Photo Credit: Dan Krauss & Erik Voake
Content Credit: Red Bulletin
A Cadillac Escalade exits South Beach Boulevard and passes a fountain atop a high black wall, then turns and slows to stop on the polished brick of the porte cochere of the Fontainebleau Hotel. Out of an opened door steps a manager-looking guy with an iPhone and a turntable-sized backpack, and then Alain Macklovitch, also known as DJ A-Trak.
He’s here to play one sold-out show, tonight, at LIV, the plush club favored by Lebron James, Lil’ Wayne, and other high-rolling locals that’s deep inside the hotel and was part of a $1 billion renovation a few years ago.
As they cross into a lobby you may have seen on The Sopranos, Scarface, or Police Academy 5, The Manager lists tonight’s sequence of events: set up at LIV and powwow with the sound/light guys, have dinner with someone named Dave Grutman, and then the show.
“Should be very smooth,” The Manager says.
“When do I play?” asks A-Trak.
DJ A-Trak was born 31 years ago to a working-class family in Montreal. His dad, whom he describes as an “intellectual,” was a bit of an audiophile, or at least had a big record collection that included Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees, and John Lee Hooker. Alain was 12 when he first scratched on dad’s turntable for his brother Dave (who would become half of electrofunk duo Chromeo). Soon he was besting friends at one-on-one scratch/mimic contests. He bought a mixer with his bar mitzvah money and started practicing “about 18 hours a day.” Two years later he won the three biggest DJing contests in the world.
Tonight is a medium high-profile gig for A-Trak, and the check’s going to be pretty good, considering he’s rumored to bill $500,000 a show these days. Whatever the club’s paying him, it’s a good investment, because it’s sold out and bottle service here reportedly runs in the $1,000s. LIV will both profit and further its VIP image as the place celebrities, and, yes, A-Trak like to party.
It’ll be a good show, in part because he likes clubs. As a producer and label owner who has appeared in and scored ads by Grey Goose and Adidas, a guy who once filled Madison Square Garden, you might think he’s moved out of clubs.
“When you’re playing live—it’s a fix you get right there and then, on the spot,” he says. “DJing, I’m not gonna play a song for more than three minutes. So when I drop a song, I need to know what the next two are gonna be. The crowd keeps you on your toes. For me, that’s exhilarating.”
It’s time for the private soundcheck. They go, and upon their return are quickly greeted by Dave Grutman. In black shoes, pants, T-shirt, and sport jacket, he crosses the bar’s frosted blue floor with three short-skirted friends and a big smile.
If this were Entourage, Grutman would be Ari Gold. He owns and operates LIV and possibly the whole city of Miami. He has a lot of friends (Wayne used to play Sundays here, for free), and one of them is A-Trak. After a bro hug they head downstairs for one of Grutman’s famous pre-show dinner parties, ascending a curved open staircase, crossing the thick carpet, and sliding into the celebrity table at Gotham Steak.
Grutman holds court while the girls text and the servers bring it: Parker House rolls, crunchy corn, and long cuts of deeply seasoned aged steak with mashed potatoes that are mostly butter. There’s also a sommelier, a coffee person, and a guy who says his name is Purple, who has a CIA-ish earpiece running up out of his collar and keeps coming over to kneel by Grutman, then runs away again.
It wasn’t always like this, though early on it was evident A-Trak was going places. By 1997 A-Trak was touring internationally and electronic dance music (EDM) was on an unseen meteoric rise. Popular since discotheques replaced electric instruments with electronica in the late ’70s, by the late ’90s basically anyone with a computer could make, edit, upload, and download music. This is when EDM music festivals started popping up and DJs started booking gigs at places like Lollapalooza.
Touring helped build A-Trak’s collection of international records. He played arenas, bars, clubs, hotels, private parties, and record stores and by then was downloading libraries of reggae and a cappella on his computer. In 2004, a customer browsing a London record store stopped and stood mesmerized by the DJ in the corner. That customer was Kanye West, and A-Trak was very soon his personal tour DJ. He was 22.
A-Trak’s relationship with the audience is widely acknowledged in the industry as a big key to his success. He reads his audience, reacts, and then reacts to the crowd’s reaction. This, he says, is why he never makes a solid set list. He doesn’t just want his audience happy; he wants his audience engaged.
“The vibe is different each time,” he says. “The first half hour is different than every other first half hour. Sometimes people are ready to go when you jump on. Sometimes it’s dead, so you need to spark it.”
He says for a three-hour set like the one he’ll play tonight, “there’s not a lot of preparation,” but it’s more like an OCD brand of nonpreparation. A-Trak has a few songs he knows the audience wants to hear, and knows how to play them the same way every time. But he also has “pools” of other songs, rough set lists of house, electronic, hip-hop, disco, and classic rock. And every song can be exponentially manipulated.
“There’s more variables,” he says. “So I can be ready.”
Ready for what?
This approach and his legendary work ethic help explain why things for him just keep going up. After working with Kanye, he’d soon collaborate with everyone from Travis Barker to Armand Van Helden, the American DJ with whom he formed the duo Duck Sauce. Their disco-inspired 2010 house track “Barbra Streisand” scored a Grammy nomination and was No. 1 in seven countries. Last summer he came home to headline the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Half an hour before showtime, A-Trak’s at a big desk in his room. At soundcheck he found his new remix of “Phoenix” lacking and wants to tweak it before its debut.
“There’s not enough sub-bass below the kick,” he says, toggling between a black MacBook and a large flatscreen. He clicks and drags across both screens, cutting and pasting from tiny-fonted lists and fluctuating graphs and pulsing color wheels and what looks like a periodic table from Uranus or something.
The Manager paces the room, then steps out, giving a reporter a chance to ask The Question. If you’re up on A-Trak news, or even if you’re not, you might know The Question, or rather, The Comment he made about a recent ad Jay-Z did for Samsung. It’s an annoying pop-up video of Jay standing in an apartment somewhere with a not-obese Rick Rubin, holding a Samsung device while working on his new record.
A-Trak called the ad “corny” on Twitter and was promptly written up in basically every hip-hop and DJ blog on the Internet.
“OK,” he says, swiveling around. “I’m not against brand collaborations at all, because it’s a fact that nowadays artists can’t rely on record sales, right?”
He’s waiting for an answer. And when he gets one, he continues: “And I don’t think today’s audience thinks twice when they see or hear a piece of music that’s presented by a brand … the only thing I think is whack is when you see an artist do a commercial or a brand project and it seems like the check or the brand’s own gain is the first concern. Like if it sounds like they made too much of a compromise, or the video’s cheesy—then it’s not worth it.”
It’s time. He takes his hat from a chair and walks with Grutman down a stairwell, then a many-angled hallway with a poured floor. It’s like that scene in Spinal Tap, with piles of crates, water jugs, and now people. There are dancers in costume and not in costume. There are people who follow on all sides.
Nothing fazes A-Trak. He seems both mellow and excited, and truly happy to be here. If someone, anyone, asks for a picture, he replies “of course,” and stops for the shot to be taken.
The hall crowd parts as someone in the multitude opens a door that says TEAM MEMBERS ONLY. Waiting on the other side of it is LIV. It’s at full capacity. The sound hits like a breaking wave. Through a gap up ahead you can see dense beams of calico light. A-Trak steps up into the DJ booth and sees his audience for the first time.
The crowd’s roar expands and contracts. The spotlights shine rose red and OJ yellow and bright, bright aqua, and have conical, tree-trunk-sized beams that shoot through air. Everyone’s waving long, spectral lightsabers that make a crosshatch neon haze over the rolling sea of bodies.
A-Trak’s looking at the room. It’s the ingenuous look of a child seeing the ocean for the first time. It’s all new. Every night and tonight. He steps up, holds a headphone to his ear, and throws a switch. The tables turn, and he holds up a hand curled in a 1. The crowd somehow gets louder, and as the song builds and builds and they wait for the drop, he brings his hand, still in a 1, down to a button on the box to his left.
The button says A-Trak.
Photo Credit: Dan Krauss & Erik Voake
Content Credit: Red Bulletin