In this new weekly feature, we're profiling the unsung heroes of hip hop music: the producers. These musicians, responsible for creating beats, sampling and collaborating with MCs, slave away behind the scene while rappers get most (if not all) of the credit. With Behind The Boards, we're looking to shine the spotlight on the best producers in the game.
Our first subject, A-Trak, has popped up in the hip hop world recently with announcements of joint EPs with both Cam'ron and trap producer Lex Luger. Some were shocked, as he's much more well known as an electronic musician, founder of the record label Fool's Gold, and younger brother of Chromeo's Dave One. Commercially, A-Trak's achieved his greatest successes with fellow EDM artist Armand Van Helden under the name Duck Sauce, but his roots lie in the hip hop world. As he told VIBE in 2012, "I come from a certain part of hip-hop, from the past, Wild Style [era]. I wanna bring that energy everywhere I go, to find the perfect balance of new sounds." Join us as we trace A-Trak's hip hop history from 1997 to the present.
At age 15, A-Trak (born Alain Macklovitch) became the youngest-ever winner of the DMC World DJ Championship. His skills with two vinyl turntables were remarkable for anyone, let alone a young teen. Watch his winning set from 1997 awards, featuring music from hip hop legend Biz Markie, below.
This proficiency in scratching would win young Macklovitch the two other biggest DJ championships in the world, ITF and Vestax, earning him enough money to start a record label called Audio Research with his brother. The label, which operated from 1997 to 2007, released underground hip hop by artists such as Obscure Disorder and Troy Dunnit, most of which was produced by Dave One and featured scratching by A-Trak. In 2000, the younger Macklovitch got his first-ever production credit on Obscure Disorder's "Overdose Music." Listen to that track below.
Meet Mr. West
Though Audio Research was popular with hip hop heads, it was unlikely to catapult A-Trak into his current level of stardom. Instead, his big break came when he attracted some attention from a rising star in the hip hop world. As part of a solo world tour in 2004, A-Trak performed at record store in London, and by a stroke of luck, a young Kanye West was in attendance. Having just released his debut album, The College Dropout, West was looking for a DJ for his tour and was wowed by the performance. He approached Macklovitch with an offer to join him on tour, and the DJ accepted. The pair remained touring companions until 2007, and A-Trak contributed scratches to West's second and third albums, most notably on the single "Gold Digger."
Though contributing to West's live shows, A-Trak had still not single-handedly produced a beat for any rapper whose name you might recognize. Though slightly dependent on your level of hip hop nerdiness, that changed in 2006, when he made the song "Step Off" with fan favorites Little Brother, a group that included the rapper / singer Phonte and legendary producer 9th Wonder. The group had just released their breakout album, The Minstrel Show, and were as high-profile as they'd ever be. "Step Off" featured a warm soul sample and an old-school-style beat, and was a sign of good things to come from A-Trak. Listen below.
The Fool's Gold Era
When Audio Research folded in 2007, A-Trak moved to Brooklyn and, along with Nick Catchdubs, founded Fool's Gold, a label founded with the goal of bridging the gap between the hip hop and electronic music worlds. One of his first projects for the label was a 12" record called Dirty South Dance Remixes, which featured a cappella tracks by rappers like Rich Boy and DJ Unk blended with electro beats. Though it didn't really contain any original hip hop production by A-Trak, it no doubt made him more of a recognizable face in the hip hop community. For a few years after that, he focused on signing artists (such as rappers Kid Cudi, The Cool Kids and Kid Sister) to his label, and continued making electro as a solo artist and as one-half of Duck Sauce. It was in this slight hiatus from hip hop, roughly from the years 2008-2011, that the world forgot about A-Trak's hip hop side. His only collaboration with a rapper during that period, the song "Ray-Ban Vision" with CyHi Da Prynce, was still very rooted in electro. Listen to that bouncy cut below.
In 2010, A-Trak signed Detroit rapper Danny Brown to Fool's Gold after Q-Tip urged him to, and the label released the rapper's breakout mixtape, XXX, in 2011. The next year, A-Trak finally returned to hip hop production, crafting a dark banger for Juicy J and Brown called "Piss Test." Though still containing some sounds from dance music, the song saw A-Trak capitalizing upon the trap music craze of 2012, which featured a lot of cross-pollination between the EDM and hip hop worlds. It was the most hip hop-centric thing A-Trak had done since "Step Off," and it later got a remix featuring rap heavy-hitters Jim Jones, Flatbush Zombies and El-P. Listen to the original below.
Last year, A-Trak had two notable hip hop collaborations. The first came courtesy of Adidas, which linked him up with hip hop legends Run-DMC for a commercial that featured a song called "Unite All Originals." It was basically an update on the veterans' classic song "My Adidas," but it was cool to see A-Trak get respect from older rappers. The second came from Danny Brown's album Old, and was the high-energy "Smokin & Drinkin." This, more so than any of A-Trak's previous work, was a seamless blend of electro and hip hop, with a hyperactive Brown being the perfect poster child for that marriage of styles. Listen below.
2014: The New Era?
2014 is only just over a month old, but we've already seen more hip hop output from A-Trak than we did in 2013. Kicking off with his Cam'ron collaboration from last week, he seems more open to working in the hip hop realm than he has since touring with Kanye. That track, "Humphrey," doesn't contain a single trace of EDM, and echoes a bygone era of NYC hip hop. It's a return to form for Cam'ron, who's been inconsistent at best since Dipset's heyday, and finds A-trak doing his best to recreate Cam's golden age with a soul-sampling instrumental. As a duo, A-trak and Cam will release the Federal Reserve EP later this year, and if "Humphrey" is any sign of what's to come, it's gonna be a blast.
Today, A-Trak shockingly announced another collaborative EP with a hip hop star, this time the young trap producer Lex Luger (the force behind bombastic songs such as Jay-Z and Kanye's "H.A.M.," Rick Ross' "B.M.F." and Waka Flocka Flame's "Hard in da Paint"). Luger brought his trademark horror-inspired atmosphere to "Jack Tripper," the first song released by the duo, who call themselves Low Pros. Featuring up-and-coming Atlanta rappers Young Thug and PeeWee Longway, "Jack Tripper" is by far the closest A-Trak's ever come to hip hop's zeitgeist. Check it out below.
At his core, A-Trak is a versatile producer, DJ and label executive whose love for hip hop seems to surface every few years. There's no telling what the rest of 2014 will bring for him, but he certainly seems to be heading towards more rap-related territory at this point. Visit his Zumic artist page for more of his music, and let us know if there are any other producers you'd like to see profiled in the comments.