DJ Shadow is inthe Guinness Book of Records for his musical exploits, yet remains one of the most level-headed men in music today.
The fact that DJ Shadow prefixes his name with ‘DJ’ is something of a misrepresentation. While the term in its purest form can comfortably be applied to a man whose record collection numbers 60,000, there is little comparison between one of music’s legendary innovators and the current crop of upstarts and established superstars who adopt that title for their tours of the club scene.
Shadow, real name Joshua Davis, resides in a world more akin to the latter half of his name, namely shadowy rooms filled with dusty record boxes. As time has passed since he pioneered the use of samples as the entire basis for song construction on debut album Endtroducing (1996) (Shadow is actually in the Guinness Book Of Records as the first artist to compile an album entirely from samples), there has clearly been a shift. Shadow’s methods have become the norm for many artists. Wider use of samples, either from analogue or digital sources, and the pace at which technology has moved has rendered the path furrowed by Shadow universally accessible.
Despite these cut and paste techniques becoming more commonly seen and understood, the wizardry of Entroducing and its follow-up, the more song-based The Private Press (2002), described by himself as a “far superior record”, allowed the vinyl obsessed Shadow to appeal to the wax loving hip-hop community as well as those with an ear for a song structure. In fact, these albums crossed over to audiences further and wider than he could have ever dreamed of.
Yet it’s the sheer variation of styles and sounds prevalent on these records which made this level of success conceivable. Through the use of traditional song structures in ambient styles, trip-hop, big-beat, breaks and rock music, his influence stretched far beyond his beloved hip-hop. Shadow’s pioneering methods didn’t just transcend traditional conceptions about how you can make music, but how you can construct music in an almost unimaginable range of genres.
New album The Less You Know, the Better sees Shadow returning to the incredibly chopped up style prevalent in the Endtroducing template. Rockier hip-hop textures are interspersed with a retro style that sees him dabble freely in metal riffs and big, big beats with equal dexterity. Add to that a couple of great collaborations, most notably with Little Dragon and Talib Kweli, and you have an album rich in texture. When you take into account his insanely conceived, spherical, audio-visual live experience The Shadowsphere, it’s impossible to accuse Shadow of standing still.
While a DJ Shadow album circa 2012 might not be met with the same bated breath as years gone by, the effort level that goes into each full release has by no means diminished. Four albums in 15 years reveals a man whose output is far from prolific, and herein lies the inherent problem with Shadow’s method. Furrowing through endless boxes of wax takes time, patience and an attention to detail few have the mind or the creative vision to compile and conceive. That reason, along with the fact that he continues to do all this with such precision and passion, truly makes him a one-off.
How did your show in Bristol last night (November 30th) go?
It went well. I was pretty nervous because I hadn’t done this show for a couple of weeks and it’s amazing how you can forget little nuances. It’s muscle memory and there are thousands of nerves involved, so sometimes forgetting one thing can cause catastrophic things to happen, so I’m happy it went as well as it did. The other thing overloading my mind was the fact I had this instore to do. That was a completely different set a couple of hours before the show.
What was the instore show all about?
It was all vinyl, showcasing a set of samples I’d used to make the new album.
What is the new incarnation of the live show, The Shadowsphere? From the outside it looks relatively complex. Who created it and how does it work?
It dates back to March 2010. I had some festivals booked, so I started thinking about it every single day with those dates looming. My mission every time I put a big show together is to do something my peers aren’t doing. I’ve used visuals in my show going back 10 years now, so that was a given. We didn’t want to go any bigger; we wanted to go more conceptual. With that in mind we got two planes of visuals to project on, and we also liked the challenging concept of a sphere, being the design riddle it is. I’m lucky in the sense that I’m a DJ but I’ve been lucky to get on stages that rock bands play on. I want to take that seriously and hold their attention rather than go back and say, ‘what did you expect? It’s just a DJ show’.
With the way the set is compiled, how pliable and flexible is its construction on-stage in the middle of the show?
It has to be quite flexible in that you have different set lengths that you have to deliver for different shows. Some are an hour, some are 75 minutes, and some are an hour and a-half. I have my full show, but I can move some around as is necessary. I learned after doing about three shows what was working and what wasn’t working. The set as it exists has gone through at least four or five different changes. Every time there is some time off I’m investing in more visuals, I’m changing the music up, I’m moving this around, and I’m moving that around. That’s important for people who may have seen the show at a festival and then I come to their town.
How long did the new record take you to make, and do any of the bones on the new record predate The Outsider (Shadow’s third album from 2006), or even earlier?
If I was to really break it down it would be a year and three quarters, but some of this stuff goes back to demos that were considered for The Outsider. It wasn’t until November 09 that I got serious about it, putting in five days a week at least.
You have a record collection of over 60,000 records. How do you go about sourcing records for samples and getting what you want? You must do an insane amount of just listening to records?
That’s something people don’t really understand about the process. 60 percent of the time I spend working on the record is going down dead ends and listening to music that isn’t relevant to what I’m doing and trying things that don’t work. I can spend 10 hours in the studio and at the end of the day turn the light off and be like ‘that was a fucking waste of time’. Of course it isn’t a waste of time because that’s all part of it. It can get a bit soul destroying when you have too many days like that in a row. A lot of critics who don’t understand or respect the process of sampling don’t have a full appreciation of the amount of effort and energy that goes into making the records I make. That’s not to say I think what I do is more relevant or valid than anyone else. It’s just incredibly time consuming. You can make hit records in five hours in a studio, that’s just not the path I chose to take.
Do you find the process quite a lonely and solitary experience, furrowing where people might not normally go?
It can be. It’s one of the things that draws me to it, but it’s also one of the things that can make it quite lonely and dark. It’s almost like it has a graveyard feel to it at times, and it often makes me wonder what I’m trying to achieve by dancing in the grave of so many creative people that came before me. It’s also what pushes me to do good work and say something new. I have never felt like I was ripping anybody off. What I’m trying to do is fill the canvas with the colour wheel that’s given to me. That’s incidentally why I do work so hard to find unusual stuff. Lately I’ve got into sampling a lot of cassettes and a lot of unreleased master tapes from studios and that kind of thing. When people say ‘oh, I recognise this sample’ I just go ‘yeah, but beyond that can you name one? No. I didn’t think so.’
The Less You Know, The Better has fewer collaborations than some of your previous records. You worked with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano on the track Scale it Back, what was it about working with her in particular? Why did you shy away from making a more collaborative record?
I originally wanted the album to be completely instrumental as Endtroducing was. I think what it comes down to now for me is that, regardless of what I want to achieve, at a certain point it’s going to run head on with what you can achieve, and I think for most of my records I have to bin the rules to make what I think would be a better record, rather than be a slave to the rules I set a year prior. In March of this year when I was wrapping the album up, I realised some of the songs would be stronger with vocalists. On Warning Call, I tried a bunch of sampled vocals that didn’t work, so Tom Vek was the first person I thought would work. I really wasn’t going to settle for anybody else. With all the collaborations on the record – Little Dragon, Talib Kweli – if they weren’t able to do it, that song probably wouldn’t end up on the record. It wasn’t like I called 20 people and just settled for what I could get.
How would you place this album in the context of your older work? Has the success of you first two albums skewed what people would expect from a DJ Shadow record?
There is absolutely nothing I can do about people’s expectations. There are people hearing Endtroducing for the first time ever because their older brother is playing it to them and there are people who will go home from the gig tonight who think they’re going to make music that sounds exactly like what I was making 17 years ago. I can just carry on and hope that I make music that will resonate with people as strongly as it did back then.
Was the period post-Endtroducing at all difficult? There are very few debut records lauded as highly, so your life must have changed a bit?
The thing about Endtroducing was it wasn’t a massive seller, so my life didn’t change. It wasn’t like I went from rags to riches. It was very well received critically and a lot of other people who make music like to name- check it, but it wasn’t like I made a pop record, y’know. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had all these privileges shoved on me, it would have probably fucked me up. I went back to my same flat in my small town in California where I grew up and thought ‘what do I want to say now?’ I ended making a song called High Noon, which was my reaction to that experience. I think it would have been a lot different if it had been some phenomenal sales event.
How do you feel about hip-hop in the US at the moment and the state of hip-hop generally? Is there anything in that area of music that frustrates you?
The best way I can explain it is that starting in the mid 90s, I had to seek a diet that went beyond hip-hop to fulfill my needs. So I grew up on hip- hop in the 80s and early 90s and then hip-hop crossed over and it was big business and that started to water down the cultural components of the music. But I still needed a large diet of music to thrive and started seeking other nutrients to survive. So I still hear some hip-hop I like, but I don’t consider myself to be on the pulse, or the kind of person who is downloading songs before they are finished in the studio. Music makes its way to me in karmic ways and ways in which I’m supposed to be hearing it and I hear a lot of good stuff and a lot of shit. That will never change.
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The Less You Know, The Better is out now on Verve Recordings.