The shadows of tomorrow

By James Lang

“I think it’s safe to say that when I first started, I was starting at zero and nobody knew who I was. I started to get some notice here (in the UK) and then Endtroducing happened and that became something that, even though it was a slow burn and it was a cult record, ended up being a notable album. Really every record I’ve done since then, inevitably, is going to be judged against that album.”

Twenty years on from his 1996 epic, and Josh Davis is still living in the shadow of a masterpiece. An elevation and expansion of what hip-hop was at the time, an access point for some previously uninterested in the genre, and a defining point in its development, the impact of Endtroducing is not something that can or should be repeated. “Sometimes (subsequent albums) are judged positively, and sometimes judged negatively, of course. I’ve been down a long road with trying to reconcile my own ideas about my music with other people’s ideas about my music. I think it’s taken me a long time to reconcile all of these different voices and come to terms and come to peace with it all, but I do feel like I’m there.”

Shadow made Endtroducing on an MPC-60 sampler and drum machine, and has worked with different tools ever since. “What made Endtroducing Endtroducing was the fact that I had 13 seconds of stereo sampling. It was a very simple album. Sometimes people have been fixated on, ‘so you’re sampling less now?’, and it’s a very difficult, long conversation to a layman, because there’s actually more samples by far, probably ten times as many samples, on the new album (The Mountain Will Fall) than on Endtroducing. It’s just that on Endtroducing, it was composed primarily of loops and chops in a way that I would never make music today. That’s not to say that it’s better or worse, or that today’s technology is better or worse. You can’t unlearn, in my opinion. It’s creatively bankrupt to pretend that I haven’t taken in 20 years of music since then, and technology hasn’t moved on.”

The Mountain Will Fall is Shadow’s first album on an independent platform (Nas’ Mass Appeal Records) since the Mo’Wax days, a label which was eventually acquired by Universal, who went on to release most of his subsequent work. Like everything he’s done, it’s a multi-layered piece of work immersed in influences yet driving sounds forward. It plays beautifully on wax, which leads one to wonder if programming a sequence of songs for that format is still a viable concern. “I agree, I actually think the album sounds good on vinyl. I like the way the sides played out. Truthfully, it was just a convenient accident. I had to take a track off the album at the eleventh hour because of an unresolved sample issue. I hate doing stuff like that.”

 

DJ Shadow photographed by Siofra McComb at his studio in California.

DJ Shadow photographed by Siofra McComb at his studio in California.

One of the standout tracks on the album, and one which Shadow has said is one of his favourite songs that he’s ever made, is a collaboration with Manchester trumpeter Matthew Halsall who runs jazz label Gondwana Records. ‘I was sent a link to one of his tracks, off his 2012 album (Fletcher Moss Park), called Finding My Way. I remember when I listened to it that it struck me as a really nice piece of music. It’s funny because jazz is a genre that I’ve managed to dance around and avoid, primarily because when I first came to the UK in 1993 it was the Acid Jazz era. I was not a huge fan of the genre. To me it seemed like it was borrowing the aesthetic without really being in touch with a lot of the soul of the music – that was my opinion at the time, anyway. The type of jazz that I have come to love over the years is more on the spiritual side and maybe a little more on the serious side, and bordering on the political, I guess you would say. To me, (Finding My Way) summed up a lot of what I felt like was missing from a lot of that Acid Jazz era. A year later I started working on the album, it dawned on me that I wanted to reach out to other instrumentalists but not necessarily other beatmakers. I wanted to reach out to people who were operating in a different realm, musically and instrumentally.

“I knew I wanted to make a song on the album that was gonna’ be a little bit of an outlier, because the album was essentially finished and I knew I wanted one more completely different facet of what the album represented in my mind. From working with Matthew, I knew that if it went right, that the track would stand alone in my catalogue as being totally unique. So he sent everything back, and it was just a great couple of days of zeroing in on sounds that I thought were beautiful, and making them completely different. I wanted to show Matthew that I was deadly serious about this collaboration, and that I wanted to put in the work and put in the time experimenting with different things. Definitely one of the core concepts of the record on a production level is I want there to be songs within songs. Because electronic music and hip-hop both can be very formulaic in their arrangements, and I really wanted my album to represent a departure from those conventional arrangements. I’m really proud of the track, man, it’s honestly one of my favourite two or three songs on the album for sure, because it’s so unique and when I listen to it, I’m like, man, this is really what I want to be saying. There’s a timelessness to it, and I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet so to speak,” Shadow laughs, all of a sudden. “Obviously when you have good source material, that definitely helps. There’s some samples in there as well, and it seemed like I found exactly what I was looking for at the right moment. The music that I wrote over the top of what I sampled, that Matthew and his band did, I feel is very sympathetic… I’m just proud of it, I don’t know what more I can say. It’s a song I’m really proud of.”

“As with so many things that I do, it’s a labour of love and it’s not a money thing.”

Reflecting on the move to Mass Appeal, Shadow has described making this album as ‘a joy’ compared to completing some of his previous efforts. “I decided last summer that I wanted to be away from Universal. I was ready to move on, and I just started working on the album in earnest. I just felt like I was full of inspiration, honestly. I couldn’t be happier at this moment in the sense that my objective, by leaving Universal, was I wanted to find a home where people were passionate about what I was doing. And that’s not to say that things weren’t on occasion brilliant at Universal, it’s just that in all honesty I ended up there, I was never signed by them. The guy who was there at the time was quite passionate about me but he moved on, and then the guy who succeeded him moved on. Before you know it, you’ve been there 20 years. To their credit, they were like, ‘Yeah, we get it, go do your thing’. I guess the easiest way to sum it up is I’d rather there be a staff of 10 working my record that are super passionate about it, than 50 people who have no idea who I am or why I’m there, or what I’m for. The choice is pretty simple. I was really happy to land at Mass Appeal, it was a serendipitous fit for a lot of reasons, but I’m really happy with how it’s gone.”

Foraying into the world of independent labels himself, Shadow has used Bandcamp and other digital platforms to release music from people he’s feeling with his Liquid Amber imprint. “As with so many things that I do, it’s a labour of love and it’s not a money thing. All the music is free. I really just intended the label to be a co-sign and a level up for artists that are getting started on their journey, and whose music I really respect, and I always try to tell them from the beginning what it is and what it isn’t. Because you know, there’s only so much I can do, and so much my team can do, but I think in some cases it’s really benefitted the artist, and what matters to me is that they feel like it was a good thing for them to have done. The last thing I would ever want to do is have an artist feel like, ‘Oh, that was a misstep’, or ‘I didn’t benefit at all from that’.”

An example of this would be showcasing Liquid Amber alumni G Jones and Bleep Bloop on The Mountain Will Fall, signposting people towards these newer artists. “Absolutely, you hit it right on the head. Everything I do, whether it’s the Essential Mix or the Beats 1 show, or my live sets, anything I do through the years, I want people, if they’re enjoying this, please dig deeper and please check out all these other artists. The liner notes for Endtroducing say it all – okay, if you’re into this, here’s exactly who inspired me, exactly who you should check out. That’s what made me want to be a DJ. Driving around the small town that I lived in, blasting music that nobody, literally, in a town of 3000 people, nobody at all had any interest in. I just wanted to try to move the needle and steer the dial towards something else other than classic rock, AC/DC or the same thing everybody else seemed to be into in the town that I grew up in.”

In the realm of the digital age, it’s not a case of flicking through record shelves either. “I started using Bandcamp when I started putting my DJ sets together, obviously Soundcloud as well, I literally would go wherever the music would take me. Boomkat, or whatever. So I’m not really partial (to a particular platform), but at the same time I have found that Bandcamp has been interesting… it’s just another way to reach people, and the editorial staff have been kind to us, it’s been cool. I found myself getting into ‘pay what you want’. If I’m downloading music from somebody and they’re leaving me an option to pay them, I’m going to pay them. It may be a few bucks, it may be more, but it’s something I actually feel good about doing. It ain’t gonna’ get anybody rich overnight, but it’s something and it’s all part of it.”

“I have no interest in going around waving a flag going ‘no, I am hip-hop.’ I don’t really care what people call it, and I don’t need to know what to call it. I just know that hip-hop is the music that gave me my outlook not only on music itself, but society, politics, everything.”

The Mountain Will Fall sees Shadow in a good place then, and he hasn’t got time for those that question the boundaries of the genre. “Obviously a long time ago I stopped caring whether people thought I was making hip-hop or not. I have no interest in going around waving a flag going ‘no, I am hip-hop.’ I don’t really care what people call it, and I don’t need to know what to call it. I just know that hip-hop is the music that gave me my outlook not only on music itself, but society, politics, everything. So I everything I do, I feel, is viewed through that lens, just as if a punker grew up on rockabilly or something like that, it’s as ingrained in them as hip-hop is ingrained in me. So, I feel like as long as I continue to apply all of the lessons that I’ve learned through the years, and keep adding on to them – because to me that is key – then hopefully the influences will be such that I am able to add my personality to the mix and generate something new, because that’s the other main thing to me. There’s a big difference between imitating somebody and being inspired by them. And I never wanted to imitate, I never wanted to sound like anyone else, I wanted to provide an alternative to people through my unusual amalgamation of different influences through the years.”

The Mountain Will Fall is out now on Mass Appeal Records.
The Endtroducing 20th Anniversary Edition is out on the 28th October on UMC/Island Records.

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