Question in the Form of an Answer: DJ Shadow

Shadow needs no contextualization. Josh Davis from Davis. The one-time teenaged prodigy, who memorized Steinski’s lessons and propelled them forward like vectors– creating a complex...
By    November 1, 2010

Shadow needs no contextualization. Josh Davis from Davis. The one-time teenaged prodigy, who memorized Steinski’s lessons and propelled them forward like vectors– creating a complex geometry of samples and esoteric sounds. The first single off “Endtroducing” was “What Does Your Soul Look Like,” and Shadow sought to provide a mirror, unearthing miracles at Rare Records and juxtaposing them with his boom-bap odyssey. He’s the man who got Matty C to breach protocol and bestow him with Unsigned Hype –in 91, when he was 18 and mailing Rakim remixes to KMEL. America’s great trip-hop hope, who abdicated the throne early on, to pursue his eccentricities to their furthest extremes. 

It’s easy to survey the carnage incurred over the last two decades. The Brainfreeze collaboration with Cut Chemist that redefined the art of mixing and sent you in search of the few stores that stocked it. The legacy of “Endtroducing,” permanently ingrained in the twisted helixes of your favorite contemporary producer. Had he kept the clock frozen at midnight for his entire career, few would’ve complained. Ask anyone from the Low End Theory crew to the dubstep spawn of Hyperdub and Hemlock Records, and it’s likely that Shadow will be name-dropped as a primary influence. With his legacy long secured, he could essentially tweak his old formula and conjure something that would neatly parallel the contemporary zeitgeist.

So when a volley of forwarded e-mails offered me the chance to interview the originator in advance of his fall North American tour, the answer was obvious. Then I got on the phone and his flacks said “10 minutes….starting now.” Graciously, Shadow gave 17.  Probably because I started off the conversation by telling him that his New Year’s salvo was the realest shit he ever wrote — which it is.  20 years in, Shadow labors intensively and lingers largely in the dark, because he’s on a permanent mission to create value in an climate that deifies the disposable. His yet-untitled fourth full-length drops sometime next year. In the interim, his words and back catalog more than suffice.

What was the response like after you dropped that blog post weighing against the current industry and Internet climate?

I’ve had conversations with other like-minded independent artists that reached out to me to say, ‘thank you for saying that. I’m afraid to say that myself. I want to do more, but I can’t join you right now.” I think part of it is informing the consumer that you think you’re trying to kill the cigar chomping sunglasses-wearing mafia record company guy behind the desk, when that guy doesn’t exist anymore. So now you’re just hurting the artists themselves.

Limewire wasn’t your buddy down the dorm room hall. It was a company that was making a shit ton on advertising, and not sharing any of that with the artists. Until people understand the facts, we’re still going to stuck believing these long dead stereotypes. Then again, the artists that create these false images of “look at my diamond studded fedoras,” aren’t exactly helping things either.

It’s sort of an obvious question, but if money was killing hip-hop in 96, what do you think of hip-hop now?

Well, I always have to say this with a caveat: “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ’96 was tongue in check. A lot of people who didn’t like rap saw it as a statement from someone who agreed with them. I came from a totally different standpoint. I love hip-hop. I always will love hip-hop, but it’s more of a tough love thing.  The sentiment was more like when KRS-One criticizes the culture, a place of someone who celebrates it as much as he has problems with it.

That said, in 2010, there really isn’t a hip hop culture that exists like how it did then–when it was trying to break into the mainstream and there was this one for all, all for one attitude. It was similar to those thar advocated for turntablism –they were riding for the importance of the DJ at a time when the MC was getting all the shine. Nowadays, that’s sort of pointless, considering DJ culture is so mainstream that it’s almost a joke. The battlefront is always shifting in terms of hip hop and rap, in much the same way as any other type of music where its about moving forward. However, personally I really believe that music and American culture are in a stasis right now.

Like a sort of dumbed-down Idiocracy?

Yeah, like that. I always think about the store Bev Mo. How many times can they shorten their name? Eventually, market research is going to show that people need it more simple, so we’ll have just Bev or just B.

Your new track “Def Surrounds Us” bears a lot of resemblance to the bass music coming out of London right now. Are you a fan of that and is that your way of doing your take on a dubstep or post-dubstep?

It’s kind of a combination of things. There are a lot of similarities between that scene and my inspirations.  There’s a longing towards the un-melodic 1986 Def Jam-era, where songs like “Can You Feel It,” by Original Concept were throwing tons of bass and tons of melody at you, with heavy overdubs. By the same token, when I do go to London, I’m always looking for what I think I would like if I was 23. I ask myself, what would I be into? I’m always thinking about stuff that’s gritty and has that street element. For a while it was grime, and then it was dubstep, and they were both weaving in and out of each other with drum and bass. Right now, this crunk, post-dubstep is what seems to be in and I dig it. I’ll go down to the record shop and see what kids are buying, and I’ll just roll the dice and see what I like.

Do you have any personal favorites that stand out?

That label Breakbeat Chaos is one. It’s DJ Fresh’s label and its’ just dance music with so much balls, it’s so rude and immediate. The first time I heard of them is when Bad Company remixed “Six Days” and they ended up licensing it. Fresh asked me to be on his 06 album, and I did a remix of “Enough” that whenever I play it over the last few years, it utterly destroys the dance floor, and I’m not that type of DJ. I don’t go Calvin Harris on people to make them lose their brains. But it has that effect that it would have when you’d drop “Come Clean” in 93 or 94. And as a DJ, you love to see that kind of reaction. I love what they’re doing.

Have you been following the Low End Theory scene at all in LA?

Yeah, to a certain extent. A filmmaker that I’ve known for a long time name Dean was working closely with those dudes documenting what they were up to.

Just from observing and from a few interviews I’ve done, it seems like you’re a pretty big influence on them.  Does it feel weird at this point in your career to be still making music and influencing people just a little bit younger?

It’s strange when people mention the influence question or ask how does that make you feel. I’d be an ass if I wasn’t flattered. But I still feel like I’m trying to find my own way in music. As soon as you get comfortable, music gets boring. So I try to block all that out. I don’t want to be complacent or make music that sounds like 93.  It’s harder, but you always have to keep learning. As soon as you think you’ve learned everything, it’s over.

When you made The Outsider, were you worried about alienating large swaths of your fanbase or did you just know that in your heart, this was the album that you needed to make, so fuck it?

It wasn’t a concern. But neither was I trying to piss people off. I think I said something in Urb to the extent that if fans were resistant to the new sound, then fuck them. But I don’t mean it to be that harsh.  It just came out that way in print. I still love a lot of those songs, especially “Three Freaks,” which is kind of an anthem in the Bay. If I had Keak and Turf on a track, I don’t want to do the “backpack” thing. I wanted to hit in that zone and be accepted in that world. It was incredibly gratifying to hear it on rotation on urban radio, on the stations that fostered the scene, and to see kids driving out of class and turf dancing and singing the hook. It doesn’t matter if you’re Run DMC and putting out, “It’s Like That,” it always means something important to you.

Did you ever think about doing an entire LP with a rapper?

I was going to do an EP with Gab years ago, as a Quannum steps out thing, but it never came out. There’s tons of MC’s that I hear on a verse here and there that I’d consider working. But on the next album, I want it to be a pure vision, no collaborations. I’m going to be fully 100 percent responsible for everything on the record. It’s time to do another record like that.–Weiss

MP3: DJ Shadow-“Lost and Found”

Stream: “Def Surrounds Us” and “I’ve Been Trying”

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