DJ A-Trak begged his dad for vinyl records when everyone else wanted CDs. Fortunately, it was money well-spent. After mixing and scratching his way to world championships, A-Trak found success working alongside popular artists like Kanye West. He stops by The Big Stage to talk about his journey.
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Hey, everyone, welcome back to The Big Stage podcast, where we talk to athletes, artists, and entertainers of all kinds about their lives, dreams, investments, and more. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, Co-head of Sports and Entertainment at Bernstein. It was in 1935 that American radio personality Walter Winchell coined the term disc jockey, referring to the disc-shaped phonograph records and the jockey, the operator of the phonograph machine.
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But it wasn't until the 1970s when deejaying evoked so much change in culture that it became an art form unto itself. The sound and the equipment used by DJs continues to evolve, as does the artist. But one thing remains the same. It's the DJ that keeps the party going.
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Today, I am joined by the world-renowned DJ turntablist, record producer, and record label executive Alain Macklovitch, best known by his stage name A-Trak. His career has spanned over two decades, leading Rolling Stone to name him one of the 50 most important people in EDM. He is also part of the DJ duo Duck Sauce with Armand van Helden, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2012 for their song, Barbra Streisand. We're going to get to talk a lot more about his accomplishments in a minute, but I'm excited to welcome Alain Macklovitch to The Big Stage.
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Thanks for joining us. Hey, thanks. Thanks for having me.
01:25 - 01:36
Alain, We've known each other for about seven years now, so I'm hoping I can learn something about you today that I don't already know. So the pressure's on. All right. Well, let's start with your upbringing.
01:36 - 02:09
Your parents were academics of sorts. From what I've read and what you've told me, your mom was a professional translator. Your father was a professor of linguistics and machine learning. And your brother, David, he's also a musician. Half of the band Chromeo, as most people know, and you often collaborate with him. But how did your family influence your career? And were they musical people too? You know what? I think what mostly happened was that Dave, my brother, and I discovered a lot of music stuff together. So our parents aren't musicians.
02:09 - 02:24
People ask us this often because we're both musicians. So it's not that our parents were musicians. I think I would say our parents were intellectuals, you could say, or people who are, who encourage and have a high regard for the arts in general.
02:25 - 02:47
So whether it'd be prioritizing things like literature and trips to the museum as kids and what have you, those are things that were very valued in our household. I don't think our parents, I mean, they played music around the house the same way that most people from our generation probably had it. But I don't think the music at our household was any different from other people.
02:47 - 03:21
But Dave picked up the guitar pretty young and I sort of followed suit that was kind of looking for my instruments and messed around on the piano for a little bit and then stumbled upon scratching at age 13, which is pretty unusual, especially in those days. And I sort of found my thing. But even beyond our own playing, just as preteens and young teens, both of us discovered and consumed music together. And there was a lot of exchanges going on with that.
03:21 - 03:49
How did you hear this album? Apparently, this guy is influenced by that person. Let's go listen to that. And reading liner notes and trying to get a sense of the history. And by the time we discovered, we got into hip-hop in our young teens, I think there's something intrinsic about hip-hop where through sampling and the traditions of hip hop deejaying, there is a real lineage that's built into hip-hop.
03:50 - 04:15
When you really become a fan of the music and you start trying to figure out what record was sampled for what, the next thing you know, you just end up discovering a lot of 60s and 70s funk, soul, jazz. And so being a fan of hip-hop and then making my own journey into deejaying at a pretty young age too, I had to go and learn more of the history,
04:15 - 04:45
and the back story, too. I'm curious, what did your parents think of you becoming a DJ? Just to clarify, when I say becoming a DJ, my path was kind of unusual. It's funny, I was with a DJ friend this week and we had a conversation about this too. I started with scratching, which is the most technical and sort of specialized branch of deejaying. It's as if I wanted to be a drummer, but I started by learning to play solos before knowing how to play along to a song.
04:46 - 04:59
So it's a little unusual and scratching is almost like more comparable to like an Olympic sport than other forms of music. You know, there is a real mastery of very intricate technique.
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And there's long hours of practicing and there's competitions like with sports, and so I'm just actually realizing, straight away from your question, as far as what my parents think at that point in time even, at that point, they were sort of aware that I was doing something weird with the turntables at home, but they were just sort of like, we don't really understand this, but they allowed it. There was some conversations where, you know, saying, you know, I want to go to the record store to buy records. Or at one point I ended up buying like a second turntable, different from the one my father had.
05:33 - 05:52
And he was confused, like, who's buying vinyl in the 90s? This is like the CD era. But I was like, dad, please, like, this is a thing. This is a passion. So at first they sort of allowed it. I started popping up at a few events around the city and there was like writeups in the newspaper pretty fast because everyone was like, who's this kid?
05:52 - 06:18
Is that when you realized you had this talent? Yeah, because I didn't think at first, I didn't think that there was anything extraordinary about what I was doing. I sort of assumed that any kid in any city could do what I was doing, which was basically be enamored with hip-hop and listen to these records and look for the parts where the DJ was doing a solo and figure it out. I didn't... I thought that there had to be many people doing what I was doing.
06:18 - 06:33
But in fact, for a 13, 14, 15-year-old to do that was kind of was very rare. With the perspective of time, I would even say it was exceptional. So it's safe to call you a savant in some capacity. I'm sure you've been called that before, but yeah.
06:33 - 07:04
Then you went on to win three major competition titles, right? And five world championships. I mean, first person to ever do what you did from a competition standpoint. So it was kind of like a grand slam sort of thing, like I won all the different titles that exist. I'm curious, financially, how was it at a young age? It was it lucrative to be world champion at that age? Did it change your perspective of money? How did that come to fruition? It was not lucrative. I won a prize but I didn't win money.
07:04 - 07:15
I won these really pretty gold-plated turntables that I still have. There's a real prestige to it, but there's nothing in the bank account for it. It was just, it was prestige.
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Bring us to today, though, on that in the sense of the life and career of being DJ and everything else that you do. For our listeners, I think they'd be interested to know what are the main sources of income for you. Yeah, because it changed a lot over the years, it went from, you know, first couple of years I would just get paid a couple hundred dollars a show and I was only getting paid for shows. And through the years, as other sources of income that came into play, especially when I started producing music that which added more.
07:47 - 07:55
And then, you know, as my scene became bigger and bigger and more and more visible, then they started doing like endorsements and things like that.
07:56 - 08:28
So I actually didn't have a manager for the first ten years of my career because there wasn't that much business to look after. And I remember there was a point where I got a music lawyer before that, before having a manager, I had a booking agent. Agent would just fill up the calendar with shows while I was still in school. So I would say this is reading week that's, fill that out. These weekends are fine. So I'll get shows and get paid for that and give my agent whatever his cut, his commission was at the time.
08:29 - 08:42
And yeah, there's a point where I had to get a lawyer to look up like a contract or maybe the first time that I had a record release on another label. But I got my first manager in 2007, ten years after being world champion.
08:42 - 09:11
And ever since that point, I would say the, the sort of pie of what I my income is live shows. On the music side, there is royalties from records that are sold and even on the music side, there's royalties, but there's also publishing and sometimes there's licenses. If the song I make gets used in a commercial or something, that tends to be a bigger chunk than the normal flow of royalties.
09:11 - 09:35
Well, as a former New Yorker, I can't tell you how many times I've heard Barbra Streisand played in the arena watching the game. Yeah, but that's interesting, too, because if you hear a song played at a sports arena, then the income from that falls in the publishing side. Barbra Streisand uses a sample that took 75% of our publishing.
09:35 - 09:59
So my family and I in Duck sauce, we together we split 25% of the publishing of that song. So that song was everywhere, but we had a minority stake in it on the publishing side. And that's just one part of the intricacies of samples, but then just to finish sources of income, then I would say the last piece is grand deals and endorsements. And those endorsements are, you know, the real thing, like in certain ways,
09:59 - 10:32
certainly a lot of times I tell people that the business of being a DJ is not even that close to other kinds of musicians, it's, we're almost more comparable to athletes with the amount of brand work that there is. But for me, I would say that, you know, on any other year than 2020, when COVID everything, the majority of my income is live shows and then the rest, whether it be royalties and publishing from records or brand and sponsor work, that's on the lower tier. So, lower tier,
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but sometimes you get a nice big surprise. Sure. Now, shifting gears a little bit, I don't want to talk politics, but you've worked closely with someone who just ran for president. And I'm not talking Don or Joe. Of course, I'm talking Kanye West.
10:47 - 11:21
From what I understand, he recruited you to tour with him for his first two headlining tours. And then you were a part of... More than that, for four years. Yeah. Wow. And then his second and third studio album, which, of course, everyone knows were massive hits. What was it like working with Kanye and how did that experience affect or impact your career? You know, there's a lot to say there. But to stay on topic of what we're talking about here, I think the impact, so Kanye hired me to be a DJ, right when his first album came out. And I worked with him from 2004 to like the beginning of 2008.
11:22 - 11:31
You know, the way that I was just describing this, the DJ scene prior to that, being very underground and sort of wholesome.
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and, you know, DIY, I would say. When I worked with Kanye, it was the first time that I had a tour manager and staff, tour accountants, and that kind of stuff. And it showed me the benefits of having a team. You know, when you grow up playing shows, traveling by yourself, if someone would tell me before that, hey, you know, you could hire a tour manager, you got to pay them a day rate, but they'll do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
12:03 - 12:17
I wasn't making that much money before that anyway. So actually, I bought my first condo the year that I was working with Kanye. So I was making some money. But still, whatever I was making at shows, I was just kind of say, I don't think I can make enough to pay someone.
12:18 - 12:42
I mean, I can travel by myself. The stuff is easy because the DJ scene up until that point was also an ecosystem, it was kind of a well-oiled machine. And you get flown out to some city and get, let's say I get flown out to Detroit. Some person picks me up at the airport, drive me to the hotel. They'll tell me what time my pickup is for the show.
12:42 - 13:03
So I got a couple hours at the hotel. I go play my show that night. They probably already wired 50 percent deposit of the fee beforehand. So in those years, I would maybe still pick up some cash tonight. But pretty quickly everything became bank transfers anyways, and then I fly back home. So it's sort of like, well, why do I need to pay someone to travel with me?
13:03 - 13:35
But I was starting to do more entrepreneurial stuff in those years and I was starting to take on production work and remixes, and make merch and work with graphic designers to create the artwork that would go on my t-shirt, but also on my tour flyer. And like the sense of branding was something that was becoming more of a focus at that point in my career, too. And when I started doing those shows with Kanye, I remember thinking like, oh, that's what that's the benefit of having a tour manager.
13:35 - 13:56
When someone, when you don't even have to think about, where's my pick up at the airport, I don't see this person, or what time was that interview again, when someone just tells you, hey, 4 :30, someone's calling you, and I just emailed you your flights. It just freed up a lot of mental space where I was able to think about the things that only I can think of.
13:57 - 14:27
There's this sort of aha moment of like, I know I can book of flight, but I could also use those five minutes to do something constructive. Then when there's a problem with that flight and they got to rebook it. We're not even talking about five minutes more time, about an hour on hold with the airline. If someone else is delegated that responsibility, I can just keep my focus on the artwork of this mix CD that I'm putting out next month. You know, so there's a lot that I picked up on
14:27 - 14:53
while working with Kanye and I think there's certain things that I was doing that rubbed off on him, too. But to the topic of what we're talking about and the sort of entrepreneurial sense and kind of like building a business and structure, those were the years where I realized what a bigger business looks like. And Kanye already in those years was someone who thought big picture to such an extent that I never witnessed.
14:53 - 15:21
I picked up on some of that, too, to see someone who was making a demo in the studio, and already had an idea of what the title of the song was going to be, who was going to direct the video, who's going to co-star in the video, and what demographic was going to be into that song, literally as the beat is being made. You know, it made me think of the big picture in a whole different way because I was just used to everything just being very straightforward.
15:21 - 15:45
or, like I got to set for my show on Saturday. I'm going to go to the city and play my show. And it was just the, some of that is ephemeral, like some of that is just like, you're at the party that night and then it doesn't exist anymore. Well, and your music has changed over the years, of course, you've been developing as an artist. Do you have any major inspirations for your music that stand out to you over your career or influences?
15:46 - 16:20
I come from a tradition of primarily hip-hop deejaying, although if you go to Spotify now, the majority of the music I make is House and electronic. But I'm from that tradition of hip-hop DJs that goes, I mean, you mentioned 70s deejaying, ever since the Paradise Garage and clubs like that, and ever since DJs like Larry Levan, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, ever since those guys laid down the blueprint, there is an approach to deejaying that is all encompassing.
16:20 - 16:46
That's the way that I go about things where, you know, what I do generally falls like the gentry has one foot in the house music and one foot in hip hop and plays a lot with the shared lineage of those things. But there's a lot of curveballs that I play and that means that my inspiration comes from all over the place. And my inspiration also just comes from artists who did some really, really creative sampling.
16:47 - 17:22
So, you know, when I was growing up, the Beastie Boys were a huge inspiration and the Beastie Boys sampled all types of stuff and really subverted what they used and made these I mean, honestly, it's postmodern art. It's collages and it's really, really contextualization. So learning from them, learning from a Tribe Called Quest, but also, like I mentioned, Afrika Bambaataa and those early hip hop DJs also taking that all the way to the Daft Punk and into that lineage of of how some electronic deejays I feed off of all of that.
17:22 - 17:42
I'm a huge fan of EDM and your work, and it's been amazing to watch it evolve over the years. And if you think back to EDM exploding on the scene in what, 2000s, 2010s, where do you see EDM in the music landscape today and where do you see it going? Yeah, it's interesting.
17:42 - 18:14
So EDM, the even the name was coined probably around 2010 or '11, when the explosion of electronic music, in North America specifically, reached the level where it was already, it was already at that level in Europe and a lot of places overseas. But when it became that big in North America, there was also a whole new generation of stars and that term was coined. But to me, it's still, you can call it dance music, you can call it electronic music.
18:14 - 18:45
It comes from Chicago and Detroit from the early or mid-80s. But when EDM blew up around 2010, let's say, on that much bigger level, suddenly you saw Skrillex on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. You saw deadmou5 on the cover of magazines. You saw Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta and Calvin Harris. And there was not to insert myself too much in the story, but I remember when billboards put Diplo, myself and Skrillex on the cover.
18:45 - 19:16
That was a pretty big statement to say, like DJs are grabbing the wheel. It got so big that, it also just meant that deejaying a whole blew up. So, EDM blew up, but it brought the legitimacy and just the very reality of a DJ on another level. So hip-hop DJs even felt the impact. It just became this idea that DJs, and even it was even more powerful than that. It was DJs.
19:16 - 19:38
But even like people making music on laptops are the future, that, that's what it became. Because then you started seeing hip-hop producers putting down their hardware samplers and working on laptops, too. So it was a huge paradigm shift and it became big business. And there was all kinds of articles about who's getting paid, how much in Vegas or whatever you may have read in those articles.
19:38 - 20:03
I personally didn't make quite that much. I would read that something and I'm like, I'm not making this. But I mean, even for me, having a record like Barbra Streisand at that time and my remix for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that was pretty big, too. And a couple of things that happened around the same time. My business grew a lot as well. And as with everything in trends and music, you know, what goes around comes around.
20:03 - 20:26
And this is the point where people start saying, the bubble is going to burst, the bubble burst. And in the last two or three years or so, there's the sense that that EDM is not as predominant as it was in 2013 or '14. But the thing is and if you look at you look at the charts, you see it right away. Now, hip-hop is back to being the biggest genre in the world.
20:26 - 20:51
You see way less EDM tracks in the charts as you did five or six years ago. But I think there's a sort of permanent presence that is there now where sonically there's sort of like attributes or just elements of the song sonics of EDM production that infiltrated everything.
20:51 - 21:15
So where there's like, I mean, Dua Lipa, her music is electro disco, you could say, you know, like it's, she's one of the biggest artists in the world. Lady Gaga made a disco house album, essentially. So even though it doesn't look at first sight like EDM dominates the charts, the language penetrated mass culture.
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We went from a place pre that explosion, like, pre 2010. Before that, I would say deejaying didn't really have legitimacy.
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And you could walk in certain rooms and say, I could walk in certain rooms and say I'm a DJ. And people would still say, oh, what radio station are you on? Or, you know, I remember like the playing, the details are always fun.
21:39 - 22:14
I remember having this one specific type of work visa to travel in the US for my shows because I'm on a Canadian passport. I've had a green card for a long time now, but at first I had these work visas and there's different tiers of work visas. And after a while I had what's called an O1 visa, which is like the highest standing of a musician, it's the one Celine Dion probably has, like it's the top-tier musician visa. And I remember sometimes crossing the border and before EDM was that big, and the border agents would say, a deejay with O1, you must be some type of DJ.
22:14 - 22:30
I can't tell you how many times like those exact words were said. You must be some type of DJ. Because of the border agent. And they were just like, they're giving an O1 to a DJ, like that's what they'd give to a big musician. Whereas like, fast forward a few years, when EDM was huge, I would cross the border.
22:30 - 22:56
And they would say, what do you do? I'm a DJ. Oh, you're a DJ, oh, man, my son went to Ultra last year, he loved it. Like, it became part of people's lives. Yeah. You were at the first Coachella, right? I mean, I remember back in 2011 when we were kicking off the Sports and Entertainment group for Bernstein, and I was lucky enough to be working with some folks at the top of the DJ pool and the nightclubs in Vegas.
22:56 - 23:06
And these guys are getting millions to headline. And the line out the door is thousands people long. And the craze was just so big, everybody wanted a piece of it.
23:06 - 23:39
Yeah, really amazing. So I want to shift gears a little bit towards the end of our conversation here around some advice. So a couple of questions there. What's the greatest piece of investment advice that you've been given as you've been so successful? And it doesn't have to be something from me. Any great advice you've ever gotten? Yeah, I'm trying to think back. I mean, look, and I'll start by saying this. There's a few things that I picked up early on that I was fortunate to have. I think where I grew up in a household where money was not an end goal.
23:39 - 24:13
When I said earlier that my parents are intellectuals, there's many sides to that statement and also means that my parents would never really talk to me and Dave about, here's what you should do with your money, just financial advice in general. It was, it was cultural conversations. But my mom, somewhere along the way, between her and my dad, it was my mom who took charge of even their retirement funds and their savings, and when I started making a bit of money with deejaying, my mom took me to her financial planner up in Montreal.
24:14 - 24:15
I was still a teenager.
24:15 - 24:37
And I had a little bit of like excess money, stuff that didn't really need to sit around in my bank account. And she said, you should put some money in some sort of investment, like put some money away that you're not going to touch for a long time. And I remember even that financial planner that I met when I was a teen explaining to me this idea that there's some of the money that you're putting away where you're not going to want to look at the ups and downs.
24:37 - 24:52
And the idea is to just leave that for at least a couple of years and let the market do its thing on that. And I think I was fortunate to learn that very basic elementary idea early on.
24:52 - 25:18
And I started putting some money into retirement funds, quite young, too. So I wasn't making a ton of money. But that idea of having some sort of stash somewhere for the future, save for a rainy day was something that I started with pretty early on. And I think that's the best thing, because anything else that I picked up on later on just kind of builds on builds on that. That's great. And so important.
25:18 - 25:43
How about more generally, what advice would you give a young artist today getting started in the music business. For a young artist getting started in this sort of field, even anything that's close to hip-hop and electronic music, I always see like there's the most important thing is to stand out, to sort of hone in on what your style is as an artist and to perfect that. Because there's just such a mass.
25:43 - 25:54
There's a saturation of people who want to be musicians. And I'm a big proponent of the affordability of equipment nowadays.
25:54 - 26:19
I didn't mention this earlier, but I bought my first turntable with bar mitzvah money. I was lucky to have some bar mitzvah money. It wasn't a lot, a turntable was $400. But as a 13 year old, I had $400. Nowadays someone can download cracked software and get into music for free. The flip side of the fact that sort of financial barrier of entry isn't there anymore for equipment is there's a bazillion people trying to make it.
26:19 - 26:37
So if someone is an up and comer and they're just getting into this game, the best thing you can do is, is to figure out what it is that defines you as an artist. And some people figure that out early on and other people have to experiment for a while.
26:37 - 26:58
And I think it becomes a sort of balancing act between learning the craft and honing in on your own style. So if you're not particularly sure at the very beginning what your style is going to be and you just love music, then you could definitely spend six months learning how to actually use production software or DJ equipment or controllers or whatever.
26:58 - 27:16
You're going to need expertise anyways. But sooner or later, it's important to have, like, the elevator pitch, like, how would you describe in one sentence what your style is? Because if you're not even able to describe that for yourself, other people on the outside aren't going to see that.
27:16 - 27:49
And at the end of the day, this is a bookings business. Someone has to have a reason to hire you, whether it be to DJ their party or to produce their demo or whatever. So if you stand for something that gives people a reason to come to you. That's great. And I think that even that advice broadens even past the music business. And it sounds like or it certainly seems that your bar mitzvah money was used to make a very good investment. You can rely on that! So now we're coming up to the end of our time here.
27:49 - 27:58
So what I'd like to do now is just go through some rapid fire questions. So you're 38, right? You've done so much. What are you most proud of?
27:59 - 28:34
I think what I'm most proud of is inspiring other DJs to get into this field. Awesome. Who is an artist who inspires you right now? I look to my elders a lot. There's DJs like Jazzy Jeff, for example, who've been around for years before me and are still relevant. Now I'm into the longevity thing, so I would name him. If you are not an artist, what career would you have likely pursued instead? You know, I studied physics and I was a science major and I think I have that sort of scientific mind.
28:34 - 28:44
I'm not sure what that profession would have been exactly, but it probably would have been something in something in the scientific field. You might have been battling with Elon Musk, you never know.
28:44 - 29:00
From the outside in life as a DJ, kind of looks like one big party after another. How do you stay healthy and when do you sleep? Oh man, sleep becomes the most precious thing when you're touring. And staying healthy,
29:00 - 29:23
you know, I think there's a point where it just becomes a priority. There's a point after years of touring where you realize, when you actually realize how different you feel if you eat well on the roads versus if you don't pay attention to it. You know, there's just this sort of a light bulb that says, this is the road to take.
29:23 - 29:46
Everyone has a different physical disposition, different metabolism, I'm not really built up for the hard partying thing. I do better when I eat well. I think we all learn that as we get older, right? Yeah. Look, I think that's a great place to end. Alain, thank you so much for joining me to wrap up Season 1 of The Big Stage. It was really awesome getting to chat with you. Thanks. Yeah, for sure. Thank you.
29:46 - 30:15
Thanks for having me. Thank you all for listening. This has been The Big Stage. If you enjoyed this episode and haven't subscribed to our podcast yet, please go to Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please e-mail us with your thoughts, questions, and feedback to insights@Bernstein.com and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at BernsteinPWM. Bernstein: making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.
- Adam Sansiveri
- Senior Managing Director