There’s a record Kid Koala likes to play. It starts with a voice-over describing the cuddly marsupial from which he draws both his name and his inspiration. All is normal until the narrator is surprised by the ferocious sounds that the creature can produce.
A version of that surprise was recreated in June this year at Beijing’s club MIX, but the attendees weren’t at the nightclub just to party. Invited by the local  Productions and sponsored by Foreign Affairs Canada, Kid Koala is here to teach a forty-five-minute master class in turntablism. Local DJs and media are being introduced to the possibilities provided by a box of records, a mixer and three turntables.
Three, as anyone in that room could tell you, is not the standard. Generally a DJ will have two: one turntable for the backdrop song, the other for a sample that’s played over it. The main technique is scratching: moving the record while it’s playing a sound—a drum hit, a horn note, a voice—and creating a new sound altogether. Scratching hit the mainstream thanks to Herbie Hancock’s 1983 sensation “Rockit,” when Grandmixer D.ST (who now goes by Grandmixer DXT) performed a scratch solo in the song.
Since then, DJs have pioneered dozens of techniques, all of which—breakbeat, needle-dropping, punch-phasing, or beat-juggling—draw on the idea of recombination. In short, you play two songs alongside each other and graft noises from one track to supplement the ones on the other record, all the time tweaking and manipulating their pitches and speed to create an entirely new sonic hybrid. Kid Koala, like other DJs, has pushed the boundaries of this even further by seamlessly blending in bits from unexpected, often bizarre sources. Kid Koala’s include kiddie records, informational and instructional records, commercial cut-ups of Canada Dry and Loto-Québec ads, and dialogue from movies. On one track called “Emperors Main Course in Cantonese,” he overlays a zither riff taken from a David Byrne song on the soundtrack for The Last Emperor with an excerpt from a Cantonese language tape.
Among the pupils at the Beijing nightclub is Wang Liang. Better known as Wordy, Wang is one of the leading scratch DJs in China. Two days ago, he got a call from organizers asking him to open for Kid Koala. “I was really happy about getting the chance,” he says with feigned nonchalance that barely masks his excitement. “Seeing Kid Koala is important for us. China has lots of DJs, but they have no idea what a real DJ is.”
Kid Koala was born in Vancouver in 1974 as Eric San. His grandparents are from Guangdong, in southern China; his parents from Hong Kong. The June trip was actually San’s second visit to the country. Based on the success of his 2004 Asian tour (which touched down in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand), he was flown back for this more private encore performance. San is happy to oblige, but admits to being unsure about what he was getting himself into. “I was worried. I was pleasantly surprised, however, with how enthusiastic the audience was. There were a lot of smiling faces. But it could’ve easily gone the other way,” he adds with a chuckle. “There could’ve been a lot of furrowed brows and grimaces.”
San’s musical career began with classical piano, which he studied from the age of four. “My father had always wanted the opportunity to play music, but he wasn’t fortunate enough to have it as a child. And I think my mom probably read somewhere that music helps your math grades.”
At twelve, he discovered turntables. Hours of daily practice in his room eventually paid off. He moved to Montreal in the early nineties to study early childhood education at McGill University and began DJing in local clubs and making mix tapes of his good-humoured, funky, densely kaleidoscopic music. One of those tapes was playing in a van that was taking Jon More into town from the Montreal airport. In a lucky break for San, More was the co-owner of the influential UK record label Ninja Tune and one half of Coldcut, one of his biggest influences.
In 1995, Kid Koala became Ninja Tune’s first North American act, releasing several singles before the groundbreaking Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000) and Some of My Best Friends are DJs (2003). Both albums combine Kid Koala’s deft scratching skills with an ability to sniff out strange, silly and subtle samples. After successful tours supporting fellow Ninja Tune artists DJ Food and DJ Vadim, Kid Koala became a hot ticket, eventually supporting the Beastie Boys (1998), Radiohead (2001) and Björk (2003). In 2003, he also led his own Short Attention Span Audio Theatre Tour, which combined eight turntables, a piano, animation, “cabaret flair” and bingo—signalling a different kind of live music experience.
Back in Beijing, Kid Koala is demonstrating a rendition of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s theme “Moon River”—his mom’s favourite song—in which he beat-juggles two copies of the record then mixes in, using a third record, squawking seagulls, orchestral strings and explosions. Next is his tribute to Louis Armstrong, “Drunk Trumpet,” which has him scratching out a trumpet solo atop a swing-blues backing track.
Gary Wang, alias V-Nutz, who won China’s first nationwide DMC competition in 2002, is left speechless. “I basically know what he is doing, and I am still blown away.” Many miniature movements are happening as the Kid tends to his turntables: he’s moving the needle, adjusting the speed, tapping the vinyl, not to mention changing records at a furious pace (he brings hundreds of records to each performance).
“A lot of people think they can scratch,” says Wordy, “But then they see someone like this…” He and V-Nutz can name only two other technically proficient scratch DJs in China: Shorty S and Fortune. Only nine people participated in China’s 2004 DMC competition—the winner of which was flown to the international bout in London—and there is concern that the national event may not be repeated this year.
Battle DJing is vital to the health of the art, and the biggest international competition is at the DMC/Technics World DJ Championships in London. DJs do a three-minute set (a longer set if they make it to the final) and are judged on their performance with two turntables, a mixer and their own record collection.
A self-proclaimed vinyl junkie, Wordy boasts a collection of 700 records, an amazing number considering that there are no record shops in Beijing and that importing records for the purpose of selling them is illegal. He accumulated his collection searching through the city’s second-hand markets for warped who-knows-how-they-got-here albums (many are sent by major labels and chain stores in the West to overseas dumps in China), ordering online and through the kindness of friends returning from abroad. But Wordy has a new plan to boost his collection: “I’m going to get really good and win the DMC competition so I can go to London and buy a whole lotta records.”
The longer it takes Wordy to compile his collection, the longer it will be before he can scratch out a set à la Kid Koala, much less push past him into new territory. From party DJs in the late seventies and eighties, who tried to extend the climaxes of songs by playing the same record simultaneously on two turntables, through the creation of hip hop, with a DJ providing the musical backdrop, on through to the originality of guys like Kid Koala, DJ Shadow or Prefuse 73—fans of scratch DJing have witnessed the evolution of a craft in the last twenty years.
You might say, then, that V-Nutz and Wordy woke up one morning and were confronted with the whole evolutionary process at once and have been catching up on two decades of acquired knowledge since. It’s not that Chinese DJs have missed out on innovations. If they’re shocked by the Kid’s methods, it’s simply because, while they can see what’s happening in the rest of the world, financially and logistically they can’t keep up.
Wordy is encouraged by what he sees happening in China and believes that visits from DJs like Kid Koala can make a big difference in changing the public’s perception of his art. “The scratch-DJ situation now is where the rock scene in China was five or six years ago. People hear the word DJ and they think of the discos—like ‘mm-tss-mm-tss,’” he adds, mimicking the heavy techno beat that is a fixture of most Beijing clubs.
But the packed room at club MIX certainly isn’t thinking of disco during Kid Koala’s set, or when Wordy and V-Nutz join the Kid for a brief jam session. The guest of honour is obviously impressed: “The scene here is bubbling up. It’s just so new that you’re seeing all these light bulbs go off in the DJs, ‘Oh, maybe I can do it this way.’ You can feel it, it’s on the cusp of something; it’s electric.”