Q&A: A-Trak and Armand Van Helden Talk (and Talk and Talk) Duck Sauce, "Barbra Streisand," and Doing Karaoke With Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig
When A-Trak (Alain Macklovitch) and Armand Van Helden teamed up as Duck Sauce for last year's dance hit, "aNYway", we were surprised, then pleased, then completely addicted. The production duo shares roots in old-school hip-hop and club-friendly, sample-based dance production, but come from entirely different worlds. To give an idea: In 1997, a fifteen-year-old A-Trak was busy winning the world DMC Championship. He would spend that year, and the rest of his teens, known as one of the youngest, most talented scratch performers to ever exist. 1997 was also the year that Armand released his Greatest Hits compilation (on infamous house label, Strictly Rhythms) and Sampleslaya--a party breakbeat album. His next single, "U Don't Know Me", dropped later in the year and went to the #2 spot on Billboard pop charts.
Since then, A-Trak has gone from scratch champion to Kanye's DJ to Fool's Gold label-founder and production guru. Armand has continued to put out hit records-- most recently, 2006's "My My My" peaked at #2 on Billboard's dance charts, and 2007's "I Want Your Soul" did the same. With the wave of disco revival that has been sweeping through dance music in the last few years, it was only a matter of time until these two met. The result of that meeting? The birth of Duck Sauce, creators of delightfully nonsensical and catchy club bangers. The pair's second single--debuting a year after their first go-- had quite a buzz before it even came out. This probably had something to do with the title--"Barbra Streisand"--but it also had a lot to do with the fact that the song turned out to be insanely catchy. The star-studded video--featuring Kanye, Pharrell, Questlove, and Ezra Koenig--didn't hurt either. We caught up with the A-Trak and Armand yesterday (the day of the single's official release) in Union Square to chat about the project.
How did the name Duck Sauce come about?
A-Trak: We were looking for a name for a little while. We had this long list of names. Actually, Armand had a bunch of names. He's good at them.
Armand: So are you!
A-Trak: No, I'm not very good at coming up with names. I just know when I like them and I have a few people that I go around and ask. It ended up being the guy who does our artwork, Dust La Rock, who came up with it - he gave me a list of a dozen names including Duck Sauce. For me it was funny because I always used to make jokes about duck sauce. I was really mad about it when I saw it cause it was like, "Why didn't I think of that?" So yeah, it came from Dust and I liked it right away and Armand liked it right away.
There's no significance to it at all?
A-Trak: It was one of those things where if it's dope, it's dope!
Armand: Yeah, it came down to where we had three and out of those three I saw "Duck Sauce" and was like, "Yeah that's it, for sure."
A-Trak: For me, I usually run names by Kanye and Fool's Gold, because Kanye would always get a trip out at these names I'd use for my projects. Kanye was obsessed with the name "Sunglasses Is A Must", which was the name of my 2006 tour. He wanted to buy that name from me. So, when I can't decide on a name, I'll hit him up and he'll tell me right away whether it's good. I remember hitting him up about "Duck Sauce" and he goes "Oh yeah. For sure." If you wanna look for some sort of meaning - it's kinda New York. Like, New York Chinese takeout.
Yeah, you have a very "New York" branding to you.
A-Trak: Yeah, the ["Barbra Streisand"] video kind of made that explicit to everyone, when that's what it's been from the start. It's just that people didn't pick up on it right away. Then the video was kind of like, "Alright, let's make this clear." But yeah, that's what we've been aiming for from the start. I remember when I first met Armand, we both found that we had a similar approach of being these hip-hop kids that somehow got into house music but have still remained hip-hop kids. We're still on the sidelines - like, we don't go and hang out at the house clubs fist-pumping, and we don't really listen to dance music at home. We just make it.
Both of us are transplants too. He's from Boston, I'm from Montreal. I think it's this East Coast hip-hop mentality, this b-boy mentality, that's very definitive of our approach. So, when I think of Duck Sauce I think about how, in New York, everyone gets Chinese takeout with the little bags of duck sauce. I used to make all these Seinfeld-ish jokes about it - "What is duck sauce? Is it made from ducks? Or is it for duck?"
Armand: Also with the New York thing - A-Trak had this idea to do disco-house and in my mind when I think of the whole disco era, more than any city in the world, this city is disco. A lot of people will say there are different homes, but I would say that the great majority of record labels and artists came from here. Maybe Philadelphia, but even then...
A-Trak: New York had the whole clubbing thing.
Armand: Yeah, New York has the nightlife of the disco era. So, in a way, that kind of draws back to our connection to New York. Really, back in those days, dance sets were broken up into a lot of different flavors. It was only when it got into the '90s that things became fragmented, and New York's style has always been about mashing stuff up and doing crazy stuff - going from one kind of sound to another kind of sound, and that was always how the New York DJs did things. They never stayed in one place because that was too simple. For New Yorkers, at least.
So, it's not all humor.
Armand: I'm glad there's humor to it because everybody takes this shit way too seriously. So I'm really glad there's humor that goes with it. Look at it this way - I think for a lot of people, especially the young crowd, they think this is brand new and this is far from brand new. This goes back as far as I've been doing this--it's really a hip-hop perspective. It's sampling. So, if you want to go "Aw, that's just lame. They just ripped this or that off"--well, you can go back to basically three-quarters of hip-hop through the mid '80s to early '90s and it's just sampling. They might be obscure jazz records, but it's still sampling.
A-Trak: It's funny because some of the newer rock kids might not know that. Some of those kids go, "Oh, you just sampled a record, so isn't this just a remix?" You kind of feel like sitting them down and saying, "Hey, all these records you hear at the club and in every DJ set are also samples."
Armand: You have to have an extensive music-mind, or have a lot of history to get to and execute the point. Like, Daft Punk, obviously.
A-Trak: Yeah, "Harder Better Faster Stronger".
Armand: You know, when we first finished our stuff, he got it over to them. I wasn't there, but he played it for them because, you know what - they're it. Basically, with Daft Punk, we're not necessarily emulating them, but we're reaching for the same thing.
A-Trak: They're the models.
Armand: Exactly. They're the bar. We'll never pass it, but they're still it. We look up to them.
Was there any specific inspiration to "Barbra Streisand" or did you mold it around the sample?
Armand: There was a little inspiration to it, that I mentioned the idea to Alain at the time. But it was really because I collect music videos and it just happened to be one of my recent finds. It was just something that I had gotten down on Broadway--there's this old guy that sells DVD concerts, but he had a couple of music video compilations and one of them was disco. It was like sixty disco music videos on a disc and one of them was that Boney M [song ultimately sampled on the track]. Then I remembered that Friendly Fires did a song--"Kiss of Life", I think it's called--and I remember thinking it was very similar.
A-Trak: Oh yeah! With the sing-a-long.
Armand: Yeah, the sing-a-long. So I thought that idea was kind of nice and simple. But you gotta understand that's just the basic loop. When we were looking at "Barbra Streisand" without the words "Barbra Streisand", it was just called "Do Do Do". In the beginning stages, when it was just me and [A-Trak] and when we were working on it, he really thought he heard a song with Speedy Gonzales. Like, that it sounded like a mouse--a mouse running. The point is when you just take these bits in parts, there's really nothing there. You have to build something and pull things together to make it something else.
A-Trak: It sounds dumb, but what we really did to that song was adding the words "Barbra Streisand". Well, okay, it's two things. For one, on a sonic level, even though we did just loop Boney M, it's getting it to groove a certain way and getting the drums to knock a certain way. That's the very primal reaction you get when you play it. It hits certain frequencies or it just makes you want to dance a certain way. That's kind of the studio know-how or wizardry that allows us to do that. And then the other addition is the X factor, I would say--which in our case, is the "Barbra Streisand" So we played with the track and got the loop and the sound and the drums the way that we wanted it, and then....
Armand: And then we sat on it for a while, because we thought, "Well, it's stupid."
A-Trak: (laughs) Which it was! You gotta understand that the words "Barbra Streisand" overshadow the music now. I remember when we first picked that sample, I kind of had cold feet about even using it because it's kind of silly. It's just a little sing-a-long and I thought, "Man, this is kind of dumb, but it's also really catchy and people might want to sing along to it."
Armand: He was the one that was like, "Look, lets just go back to this track." We were working on another song and we got tired of it and decided to go back to this. And we thought, "Something needs to happen here."
A-Trak: I remember I had this idea where I was like, "We gotta say something stupid." The idea was first for me to put some sort of word there, some sort of silly sample. Then, instead of looking for a sample, Armand was like, "We should just say something." It went from that to "Say someone's name." Then Armand had a moment where he was like, "I got it! We gotta say someone's name, someone in music, who has nothing to do with this." And that led us to Barbra Streisand. I talked to Armand earlier and know he hasn't been following the charts - he didn't even know that the single officially dropped in the U.S. today. Have you been watching them, Alain? You've reached #1 on dance charts in UK and Australia.
Armand: Dance or pop?
A-Trak: It's #2 on ITunes charts, #1 on dance charts. The overall charts are going to come in next week - but they're saying its gonna be in the top three.
Armand: See, that's the one I'd know about. I guess that's why I haven't been paying attention. Usually I'll check the pop lists.
Is there even any excitement there?
A-Trak: For me, definitely. He's had a bunch of these and I haven't had any. I'm super excited!
Part of the reason the single has gotten so much attention here is because of the video that came out last week. Especially because of the cameos from Premo, Questlove, Kanye, Pharrell, and so on. How did you get everyone involved?
Armand: Called them (laughs). Ask him, he has all the contacts.
A-Trak: The concept was from SoMe, the director. He had the idea. I loved it right away because really, the cameos weren't the main focus. The main idea was that the video would be a whole sequence--a collection of short scenes of us doing stuff in New York and, while we're at it, running into all these people that we know. It was using that idea and then it was also about showing their skills--showing the best drummer, showing me scratching, showing a concert scene. But then, also throwing in a lot of raw New York stuff. There was also a conversation with SoMe--again, coming back to hip-hop and the Beastie Boys--where we sort of wanted something that looks like a classic skate video. That was the vision for the whole thing. Just out doing silly stuff. That's why there's that scene of us being chefs.
Did you pick and choose who you wanted to be in the video or did you just call everyone you know and hoped that some would come through?
A-Trak: Yeah, we did. Well, it started with a lot of video planning with just me and SoMe and then I told Armand about the idea. He was down right away. You've only been in two of your videos before, right?
Armand: Yeah, I've never liked to be in videos.
A-Trak: So, when it was just an idea and I go, "Are you down to be in this? Okay cool. Let me work on it." And then, SoMe and I made a list of people and he kept telling me, "You know you're going to have to be the one to call these people, right?" It was cool though because I know all those people but I've never asked for anything. I never ask for favors and always do my own stuff, and it's for situations like this... because when I want to do a tour de force, it's like (snaps fingers) "Alright Pharrell! Let's go!"
Also, last year, Pharrell asked me to DJ this art show he was curating in LA and I was more than happy to do it. Afterward, he's like "Hey, if you ever need anything, let me know." It's the kind of thing where you keep that in your pocket and when it's time to make this video you're like "Alright Skateboard, come over!" Almost everyone was down though, there were very few people that we couldn't get. The main obstacle was getting everyone in New York, because at the end of the day we were shooting in New York. This is a small budget video, this was a very inexpensive video. It's all just a matter of being resourceful. It took seven days and we just roamed around town.
Armand: It was actually really fun though. Alain had to set up all of the meets, but besides that, we actually had a good time. It was Labor Day weekend and there were tons of parties.
A-Trak: I had three shows that weekend.
Armand: Yeah, exactly. It was just really fun. You know how you do video shoots that last three days in some lab or something? This was just like, "Okay, at 5 p.m. we gotta be somewhere, until then let's just chill." It was just whatever, it was real loose. I like that though--it was more basically getting to hang out while somebody filmed it. Kind of like what we're doing now.
I liked the part with Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend, mostly because his bit was so homemade and budget. Was that his own doing or yours?
A-Trak: Well of everyone that was in the video, Ezra and P-Thugg are the only ones that weren't filmed on location. Ezra literally filmed in his hotel because he loved it. You know, he was on tour when I sent him the song. My brother and I hang out with him a lot, so it was cool. He's hung out with me and Armand a few times--we've gone karaokeing.
Armand: That's a funny story actually. We went to do karaoke with him and I didn't know who he was--I did know his band though--and he goes to do his first song. Also, you have to know that everyone was just joking and kind of messing around, you know being like, (makes quacking sound). So Dave [of Chromeo] was there and he was good and then all of a sudden this amazing voice comes on. I was looking at Alain like, (mouth drops). Oh, and by the way Nick--Nick Catchdubs--he can sing something amazing. Oh man, he's an amazing, amazing singer.
A-Trak: Yeah! We found that out during karaoke. We were like, "How did we never know this?"
Armand: I told Alain that I want to put him on a Duck Sauce song.
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