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[whitespace] Kid Koala Showing His Samples: DJ mixologist Kid Koala creates new soundscapes out of old elements.

Tomorrow's recording stars won't be bending strings, they'll bend samples

By Todd S. Inoue

BEING IN A BAND was once thought of as a privileged avenue to independent thought and creativity. After being pushed around all day in a crappy job, one could retire to the practice space with two or more like-minded individuals and bang away all one's frustrations. Sometimes, the song would become a hit, and the band would reap millions.

Truth is, being in a band is hard work. The drummer and the bassist think different (as Apple's copywriters are fond of putting it); schedules refuse to mesh and attitudes toward the War on Drugs take off in opposite directions. And don't even get started on the guitarist. After a while, trying things "another way" or the 500th late arrival evokes fistfights and slammed doors. Who needs the headaches?

These inexorable problems with the group dynamic explain why many musicians are bypassing the "let's start a band" concept and putting out records all by themselves. All by themselves--using data stored on desktops and zip drives, a sampler, a turntable, a DAT recorder and a shelf full of LPs. Today, all one needs to cut a track is a fertile imagination and a cheap recording machine. The star of tomorrow could be that nerdy, pockmarked kid with three rooms of records, an SP1200 and at least 400 megs of available disk space.

Belgian artist Solex used to be in more conventional bands--guitar-bass-drums--before getting hip to technology. She owns a used record store in her native Netherlands and gets first dibs on incoming product. Her album, Solex vs. the Hitmeister (Matador), is a confluence of clever loops and samples.

"I got tired with having other people in a band," Solex says. "You're always compromising. You're being told what to do and what not to do. So I bought an eight-track recorder and work in my home now. I can make songs the way I feel like."

Purists will argue that Solex's method isn't music--it's thievery. She didn't come up with the melody, didn't play any of the instruments, didn't sing a lick. Truth is, it's an accepted part of music. In the mid-'70s, hip-hop legitimized sampling. DJs used instrumental sections of records--the "break"--for their emcees to rap over. Sampling has since spilled over onto the charts, with Puff Daddy being the most recognized (and reviled) master of glorified karaoke.

BEYOND PUFFY, however, lurks a creative pack that treats sampling as an art. In 1998, breakthroughs are such that DJs are coming out and releasing their own albums. Far beyond the limits of scratch trickery, DJs like Rob Swift, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist stitch together breathtaking suites made up of prerecorded sources. One of the most anticipated DJ releases in 1998 will come from a 23-year-old out of Montreal named Kid Koala.

Koala recently spent two weeks in San Francisco, recording tracks for his yet-to-be-titled album on the Ninjatune label with revered producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. Koala (real name: Eric San) is a rarity: he plays with a band, Bullfrog, as well as works the wheels of steel on Ninjatune's package-DJ tours. This summer, Koala will tour Europe with Money Mark and the Beastie Boys.

"When I play with my band, I can tell there's high points and low points," Koala says, "but what I really get into is the groove-oriented stuff rather than the scratch solos. I'm not a turntable virtuoso yet. I like playing as a member of a unit. I like doing the retarded repetitive stuff because it feels good, and the crowds understand."

As the use of samples expands as an artistic technique, so does the potential for lawsuits for copyright infringement. Some labels go as far as hiring people to comb the charts, listening for that obscured, buried sample. Does this watchdog-era of sample clearing affect creativity?

"You gotta be careful what you sample, you never expect things to be clearable," says Nakamura. "You can't use 80 different sources on one tune, because it would be prohibitively expensive. So in that regard, you have to make the most of the samples."

Making the most of samples means flipping the sound, massaging it, bending it to give it your own character.

"You have a lot of choices," says Solex. "You're stealing sounds, yes, but you can make it yourself--reverse it, stretch it. If you really copy a melody, that's more [like] thievery."

Kid Koala has a track on his mix tape called "Emperor's Crash Course in Cantonese." He takes the zither riff from The Last Emperor, loops it and throws a beat behind it. He then scratches samples from a third turntable. The result is breathtaking.

"I took the entire song from a movie soundtrack--I mean [film director Bernardo] Bertolucci!" exclaims Koala, with a smile. "There's no way I can get away with that!"

The story has a happy ending, however. Koala performed the "Emperor" routine at an L.A. show attended by David Byrne's manager; Byrne composed the song that Koala sampled.

"David Byrne's manager came up to me after the show," Koala recalls with glee. "She liked the show, so I handed her a tape [and said], 'You might recognize the first track, tell him not to take any offense to it.' She brought it back and played it for him, and he let us license it. So that's coming out on my album. It's going to be a new version, but I'll be taking a sample that's four minutes long! It's the entire track! So you never know how it works."

The main reason more acts aren't dropping their guitars and amps to jump into the sampling pool boils down to one thing: interaction.

"The inconvenience is that you don't have anyone to kick your ass," Solex says. "Making music takes a lot of energy. But most of the time, I enjoy working by myself."

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of Metro.

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