who in your life makes you laugh the most?
My brother. I like to keep funny people around me. I think laughing is really important. Best stress reliever.
What would you say is the biggest difference between you and your brother?
I’m more mellow. He has an incredible memory to where you would think that he was hiding a recorder somewhere. He’ll remember things that happened 30 years ago, like what color someone’s shirt was, what year some battle was in history class and what someone’s neighbor was called. He’ll just remember all that stuff. It’s crazy. He has a really incredible memory. I have a decent memory. I remember numbers, math formulas and phone numbers from my childhood.
Is there a difference between the person you are on stage and the person you are at home with family and friends?
In day-to-day life I’m a very chill person. I’m way less of a jump-all-over-the-place stage guy. I have friends who only knew the hangout side of me and then saw me DJ way after us being friends. They would see me play and would be like, “Who is that?”
How do you get through a day if you’re feeling sluggish?
Adrenaline. With touring there will be days when I think, “I don’t know if I can play right now,” and then you start playing and you’re fine.
Do you have a memorable moment that happened over a drink?
I’m partial to Moroccan mint tea. My mom will make it. Whenever I’m home and it’s at the house, that’s it.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Anthony Bourdain. I’m really interested in people who represent to their fields what I represent to my field. I love to watch documentaries on athletes who win at the Olympics because their concentration is like my concentration. What Bourdain has done with the world of cooking, putting out books and demystifying certain things and traveling as much as he does… that’s something I can relate and aspire to.
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