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The Shadow Knows

DJ Shadow
A Lifetime of Vinyl Culture: Davis' DJ Shadow thumbs through his extensive archive of the recorded past looking for beats and breaks to sample.

Photo by Anton Corbijn



A camera-shy bedroom mixologist from Davis drops a hip-hop classic--a look inside the beats, records and life of DJ Shadow

By Todd S. Inoue

MY FIRST face-to-face meeting with DJ Shadow took place at a hip-hop show in San Francisco, but his mug looked strangely familiar. He's probably bumped into me a hundred times while I've grazed through bins of vinyl in used-record stores around the bay--maybe it was at Big Al's Record Barn in Santa Clara. The Shadow gets around in his ceaseless search for vinyl to transmute into his unique brand of mostly instrumental hip-hop.

In all his publicity photos, Shadow's face is obscured behind records, album jackets, visors and, appropriately, shadows. Lately, however, much to his dismay, Shadow's ghostlike apparition has been everywhere. His debut LP, Endtroducing..... (Mowax), made as many 1996 Top-10 lists as Beck's Odelay did. Writers were falling over themselves trying to describe the contents of this remarkable collection of hip-hop symphonics. Some even attempted to name-drop the impossible-to-place samples spread across 13 diverse, sprawling tracks.

DJ Shadow (a.k.a. Josh Davis) has been lauded as a hip-hop savior, a genius and the most exciting thing in music today. About his reticence to adopt a more public persona, the 24-year-old Davis resident is succinct. "I've always respected the director more than the movie star," he says, calling from his Davis home.

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Web site for SoleSides, the independent label run
by DJ Shadow and his partners.

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"He's the one with the vision," Shadow continues, "who creates the piece, makes the dough and is respected--and nobody knows who he is. I don't have any interest in being in front of a camera. I don't like seeing myself everywhere. It's not why I do what I do. I make music for music's sake."

Making music means bending a little to accommodate a business that demands image as well as talent. For his art, Shadow must suffer and shoot a music video for "Midnight in a Perfect World," the first single from the album. "It's strictly grounded in the music," Shadow says about the videographic intrusion. "I'm trying to do a video where nothing is extraneous. There's going to be a lot of video looping of everyday-type shit--beat shopping, record culture."

A lifelong vinyl junkie whose father lives in Campbell, Shadow comes down to the South Bay occasionally to shop for records--an activity that's part creative resurgence, part religious experience, part penance. "Buying records keeps you humble because you're rooting through a graveyard of broken dreams," Shadow says. "It keeps you focused and respectful of all types of music."

Ample Sample

USING A sampling machine and a mixer, Shadow constructs his epic sonic collages entirely from snippets of sound extracted from prerecorded sources. He pores over crates of long-forgotten LPs--45s, even cassettes and videotapes--looking for defunct yet trustworthy labels and groups to borrow from.

He's never sampled a CD, nor does he own a CD player. "But I have a million and one promo CDs laying around," he admits, "and it pisses me off because I want to hear some of them."

Shadow creates a near-seamless landscape of sound out of the vast universe of aural building blocks. He pinches bass lines, rhythms, beats, breaks, words, live scratches, choruses and brass. These he loops and alters until a brand-new song is born--a collage that transforms its many disparate elements into something utterly different yet hauntingly familiar.

All the cracks and pops are real, a remnant of the album's roots in the culture of vinyl, in which imperfections have not been digitized away. It's cut-and-paste mixology on a grand scale.

On "Building Steam With a Grain of Salt," for instance, Shadow weaves together a New York­style beat, a sustained piano loop and a tricked-out choral part. The voice of a grizzled veteran declares, "I'm not just a student of the drum, but I'm also a teacher." Within a minute, the beat is juggled, producing an awe-inspiring blend of time signatures. The moment zips by like a Muhammad Ali combination, leaving the listener waiting for the next intoxicating hit.

The CD jacket generously thanks hip-hop's greatest producers past and present. In a way, Shadow has amassed a collection of torches passed to him by every one of his heroes: Mantronik, Kool Herc, Prince Paul, Muggs, et al. His effusive gratitude acknowledges the past while opening the passageway to the future.

"Endtroducing..... was an introduction to what hip-hop used to represent in a way that was in no way retro," he tells me. "Here's a song that sounds like 1988 Miami bass, or an '83 drum-machine track. I tried to use those ideals and apply them to modern or contemporary music." He hangs that idea out to dry. "I wanted the album to entertain as well."

DJ Shadow

Audio Two

DAVIS WAS not a fertile breeding ground for hip-hop. There were no breakdance battles popping off outside the corner store; Run-D.M.C. never rocked the Davis Community Center. Shadow was one of only two hip-hop-obsessed kids at his junior high school in the mid-'80s. The first DJ he saw was from the World's Famous Supreme Team show--on a videotape.

He and his friend would case the local record shops for funky beats. Rap records were hard to find, so they sought grooves from obscure artists. Shadow honed his craft as a bedroom mixologist, making mind-blowing tapes.

When Shadow registered for classes at UC-Davis, he finally started to meet other hip-hop enthusiasts. In particular, Shadow met DJ Zen--a.k.a. Jeff Chang--a DJ for campus radio station KDVS, who introduced him to rapper Lyrics Born. The three later formed their own record label, SoleSides.

His 1992 instrumental "Legitimate Mix" on the Lifers Group's Zimbabwe Legit (Hollywood Basic) was a leap forward for instrumental hip-hop, which had been dormant since the days of Mantronix. This track, along with the first SoleSides single release, which included DJ Shadow's 17-minute opus "Entropy," caught the attention of U.K. Mo' Wax Records owner James Lavelle. Lavelle's influential label released two Shadow singles, "In Flux" and "Lost And Found (S.F.L.)," and the EP What Does Your Soul Look Like.

Endtroducing..... was released in the U.S. by Mo' Wax/London in October and debuted at #15 on the U.K. dance charts.

Hey DJ

HIP-HOP began with the DJ: Kool Herc, Grandwizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash. Back then, emcees were just the PR flaks for the DJs. When the video age commenced, however, the rappers became hip-hop's spokesmen and
-women.

Today, however, the mightiest of rap's super emcees seem touched by kryptonite. KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest are making, ugh, R&B songs. The solo CD by Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah is a big letdown.

So it's natural--though a little surprising--that a mostly instrumental album is being lauded as a potential hip-hop classic. With Endtroducing....., DJ Shadow wasn't out to reinvent the wheel but rather rotate the tires.

"Hip-hop is really sucking right now," he says, seething. "There's a lot of people--like Prince Paul--who feel all sorts of dissatisfaction with hip-hop. Fools are asleep, and it's sad. Endtroducing..... was a mission against phony people and the sheep mentality. It's like, come on! We already got 100 Wu-Tang imitators. What would I be offering the marketplace?"

While rappers insist on delivering answers, Shadow questions his audience. What does your soul look like? What does midnight in a perfect world sound like? How can you build steam with a grain of salt? The sole answer he provides on the album is located in "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in '96": "It's the money."

Shadow thinks visually, to the point of admitting that the midsong interludes titled "Transmission 1-3" are directly influenced by the movie Angel Heart. Shadow seems a natural to compose soundtracks, but he hasn't found a project to suit his liking. He lists Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, even Steven Spielberg as his favorite directors.

"People rag on him that he's too mainstream," Shadow says about Spielberg, "but anybody who can release Schindler's List and Jurassic Park in one year--two separate movies with completely different audiences and textures--is doing his shit and doing it well."

One of Shadow's favorite plot devices is cinematic in nature: foreshadowing. He buries the organ loop from "Organ Donor" on another track; when the organ riff begins, there's a hint of recognition, but you don't know why. You don't have to cue up "Midnight in a Perfect World" to hear a distant voice crow "midnight" somewhere.

"You can borrow from books, films, paintings, anything that's creative, whether as a plot device or constructing a narrative," he says. "That was something I was most concerned with--having everything in there mixed up, but make it have a context, not just to make you say, 'Ooh how spacy' or 'Ooh how trippy.' Everything in there is for a reason."

Value Meal

DJ SHADOW has created the first hip-hop album that demands an incubation period from listeners. It took me a month to begin to appreciate the luscious production values of "Midnight in a Perfect World" and "Changeling." The song lengths are daunting: "Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain" tops out at 9:32; "What Does Your Soul Look Like" is updated from its original 35-minute release to a comfy 7:28.

"I miss albums that demand an hour of attention," he says. "Today, lots of music insults the listeners. [Entertainers] think [audiences] can't handle anything longer than three and a half minutes at a time. I like music that has a theme, a plot. That's why I love Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique."

When the longest hip-hop track of all time, including remixes, is the vapid party rhyme "Rappers Delight," Shadow's goal is to create a hip-hop song as long, involved and intelligent as Rush's "2112."

Growing up in California's Central Valley, he explains, he was bombarded by classic rock but grew to appreciate some of the prog-rock style of Rush, particularly the song "Working Man."

"As much as I railed against it, it affected me, ironically," Shadow says. "I remember back in 1985 when my dad and I went to the grocery store, and I waited in the car, and this Rush song came on. I remember sitting there and thinking, It's not my thing, but it's very complex, and I respect that. I remember thinking that hip-hop was such a young art form and how I couldn't wait for hip-hop to experience such innovation and structure."

Visionaries often outpace the crowd, and Shadow has been criticized by hardcore hip-hop heads locked in firm denial. While chatting with Shadow at the Elbo Room, an old friend, who is thanked on the liner notes, rolled up and expressed his thoughts. "I liked your album," he said, "but it needed more real hip-hop shit on it."

"And this person knows what real hip-hop is," Shadow says, flabbergasted. "It's like, come on now. Be honest. Ignore the hip-hop pressure. There's electro, rock, Miami bass, raggamuffin, Latin hip-hop, Oakland's Too Short, the cities of L.A., Philly, New York, Miami. There's influences of all sorts. But I invite any backlash. I invite it."

It's no mistake that Shadow is already thinking about the future.

"In a sense, Endtroducing.....ends a certain sound. I intend not to sound the same on the next album. Zimbabwe Legit was Phase I, Entropy was Phase II, What Does Your Soul Look Like was Phase III, Endtroducing.... is just another phase. It's a summation of elements and an end to a sound. But I'll always be working with sample-based art forms. I'll always be making music. I'll be making music when I'm 60 and nobody's buying it."

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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