Listening to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, it’s possible to imagine that generations of musical progress have brought us back to the dawn of jazz, that through some cosmic stop-time Kid Koala has become a contemporary of Kid Ory. Born Eric San, the 25-year-old Montreal turntablist plays part-time in a jazz-funk combo called Bullfrog, who appear on two tracks here; he’s interested in the sound of a scratch break emerging from a broader arrangement. “Drunk Trumpet” transforms the vinyl outcry of jazz’s first soloing instrument into an equally personal kind of solo with pitch modulations and other handworked shifts. “Roll Credits” ends the CD by invoking the vaudeville banjo that might have accompanied a Keystone Kops loop.
Koala is a great DJ on basic skills alone, schooled in all the hard moves, but he works harder to entertain beyond turntablism’s visually dependent parlor tricks. He’s fond of narrative, coming up with concepts like “Fender Bender,” where a blur of accelerated vocal slices stands in for people arguing after the crash. He animates his cuts: a rooster crows in “Music for Morning People,” there’s “Like Irregular Chickens” too, and a cow butts into “A Night at the Nufonia.” But mostly his tactic is to interrupt his music with running arguments about his music: “We’re nothing but the nerds they say we are,” a voice bemoans early on. “And that, of course, is what he deserved, for pretending to be a musician when he was only a butcher,” another bit concludes.
Maybe it’s the influence of the instructional records that he reveres, or having his head turned by 3 Feet High and Rising as a teen. For Koala, a groove isn’t a groove unless it’s being farted at, or touted with mock formality, or turned into an instrument of lounge-lizard seduction. He presents himself as martial-arts aspirant and gameboy (in your computer, the CD becomes Vinoids, where you shoot at 12-inches instead of asteroids), mastering his craft through pseudoscientific training and ritual humiliation. He’s a dork trying to make it with girls, à la Handsome Boy Modeling School, but unlike Prince Paul he remains a dork. Most of all, he’s a cartoon: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome comes with a dialogue-free 35-page comic about a young DJ’s gestational and romantic odyssey, which includes being trapped inside a box of Disco Flakes for four years.
San, also a child of his label boss Coldcut’s sampladelic “Paid in Full” remix, could indulge his cartoonish impulses more baldly on his last album, Scratchcratchratchatch, where he was free to sample as he chose because the cassette was never released commercially (you can stream it at Kidkoala.com). On “Emperor’s Crash Course in Cantonese,” music from The Last Emperor hits against a Cantonese language tape. “Dinner With Yoda” offers advice about controlling the Force. There’s a quick Björk medley, a Wonder Woman record, and most famously “Tricks n’ Treats,” where the Peanuts gang compare loot and Koala role model Charlie Brown complains: “I got a rock.” (Might be a pun in that.) The easy IDs balanced with more traditional scratching, though the abstract selected for Return of the DJ Vol. II still took the form of a “Static’s Waltz”—Koala instinctively reaches beyond his genre.
It was years before Carpal Tunnel Syndrome followed, as the auteur raised his sights: the new album is less loony-tune, more like one of those claymation art films where every frame seems sculpted, anchored with club-worthy melodies like “Fender Bender” and “A Night at the Nufonia.” Koala rejected underground-celebrity cameos: the charm of this album is its air of smallness, taken in part from all the comix San obviously reads. (He reminds me of fellow Canadian Chester Brown, another slow worker responsible for the casually wicked Yummy Fur.) DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, maybe the only other sampling album this rockishly ambitious, guns at the world-historic like Gang of Four. Koala turns the bragging on an old sound effects record into a 2000-Year-Old Man routine that mocks the very idea of progress—and his own futurism.
But what he’s doing is historic, the kind of stuff that opens doors in the middle of walls. Ninja Tune sent me a tape of San in front of tens of thousands at the Montreal Jazz Festival on a windy day, losing the thread of his three-turntable juggling act in the breeze for a bit before recovering to ace “Drunk Trumpet.” Not a block-rockin’ beatboy, but no abstract scientist either. A self-deprecating Asian instead of a beaming black man, blowing notes of pleasure and self-challenge out of a stack of wax.
Kid Koala plays February 28 at Other Music and February 29 at Joe’s Pub.