Kid Koala, Here, There, Then and Now

Still blown away by the amazing Kid Koala Space Cadet Headphone Experience show at Toronto’s 918 Bathurst last night. If you’re remotely interested in animation, music, scratch-DJing, comics, art, video games or lying on the floor with headphones and experiencing music, I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s another way to put it…

It got me thinking, and remembering.

When Kid Koala came to China in 2005, I got a chance to not only see what he does up close, but to sit down and chat with him for a while, writing articles that eventually appeared in Maisonneuve, the Toronto Star (in advance of an appearance at my current place of employ, Harbourfront Centre) and the South China Morning Post.

The highlight of KK’s visit to China was the master class/media preview that gave local reporters and aspiring DJs a peek into his process — a process that audiences at the Headphone Experience get via great sightlines to the video screens displaying the live feeds from strategically-placed cameras. Two of the top names in Chinese scratch DJing were in attendance, and thus, I also told the story of the state of affairs in the Chinese scratch-DJ scene.

What better time, I figure, to revisit KK’s Chinese adventures than after coming off of the Headphone Experience. Thus have I included, below, the article that appeared in SCMP in the wake of his China trip. Seven years ago, when the piece was published, scratching, and hip hop generally, had a lot in common with yaogun: They were new phenomena still yet to be fully understood and appreciated by fans and participants — to say nothing of the general public who equated the DJ with the nameless, faceless employee working the CD players, providing the soundtrack for a night out in a club.

Things have come a long way, though Wang Liang, aka DJ Wordy, and Gary Wang, aka V-Nutz, still remain atop the Chinese DJ heap. V-Nutz had just taken over the reigns at China’s national DMC competition as the article came out. Wordy, meanwhile, true to his word, won the China DMC title in 2006, the year after the article was written — and then again in 2007, and one more time, in 2008.

(June 27, 2005)
Kid Koala is putting his education training to good use on the mainland, showing budding DJs the finer points of scratching, writes Jon Campbell

His house has been taken over by clay mosquito models and miniature sets, he draws cartoons about robots in love, he works with puppets, and his playful style of scratch DJing fits perfectly with his child-like monicker. You wouldn’t peg Eric San – aka Kid Koala – as a teacher, but not only did he receive a degree in early childhood education, on this June day in Beijing, Eric San – better known as Kid Koala – was playing teacher in front of a gathered posse of local DJs and media. This was his second trip to China in 11 months; successful visits to Beijing and Shanghai last year prompted organisers to bring him back.

His gigs in Shanghai and Beijing were supplemented by master’s class, equal parts ‘how-to’ and ‘what-the?’, which were what separated his China shows from those of a growing number of visiting DJs and musicians. It was a chance for local DJs to see, up close, San’s art form, and for those not quite clear on what it was that scratch DJing was to get an inside look.

“(The class) gave me an opportunity to break down and demystify some of what was going on, technically,” said San. “It was mostly media people there to acquaint themselves with what it was I did, and why I flew over the ocean. I think they were trying to warn people what they were paying for.”

San had already achieved a large level of fame not only from his opening slot on Radiohead and Beastie Boys tours, but from his two releases on the renowned UK label, Ninja Tune, which made San their first North American artist. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Some of My Best Friends are DJs combined his deft scratching skills with his ability to sniff out strange, silly and subtle samples that he combined with the musician’s ear garnered from an early childhood piano education. The mini-comics that were a part of his releases added an additional level of fun, and then, in 2003, the music became not the focus, but a bonus part of the package, when he released his first graphic novel, Nufonia Must Fall, which – without dialogue, but with an accompanying soundtrack of piano-based music – followed a robot on a quest to win the girl of his dreams. His next project – set for an autumn release – is another graphic novel, this time composed of photographs of miniature models and sets, which tells the story of a country bumpkin mosquito in the big city trying to make it in the local jazz scene. In 2007, he says, he and his posse will create a puppet show musical, inspired by his parents’ love of showtunes.

Kid Koala flanked by local DJs Wordy (r) and V-Nutz (l)

Back in Beijing, his parents weren’t far from his mind, as he performed a mash-up of ‘Moon River’ – the song is one of his mom’s faves, and his creation was a gift to his folks – as neither Audrey Hepburn nor Henry Mancini could ever have possibly envisioned. Later, he scratched out a trumpet solo – and more – atop a standard swing-blues backing track. While the DJs in attendance were overjoyed at the chance to witness the Kid, the other media and curious onlookers were somewhat baffled. “If they were confused about (what I do) before the master’s class,” said San, “they were definitely more confused after the master’s class.”

Shanghainese DJ Gary Wang (aka V-Nutz), who won China’s first nationwide DMC competition in 2002, was left speechless. “I basically knew what he was doing, and I was still blown away.”

Wang Liang (aka Wordy), placed third at last year’s DMC competition, and was also amazed and inspired by San’s show and master’s class. “Seeing Kid Koala is important for (us)…A lot of people think they’re DJs, and they think they can scratch. But then they see someone like this.”

There are many who call themselves DJs, he says, but between he and V-Nutz only four names are raised in terms of technically proficient scratch DJs: Themselves and two others – Beijinger Shorty-S and Shanghainese Fortune. Nine people participated in last year’s national DMC competition – the winner of which is flown to the international competition in London – and there is concern that there may be no China DMC competition this year.

“The rock scene is much better than it was ten years ago,” said the former rocker Wordy, who (literally) traded his guitar for a turntable and a mixer three years ago. “The scratch-DJ situation now is like rock 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 sounds of the heavy techno that is a feature of most Beijing clubs.

But the packed room at Club Mix wasn’t thinking of disco during Kid Koala’s set, and especially not while Wordy and V-Nutz joined San for a brief jam session. The guest of honour was obviously impressed, as he was on his last trip. “It’s bubbling up (in China). Here, it’s just so new that you’re seeing all these light bulbs go off ‘Oh, maybe I can do it this way’…You can feel it, it’s on the cusp of something, it’s electric.”

A few days after the show, Wordy was still on a high, and is back behind the decks in a hip-hop hangout known as Dragonstylaz. The office-studio looks right – with two dance rooms, small and large, for b-boy dancing, and a room with a four-turntable setup – but it is in the most unlikely of locations: Inside the Olympic Stadium. From the windows and sliding doors along the back walls of the space, the track around the football pitch is spitting distance away. The space is run by, among others, Zou Bin, a DJ who occasionally teaches scratch DJing. “Most kids don’t want to study scratch,” he says, “they just want to make money.” Paid gigs, as both he and Wordy know all too well, rarely come with the ability to play the music they love most. Wordy recalls playing at fashion shows in not-quite-fashionable spots such as Zhengzhou, Henan, and playing poppy hip hop at Beijing clubs rather than tunes from his beloved underground collection. Zou also organises and DJs at techno parties, including a beach party in Qinhuandao, Hebei, on July 9. But while most clubs cater to the newly-moneyed party people with pop-rap, Zou and Wang remain optimistic: “Old school might be the next pop music,” said Zou. “A lot of new songs are old songs redone.” Meanwhile, they are both excited about Section 6, a hip hop party held on the last Saturday of each month, and now, about Dragonstylaz.

Zou compares the space to community centres overseas. “Outside of China, there are community clubs, like for boxing. In China, there’s nothing like that.” Dragonstylaz, he says, is a place where hip hoppers and b-boys, scratch DJs and rappers can hang out.

“We want this to be like a family,” adds Zou Yang, who also helps oversees the space. “A family for hip hop.” As she spoke, one of the country’s best ‘street dance’ teams, FCR, was going through breakdance moves in the studio behind her. Other dance crews, a string of rappers, DJ students and random hip hoppers come by to hang.

Wordy finds himself at Dragonstylaz not infrequently. “When I saw what Kid Koala was doing, I had so many ideas for stuff I could be doing. But there aren’t any real record shops in China,” he said “So I can’t do the things I was thinking about doing…Yet.” The self-proclaimed ‘vinyl junkie’ boasts a collection of 700 records, which he accumulated searching through the second-hand markets of Beijing for scraps of warped who-knows-how-they-got-here albums, online ordering and the kindness of friends going abroad.

But Wordy has a new plan to boost his collection: “I’m going to get really good and win the DMC China competition so I can go to London,” and go to the record shops and buy a whole lotta records. I hear that they all get their new shipments on Mondays, and tons of DJs go to the shop at the same time to dig through them.”

With a smile that signals confidence that he will join those DJs on some Monday in London both in form and skill, he adds, “I’m going to be the best DJ in China.”