Turning the turntables

A young Canadian DJ zooms from the underground with a playful perspective.

IT'S MUSIC'S ULTIMATE clich鮠Every artist, once they are classed with a genre or a shortcut description, pleads, "Don't call me that." So it's not surprising when Eric San, better known as Kid Koala, shuns the turntablist tag. He'd rather be known simply as a DJ—albeit one who works the decks like a magician manipulates an audience.

Kid Koala

Showbox, Saturday, May 20

"Some turntablists don't like me being called a turntablist. On their behalf I'd rather be nonconfrontational," he says diplomatically. "I think that some of what I do is turntablist, and some of what I do is just DJing, or selecting, or collaging. There are lots of sub-sects of DJing, and people are more and more specific and Nazi about it."

He's right, kind of. What San does goes beyond the trickery that's the calling card of most turntablists. He combines different elements of DJing—utilizing the most flashy of techniques with surgeonlike precision while keeping his ears tuned to the dance floor. He is perhaps the only turntablist in the world who's concerned with making you dance, as opposed to showing off, and for this reason he's garnered international acclaim in the underground beat community. San first earned praise after releasing a mix tape called Scratchscratchscratch, helping land him a slot on the esteemed Ninja Tune label at the ripe old age of 20. San then turned up on tours with Money Mark and, briefly, with Mixmaster Mike and the Beastie Boys.

BORN AND raised in Vancouver, San now lives in Montreal, in an apartment crammed with 7,000 records—most of them obscure, many of them beat up and marked with black pen (an old sampling trick), and some of which were stolen on a recent trip to France but later recovered. "I went through my kicking-the-wall stage—that lasted about five minutes. Then you move on. You gotta be kind of Zen about it," he says.

The DJ's scavengerlike hunger for odd and unknown records—the cheeky and the unconventional samples—can be found on San's first full-fledged production effort, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Unlike Scratchscratchscratch, which lived up to its title, the new record changes moods as offhandedly as a bratty 3-year-old, moving from gleefulness to stoned-out bliss, even veering off into the incomprehensible (something that sounds like a squawking chicken).

"After that [Money Mark] tour, I felt I was ready to go into the studio and try some things," San explains. "I don't think it's a refined thing yet. It's still going to take me a couple of albums to refine where I'm heading . . . using records I've never used before was the parameter to help me find out where I could go with things."

San's production is as musical as his DJing, which could be attributed to his childhood piano lessons. He wouldn't get his decks until his teenage years; when he was five he lived every kid's nightmare, playing piano at "one of those, long, drawn out, six-hour marathons," he recalls. "All the parents are there, being polite and whatever. You look up at the audience and they're just there to see their kid. The other five and a half hours, they are barely staying awake. There wasn't necessarily the best vibe in the room. I just wasn't feeling the crowd at all, you know."

Despite that traumatic bout with stage fright, San remained enthusiastic about music. In his early teens, when he heard scratching and hip-hop for the first time, he was hooked. Equipped only with an all-in-one portable stereo system and generic needle, the only vinyl San could scratch with wasn't even vinyl—it was a floppy record from Life magazine. "It was me and Walter Cronkite for a year and a half," he jokes. A couple of years later, after scrimping money from a paper route, San finally got half of a set-up.

HE MAY HAVE trouble not stumbling into a turntable on the current tour with Ninja Tune label mates Amon Tobin and DJ Food. For the show, San has brought along six decks; a backing band with a bass player, drummer, percussionist, and guitarist; and will be joined on the turntables by DJ P-Love. The two work the records like a jazz musician might: zeroing in on certain tones, brightening them with a scratch, enlarging them with a wiggle, or chopping them with a flick of the wrist. But unlike other turntablists, San is smart enough to realize that it takes two to tango, and that one guy playing with his turntables can sometimes amount to musical masturbation. So the music shifts from band to DJ and back again in fluid motion.

It's a dramatic and ambitious show that belies his young age. "I'm 25 now. I still feel like I'm a baby in terms of music. I just put out one of the most juvenile records of the century," he says of Carpal Tunnel, laughing. "I've been making albums for seven months—I keep that in perspective about where I'm at. I'm not some kind of prodigy. It's not like I was packing it out when I was nine. I'm just sort of going at the rate I'm going."

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