- Tue, 2011-12-13 16:13
Under the name DJ Shadow, Josh Davis has been a leading light of instrumental, cut & paste hip hop and turntablism for fifteen years. First capturing attention in 1996 with his debut album, Endtroducing..., he has remained at the forefront of his field ever since. With his fourth studio album – The Less You Know, The Better – recently released, and a long tour in his renowned Shadowsphere coming to an end, 2011 has been a busy year for the DJ.
I Like Music caught up with him in a rare quiet moment to chat about the Shadowsphere, finding and using samples, crate digging for the new album, and the what hip hop means to him.
“I like music because… it is the paradigm through which I view and understand all things.” DJ Shadow
ILM: Hey Josh. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us today. How are you?
DJ Shadow: Good. I feel good about where I’m at. On one hand there’s this anxiety about the industry that I’m in, which is in a bit of a rough spot, but on the other hand I’ve done 150 shows in the last seventeen months, literally all over the world. I don’t take that lightly at all, it's something I feel really honoured to be able to do. So it’s a lot to take in, I guess. I feel pretty good about where I’ve landed now. The album’s out, people have heard it and I think they realise that I’m not trying to antagonise anybody. I’m just trying to follow my muse wherever it takes me. I'm just trying to make the best music I can.
ILM: You're performing inside the Shadowsphere...
DJ Shadow: Or the egg, or the ball...Haha!
ILM: Obviously it provides an amazing visual accompaniment to your music, but I also read that another aim for the show inside the Shadowsphere was to change audience expectations of a hip hop show. 150 shows in, do you feel the show has achieved that?
DJ Shadow: Honestly, I still can’t believe we pulled it off! There were so many artistic and logistic qualifications for it. It had to be sturdy but lightweight, you had to be able to assemble it in a certain amount of time to be able to play festivals, once crated up it had to fit on a narrow-bodied jet so we could fly it around Europe... But yes, from a creative standpoint I wanted to play around with mocking the whole superstar mega-DJ show, which has always been something I don’t really understand too much... It’s not really my personality: I didn’t become a DJ to be famous. At the same time, of course I want to entertain people.
ILM: How does your current live show find that balance?
DJ Shadow: I guess I’ve tried to create a DJ show that exceeds people’s expectations without having to play hit songs and all that kind of stuff. I thought more about the way rock bands put shows together than big Ibiza DJs. I don't know if you know, but back in the States the DJ explosion is finally happening there, after a kind of ten year time lapse... You know when Carl Cox would play three different gigs a night to 50,000 people at a time? That kind of stuff is happening in the States now. Really, the most important thing is trying to make a genuine connection with the audience. That can be done in two ways. One is by playing the music in a really evocative way that brings out the best in the music and really allows people to hear it in a new light. The other way is patter and chat with the audience. I try to minimise the latter...!
ILM: Who have been some of the most inspiring artists that you’ve seen play live?
DJ Shadow: I had the opportunity to open up for Radiohead on their OK Computer tour of the UK. I remember seeing them in San Francisco at a venue called The Warfield before that tour, and what struck me was how they allowed almost totally silent moments. Being in the audience for those moments and looking around at people’s faces struck me as something really powerful. Not all of my music is right for that type of interaction, but there is one moment in the show... I was telling my friend when I was working on it “when I come to Chicago I want you to see this new part. I really wanna try and make people weep.” I think it’s rare that you see that kind of energy in a DJ show.
ILM: And as an audience member those moments of stillness enhance the big, hands-in-the-air moments even more...
DJ Shadow: Right. Over the summer I was part of this tour with a lot of big, superstar DJs – I was totally out of place! – and I noticed that with DJs that go on for seventy minutes, the tempo never changes, the music never stops; after half an hour the people just lost interest. It’s very linear. It doesn’t matter how much of a rave-head you are, or how many drugs you’ve ingested: at a certain point it’s just like “ugh!” I don’t even know if people are registering that internally or not, but I see it from the perspective of someone who’s seen a lot of shows. And that’s not to say that my show is flawless or better than anybody else’s, I’ve just tried to craft a show that is true to the music that I’m making and my aesthetics as a DJ.
ILM: We spoke to you around the release of your last record The Outsider, which focused less on the cut and paste formula of your first two releases and looked more towards the hip hop influences from your home town, the San Francisco Bay Area. It was quite a big step for a number of your fans...
DJ Shadow: The Outsider allowed me to start over. I didn’t want it to be all sample-based, I wanted to blow up people’s expectations of what my records are supposed to sound like. And yeah, as I suspected, it alienated a lot of people. Some of those fans will never come back. To some of those fans it was a transgression too far. While I’m obviously sad about that, I saw it as an opportunity to start afresh. When I sat down and started on The Less You Know, The Better I didn’t feel like I needed to provoke in the same way.
ILM: What was your vision for this record?
DJ Shadow: Obviously I want my music to progress. The more music you make, the bigger the challenge there is to say something new. There were so many days when I was making this record that I felt like I was covering familiar ground, so I just stopped. There’s a song on the new album called Tedium that represents those moments. That song in particular is, in some ways, just a pointless song! It’s almost like a sketch. I wanted to include one of those moments on the album. It doesn’t go anywhere particularly; it’s just a nice moment...
ILM: How would you describe your process of building a track?
ILM: Generally speaking, there’ll be a moment near the beginning of a session when I’ll just start vibing on something. Before I know it, the sketch of the song is there. Then I'll feel really pleased that I've done all that work in two hours or so and everything from that point on is difficult! Those moments are quite precious. When I know that I’m genuinely onto something I really feel an obligation to see it through to the best possible conclusion. With Six Days, High Noon and Scale It Back I felt like I came really close. There have been those songs consistently throughout my career, but I find it very difficult to do a whole album of that. There are literally thousands of decisions that you have to make, and with every little thing that you add it’s... it's sort of like a house of cards: “will the arrangement fall apart if I add this?” If I listen back to tracks I've made in the past there are always one or two moments where I know I should have stripped away one thing or another!
ILM: You are famed for your use of samples. How do they weave their way into the process? Are you constantly picking them up and adding them to a bank of potentials?
DJ Shadow: Yeah...
ILM: I imagine you come across a lot...
DJ Shadow: I had a day off last week, the only day off I’ve had on this little run, and I chose to spend it in a warehouse of vinyl, as I often do. When I’m digging I just let the records do the work. I find what I’m supposed to find. There are things that I’m always looking for, but they’re pie-in-the-sky, one-in-a-million things. Rather than concern myself with that I just go “okay, in this box of records one thing interested me or caught my eye” whether or not it’s collectable is by-the-by. The more records you’ve seen the less and less likely it is that you’ll see something you haven’t before. So when you do, whether it’s on a major label or something strange, you just go “okay, well if it’s a fiver that’s fine, I'll buy it. If it’s fifty quid then I probably need to listen to it!"
ILM: And once you've bought the records, where do they end up?
DJ Shadow: It just all ends up stacking up! I just buy this stuff! I did the same in Jakarta, the same in Bangkok... I’m lucky enough to go all over the world. Then when it comes to work, I’ll blaze through a pile of it. I like to have this stockpile and not feel like I’m ever gonna run out. That’s where the neurosis comes in: I’m constantly adding to the pile just to be like “okay, I know that if I had to do five albums and I never found another record because all the record shops were shut, I could still do it.”
ILM: If you listen to a record and hear something that you might want to use as a sample in the future, how do you go about cataloguing that?
DJ Shadow: I don’t! Actually, there’s one thing on the new album that I sampled that I haven’t seen in over a year. I looked for it everywhere I thought it might make sense for it to be, but I have so many records that it’s not feasible for me to go through the whole collection.
ILM: I was going to ask whether you end up having to dig back through your own collection...!
DJ Shadow: Right, or re-buying things... A classic example of that, even though it wasn’t for making music, was when there was the fiftieth anniversary of Island Records a few years ago. I agreed to DJ an all-Island Records set. I must have three copies of silly things like this record on 4th & B’way - which was an imprint of Island - called Loveride, by Nuance. It was a classic club record, and I probably had three or four of it, but of course I had to go and buy another one!
ILM: Your record collection isn't filed?
DJ Shadow: No! I don’t like my collection to be meticulously filed. I feel that it’s kind of boring. I like the chaos! I think I learned that from James Lavelle. I've stayed at his house a few times when he's been getting ready for a DJ set. He'll just open up this closet, or go to a stack of records on the floor saying “where’s that dubplate? I can’t find it!" So he just grabs the nearest thing and goes with that. I saw him discover a lot of things in his own collection that way.
ILM: On The Less You Know, The Better the vocal sample used on the track Give Me Back The Nights is really intense and emotional. Where did that come from? What's the story behind it?
DJ Shadow: I’ll try and tell you the short version! I usually find that January and February is when I’m home the most, because it’s not festival season and the days are short and it’s cold. I like to just get in my car and go to any number of little towns in the Sacramento valley and go thrifting. It’s a really solitary, lonely experience. I think thrift store culture in the States is a bit different from second hand shop culture in the UK; you actually can find things. In Europe or the UK I always feel like everything that’s presented has always been researched to the hilt and is already priced above what it ought to be. In the States, particularly when it comes to vinyl, you can actually find things. So, I found that sample when I was out thrifting. When I go I always keep my expectations very low, I just find it keeps me going through the day a little bit better.
ILM: It’s more about the experience than a possible find.
DJ Shadow: Yeah, it’s about being solitary and getting to listen to a lot of music on my CD or cassette player. Anyway, I went into a thrift store in Sacramento near where I grew up. What you normally find in a thrift store is a lot of easy listening, a lot of fifties pop music, a lot of religious stuff and the occasional really odd thing. I found this record with a picture of a man in just a loincloth, and it said something about religion on the front, and I thought “that’s kind of an odd photo, why is he wearing a loincloth?” In the States in the mid-seventies there were a lot of strange cults: people were religious but they were also hippies into dope. All these weird worlds collided around that time and a lot of those influences made for some interesting music...
Now, records like this in the States are always mashed, or sealed. There’s no middle ground. These private press records were hand-to-hand. It came from the artist to a family member, or a pastor, or somebody that they were hoping could open a door for them. Anyway, I was looking at it, and I literally put it down twice, thinking “this is just going to be some more religious rubbish, the music’s not going to be interesting,” but there was something about it. I got this gut feeling that I get when records speak to me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets it, but that’s the only thing that I rely on now. I’ll roll the dice for a dollar or two. When I took this record home and opened it up and dropped the needle around I was kind of glad, because it was poetry, but it was still quite typical. Then I dropped the needle on that track and it just struck me. It’s so rare to find examples of that kind of soul-bearing prior to the punk era. It just wasn’t done. Even on psychedelic records, or garage rock records. People could be wild, but usually within certain genre constraints.
Listening to it, I felt that I was able to appreciate it and that I was the right person to shepherd this performance back into a wider audience. When I got hold of the guy he was very disparaging of it. He thought he’d only made a hundred, and threw away about half the run cos he didn’t really see much point in it. It was just fascinating! I just think sampling and being able to do what I do is endlessly fascinating. It gives me a window into other artists and another era, and why they were doing what they did. And it informs what I do as well.
ILM: Due to the nature of that sample, there have been a lot of interpretations of that track, a lot of people have been speculating why you might have included it. When you're working with vocal samples, to what extent do you see them as your voice, your lyrics?
DJ Shadow: In response to the first part of the question, I like moments on any album that push the threshold. And incidentally, that goes with beautiful moments as well as harrowing moments. The people that I respect, when they heard that song, went “wow, that is seriously intense and seriously deep.” They totally get it. To people who aren’t on the right wavelength, they hear it and maybe they laugh. To me it’s about... “this is truth on wax. Can you handle it, or not?” That’s the only answer that I’m looking for and I was genuinely excited to put that song on the record.
Regarding the second part of your question; sure, in the same way that I endorse any musical element on the record I endorse any vocal moment on the record. Not necessarily every word of it in its literal meaning, but sometimes just the energy or the angst, or the beauty of it. I remember having an interesting discussion one time about sampling an antisocial band or a band with dodgy political connotations. For me, sampling is all about decontextualisting. When I take a hardcore gangsta rap vocal sample, slow it down and use it on Enemy Lines it doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing a gangsta rap image. Sometimes I think people are too literal.
ILM: Finally, a lot of young people today percieve the value of music in a very different way to previous generations. As a record collector, what is it that keeps you attached to vinyl? Why does it mean more to you than a digital download?
DJ Shadow: There are a lot of different ways that I could answer that question, and I could probably talk for about half an hour on it. In a nutshell, music – and hip hop in particular – was the screen through which I saw society. I didn’t feel like I understood society, I felt intimidated by it and not a part of it until I was able to view it through that screen. I didn’t grow up in New York or The Bronx and I wasn’t hearing hip hop in its infancy, but it was something that I found and sought and based my entire viewpoint around, based all of my ideas on. I don’t think that would ever have been possible or as relevant, and I certainly don’t think I would have been as passionate, if all I did was go “oh hip hop, what’s that?” googled it and thought “oh okay. Next.”
The thrill of discovery, trying to live this culture through the vinyl I was buying, gave me an appreciation that in some ways even the people that were at the epicentre of it can’t fully appreciate. It wasn’t something that I could walk down the street and participate in. I had to learn about it in magazines like Melody Maker, which were covering hip hop in the UK at a time when no-one was covering it in the US, because the machine didn’t want us to consume that in the US. The machine was concerned with RATT and Poison and Madonna, and all the other stuff at the time that I didn’t personally care about. All I can say is that there’s so much to the music that makes its way to people’s ears. I love reading about music. I care about the people who helped make possible the music that we hear today. The people that first put Howling Wolf in the studio... It’s all interesting to me.
The internet seems to be a very binary way of looking at the world. Things are either good or they’re bad, and if something’s new that means this must be old and ready for the graveyard. Music is a little more complex than that. So I suppose that in a nutshell, I would just say there is a lot of music out there to be discovered on the internet, and a lot of it was made rather quickly as an experiment – which is cool – a lot of it was made to get instant fame, but there’s also music out there that deserves people’s respect as craftsmanship. As long as people are aware that both can coexist then I see no reason that I can’t continue to make a living in the internet era.
I want everyone to win! Anybody who’s interested in music. I’m not a purist; it doesn’t matter to me if something is a vinyl-only release or not. I don’t have anything against the way people want to get their music heard. The only thing I care about is “is it good?” If it is, then let’s celebrate that. It gets really tiring when everything’s so negative all the time. I don’t waste time with stuff that I don’t like, I just choose to champion the stuff I do.