By Gord Westmacott
It's hard to imagine how a 25-year-old Chinese Canadian from Montreal could possibly be at the cutting edge of hip-hop, but that's exactly the position scratch DJ Eric San, aka Kid Koala has found himself in. "I just sort of do what I do," he explains in a low-key, self-effacing style that has become a trademark. "You can ask some people and they'll say it's hip-hop. I'm not terribly concerned about that anymore. Where you're from, what you're parents listened to - you can't change that. The music I make just reflects what I grew up with." But while Kid Koala may not be all that concerned with his place in the pantheon of hip-hop, his already impressive career has definitely put him there.
Born in Vancouver, Kid Koala grew up in Montreal and played classical piano for 10 years before gravitating towards hip-hop. "By the time I reached my teenage years I started to not enjoy that whole [classical music] scene. The whole competition recital and memorization of ways to play things. It just seemed like a lot of boring drills. With hip-hop, although there was structure there was a very individual creative thing. There were rules in hip-hop, but the first rules for me were always do something fresh or break it up or freak somebody out."
At 18 he had already battled his way to the top of Montreal's DJ food chain and become a recognized name among a loosely knit group of DJs at the forefront of an emerging genre known as turntablism. Turntablism focuses exclusively on the DJ and his / her ability to create instrumental collages of beats, scratching and found sounds and found its roots in the mid 1990s on the U.S. west coast where a community of people alienated from the cash-money malaise of mainstream hip-hop struck out to reinvent the genre and take it back to its roots - something that clearly caught Kid Koala's attention.
"Before there was all this sort of imaging around it, [hip-hop] was always just people talking at block parties and throwing all sorts of weird records in the mix," he says. "And you'd go because you wanted to hear something that would freak you out." Kid Koala's 1996 cassette-only release, Scratchcratchratchatch, fit well into the emerging genre, illustrating the technical prowess and creativity turntablism celebrated and turning more than a few heads when 154 records made their way into his mix, including samples of Björk, the themes from The Last Emperor and The Untouchables, Samuel L. Jackson and a twisted reconfiguration of Genesis' "Land Of Confusion." Only about 500 copies of the tape ever made it into circulation, but they have all become heavily sought-after commodities. About two years ago, the tape fell upon the ears of the staff of the UK-based Ninja Tune Records, one of the world's leading electronic, DJ-oriented labels. Calling him "probably the hottest scratch DJ" they'd ever seen, the label promptly signed him and released his long-awaited debut CD, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in February.
One of the things that appealed to the label and that has always set Kid Koala apart from other DJs on the scene is his sense of humor. He has always been as likely to scratch Jim Henson soundtracks as James Brown breaks and insists on looking beyond traditional hip-hop sources for inspiration, finding most of his records at garage sales, Salvation Army outlets and thrift stores.
"You have your crate [of records] in your life and some records just stick with you," he explains. "Just like [De La Soul's] Three Feet High and Rising, so did Monty Python's Final Rip Off. I've got two copies of that. To me you only need one ingredient [for DJing] and that's records, and that's it."
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome stretched turntablism's boundaries even further than Scratchcratchratchatch, moving away from the head-nodding beats and head-turning technical feats in favor of more esoteric and brainier sound mixes. "When it came to make this record it wasn't necessarily going to be all dance-floor friendly or something that would look cool if you're driving in your jeep," Kid Koala explains. "This is definitely not a physical album. You have to engage yourself, otherwise it will be a really difficult listen. The one thing that all DJs are hunting for is to come up with 'that thing.' That thing that will freak themselves out. It's just trying to find what the limits are with this thing." Perhaps what makes Kid Koala stand out most from his contemporaries is his willingness to play with the limits of the turntable as instrument and an awareness of the history of turntable experimentation that goes back to early 20th century composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage, all of whom saw early on the possibility that a turntable could be used to make music as well as simply reproducing it.
"I do see the connection," Kid Koala says cautiously, noting that seeing Montreal experimental DJ Martin Tetreau a few months ago really opened up his thinking about what turntablism could be about. "I'd never seen anything like that and it was quite inspiring for me," he explains. "Here's this instrument where you're palette is records - which is seemingly infinite and you could do seemingly infinite things with that. The potential combinations are just immense but a lot of the time you fall into the same patterns a lot. And when I saw what he [Tetreau] was doing it was completely outside that but it was strictly turntables at the same time."
Ultimately, the idea that a turntable could be used to produce new music rather than just for reproducing pre-existing music - something hip hop has know for the better part of 25 years - is beginning to take hold in the mainstream. Much attention was given to the fact four years ago that Technics turntables were outselling electric guitars in England and there are now music equipment stores across North America that have as many turntables as guitar amplifiers - a testament to how transferable hip-hop has become.
"I can go to Germany or France and see a highly developed hip-hop community," Kid Koala says. "It has crossed borders. I don't know if people thought it would but it has. The thing for me that is great about that hip-hop community is that you can go to other cities and you meet people who are into what you do. You go and there will be a DJ there and you can hang out and trade ideas. That kind of connection just strictly on the basis of a music or a culture is unheard of in any other genre. With hip-hop it is a community and it's a global one." Still, given what he does Kid Koala isn't even sure he fits into the hip-hop mold - no matter how broadly defined it is. Fortunately for him, he's quite happy to exist in the cracks between several different genres.
"I think there's still a lot of confusion right now," he says. "People are slowly getting over it but that's fine. I'm cool with being part of confusion. I think I want people to not worry about what they're supposed to think about it and just listen to it."