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How to Create the Perfect Remix

A-Trak, DJ and Fool’s Gold label impresario, has a knack for remixing songs. Here’s how he does it.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A-Trak, born Alain Macklovitch, has been spinning records for almost as long as he could hold them. At 15, he was the youngest DMC World Champion ever, a title he still holds. Ever since, he’s DJed for Kanye West; launched his label, Fool’s Gold; and, perhaps most notably, remixed dozens of songs. He celebrates 10 years of reinventing songs with his compilation In the Loop: A Decade of Remixes, which was released late last year. We talked to A-Trak about mastering the art of the remix, what to look for in a song, and how he started doing it in the first place. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Why remixes?

DJ A-Trak: For me, remixes were an entry point for production. So, if you transport yourself to 2006, have a time machine in another room, I’d been DJing for 10 years already and I was already established as a DJ, but I had only made a few tracks that I produced at that point. Whatever [I was making] prior to that was these sort of turntablist experiments, scratch-based production. Around that time, around 2005–06, the music I was playing in my DJ sets was changing. The music scene was shifting. There was a lot of cross-pollination — I went from being purely a hip-hop DJ to someone who brought in a lot more eclecticism into my set. And that sort of mixed-bag approach to my DJ sets started defining my style as a DJ. And I no longer wanted to produce these sort of crate-digger, vibe-y instrumental tracks. I wanted to produce something that I could play in my own sets.

I remember having that aha moment [that] my production should reflect what I play. My DJ identity is my identity. So, my production output should fit into that line. And a lot of the music that I was getting into at that point in time in the mid-2000s was part of a scene and sort of mindset where remixes were the currency. And so blogs, music blogs were dominant. Myspace was dominant. And exchanges between DJs and producers and indie bands were more and more common. So, as I broadened the scope of what I was doing as a DJ and [as I was] getting interested in new kinds of music, just these sort of connections between bands and DJs and producers and remixers led the way into an evolution sonically. A catalyst. And I started getting requests for remixes and I just said yes right away because it was a way for me to try out ideas. Literally around that time I was just dipping my toes into laptop-based production as opposed to only producing when I was at my home studio with a wall full of vinyl when I would sample every element, and if I wanted a hi-hat, I would have to walk to that shelf over there and grab a record that had a nice hi-hat that I could scratch in or sample. And then … that organic sound was no longer the only thing that I was playing in my sets. I was interested in colliding sound textures, and grabbing knocking drums that had a hip-hop aesthetic to them with some hard, distorted bass lines, and vocal samples and snippets and maybe a few scratches and just see what that whole thing would sound like together. And remixes were just a great playground for that. So I was able to experiment with production by doing remixes. The more distance there was between the source material and my output, the more interesting it was. It’s just like you’re pulling back the slingshot and the distance is even further, you know. You’re just transforming and subverting that work even more.

Was there ever a moment where you felt like, Oh man, this song is way outside what I would I do?

On this is compilation [I released], In the Loop, I would say Track 2. The song is “Bombs,” by Scanners, a U.K. rock band on Dim Mak, Steve Aoki’s label. People know Aoki now for his antics and the big-stage EDM thing, but in those years, he was instrumental in bringing a lot of cool indie bands to North America. He brought Bloc Party to North America on Dim Mak in a sense. And Scanners was just another British rock band on his label. And then he hit me up like, “Do you want to remix them?” and that was my second remix. I remember being like, “Yeah, sure!” in my head thinking like Oh cool, another thing that I can mess around with, then loading up the parts and being like, These are guitars and live drums. I’m not sure what to do with this. And so I turned it into a house track.

Take us inside your process: When you receive something and you’re hearing the raw, how do you put your sound into it, where you look to find openings to maybe break it apart?

Part of what I like about remixing is that there is a lot of implied dialogue. You can imagine the thought process between the remixer and the source material and what he makes out of it. For me, if I’m asked to remix a song, I’ll definitely think of the intention of the remix before I even start it. And that varies depending on what the original song is. If the original song is in a different genre altogether, then I have carte blanche, and I just have to find something that I can sample. I have to find something in the parts that I can build a track in my style around. And that’s fun because a big part of what’s tough with production is just coming up with that key idea. Finishing a song around that isn’t that hard, but having a catchy riff or a cool vocal, that’s probably the toughest part of working on an original song as a DJ-slash-producer, people like ourselves who just work in bedrooms and don’t just pick up a guitar or sing into a mic that much. That’s part of what’s fun with the exercise, and, if the original song is quite different, then I’ll just think, “How do I A-Trak-ify this?”

But if the original song is already house music, for example, and I might have an idea of how to make a different version of the house version of that track, I still have to make sure it’s different enough from the original and that it still works. There’s a bit of a competitive idea to remixing also, where you want to beat the original. It’s almost like solving a riddle or a puzzle. You’re given these pieces and you’re like, “How can I create something great out of this?” It’s not just a question of creating something out of it, because if no DJ can play it and people don’t like listening to it, then you’ve kind of wasted everyone’s time. It’s more like Top Chef. They give a couple ingredients, you don’t just have to make a dish, it has to be good.

I asked to remix the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” and that is part of what was unusual with that one in particular. Usually, the artist — the remixee, I guess — will seek out remixers. In this case, I heard that song when they put out their album It’s Blitz! and just heard something in it. I remember even watching them perform at Coachella and being like, “Man that song is good. I want to flip it, I want to do something with it.” And so I went the opposite direction and sought them out and I got the stem.

Would this sound different today if you were to open up this song now?

I think if I had made “Heads Will Roll,” if I had made my remix today, it would sound different. Because this one is so bare bones. But maybe that’s what made it stand the test of time in a sense because there are trends with the way people dress up their tracks. Nowadays there’s a lot more of these sweeping transition sounds. This one barely had any. Even the drums were so simple.

Why do remixes matter now? You’ve released a compilation of 10 years’ worth, and you still make them, people still make them, so why are they still important?

I think remixes still matter for a few reasons. From a marketing standpoint, from the label standpoint, remixes are a way to have a song reach an even bigger audience because they’ll take a song into a different genre. If your original is an indie rock song like this, well you can get fans of dance music to like it. And then maybe there’s someone that makes a future bass remix or whatever the genres of the hour are, and then fans of that style will listen to it, they’ll end up listening to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, which is interesting. It goes even deeper than just people listening to it. Specifically that could mean people are thinking they want to get on some sort of Spotify playlist, or they want to get some radio station to play it, so remixes are entry points into all those things. But I think from a more organic standpoint, at the end of the day, you want to reach the listener at home on their laptop and there’s just something appealing about the very raw concept of a remix. I think people enjoy seeing those two names on the same line. Seeing a band’s name and then so-and-so remix, it just piques people’s curiosity like, “Ah, I wonder what he did with that.” So that’s cool in itself because at the end of the day, when you go to a lot of the aggregators, like Hype Machine, there’s so many remixes on there. I just think people get a kick out of what that meeting of the minds creates.

Remixes bring songs into the DJ ecosystem. The DJ ecosystem is one where DJs not only play songs, but share their creations with other DJs. There’s something really specific about the world of DJs where we depend on our DJ friends and peers to play our tracks and vice versa. That doesn’t exist in other genres. A rapper who makes a song doesn’t care if another likes his song, let alone listens to it. Same things with a band. Queens of the Stone Age makes a song, they’re not thinking, I wonder if Coldplay are going to put this on their Spotify page. It’s not about that. But because DJs support each other’s music, there’s all these exchanges that happen. I’m part of email groups with 150 DJs and if any of us makes a track, whether it’s an original or remix or whatever, we just send it into that thread and then a bunch of other DJs add it to their Serato, or their song library. Having someone remix your song plugs you into that world and then it just spreads.

After 10 years, what do you feel you’ve created in the genre?

Right after I made my first remixes, I founded Fool’s Gold. Now Fool’s Gold’s about to turn 10 just as my remix career, in a sense, just turned 10. It’s cool to reflect on that too because Fool’s Gold became a home for a whole slew of creative musicians, producers, DJs, rappers, singers — so the beginning of this story is just a few friends and I middling around and trying out new sounds and now, it’s more of an organized family, team, army. I love being in a position where I can champion people’s music and share that with the people I know. I love finding someone who is just in their bedroom or even their parents’ house and just coming up with really cool sounds and taking that and amplifying it, sharing it with the world.