Endtroducing recalibrated hip-hop. Psyence Fiction tilted at windmills. Brainfeeze blew up 45s. The In Tune and On Time tour wowed. The Outsider polarised opinion. With his recent Best Of compilation and current All Basses Covered Tour DJ Shadow’s reconstruction continues…
This interview was conducted on the eve of DJ Shadow’s Shadowsphere Tour and the release of his Reconstructed retrospective boxset. Fast forward a bit and it seems like a good idea to reheat a feature that originally appeared in Bonafide magazine isssue 07 (well worth buying just for the illustration by Zander Gregson).
During the course of this week DJ Shadow’s new set will rock Fabric, whilst Mo’Wax, the label he will forever be associated with, has been re-animated by James Lavelle and will be bringing us the Urban Archeology retrospective exhibition next year (read this More Wax interview for some nerdish scientific abstract shit or help fund the Kickstarter and be part of the project). Accordingly we thought it would be timely to give this piece some more air time.
This interview was conducted by our long-term friend Kidkanevil and we think it succeeds in giving a unique insight into one of the pioneers of hip-hop.
My ambition, as a beat maker, is for this interview to touch upon some less trodden ground and illuminate the motivations and passions of one of moden music’s most influential artists. There are a number of producers whose music has been a turning point in my own musical journey.As a teenager it was the kung-fu mysticism and raw DIY sonics of RZA, the unique and progressive beat patterns of Timbaland, and the remarkable boom clack of Jay Dee and Madlib.
But it was DJ Shadow and DJ Krush’s early work on Mo’Wax that really sparked the concept of instrumental, musically ambitious hip-hop in my mind, and it was an interview with Shadow in Hip-Hop Connection where I was first introduced to something called an MPC. I didn’t even know what one was, but I figured if Shadow could make Endtroducing on the thing, it was all I needed. It was an important moment for me, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Shadow (Josh Davis) a few times, thanks, in part, to the time and effort I put in to understanding that very piece of kit.
A hip-hop connoisseur and pioneer, walking musical catalogue and of course gifted DJ/producer, Josh Davis proved as polite, interesting and opinionated as he always is.
DJ Shadow I didn’t know what I was going to be doing [after the Shadowsphere Tour] and I was hoping to have some time off. Then I was asked to do a set at Low End Theory in California. It was so fun to put together and play.
Kidkanevil What did you play?
DS I started off with Balls and My Word by Geto Boys. And then it went in to the trap du jour…
KK I played there a couple of months before you. They have a nice balance of playing established names and bringing in people they really like.
DS Yup, it’s really cool. It’d been a long time coming but then again for the last 15 years when people have asked me to DJ it has just been out of the question…the problem I started to run into in the mid ’90s was that I’d turn up to DJ somewhere and people would be let down because I didn’t do an artist set, didn’t play Organ Donor and songs like that.
So starting really around 1997…I started curating…gigs as an artist [expressing] what I want to say and come across. Doing those shows meant there wasn’t time to do anything else and I started getting out of having a set in a crate ready to go.
KK There were the things you did with Cut Chemist as well. I think the first time I saw you was in Manchester years ago…
DS Product Placement?
KK And that was the same thing, dividing the crowd. Those who wanted to listen to the 45s and got the concept, and those who were like; ‘Where are the MPCs?’
DS Totally. So at the moment this is what we’re at. Two days ago I did two DJ sets in one in night in Holland. And we flew back here to [London] yesterday.
KK Are you using Serato or vinyl?
DS Neither CDJ. For me…decks are a nightmare. If you have to travel with them, you’re paying excess baggage, if you turn up at a gig your tone arm is going to be fucked up.
I personally like having the sweet spot with CDJs. You can be performance based. It isn’t just Ableton and an interface, and the whole set is there and once in a while you are triggering a repeat function or something. It feels…novel to turn up and be the only one who doesn’t have a laptop. I can scratch [but] obviously find that there are certain things that I just can’t do.
KK I never got the hang of CDJs. Probably because I’ve never sat down properly and used them.
DS I had to get used to them during the Shadowsphere Tour for that same reason.
KK You have your retrospective package [The Best of] coming out and also the MPC Era release, it seems like it is a period of reflection.
When I first heard your music the concept of beat makers and producers and having an instrumental take on hip-hop was a unique thing…rooted in hip-hop but it’s a different take on it.
Now, you could argue in this beat maker and producer era it would almost be odder to release an album with vocalists on. At this moment there are all types of beat tapes. I was wondering whether you felt in that lineage?
DS To start off, I agree that we are in a golden age of producers and beat makers. There are so many amazing beats out there and so there are so many ways to hear them.
KK It’s almost overwhelming.
DS Exactly. Any given time I go online I feel excited. It’s almost gone back to digging because there is so much out there and it’s coming so rapidly. You can spend six hours listening to 500 beats and choose a couple to work into your set and it’s a great feeling. When I DJ I like to expose things people haven’t heard. I don’t tend to play hits or current club bangers, it’s more just what is ill that I want to expose to people.
For me, back starting out with the first few [mixes] I did I was trying to provide an alternative to what was in the market. In 1990 it was like; ‘Damn I miss these crazy break mixes by Double Dee and Steinski, and Mantronix and people like that.’
Because again, rewind back in time to that exact moment when rap was starting to crossover. You had rap on the radio for the first time and rappers were becoming marketable.
It was the beginning of a 10 year process where the DJ was becoming compartmentalised and less in the forefront. So at that moment what I thought would be interesting was to do a record like Lesson 4, almost a kind of throwback, and would make people be like; ‘Damn where did this come from?’ I always think that way when I try to work on music. The Outsider was…
KK Trying to get a reaction?
DS Yeah. Everytime I put out a record there is a concept. Not a concept in the sense of sitting at a desk and designing some concept but a gut check of; ‘If I want to put out a record what would be different?’ That has been the same for me all along.
Whether I collaborate with people comes down to how much I want to compromise, because when you work with someone inevitably there is compromise.
KK I find that. Sometimes I don’t want to wait for MCs or someone to throw a curveball in the middle of the album and I’ll have to change the vibe man. Sometimes I just want to work on my own and in my own space. But I guess it can go the other way…
DS Yes. Sometimes you can get a result. On a song like Scale it Back, I had wanted to work with Little Dragon for several years.
KK Her voice is amazing!
DS Yeah. And I almost got put off when they were on The Gorillaz record. I was like; ‘Oh fuck.’ Then I decided it’s free enterprise… When I got that [track] back from them and I played it in the car, it was an instantaneous; ‘I knew this was going to be dope. I knew it was going to work.’
But there are times when it’s a struggle and you’re working with people and not sure if you are getting the best out of them and [whether] you want to express that on your record.
The thing that is hard — and I get beaten with this stick a lot — is that if I do music that is contemporary then I’m [accused of] hopping on a bandwagon. Yet if I don’t sound like whatever everyone else is doing then it’s like ‘I haven’t kept up.’
KK That’s a particular situation that we’ve arrived in. The trends and the sounds move so quickly, it is like that in terms in blogs, things they think are cool…
DS I think that’s the nature of the time we are living in. Something is only new for five minutes.
KK I also think you were the victim of your own success. Endtroducing and The Private Press were such a template for such a particular sound that inspired so many people around. You get in a strange position that you have been ripped-off so many times that people have started to get so familiar with a certain sound that it is almost unfair on you as that is your sound.
For me, back starting out with the first few [mixes] I did I was trying to provide an alternative to what was in the market. In 1990 it was like ‘Damn I miss these crazy break mixes by Double Dee and Steinski, and Mantronix and people like that’
DS You are right that in the sense that there are a lot of people who idolize who I am and what I represent. To a lot of people I’m the digging guy and I am always in a basement in a record store. To other people — and I always find this to be strange — I am the person who stood up to hip-hop and this is why hip-hop sucks. I am always, like; ‘This was a tongue in cheek, funny title.’
KK When I was at school I remember quite specifically when Endtroducing came out it was OK for the Radiohead kids and the hip-hop kids to listen to that.
DS I love that fact. It goes right back to… one of my favourite quotes about hip-hop. Bambaataa saying; ‘Listen to the music that wasn’t intended for you’, and I think there is such power in that. Saying that though, I actually miss communities dedicated to genres.
KK One thing that doesn’t happen very much [these days] is that you don’t really hear something you don’t understand. I just discovered this Japanese female producer called Jealousguy [Masami Takahashi]. When I heard her stuff it was really bizarre, really chopped and kind of played back live…it took me quite a long time to get an idea of what she’s doing.
Through that it occurred to me how rare that is. There are loads of things I love, but I can understand straight away through reference points.
Going back to your first releases, that sits within that idea. I was just starting to want to find out how this [hip-hop] was made and I think a lot of your early output was a real, ‘Wow, how do you make this music?’, moment. I read interviews with yourself and Pete Rock and you both mentioned using an MPC. I didn’t know what that was, so I asked people, read books and discovered it was a strange box that you could record sounds in. It was an exciting process.
DS It was probably exciting because there was a pursuit. It was the same for me with hip-hop. Living on the West Coast trying to get these little glimpses of this culture. To some extent it is fair to say if you were a college student now you would Google MPC and within five minutes you’d be an expert and wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t feel that you had exerted any effort. I’m not saying it is right or wrong but that is where we are at.
KK It is the same with how people digest music. I used to listen to your album solidly for two months whereas now it’s like two days…
I remember storing that away and going away thinking, ‘I am going to play a drum and bass record. There seems to be a void and I want to fill it.’
DS You don’t feel you have the luxury. There are very few albums or songs that I would burn to disc. I still prefer to listen to music when I’m driving — I suppose that is a very US thing as everyone drives and you are always driving for hours at a stretch and get that opportunity to listen to stuff.
But the other thing I think is not expressed enough, is that in this era of things coming and going really quickly, and genres being in one moment and out the next, it is almost like people consume and then throw an entire genre on the trash heap. I have never felt that way about music at all. Everything I consume is a permanent part of my DNA. I still pursue golden age hip-hop. I still care about learning about it. It doesn’t necessarily inform what I am doing musically and I don’t play it in my live sets or whatever. I still like listening to 92-93 jungalist stuff. I still like listening to 2006 dubstep. For me I don’t really understand the concept of people feeling that ‘Oh that now this is popular now this needs to be put in the trash.’
KK Another thing I wanted to touch upon in your lineage of music is that I think you are a pioneer of drum fills. [At the time of Endtroducing] I was aware of Pete Rock doing drum fills but in terms of taking breaks and doing intricate fills and doing long fills with programming, I think you were quite unique with that. And I think now we are at a point with a lot of the dirty south stuff almost the whole record is drum fill and the programming is constant.
DS Pete Rock was an influence. I remember circa ’92 having a conversation with Lyrics Born and him saying ‘Have you ever tripped off of having no sequences the same, no two-bar section of music has the same programming?’ There is always some little, ‘Brapp, brapp, brapp,’ some little thing. I remember just being like; ‘Is that what makes his shit so dope? That’s amazing.’
KK And it’s nice to have double snares…
DS Yeah, exactly! And then thinking about MPC, it’s like ‘Wow. OK. Right.’ [With an MPC] you have 99 different sequences that you can work with. So I took advantage of that.
KK You had almost like drum solos…
DS That was a little bit junglist inspired. Definitely drum and bass.
KK That makes sense.
DS I remember feeling in like ‘94, that in the mainstream music press in Britain there was a nose turned up attitude to jungle and drum and bass. And yet I would walk down the street and car after car was playing it. It started dawning on me that this was like hip-hop in the ‘80s. You can’t read a positive word about it anywhere yet that is all you hear coming out of cars.
KK I don’t think I’ve ever heard an interview where you have been asked for your opinion on Jay Dee. I remember listening to a mix you did for Radio 1 years ago and you played Get A Hold and being really excited as not many people I knew were into him [at that time]. I wondered as someone who appreciates subtly, how you felt about his work?
DS For me it was Stakes is High, when I ‘got’ that whole album. That album is a slow burn, not as immediate as Three Feet High and Rising…I was on a train in the UK and I had it on my Walkman and by the time I was on my way back I was convinced that album was a masterpiece. It was a completely different way of thinking about sampling. It didn’t matter what the break or the sample was, it was a totally unique perspective on sampling and arranging music.
It was just a really unique vision in the way that any groundbreaking producer has a unique vision. It isn’t always this otherworldly, something from another planet thing that we think it should be. Very often it is a really subtle tweak on what had come before.
Donuts is the same exact thing. It doesn’t matter that it’s James Brown.
KK Yeah. I was such a Fantastic Vol. 2 fan and when Donuts was coming around I kind of imagined an instrumental version of that. Then when I got Donuts it was not what I expected at all. It was such a curveball. It took time to digest and understand and then all these amazing ideas start to reveal themselves. That was amazing.
DS For some reason it pops back into my head, the big thing for me, is not being too heavy in one bag. My current set includes everything from Team Supreme trap beats to a couple of proper UK dubstep records that aren’t all Skrillex-ed out to Juice Crew Dis by Cool C. I will play and hopefully after an hour and a half this is my world in 2012. This is who I am and this is what I represent. For me it is important to represent who you are in the totality of it.
So, I will listen to tonnes of rock, hip-hop, rap and dance music, and just pull my favourites and try and string it together in a way that makes sense. And chances are it won’t please any purist if they only came to hear trap or whatever… I can’t just blow with the wind. On a certain point you have to make a statement and approach it artistically and hold on to who you are. Just so it is said though, and I’ve felt this way for a long time, there is nothing worse than ‘glory days’ DJing. What I mean is dudes my age and they come on and they reminisce. That is just pathetic. I would rather retire than fall into that bag. Just give the people what they expect of me you might as well quit.
There is nothing better than finding a new beat that you want to drop on a crowd. That is what DJing is about for me. The first time I played Blue Note I didn’t play what they expected. No one was expecting it to be that Queen We Will Rock You remix, I dropped that and it was; ‘What’s happening. Is this OK or not OK?’
KK We’ve got a DJ crew called Tempo Clash and the whole vibe is that we never stay on one thing long. The same mentality referencing the past that we all like but also progressive and new.
DS The same kind of thing as Low End?
DS And they’ve championed this and that, and there is always a progressive vibe but hopefully not too trendy.
It isn’t about so artistic that people can’t have a good time at all. It’s about, ‘I know what everybody else is going to give you, so I am going to give you a little bit that I know you are not going to get.’ That is what keeps me going and that is what I am interested in doing.
The only difference is that people now know who I am and they’ve been hearing me talk in interviews for 20 years. That basic essential ingredient that comes from people like Bambaataa, Flash, all the way up to the Invisible Skratch Piklz… I never forget being really impressed when I saw the Scratch Perverts one time. I hadn’t seen Tony Vegas or Mr Thing since Scatch Con. A year and a half later I was playing Creamfields and they were on before us. And they were using only CDJs. I was expecting this turntablist, purist set playing the latest Dilated Peoples record but they were on this extremely contemporary [tip]. They understood their audience, understood all types of music and played all types of shit. I remember thinking; ‘Wow, that’s pretty impressive, I need to take a piece of this and store it somewhere.’ It was really powerful. I had a certain expectation and they blew that aside to the benefit of their live show.
At Low End I played this techno thing into a drum and bass thing. I did it as the times I’d been there I had only heard fleeting moments of drum and bass and the crowd went nuts, but for whatever reason people felt that wasn’t cool enough for right now. I remember storing that away and going away thinking, ‘I am going to play a drum and bass record. There seems to be a void and I want to fill it.’
Illustration: Zander Gregson