“There’s only one person in the world who’s going to decide what I’m going to do and that’s me.”
– Charles Foster Kane
DJ Shadow has an array of designations that precede him: sampler, crate digger, salvager, scratcher, collaborator, innovator, legend. But perhaps the one that might speak to his essence the most is that of enigma. Emanating from the hip-hop/turntablist culture of the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, he oozes with an unfathomable musical acumen that rivals any on the planet. His vinyl collection, which is over 60,000 records and growing, is still just merely a muse that is part of DJ Shadow’s artistic puzzle. It is his meticulously imagined work, filled with a sonic collage of details, nuances and idiosyncrasies, which more fully forms the depth of his insight. Beginning with his debut album, Endtroducing, Shadow not only boldly established his place at the table of greatness, but also further pioneered the genre he gave birth to – “trip-hop” – an experimental-downtempo-breakbeat-soulfully-moody-hybrid-of-a-love-child. In 2001, the Guinness Book of World Records documented his triumph as being the “First Completely Sampled Album.” Ever. With as much critical praise as the album garnered, it also can be viewed as an albatross around the neck of Shadow’s career as expectations have been Orson Welles-esque for the producer even to this day. In parallel fashion, it was Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane, that announced his entrance as an auteur-giant and also cemented his legacy for better or worse. It was groundbreaking in the sense that it introduced innovations that were unprecedented in film such as low-angle cinematography, multiple narrators and most notably the use of deep focus. It too viewed as a catalog for unique storytelling and a mastery of the medium. Although Kane had a huge impact, Welles was dogged by monumental expectations for the rest of his life. DJ Shadow has had to endure much of the same plight – a supreme talent who has struggled to fuse his multi-layered identity with (in his case) a fickle and at times appallingly superficial landscape of contemporary hip-hop and dance music. Last December, while performing at an upscale Miami Beach nightclub, a promoter cut his DJ set short because it was, as Shadow put it – “too future.” Nevertheless, even in the face of popular and critical adversity, he has carried on fearlessly through the years in the quest for stimulating underground substance, all the while furthering his craft to varied degrees. However, it is still valid for one to wonder if his hyper-eclectic ways, whether it be with 2006’s aptly titled The Outsider or 2011’s The Less You Know, the Better, are still on point with his vision, overly-ambitious to a fault or a subconsciously veiled disdain towards his detractors. Or maybe it is all of those wrapped into one or none at all? Regardless of someone’s feelings on the state of his artistic motives, one thing is for certain: DJ Shadow is a mystery with a musical sleight of hand that poses more questions than answers. His current tour, in promotion of the box set compilation Reconstructed, is a welcome return to his DJ’ing roots. Tonight, Shadow will be making his very first appearance in Oklahoma at the IDL Ballroom in downtown Tulsa. I recently spoke with him about subjects varying from the vinyl collector mentality to leaving his fanbase behind.
MC: As a DJ, you were raised on turntables as your artistic palette. Within the last ten years or so, the emergence of new tools has exponentially transformed the approach to the DJ’ing medium. How have you integrated these latest forms of technology, like Ableton for example, into your live set?
DJ Shadow: Well Ableton is just one of many tools. To kind of take you back in the timeline, all through the ‘80’s and ‘90’s it was the turntable, which created a level playing field for DJ’s. And then around late 2001, the CDJ came out. I incorporated that pretty early on in my 2002 tour. Basically, it’s just a new toy. It’s something new to play with. Because 2001/2002 was kind of the end of the turntablist era. And I think a lot of DJ’s were looking for new ways to express themselves. And so the CDJ came along at an interesting time and it allowed me to start doing things in my live show that wouldn’t have been possible just with turntables. And then following that, in 2006, I incorporated Serato into my set for the first time. And in 2010, I took a look around at what was available for what I wanted to try and achieve in the live show and Ableton was the answer. But since then, in the set that I’m doing now, I’m back to just CDJ’s. Again, only because that is the technology that’s allowing me to do what I do as simply as possible with minimal fuss.
MC: Can you describe what the process of finding/discovering music that inspires you is like these days?
DJ Shadow: It really depends on what I’m looking for. In other words, like the context or the reason I’m looking for it. If I’m making music, I still like to look for it in the traditional kind of analog way in terms of looking for sources to sample from to make music. That process has only gotten more and more esoteric through the years. I like to avoid the obvious and I like to try to find things in places that people wouldn’t expect. So increasingly, that means moving away from vinyl and looking for sounds from other places, whether it be videotapes, 8mm films or cassettes. Basically, the unexpected. When it comes to putting music together for a DJ set, like I’m currently doing, I just go wherever the music is. And as we all know, most new music doesn’t exist on vinyl, it only exists online in a digital form. Rather than be some kind of vinyl purist or festishist, I decided a long time ago that I want to stay up on contemporary music. I don’t want to just limit myself to stuff that exists on vinyl. And so more and more I probably spend $50-$100 a week on music that I download. And then obviously a lot of it is free via Soundcloud or wherever. If an artist chooses to charge me, then I’m happy to pay.
MC: There is a portion in the Scratch documentary where you are literally in the midst of digging through thousands of records in a store basement. So it’s safe to say that you are a “digger,” whether its finding your material, producing, collaborating etc. On a deeper level, what does digging or this continuous searching embody in your life? Is it a quest for fulfillment?
DJ Shadow: I don’t know. People have written books about the collector mentality. I think it’s safe to say that some of it comes out of having been denied something at some point in your youth. I’ve always been a collector though. The first thing I remember collecting is baseball cards and Hot Wheels and after that it was comic books. And I sold all of my baseball cards to get comics and then I sold all of my comics to get records. And records ended up being the thing that I stuck with through my life. And not just records, but music of all forms, whether it be 8-tracks or cassettes or however the music was released – I wanted it in its original form. I feel like I have a pretty healthy perspective on it actually. I don’t let it consume me though (laughs). I have a wife and kids. I have a career. I’ve seen a lot of people get consumed by the collector mentality. And they lose perspective on the pleasure that it can bring and it ends up becoming kind of a dope habit or something. I have a lot of records, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s not how I define myself. I feel like my higher calling is making music and being a DJ. Collecting is just sort of a solitary pursuit that I only share with a few people. It’s not something that I usually like to brag about. I don’t like to do interviews where it’s like, “Here’s me with my big gigantic record collection and here’s my rarest record.” I usually try and avoid stuff like that because to me it’s really kind of 3rd or 4th in terms of priority in my life.
MC: What is 1st in terms of priorities in life?
DJ Shadow: Sharing music
MC: In regard to prioritizing, what are some of the most valuable lessons as a musician that you have learned along the way that you carry with you?
DJ Shadow: Hmmm. I think there’s certain things that I value that feed what I do. I think a strong work ethic and a dedication to total concentration when I work is one of those things. I learned it initially from my parents, but through the years I’ve tended to want to gravitate towards people that share that work ethic in terms of collaborations and people that I admire. And that goes all the way back to producers I used to admire, whether it was Prince Paul on the first De La Soul album or the Dr. Dre stuff with N.W.A. I always liked music that I felt you could tell that somebody was working hard to really define their sound and make a fully-fleshed track. I’ve never liked music or musicians that just sort of throw stuff at the wall and see what works. Every once in awhile you will hear about a producer who made a record in three days or it only took them a week to do an album. And I always find that I don’t like that music for whatever reason. So that’s one thing I would say that I’ve learned about myself through the years and learned from others that I tried to work with. Another one would be just not being afraid to leave a segment of your fanbase behind. And that’s something that I really feel like I’ve learned from a lot of long-term recording artists through the years. And it’s not necessarily hip-hop artists. I frequently think of people like Neil Young or David Bowie. There’s so many artists that I can think of where their sound isn’t one which is defined by an era. It’s defined by their own pursuit. With both of those artists, what I think of is a life-long pursuit of their love of music and trying to manifest that love of music into their own music. I don’t compare myself to those people in any way, but I’m inspired by that sort of life-long pursuit. That’s something that I think about a lot when I sit down to make music: am I making music for somebody else or am I making it for myself? And for me, the pressure I feel has never really come from a record company or any particular peer or anything like that. Ever since my second album, the force that I feel like I pull against sometimes is my own fanbase. Or I should say, the conservative aspect of my own fanbase. The conservative wing of my own fanbase. They just want Endtroducing. And I learned a long time ago that that’s a segment of my fanbase I’ll never be able to please.
MC: On that same thought, Endtroducing was a pretty grand arrival onto the scene for you to say the least. And it’s still reverberating to this day, whether it’s through your fanbase or in other aspects. Has it ever become kind of a “ball-and-chain” for you? Or is it still resonating for you as a creative force?
DJ Shadow: I definitely don’t look at it as a “ball-and-chain” in any way. Everything that I like to take in, whether it’s television or film or books – my favorite subject is music. Learning about music and reading about other artist’s travails as far as what they went through and stuff. I think if you do that enough you realize how lucky you are to have ever made any kind of impact. Because so much music that I value never did. And the people who made it died without knowing that they ever made something brilliant. So I think it would be really immature and petty if I felt anything negative about Endtroducing – because I did make an impact. It wasn’t the hugest impact on the planet, but it touched a lot of people and for that I’m totally grateful. And I feel the same way if I do a show that I feel goes well or if I do a re-mix that people like. It doesn’t have to just be that one project. I feel kind of lucky in the sense that I’ve done a lot of things that I feel really strongly about and I know that I put 100% into. Even sort of sad things like the Zach de la Rocha stuff I was producing for his solo record which never came out. I was always really happy about that work. It remains something that I wish could’ve turned out differently. But the work that I did I feel really happy about. And it’s nice when you can sit down five, ten, twenty years later and listen to something and know that you did the best you could and that you wouldn’t change anything to this day. I don’t feel that way about 100% of what I’ve done, but probably 95% of it I do.
MC: Speaking of looking back retrospectively, your new box set Reconstructed came out last fall. Obviously, your craft is all about re-contextualizing other people’s music. And even doing this with your own music in that same regard. With the release of Reconstructed, how are you taking the material on there and making it fresh and up-to-date in terms of the experience that you create for your audience?
DJ Shadow: Well I think there are certain songs that just hold up better than others. Or I should say, maybe fit into the current soundscape a little bit better. For example, to reference back to The Outsider, I did a track called “Seein’ Thangs” with David Banner, which was a sort of a Dirty South inspired straight-up rap song. And I was being inspired by groups like Three 6 Mafia and their production style, which incidentally really informs a lot of the bass music that you hear on the scene today. So that track is very much in step with what people are playing right now. Other tracks that I’ve made in the past maybe aren’t quite as in step right now. Of course, unless I do something to them or strip them down. And so, I reference a ton of songs of my own in my set. But I always warn the audience – you kind of really have to know my stuff. It’s not just going to be like drop after drop of the familiar refrains. But the other thing is that through the years a lot of people have re-mixed my stuff too. And that definitely helped on my last tour. Between 2010 and 2012, I was able to play a lot of re-mixes of stuff that, sounding from a sonic point of view, fit in really well with the other stuff that I was playing. I feel like I have a pretty realistic view of where my stuff fits in. I’m really just trying to bridge the purest element of what I do with the purest element of what made me want to be a DJ in the first place: which is expose people to music that I feel is worthwhile. It’s funny, because it’s been just about a year now that I have been DJ’ing again. I hadn’t allowed myself to just put DJ sets together for a really long time. I mean, obviously with the exception of step out things like the mixes with Cut Chemist, you know, the 45 mixes and various mixes for radio and things like that. But generally speaking, I hadn’t toured as a DJ in a really, really long time. And when I first had the opportunity to put a set together for Low End Theory back in California, I was really surprised at how much fun I was having doing it. And I think that part of me had really been missing. Just exposing people to other people’s music that I thought was good. Because for about the last 15 years, I was limiting myself to just my own music when I perform. And it felt really good to basically put a set together that was showcasing what I thought was worthwhile in contemporary music of all different styles. Because I really have always kept up.
MC: And “keeping up” with the dynamic of the present day leads into my next question. In this ever-expanding age of EDM and the culture it breeds, do you feel conflicted between feeling like you need to stay relevant vs. honoring your own originality as an artist?
DJ Shadow: It depends. I kind of know what you are getting at and I think that there are as many different answers and interpretations of answers to that question as there are colors in the color wheel. In other words, you can be a die-hard purist and sort of relegate yourself to music that emanates from a certain timeframe and just declare that music “the best music that was ever made” and nothing else will ever compare. And actually, as silly as it sounds, I used to consider myself a purist. And by that, I mean a hip-hop purist. But then again, hip-hop was at its most viable during that time, speaking of the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s. I used to write militant letters into The Source – I was one of those dudes. I wanted to defend the culture of hip-hop and defend the culture of rap music and that’s where my head was at. I think as you get older though, you start understanding that there is too much music out there to close your mind off to. And I used to say, “Well I like some rock, but I’m mainly hip-hop.” And then later I’d say, “Well I like a little bit of this too and a little bit of that, but I don’t like country western.” And now honestly, I can’t really say there’s any type of music that I would just outright never listen to. Because I know myself well enough now to know that I get restless, I get bored. I’m always looking for new things to inspire me. But I think the big difference is that sometimes people get caught up in a kind of hipster-ism where it’s like, to put it in 2013 terms, “Oh, I used to listen to dubstep, well I’m all about trap now.” And then in 2014 it will be the next thing. For me, I never really think of music that way. A lot of music has been exposed to me out of sync. In other words, I learned about ‘60’s music obviously way after that fact. I learned about “this” type of music way after the fact. Or in “that” instance, maybe I was a little bit before the curve. So to me it’s not really about following the trends or what other people like. By any measurement, my set is going to be considered too eclectic for some and too hard-hitting for others, you know what I mean. It just depends on where that individual is in their own learning. I think if somebody doesn’t listen to very much new music, they might hear my current set and be like, “Well I don’t understand any of these reference points and this doesn’t sound like Shadow to me.” But then again, those were also probably the same people that didn’t understand what I was doing on The Outsider or, for example, in the Mo’ Wax era back in ’94/’95 there were people who didn’t understand why we were playing drum-and-bass to a hip-hop crowd. You know, there’s always going to be people that aren’t ready to move on or move forward. But I can’t dictate my own listening and my own sense of good and bad based on what other people think.
Whether or not DJ Shadow has reached a critical impasse in his career, signaling either a need for re-invention or further creative introspection remains to be seen. Regardless, no matter how he has reached this point, one has to show appreciation where appreciation is due. Simply put, he is one of the last of his kind. He is a DJ’s DJ. He bleeds vinyl. Scratching is his second language. A walking link to the ancestry, yet by no means a caricature of it. A testament to how one can channel their own distinct voice through a sea of found music, making it timeless and therefore transportable. Although he deeply reveres his roots, Shadow has adapted and never been stuck in a quagmire of adherence to the paradigms of his predecessors. Then again, perhaps his pursuit to manifest the music he loves has been obscured by an avoidance of becoming the victim of his own paradigm: the epiphany he came to be defined by. Ultimately, the mystery presents itself in the form of the curve. Is he still ahead of it awaiting his plodding audience to catch up? Or has the curve become so multi-dimensional with the advent of new technology that it has irrevocably fragmented his core listeners? Or has he merged with the curve itself, a solitary embrace of the musical journey while having no intrinsic desire of satisfying anyone, only himself? The truth lies in the shadows.
DJ Shadow takes the stage tonight at the IDL Ballroom. Tulsa’s own The Moai Broadcast and DJ P will be the opening acts. Tickets are still available online. Please visit DJ Shadow’s website for a full list of tour dates.
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– Matthew Cremer