[Metroactive Music]

[ Music Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace] DJ Shadow Made in the Shade

The shy DJ who, six years ago, swore off the jiggyness of commercial hip-hop on his debut album now says, 'It's all good.'

DJ Shadow comes out of the darkness and back into the spotlight.

By Todd Inoue

Campbell-born Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, is an unlikely hip-hop hero. He dodges the spotlight, preferring to let his hip-hop symphonies speak for him.

Shadow burst onto the scene in 1996 with his Mo' Wax album Entroducing..... . Composed entirely of sample-based forms, this sonic confessional was unlike anything out there--a breathtaking instrumental hip-hop record stitched together by beats, loops, found sounds and movie dialogue. Entroducing was an acquired taste; it commanded a gestation period before listeners grasped the hidden colors, themes and dramatic devices.

Instead of proclaiming the platitudes of the time--e.g., "My Bentley is phat"--Shadow asked questions through abstract sound: What does your soul look like? What does midnight in a perfect world sound like? His album culminated what Shadow refers to as a "lifetime of vinyl culture" and commented on what hip-hop had become and what it could be. On the interlude "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in 1996," Shadow's answer, spoken by MC Lyrics Born, was simple: "It's the money."

Entroducing was unlike any other hip-hop album of that year. By 1997, the album had topped critics' and artists' best-of lists. Pretty soon, everybody wanted to know about the camera-shy vinyl archeologist whose only goal was to record with Kool G. Rap.

Over the next six years, DJ Shadow toured the world, both with and without his Solesides (now renamed Quannum) crew. He also worked with James Lavelle on UNKLE--a collaborative project with Thom Yorke, Mike D., Badly Drawn Boy and, surprise, Kool G. Rap. He released Preemptive Strike, an album of Entroducing-era remixes and early tracks. He scored the music for Dark Days, Marc Singer's documentary about the homeless who live underneath New York's subways. He also co-produced Zach de la Rocha's upcoming solo project.

The consummate record digger, Shadow archived his love of obscure funk from the late '60s and early '70s in two compilations. In 1999, he collaborated on the now legendary all-45s Brainfreeze mix session with DJ Cut Chemist, recorded live at a Future Primitive show in San Francisco and released to the acclaim of DJs and funk fiends everywhere. On a follow-up project with Cut Chemist, Product Placement, the pair outdid the first effort with an hour-long set doubling the amount of 45s. The limited-edition CD was followed up by a live re-creation that sold out the Fillmore last year.

It's been a long, strange trip for a young kid who was discovered making demo tapes while a student at UC-Davis in the early '90s, one of which caught the ear of Dave "Funken" Klein, a journalist and A&R for Hollywood/Basic. With Klein's encouragement, Shadow remixed a Zimbabwe Legit track that impressed James Lavelle of the Mo' Wax label and launched Shadow into his first four recorded singles, between 1993 and 1995: "In/Flux," "Entropy," "Lost and Found" and the symphonic "What Does Your Soul Look Like?" These early recordings showed off Shadow's depth and patience as a producer--skills that would launch his career as one of hip-hop's preeminent sound sculptors.

While at Davis, Shadow and his homies--Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born, X and Gab from Blackalicious, and spiritual leader DJ Zen--formed a label, Solesides, and began a successful run as one of the most respected Bay Area hip-hop crews in the mid-'90s.

Now DJ Shadow is readying his second album of all-new original material: The Private Press. The title refers to companies who put out records for anyone with a tape and some cash. The new album finds Shadow artfully conveying movement, narrative and emotion through intricate and painstaking methods of production.

Songs like "Blood on the Motorway" and "Monosylabik" are huge in scope and intensity; the latter took two months to complete. "Walkie Talkie," "Fixed Income" and "Giving Up the Ghost" are a beathead's dream. Like Entroducing, The Private Press blasts hip-hop off into a different trajectory. And it's worth the wait.

Metro caught up with Shadow in Southern California during a busy week of promotional duties.

Metro: After Entroducing came out in 1996. What were the reactions and how did you feel about them?

DJ Shadow: It was all across the spectrum. The very first review that came out of England was really, really bad. That was the first one I read, and I felt like it was kind of good, because anything after that would be great. Any following press was positive. After the record starting catching on in America, there were a lot of people within hip-hop who were unaware of who I was and the work I had done previously and what I was about. People were just basically not knowing and trying to test me.

Which is cool. I made a hip-hop record that was challenging, hopefully. I anticipate a little more [criticism] this time. I think that's good. It'd be bad if you put out a record that everyone instantly liked.

Metro: After all the media attention, did you ever feel you had to distance yourself from Entroducing?

DJ Shadow: I don't think so. When I make a record, after three to four months I forget all the things I really wanted to accomplish that I wasn't able to. By six months, I'm pretty harmonious with it, no matter what its shortcomings. Every record I've made, I've done the best I've can, and if that ever stops happening then I'll know it'll be a turning point in my career. From Entroducing to UNKLE to this record, I've definitely tried my hardest. I know when my attention span or concentration level slips, and I take a half-hour break and try to come back really strong.

Metro: Just a half-hour?

DJ Shadow: Yeah, usually.

Metro: Not a day, two days, two weeks?

DJ Shadow: Only if I've been really, really successful. I think it's nice to reward yourself if you've put in a real solid week where you've made a lot of things happen and feel real good about it. Just slow down and take stock and re-evaluate how far you've come--then I can legitimize a longer break.

Metro: Hip-hop and pop have evolved so much since 1996. How has your musical taste changed in the past six years?

DJ Shadow DJ Shadow: My habits have gone much closer to what they were in the mid-to-late-'80s. Back then, I remember buying two 12-inch singles in one week in 1986. One was "South Bronx" by BDP, and the other was "Throw the D" by 2 Live Crew--both are classics. I was listening to L.A. stuff, Oakland stuff, Texas stuff, Miami stuff, overseas stuff back in the '80s.

I think in the mid-'90s and up until a few years ago, if you were making hip-hop, you had to delineate yourself between underground and commercial. For initially good reasons, underground was a secret society and had a strict code of conduct to preserve the culture.

Then it became more incestuous and close-minded, and I've excused myself in the years since Entroducing and basically just gone back to listening to everything from Def Jux to something like the Three 6 Mafia or Hot Boys or Mystikal or whatever. I'm much more free.

As far as all genres, I always listened to psychedelic music as a tool. The songs were long--they had a lot of time to have long solos and odd combinations of sound. In the last four years, I feel like I finally understand it as a genre.

Metro: Psychedelic music and hip-hop seem like odd bedfellows. How did you research the psychedelic groups?

DJ Shadow: Digging, basically. I've been buying records since 1987. By this point, if I've seen something I've never seen before I'll know it's probably obscure or hard to find. I just started taking chances and spending a little bit more on this kind of music. In 1995, if a record was $20, I'd say forget it. At my same little store in Sacramento [Records, on K Street, featured in the movie Scratch], where I've always been digging, over the past four to five years I've been paying a little more for certain things they knew were rare. They knew psychedelic stuff better than I did. I started pulling stuff from there and was paying less attention to '70s stuff and paying more attention to mid-to-late-'60s stuff.

It's the same with garage rock. I hear a few records that pique my interest; then I start digging with that in mind. Before I know it, I've got 20 things I really like and put them on a tape; and then I start trying to do some research and read a few books and talk to dealers that specialize in them.

Metro: How did these new interests in psychedelic music and garage rock manifest themselves on The Private Press?

DJ Shadow: I think the new album reflects the psychedelic influence a lot stronger. Maybe not in overt texture but arrangementwise I understand [psychedelic music] more. Arrangement is what I concentrated on for this record. When you've only done 10 songs, it's like throwing darts at a dart board. It's easy to hit a new place every time. When you've got 50 darts on the board, or 50 songs under your belt, it gets hard to hit a new part, to hit something you've never hit before. That becomes a challenge, and I found through arrangement, I was able to back myself out of corners.

"Fixed Income" best represents my quest to have a song be very satisfying but yet not have it follow any traditional song structure. I didn't rely on the timeworn trick of having the samples come back around and provide a chorusy feel. The samples come and go one time only. By the end of it, it feels satisfying, like I've taken in a well-arranged song--but it's actually very challenging to make it feel that effortless. When you work with samples, you have to have a lot of stuff to choose from. It's not like you can write your way out of corners; you have to construct your way out.

Metro: The title refers to privately recorded records that anyone could put out. What did you find so fascinating about these "private press" records?

DJ Shadow: In the process of gathering material for the record, I was stumbling across these private press records that had hand-drawn covers. There were a lot of companies in America, if you sent them a tape, no matter how poor the quality, they'd put it out anyway, as long as you paid them. It was just like a publisher that would put out any book as long as you paid them. A lot of them had noncopyrighted covers and generic artwork and would spray paint your name on top. I found these records really charming and empowering in a weird kind of way. I think in making them, they had nothing to lose.

When I started making this record, I had really achieved a lot of what I set out to do between the making of Entroducing and the beginning of making this record. I felt like I pressed reset on my career and that I had nothing to lose.

I found myself in a very free space. Prior to working on the record, I decided, as far as being a rabid collector, I needed to rein back a little bit. When funk blew up as a collector's genre, I either had to make it a full-time job looking for these records or scale back and do what I'm supposed to--which is make music. It wasn't a hard decision to make, and once I made it I found myself in a really free void. When I went to a record store, I found myself free to pursue a lot of different types of music. It really opened my eyes up to a lot of different music.

Metro: What was the first song you committed to The Private Press?

DJ Shadow: The first song I started working on was the drums and throbbing bass sound of "Fixed Income" and the beginning stages of "Monosylabik." With "Monosylabik," I went down in the studio the first day. I wanted to kick-start the process in a unique fashion. Because I was anxious not to repeat myself, I decided to work on that song first because it had more to do with technical concept than me trying to say something emotionally. Nine times out of 10 for me, it's the other way around. With "Monosylabik," I thought since I always work the other way, let me try and work cold and calculated to start with an entirely technical concept in mind. Every single sound is ripped from the first two bars. It deconstructs and deconstructs and gets more manipulated and twisted as it goes along. It's the most labor-intensive song I've ever done.

DJ Shadow

Metro: How long did it take?

DJ Shadow: About two months. It was like animation. Every day, I'd get three to four seconds done. It was really hard. That's on average. Maybe it'd take me four days to get the sounds right; then one day would be to program 30 seconds' worth.

Metro: How did the rest of the album evolve after that marathon session?

DJ Shadow: From there, by the time I was halfway through "Monosylabik" and felt that "Fixed Income" was coming along nicely--I felt really good at that point. I was back in the swing.

I was on the road for most of 1999 and took a few months off in 2000 before I started working on this record. It had been a long time since I spent 50-to-60-hour weeks sitting at the MPC [sampler]. It's like a muscle; it takes a while to get back in the swing. When I got back, the next songs to bubble up were "Giving Up the Ghost," "Mashing on the Motorway" and "Blood on the Motorway."

Metro: In the time after Entroducing, you did the funk-45 live mix sessions Brainfreeze and Product Placement. Which one is closest to your heart?

DJ Shadow: Brainfreeze. I definitely can say that Product Placement was everything I hoped it would be by setting out to top ourselves and actually double the ante in terms of complexity and number of records we squashed into an hour. Brainfreeze kicked it off.

Metro: Are you satisfied as a hip-hop listener today? If you had to rerecord "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in '96" in 2002, what would you say?

DJ Shadow: I'd probably have Lyrics Born say, "It's all good." I don't know if I've matured or hip-hop matured, but I feel very satisfied as a hip-hop listener these days because there's so much to choose from. I think the main thing was me deciding, well, it's silly to limit myself to underground "real" hip-hop.

I started realizing when Entroducing came out or around 1997 that most of the interesting things I was hearing were coming out of the South. Tom [Lyrics Born] was a huge dancehall fan. X and Gab would always be bumping Outkast. It was only a matter of time before it worked its way into my brain. It was like "It's OK! You can listen to all kinds of hip-hop!"

Metro: That's like some hip-hop 12-step program: "Acceptance is the first step to recovery."

DJ Shadow: I understand my mind state at the time. When you're making hip-hop and trying to make a name for yourself, especially at that time, you had to demonstrate you were down. You had to be up on the latest underground stuff. It took a lot of energy, but it's because I'm a little older and more established [that] I feel very free to pursue my listening tastes in a real organic way.

In the same way I can know every single scratch in a DJ Faust or DJ Mars or Space Travelers, I find myself listening to obscure dirty south stuff or a Cannibal Ox record--where it sounds like Greek mythology on wax--or a garage-rock 45. That's how my listening diet is. When I listen to music, I make my own tapes and CDs of things that are kicking around that I enjoy. They're very raw in scope.

Metro: What do you want people to get from The Private Press?

DJ Shadow: I would like them to get a sense that the spectrum of music is wider than they previously thought. Hip-hop can be so broad. I want people to be challenged and feel like they had this revolutionary new exposure to music they didn't think was possible.

'The Private Press' sees release on June 4. DJ Shadow headlines the Fillmore on June 11.

Send a letter to the editor about this story .

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.