Photo courtesy of Ninja Tunes
Montreal-based scratch DJ Kid Koala's (aka Eric San) full-length debut was one of the most anticipated, and delayed, hip-hop records in Canada. When an album's release date is this long-delayed it's either a mess or a masterpiece. Any fears of the former were put to rest with the recent release of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Where a lot of turntablist's albums have become a predictable blur of scratches and beats, Kid Koala has managed to create a coherent, long-form album that is humourous, abstract and psychedelic.
By Randy Gelling (June 2000)
"I like that word: psychedelic," Kid Koala says over the phone from the U.K. where he's currently touring with Amon Tobin and DJ Food. "I was trying to do something different with this record. It pissed me off to hear people talking about how predictable scratch DJs or turntablists were becoming."
The buzz surrounding Kid Koala began with his appearance on the seminal Return Of The DJ Vol.2 compilation and his live performances with the band Bullfrog in Montreal clubs. After a couple of years he was signed to the prestigious British trip-hop label Ninja Tune when they set up their North American HQ right in the Kid's backyard. The Scratch Happy Land 10" soon followed and established Koala's unique, child-like whimsy with its Sesame Street sources and general weirdness. The closest comparison is late-period Aphex Twin (in tone if not sound) without the undercurrents of twisted sexuality and violence. Subsequent remixes for the label established Koala's style as unpretentious in flavour but with occasional excursions into stunning extremism. The best example of this is the remix of Coldcut's "More Beats & Pieces" where the scratching so completely eviscerates any sense of flow that an anguished vocal warbles "Ohhh, I can't dance to this!"
Kid Koala laughs when reminded of that track. "Most of the other tracks were really dance friendly, so me and Q-Bert decided we'd really play with it. That's pretty much what it is–we're playing. Sometimes we play at 80 bpm and that may not make for the sexiest dance music ever, but whatever, you could dance to it depending on how creative you are."
At the same time, Kid Koala says that in live performance he tends to be more physical and beat-oriented since something that works on record may not work live, and vice versa.
"We try to make a party happen," he says. "We'll run through 150 records in an hour and twenty minutes but it won't feel like that."
As for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Koala says that his intention was to make the album almost completely by real-time cut n' mixing, beat-juggling and scratching. No samplers. This is an extremely tedious and time-consuming way to make a record but it's something Koala insisted on despite the protests of conventional studio rats.
"When you're beat-juggling [backspinning two copies of a record on the right and left turntables to create a real-time loop] it feels kind of out, it doesn't have that hypnotic effect that a perfect loop or sampler has 'cause there's always this sense that it can all go horribly wrong," he says and laughs.
"We kept it like that and went to the mastering session and when you're beat juggling you kind of hit the records with your hands quite heavily and you hear a little 'whhhump' every time the needle wobbles. And the mastering guy's saying 'What are these sounds, can we take them out?' I'd say 'Nah, nah that's what it sounds like.' If you were to do it live you would hear those exact same rumbling bass noises underneath it all. That was a con for the mastering guy who's saying 'This is not professional.' But that's just the sound of the instrument really." This echoes what Tricia Rose wrote in her book Black Noise, where she argues that the African-American aesthetic in music emphasizes bass textures to a degree which is often misunderstood by sound engineers trained in Western notions of "good" music.
The product of this extensive process is truly disorienting in the best possible sense. It may disappoint those looking for something for the dance floor but Koala says that he approached this album as an opportunity to explore things that wouldn't be appropriate for that setting.
"With this record I didn't have that pressure to make it dance floor friendly," he says. "There were these records that were screaming 'Use me, scratch me!' but they weren't sounds I would be able to use in a breakdancing competition or the DMC (Disco Mixing Competition)."
Koala notes that when DJ reaction sheets came back saying they couldn't use Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in their club set, he was surprised they even thought they would be able to. "I wouldn't play Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in a club either, it's more of a bedroom record inspired by Monty Python and Cheech and Chong as much as by any hip-hop or scratch records. It's like watching the Simpsons; you sit there and really focus and try to catch all the jokes and info they throw at you."
Scratchcratchratchatch cassette (Independent) 1995
Scratch Happy Land 10" (Ninja Tune) 1997
"Obsessive Behaviour" -- remix of Coldcut's "More Beats & Pieces" (Ninja Tune) 1997
"Vad Forgive Me" – remix of DJ Vadim's "Lord Forgive Me" from USSR Reconstruction (Ninja Tune) 1998
Carpel Tunnel Syndrome CD/LP (Ninja Tune) 2000
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