At just 35 years old, Alain Macklovitch — better known as A-Trak — has accomplished more in his career so far than many of his peers will in their entire lives. He was the first Canadian DJ to win the Disco Mix Club (DMC) championship at just 15-years-old, which also made him its youngest winner ever. He was the first DJ to win all three major DJ competitions: DMC, ITF, and Vestax.
Additionally, Macklovitch founded and currently runs a Brooklyn-based record label of his own, Fool’s Gold Records, which has released music from the likes of Danny Brown and Run The Jewels. He toured with Kanye West as his personal DJ. Now, he advances the DJ culture worldwide by blurring the lines between his underground hip-hop roots and EDM’s current massive sound.
So when he reached out to longtime friend Eli Morgan Gesner — film director, former creative director of Phat Farm, founder of skate brand Zoo York, and now, Uproxx style guru — to shoot the throwback video for “Ride For Me,” his genre-bending collaboration with Falcons, Young Thug, and 24Hrs, Eli couldn’t help but say, “Yes.” Eli sat down with A-Trak to talk about the video, and in the process, revealed a treasure trove of stories, lessons, and insights from A-Trak’s incredible 20-year career. Read some excerpts from their conversation below.
So, where should we begin? I guess the first thing we should talk about is how did you get into this? Let’s just start there. You were a five-time DMC World Scratch Champion. How old were you the first time you won World Champion?
Yeah. It wasn’t all DMC, but World Champion, yes. I was 15. So I started scratching and messing around with DJing at 13, and then at 15, I was World Champion and I kept entering more battles and I accumulated five of these World Titles by the time I was 18.
Just in two years?
I didn’t see much sunlight from the age of 13 to 15. I grew up in Montreal, Canada and I was just discovering hip-hop culture, in general, and I was getting into a lot of music with my brother, sort of through his group of friends. My brother is like three or four years older than me.
Your brother is Chromeo.
Yes, but back then, he was David Macklovitch, at the local high school. We all grew up listening to classic rock, and through Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, that was the funnel to get into hip-hop. So I really fell in love with hip-hop around ’94 with discovering Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Buhloone Mindstate, Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s The Main Ingredient, Wu-Tang, Biggie, that whole era. But also The Pharcyde, both Bizarre Ride and Labcabin a little bit later. Souls Of Mischief, that whole tip. And pretty much anything that DJ Premier produced and anything that Pete Rock produced.
How did you end up with two turntables?
So I’m listening to hip-hop, right, and I’m hearing scratching on records, right, and I was interested in music and, actually, my brother, by that point, was playing the guitar and playing in high school bands and what not. And I tried playing the piano and I wasn’t very good at it, or it just didn’t feel like my instrument. And one day I tried scratching a record on my dad’s record player, as most people do when they grew up listening to hip-hop.
I think most people tried and it sounds really wrong or they break the needle or both. And I tried scratching and it sounded like scratching, which is kind of unusual. And I discovered a knack.
A mutant ability.
Yeah, I discovered my mutant ability, but this was just my dad’s record player, we obviously didn’t have a mixer but, you know how it is, you find some sort of switch on the amp that can cut the sound on and off.
I was just using that in lieu of a crossfader. And showed my brother and his friends one day and they were like, ‘Yo, what the hell, you can scratch. We can’t scratch. What the hell?’ And my bro started really encouraging me right from the start. He was like, ‘You should probably practice this stuff. Train yourself, because this is not normal.’
I started practicing every day. I would come home after school and practice until dinner time. And my day was regimented. I was in school, I would come home and practice, have dinner, do homework after dinner and then that was my day, every day. And I became obsessed with this stuff. And after a few months, I met some of the local Montreal DJs. One of whom is still known: Kid Koala.
I met literally like three guys who each gave me some of their tips. Like, ‘oh, you should do this with your needle when you pack it to go to a gig. Here’s how you protect your equipment.’ I just didn’t know the practicalities, or ‘oh, I have a better mixer or try this crossfader.’ Oh wow, now I can do this trick. That kind of stuff, cause the internet was barely dial-up speeds yet.
I didn’t have access to that much information, let alone that I was 13, going on 14, living in Montreal. I couldn’t even get into clubs, I couldn’t even see a DJ even though I was learning to be a DJ, but by watching videos. Back then people would collect the videotapes of DMC battles, which is, again, one of those things that the other local DJs showed me.
I’d go to someone’s house and just show them what I could do with scratching and they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re really good at this. Have you seen the World Championship?’ And then I would take that in and become even better, cause it’s all this information. I entered the DMC World Championships and that ended up being the battle that made me a World Champion.
A-Trak with Falcons produced a really great song with performances by Young Thug and 24Hrs, and I ended up making the video for it with them. The concept is tied to our relationship at Zoo York in the ’90s. My concept was to use the old Hi8 video camera that we shot all the original Zoo York footage with. So, we shot Young Thug, 24Hrs and Falcons with the very same camera that we shot the old skateboard footage on. Then, we edited them together and created the illusion that all of this was all happening at once.
It’s the impossible video. It was great. I feel like I prepped you, for probably a week, where I’d say, ‘You know, he might not show up the first time but let’s block off three days. I feel like… I’ll get him to show up, we have a good relationship. We might have to just camp out for at least a whole bunch of hours. If he says four, it might be eight.’ And I feel like I was prepping you like this for a long-ass time. And then we chose the day for the shoot, and he showed up. Within like what? Like a half hour later. I was later than him for this shoot today.
We picked a location and we went and had lunch and then we parked your car and we’re walking to the corner where we verbally agreed to meet, and you start going into this like, ‘Listen, man, I just want you to know that Thug may not show up.’ And then, as soon as we were walking the corner, you’re like, ‘He might not show up — oh look, there’s his van!’ And he was there ahead of us.
Thug showed up on time but there was a lot of hang out time in the van. And, at one point, you opened the door and said, ‘Guys, we’re losing sunlight.’ And then, boom. But it was because I had this sort of general idea of making a skate video for this song. And I hit you up, not necessarily knowing if you would want to do it yourself. It was just sort of like, ‘Hey Eli, this is your world, can you help me figure this out?’
And then you hit me back with the super duper dream reply of like, ‘Here’s a test cut of like 20 seconds of this secret footage that no one’s seen before that I just happen to be digitizing. How about we do that for your video? And I still have the camera and we film Thug with that camera.’
You sent me the song and I was busy doing something else, that’s why I had the footage up, and you sent me the song and I remember pressing play then I kept it on a loop. Then I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we could do this, we could shoot Thug.’ And I edited it really quick and sent it off. It’s kismet. It’s one of those things that you can’t plan.
I was gonna say serendipity but you said kismet. Those are both good words though.
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The story of this video is crazy. I've been friends with Eli Morgan Gesner (@ocularge / co-founder of @zooyorkofficial & @shutnyc) since 1999. In the 90s Eli filmed a ton of skate videos including Zoo York's Mix Tape series. I hit him to brainstorm for "Ride For Me" just as he was digitizing his own (never-before-seen) tapes from 1994 with Harold Hunter, Justin Pierce, Jeff Pang, Mike Hernandez, Danny Supa etc. He had the genius idea to not only cut those scenes into a new vid but to shoot @thuggerthugger1 @24hrs & @falcons with the same camera now. So there you have it. I grew up watching tapes like this. Hope you enjoy. And please support the @haroldhunterfoundation. Full video: Link in Bio. ❤️
One thing that you have discussed is the current state of media and culture and music which, in hip-hop, seems like the idea of, ‘we’re trying to make something original,’ has become secondary to, ‘I know you like this so here it is again.’ Like, that’s kind of where I feel there’s a shortcoming in culture. It’s not like, ‘Oh, there’s clearly Biggie Smalls and there’s clearly Tupac and there’s clearly De La Soul and that’s clearly Public Enemy.” But you’ve always been more optimistic about it all.
So what I would say is that, in fact, right now in hip-hop, there is something for everyone for sure. And maybe you’re referring to what a lot of people would call “SoundCloud rap” or just like a certain form of sort of druggie, very free, kind of abstract rap. But there’s that, but you can also go and listen to some rappity rap, too. Neo-soul is back. Like, there’s something for everyone for sure. So, I don’t know.
And, by the way, when you were saying that maybe type of rap, you seem to be hinting that it’s less original, but by the way, part of what’s cool, even about that scene, is that being weird is celebrated and it took hip-hop a long time to break through to that. But I don’t even think people approached it with that much of a sort of cheapish sameness. I think it really is legitimately that this is a culture. And, you know, there’s- if someone’s listening to a certain kind of music and then they have aspirations to make that music, maybe their first couple of records will sound like what they listen to.
One of the differences between now and the ’90s is that that first song that someone makes, the whole world gets to hear it. Whereas back then, you had to get a record deal and you wouldn’t hear it until they honed their skills. But a lot of the guys that get dismissed now for being “samey”, a year later developed their own identity. It’s just that [with] the removal of the gatekeepers and everything just being posted on Soundcloud right away, you get to see that development stage.
You know what, another thing that’s fascinating, by the way, is a lot of the rappers who seem to have basic skills, are actually a lot more skilled than they give off the impression. And they choose to make this kind of rap because there’s an immediacy that is super punk rock and undeniable. So it’s funny hearing some of those rappers who might be popular from having a song where they’re just going (incoherent mumble rapping) over a distorted 808, then you can interview one of these guys and he’ll be like, Oh, but I also have …” What’s the term? It’s not backpack rap, I’m trying to think of the term that goes out-
But it’s funny, I saw an interview with XXXTentacion where he was like, ‘Oh, I have like Earl-type raps.’ Beause Earl Sweatshirt is lyrical. And then, I’ve heard those records and it’s true. So, a rapper who might be known for blown-out, distorted and kind of make ignorant records, is also fully capable of making rappity-ass rap records. So when some of the old heads will just say like, ‘Oh, what happened to skills?’ It’s more, it’s deeper than that. It’s a conscious decision to make records that translate in a live setting. And, by the way, live rap is blowing up too.
I have this theory that our musical culture has been negatively impacted by the advent of shows like The Voice and American Idol. Because I feel like it trained us to think the whole family should get together and watch it. In my mind, if this existed, there would not be a Bob Dylan. There wouldn’t be a Bob Seger. They would be booed off the stage. So that is the problem that I’m having, is the homogenized effect that all this stuff is having on culture.
In response to your observation about American Idol and The Voice type of shows that only seem to glorify the most cookie-cutter type of artists, at least now, there’s viable alternatives. The internet gives people the opportunity to blow up on a huge level where, literally, top 10 records now for the last few years haven’t gone through that portal. And no aspiring artist feels that they need to go through that lane. And it is what it is and it’s on TV, but I like to see confidence in young artists who feel like they can definitely go like, the sky’s the limit, they can go as far as they could get with their art.