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Kid Koala: All Roads Lead To The Blues

Sep 22, 2012
Originally published on September 22, 2012 9:35 am

Eric San, who goes by the name Kid Koala, plays the blues. But just as Kid Koala isn't a traditional blues name like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Doctor Ross the Harmonica Boss, he isn't a standard blues man.

Kid Koala is a DJ. Big turntables, fast hands, scratching old-fashioned vinyl records — the whole deal. Now, he's taken that DJ equipment and produced a "turntable blues" album titled 12 Bit Blues.

So how did a Canadian DJ discover the blues, exactly? San says it all happened in high school.

"I wasn't one of those kids that could just write poems and play guitar and all of a sudden have six girls swooning," he says. "For me, turntables was one of those things I just gravitated towards. As I got into my high-school years, getting into hip-hop and getting into the rock and the rowdier aspects of music and trying to connect all those dots to the past, I realized that all those roads eventually lead to the blues."

Using equipment just as nostalgia-inducing as blues music itself, San set out to record his album with classic hip-hop tools such as the SP-1200, an iconic drum machine and sampler from hip-hop's golden age. Making a conscious effort to outplay and out-think the machine, the turntablist strips the music down to its purest form — and hand-crafts 12 Bit Blues in a fashion that's never been heard before.

"Did I succeed in making a proper blues record? I would be always the first to tell you that any blues purist or jazz purist would listen to my stuff and dismiss it quite quickly," San says. "But you have to understand it's coming from a complete scratch DJ's angle. I think it's all done with a lot of love and intent and respect and regard for that music. The tools that I've chosen are the ones I've learned to master over my career in music, like if you played my version of 'Basin Street Blues' to an actual New Orleans jazz combo, they'd probably say, 'Wow, those musicians sound really drunk.'"

In this segment, Kid Koala deconstructs "3 Bit Blues" for NPR's Scott Simon and discusses the creation of 12 Bit Blues.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

From the wild, wild west of an Italian Western to the deep, Delta South and the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is the music of Eric San. He goes by Kid Koala when he performs. He's a bluesman, but he doesn't play the harmonica or a Fender guitar. Kid Koala is a DJ.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: A real DJ who spins discos on huge turntables with his fast hands, scratching old-fashioned vinyl records till they scream. He toured with the Beastie Boys. Now, Kid Koala's taken that DJ equipment and produced a turntable blues album. It's called "12-Bit Blues." Kid Koala says a turntable was his best ticket into music and all of its allures.

KID KOALA: I wasn't one of those kids in high school that could just write poems and play guitar and all of sudden have six girls kind of swooning for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOALA: Turntables was one of those things that I just gravitated towards. I can learn how to do this and maybe I can become a DJ and be invited to all the parties. That would be a great way to make friends. And it's a very romantic idea, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOALA: I'm from Canada, you know. I'm the furthest you could get from New Orleans or the Mississippi Delta. But as I got into my high school years getting into hip-hop and getting into rock and the rowdier aspects of music and I realized that all those roads, that most of the music that I enjoyed eventually led to the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3 BIT BLUES")

KOALA: This is a track called "3 Bit Blues." I used a lot of antiquated equipment, most of it older than me, most of it unkempt, lost, orphaned, forgotten machines, decades old that I found at flea markets or Salvation Armies or what have you, and I just wanted to squeeze out one last sort of swan song out of them if I could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3 BIT BLUES")

KOALA: When you hear that feedback sound right there with the little rattlesnakes, that's an oil can delay, which is technology that still baffles me. It's essentially a tuna can filled with electrolytic oil and then there's a disk that spins inside of it that has a playback head and a record head. The record head dips as it spins - dips into the electrolytic oil and charges the oil, and the oil actually stores the sound. And you kind of get this warbly. dusted, underwater Doppler-type of effect. And it's so spooky and ghostly. I just love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOALA: Did I succeed in making it a proper blues record? I would be always the first to tell you that any blues purist or any jazz purist would kind of listen to my stuff and just dismiss it quite quickly. Like if you play my version of "Basin Street Blues" to actual, you know, New Orleans Jazz combo, they'd probably say, wow, those musicians sound really drunk.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BASIN STREET BLUES")

SIMON: Kid Koala. A blues man, DJ hybrid. You can hear a couple of songs from his new album, "12 Bit Blues," at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.