Kid Koala spinning his way to success

Vancouver native Kid Koala scratches and spins his heart out.
Vancouver native Kid Koala scratches and spins his heart out.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo
Kid Koala caresses his beloved turntables.
Kid Koala caresses his beloved turntables.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

Music Preview: Kid Koala @ Elixir, Sept. 15

Kid Koala is the kind of DJ who can win over even the most skeptical of haters. Everyone’s got that self-righteous, musical purist friend, who fiercely believes (and never shuts up about it, in fact) that no music created after 1969 is worth listening to. Well, take that friend to see Kid Koala, and I bet he’ll grudgingly groove alongside the fanatics, saying things like “I guess this guy’s okay,” and “Holy shit! How’d he make the record do that?”

By show’s end, your buddy will be swinging his Stones t-shirt over his head, snapping his fingers and screaming, “Mad Skeelz!” Kid Koala, while not a turn-tabling pioneer by any means, has nevertheless been extremely influential in bringing mainstream attention—and perhaps more importantly, respect—to the idea of the turntables as a legitimate instrument, and the DJ as a true artist.

That didn’t happen overnight, though. In fact, when he first started playing jazz festivals with Bullfrog, the musicians’ guild forced Kid Koala to identify as a keyboardist when he applied for a union card, because they didn’t recognize the turntables as an instrument. Well, things have changed since then and now Kid Koala, who calls Montreal home, is internationally recognized as one of the leading scratchmasters in the biz, able to sell out clubs all over the world.

But more than his technical ability and impressive musicianship, the Kid is just too gosh darn likable not to have a great time at his shows. Much like his marsupial namesake, he’s cute and cuddly as he endears himself to crowds with his hilarious samples, comedic cut-ups and personable demeanour. Besides, how can you not love a guy who can remix everything from Louis Armstrong’s “Basin Street Blues,” to Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” to old Monty Python sketches?

But, it’s not all novelty splicing and turntable trickery for Kid Koala.

He’s a multi-talented jazz enthusiast, raised on hip-hop, who unrepentantly dabbles in all musical genres and isn’t afraid to have a little fun behind the decks, whether he’s sampling the latest White Stripes song, or a ridiculously straightforward self-help record on “How to talk to girls.” He’s released two full-length albums as Kid Koala, written a 340-page graphic novel published by ECW press, collaborated with everyone from Dan the Automator and Damon Albarn on the first Gorillaz disc, to Del tha Funkee Homosapien, to Prince Paul in the Handsome Boy Modelling School, and that’s without even mentioning his time in Bullfrog. On the heels of the release of his first live CD and DVD, Live from the Short Attention Span Audio Theatre, Kid Koala rolls through Eastern Ontario with a few dates before heading off on another world tour. Luckily, Kingston will get to see him again this Thursday at Elixir.

Born Eric San in Vancouver in 1974, he was classically trained in piano before ditching the ivory for vinyl. He began scratching records in his early teens, weaned on hip-hop icons Public Enemy and De La Soul. In the early ’90s he moved to Montreal to study early childhood education at McGill University, and that’s where he really started to build a name for himself, both as a solo artist and as a member of funkmasters Bullfrog.

His early mixtapes, Scratchcratchratchatch and Scratchhappyland—released in 1996 and 1997, respectively—have since garnered almost mythical status in underground beat scenes, and were what originally caught the attention of London’s Ninja Tune Records, which is also home to the likes of The Herbaliser, DJ Food and one of Kid Koala’s earliest influences and idols, Coldcut. Kid Koala became Ninja Tune’s first North American signing, and he fit perfectly into the label’s music-first philosophy. They’ve released all of his records since his full-length debut, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, in 2000.

Koala is also an accomplished sketch and comic artist, and his artwork and comics accompanied both Carpal and 2003’s Some of My Best Friends are DJs. While touring the world with Money Mark’s band, the Beastie Boys and Radiohead, he worked on the sketches and storyline of what would eventually become Nufonia Must Fall, a graphic novel of epic proportions, which tells the story of a workaholic office girl and an unemployed robot who writes love songs to make ends meet. Like his music, Koala’s comics are captivating. His black and white sketches are drawn simply, but contain such depth, inspiring compulsive page turning in much the same way you get wrapped up in his songs—spacing out until the final needle scratch sends you back into reality. The book was accompanied by a soundtrack of original, experimental piano compositions, seeing Koala revert to his childhood days behind the keys. The book’s release was followed by an intimate club tour, where Koala showed slides from the book while tickling a Wurlitzer. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Kid Koala never tries to bombast you with his technical prowess. He’d likely scoff at the idea that his music reflects the art and science of turntablism. He’d prefer to make good music rather than battle a fellow DJ or compete in any scratch competition. I think that’s why Kid Koala can appeal to so many people outside of the usual beat scene. He doesn’t just take old songs and put new spins on them, he creates something new altogether; while somehow also retaining a vintage quality and aesthetic.

That’s because Kid Koala is a songwriter and storyteller at heart. Yeah, sure, he has fun splicing The Cure and Michael Jackson, and playing with children’s records and animal sounds. But it’s when he creates dense, textured, moody pieces that he’s at his best. A week after his show at Elixir this Thursday, Kid Koala will embark on another major European tour, which will see him travel from Portugal to Romania and all spots in between—continuing as Canada’s most prominent ambassador of scratch artistry—and converting the haters wherever he goes.

—With files from kidkoala.com and ninjatune.net

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