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.
Duck Sauce, mid-interview. All photos by Chris Klassen.
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.