In the Stacks: DJ Shadow is an LP archaeologist.
The Man From UNKLE
Unsheathing DJ Shadow
By Pompous Friend No. 3
'HIS ART is one of manipulation," says our driver and default disc jockey, Pompous Friend No. 1. "My first experience with DJ Shadow was in 1998, with Preemptive Strike—a slow, mellow, cool record that seemed to thrive by unsheathing and unleashing old records. But this album, his solo debut, moves me in a deeper way."
It's 3 in the morning and I'm in the back seat of a five-passenger rental car headed to Las Vegas. We're six hours into an eight-hour trip, and I'm crammed into the back seat with two friends. Like me, they're just trying to get some shut-eye. But the two rambling intellectualists in the front seats are making that difficult. They're in the midst of a lengthy conversation about the cultural and "evolutional" relevance of the CD that's currently playing for the third time in a row—DJ Shadow's Endtroducing...
"What do you mean by un-sheathing?" asks Pompous Friend No. 2, from the passenger's seat. "And unleashing? Please explain."
"Well, the artist behind the DJ Shadow moniker, Joshua Paul Davis, seems to live off, or to become the act of rooting through stacks of unused, virtually untouched LPs in old record store basements. And then he samples bits and piece of what he's found, layering and manipulating those old records to construct his own soulful tunes—true art from true art. In my opinion, that's creativity's pinnacle form." The poor bastard in the middle back seat next to me lets out a loud, sleepy fart, and I open my eyes just long enough to see a road sign as we pass it—"Tunnel Ahead"—which I ignore. The dissertation continues: "Shadow brandishes records like weapons, molding loops into ideas first, then layers into songs, before using those songs as building blocks to compose what I like to call clouded dreams you can hear—music that's eerily unclassifiable—jazz that few have heard; hip-hop that's at once mysterious and approachable."
"Intriguing," says No. 2. "Tell me more about his sound."
"You're listening to it," says No. 1 with a guffaw, "but if I had to put it into words, I'd say his best work is a darkly symphonic mash-up of the best and least-heard works from John Coltrane, A Tribe Called Quest, Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, Beastie Boys, Jeru the Damaja, Stanley Clarke and others. I remember initially thinking that his music was lush—would you agree it's lush?"
"Yes, quite. Quite lush. Like a well-tended grove. Splendid."
"Indeed. It's opulent, yet smooth and atmospheric."
"But what's all this about his sound moving toward ... hyphy? I hear his latest record, The Outsider, from last year, moves in that direction—away from surreal textures, and toward ... hyphy. Is it hyphy?" At this point, I can't see what happens, but it sounds and smells as though No. 1 has responded to the repeated use of "hyphy" by vomiting into his own lap, and onto the dashboard. An allergic reaction, perhaps. "Oh, God. Ew," he says, sounding sick.
"I mean, what exactly is hyphy?" asks No. 2, staring out his window into the dark, oblivious.
"Oh, yuck," says No. 1. "I can't believe—"
"From my understanding, the idea of 'going hyphy' "—No. 2 raises his fingers in the air to note quotation marks, and then rolls down his window—"is simply another way of acting foolish and silly—a way of letting loose and throwing one's cares to the wind."
"Oh, wow. I just ..." No. 1 vomits again.
"I suppose there's a musical element to it, too—up-tempo beats underneath rapping, as I understand it. But I can't comprehend why Mr. Shadow would want to change his sound. The work I've heard from him is simply delightful—I can't imagine a more truly expressive form of hip-hop. Why would he attempt a transformation, I wonder. I believe it could be—"
At this point, amid the reeking stench and the continued dissertation (now from No. 2), I continue to pretend I'm sleeping. Visions pass through my head, and I'm reminded of a song called "Rabbit in Your Headlights." It's sung by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, and part of Psyence Fiction—the first major release from UNKLE, in which DJ Shadow collaborated with British trip-hop DJ James Lavelle. The song and the album are good, but the video is better. And I can't help but conjure it like an exquisite nightmare in tonight's background. Here it is: There's a man ranting, raving and mumbling depressed madness while he's walking in a two-lane tunnel amid speeding traffic. In the center of a lane, he's virtually ignored, trapped, but uncaring. He's never helped by anyone, and only acknowledged once, by a car filled with guys who offer to pick him up. But the mad man pays no attention, and they drive on. He continues walking urgently, talking to himself and shouting. He's getting angrier, occasionally yelling louder over the subtle piano and the rising beat, as Thom Yorke croons "I'm a rabbit in your headlights/ Christian suburbanite/ Washed down the toilet/ Money to burn." More cars bump into the mad man—sideswipe him, even hit him straight on, knocking him to the ground ... But he always recovers, always stands again, always continues walking. "Cristo!" "Shimmer!" he yells, fuming mad. He's hit again. He stands again, keeps walking. He pulls off his hooded jacket to reveal nothing underneath but bruised skin, a sickly thin torso. He raves louder, becomes fierce, fuming, furious, but still somehow calm enough to keep walking ahead, in the middle of traffic, as if he's on a mission, headed somewhere important, or nowhere at all. At last, as the music intensifies and the rhythm reaches its loudest, he stops walking. The drums drop out. Subtle piano looms. Seconds pass. A car is about to hit him squarely from behind, but he seems to sense the impact. He raises his arms to a "T." And as the car smashes into his body, the action decelerates to slow motion, and this time he stays on his feet. The car explodes around him, disintegrates into smoke. The smoke turns to gray ash, the ash to black. The beat fades into nothingness. I can't help thinking of this. I can't help but feel this vision, right now. For a moment, thinking of this scene, it feels like I'm not even here—like I'm watching tonight on a computer screen, listening to it unfold through speakers, in waves. It's like I don't even exist here. Like this is not happening. But No. 2 drones on, unperturbed.
"I suppose DJ Shadow switching to a hyphy style isn't much different from Bob Dylan's mid-'60s electric conversion, or Miles Davis' transition from bop to jazz-fusion on Bitches Brew, or even Metallica's more-blues-than-metal approach to Load and ReLoad. So, perhaps hyphy is simply a representation of a new part of Shadow's career."
"I definitely need to pull over as soon as I can," says No. 1, losing control, still ignoring No. 2. "I can't drive like this."
"Watch out for that guy in from of you," says No. 2 calmly.
"Wait," says No. 1. "What?"
DJ Shadow plays with Lifesavas on Thursday (April 26) at 8:30pm at Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco. Tickets are $37.50. (408.998.TIXS)
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