Toronto's clubs were recently taken over by the world championship finals of Red Bull's Thre3style DJ competition. Unlike traditional turntablist battles, Thre3style sets require competitors to play at least three different genres over the span of a 15-minute set, which forces them to think beyond just lightning-fast techniques.
In the end, Japan's DJ Shintaro took home the 2013 crown with his cheeky Nintendo-referencing set and laser-focused scratching. It was the kind of performance that touched on the tradition of vinyl hip-hop DJing, but also took full advantage of the toolbox of the modern laptop DJ to win over both crowds and judges.
DJ A-Trak (aka Alain Macklovitch) was one of those judges, and it's easy to see why he's associated himself with the competition. While he's best known now as the co-founder of the influential Fools Gold record label and for being half of the production duo Duck Sauce, Macklovitch first came on the scene in the '90s as a teenage competitive scratch DJ protege. He cleaned up at all the major competitions, and even developed a system for transcribing scratch routines, all before he even hit 20.
During his competitive era, DJs were on even ground technology-wise, as they all had to work with the same limitations of two turntables, a mixer, and a pile of vinyl. Now, the laptop has taken such a central spot in DJing that figuring out what's actually going on up there isn't as simple anymore.
"We're at a point now where most current fans who go to clubs to hear DJs would not only think it's normal to have a laptop on stage, but they would expect it. If they didn't see a laptop, they would be puzzled. Sometimes when a DJ is playing with software, it's possible to do tricks that are kind of planned out in advance, but that comes with the times, so you can't really fight that," Macklovitch admits. "Thankfully Thre3style gets very competent judges who are very technically experienced DJs. We can tell when something is pre-produced and when something is done live. As a DJ you can just tell."
Nevertheless, the line between live and pre-produced can be fuzzy sometimes. After all, even back in the '70s, DJs were going into the studio to make personal tape edits of big hits. These days you can re-edit a track during your cab ride to your gig.
"I'm not against making edits, and I do them myself for my sets. I would have to be really stubborn to refuse to use them. The line you have to draw as a judge is when it comes to the actual tricks and scratching. It's not cheating to set up a file where one sample is placed right before the next sample you plan on using in a routine. It's smart and efficient. But if you pre-produce your files with sound effects that give the impression you're doing some amazing scratching, that's wack. When it's time to scratch, scratch."
The multi-genre aspect of Thre3style also is a big factor for what makes it different from traditional turntablist competitions. It's an approach that naturally favours eclectic DJs, and one that just wouldn't have made as much sense back when hip-hop and dance music were as sharply divided as they used to be
"I've definitely made conscious efforts over the past five or six years to bring hip-hop and dance music and electronic closer together, in North America at least. They both originally come from the same starting point of DJing. There was a fork in the road at some point, but I think they've converged again in recent years. Sometimes I look at what has come out of it and I ask myself 'what have I done?' For the most part though, I'm still totally down, and I'm proud."