Published Nov 01, 2011DJ Shadow (aka Joshua Davis), now a household name, started out in the California hip-hop scene as a campus radio DJ, remixer and later a key member of the Solesides crew with artists such as Blackalicious and Lyrics Born. Shadow secured the world's attention back in 1996 with the release of his highly acclaimed debut album Endtroducing and went on to collaborate with several more major players in the trip-hop and hip-hop scenes, including helping Mo Wax label boss James Lavelle revamp his UNKLE project, a superb film score for the documentary Dark Days, as well as countless other side projects. Having just released The Less You Know, The Better, his fourth studio album as DJ Shadow in 15 years, we talk to the legendary DJ about touring, the response to his new album, digging for samples and more.
You've been on tour now for quite a while, now. It sounds pretty intense.
Yeah, it is! Pretty solid now for six months. I'm still touring. I just have a few dates in the U.S., then a couple in Mexico and then a few weeks off and then one last roundup of the UK.
It sounds like you've been getting a really good response at your shows, especially in Japan.
Yeah, Japan was really good. You know, Japan has had kind of a lot of ups and down in terms of their participation in Western music. In the last ten years it's gone very, um, everybody supports Japanese music within Japan which is, on one level, as it should be so I wasn't sure what the response or how attendance was going to be but it was kinda faith restoring. It was good.
Where have you had the best response so far?
It totally varies. The response overall is pretty consistently good I think. My mind goes back to these two dates from a couple of months back ― Glastonbury was really important, it's the main festival in the UK. It needed to be good and I felt that it was good and then the very next day we had a city festival in Belgium, like a festival that the city puts on and I think it's a free show for the people who live there and I wasn't really expecting much as it was something that already came in after I had started touring and I didn't really know if people were going to know who I was but the audience was amazing. It was one of the best shows of the whole tour so it goes to show you can never predict which ones are gonna be strong or kind of weak.
I want to ask you a bit about the response you've been getting for your new album. You've been getting quite a bit of criticism, especially from Pitchfork, and you've been responding to it publicly on Twitter.
There's nothing really much I can say. It's sort of a trap, isn't it ― if I address it then I'm paying it lip service and I'm drawing attention to it and if I ignore it then it seems as though I'm tacitly inviting anybody to come beat me up whenever they like. You really can't do anything as an artist. You have no control over the situation and you have to just endure it. If I react in any way you're accused of being defensive or thin-skinned and I can only say that I think my resume speaks for itself. I don't do this for money, I don't do it to be famous, I don't do it to be loved. I've been a DJ for 27 years. I know what I'm doing. I think my music has value but if people disagree or if it's fashionable to think that "if this type of music is good then this type of music must be bad" and the games that people play with that then there's really nothing I can do. The perception, I think, among a lot of the press is that I had a really long honeymoon phase and now it's time for the pendulum to swing the other way and it doesn't matter what I do or say. I don't think it even matters much what my work says or does. That's not to say that I don't own the criticism or think people are wrong. I think that when people have an opinion on something it's foolish for me to say that they're wrong; they may have very valid points but nonetheless I'm not ready to quit and I'll just to continue to do the best work that I can.
Ultimately you're just making the music you want to make and what people make of it is out of your control, I guess.
Well, I can gather a consensus of all the people that hate the album and hire them and have a panel of people that I run all my decisions past and that may be a good way to do things in the future but for now I have to just go on my own gut and my own instincts about what I think my music is trying to do. I can't worry too much about that. And unfortunately sometimes these sorts of comments get painted as I don't care about my fans or what other people think ― that's certainly not the case, but again I have to forge ahead. Sure, it's uncomfortable, it's embarrassing; I'm a human being and I have very little success as it is and when you get the rug pulled out from under you by a very influential blog, sure it's damaging, completely and that's if that's what they'd like me to come out and say, sure, I'll say it.
It's rare to hear artists responding to criticism. You don't often know if artists are even reading their own press, let alone how they feel about it.
Well, unfortunately, I don't know if you've ever seen that episode of Extras where Ricky Gervais' character, Andy Millman, is sort of sidling up to David Bowie. It's a good episode and his character has a TV show out and there's this nemesis of his that always seems to carry around a negative review in his pocket and Andy Millman tries to just say "Oh, I don't pay attention, you know, it's for the people" and his nemesis says "I happen to have a review right here. It's quite harsh" and that's me. The bad press finds me whether or not I want to read it. I'm not gonna cry about it, I'm not gonna say it's anyone else's fault or that they're wrong. It's obviously not what I wished for, for the two years that I was working on the record and I would have loved if it had come out and was universally praised or all the things that any artist hopes for so when it doesn't happen you can deal with it any number of ways. I've tried to use satire and humour throughout this campaign on this album. The tweets are what they are.
While we're on the subject of satire, some of the guitar sounds on the album are quite surprising. It feels like you're being ironic, sampling Steeler ― Yngvie Malmsteen's hair metal band from the '80s for example. Is this music you grew up listening to as a kid that has some nostalgic value for you?
No, I grew up not liking rock. I grew up resenting rock music. I grew up in the Sacramento valley where the mainstay is classic rock. I remember in 1982 or so listening to this Top 100 songs countdown, which a lot of stations used to do around New Year's. Usually most stations would count down the top 100 songs of the year as they saw it based on their caller response and numbers of spins and all that kind of thing but this particular station, that was a contemporary rock station ― this is a station that now plays Foo Fighters and stuff like that ― at the time they saw fit to have "Stairway To Heaven" as their number one song, which I remember even in 1982 not quite understanding because it was already ten years old or whatever at that point so I remember just sort of thinking this is pointless and co-incidentally looking for something else. I was more into R&B at the time, I was more into Kool & the Gang and Lakeside and Ohio Players and Gap Band and whoever was popular at the time and heard hip-hop and that's where my passions went.
So why chose those samples in particular? How did you come across them and what was it that drew you to use them?
Well, I sampled Metallica on Endtroducing. It seems to me, for some reason, that every time I put out a record much is made about the fact that there's a lot of guitars on them. That was the case with the UNKLE album. I'm not quite sure. I think the drums are an evocative, dynamic instrument that conveys a lot of emotion. I think pianos are an evocative, emotion-laden instrument. There's a lot of emotion in piano, I think there's a lot of emotion in guitar so, to me, it's free rein. I guess being inspired by Public Enemy sampling Bad Brains, Afrika Bambaataa covering MC5 and Boogie Down Productions sampling AC/DC ― all of those things led me to open up my sampling repertoire years ago. I'm a collector and I listen to a lot of different types of music and I've long since ceased to prescribe to the theory that I should shut off certain genres and not let them in. Hip-hop is what opened me up to everything else and I have a certain understanding about what hip-hop means and hip-hop music and what the DJ has brought to the table and having an open attitude and an open mind towards music that I understand is not necessarily perpetuated in the mainstream when people think about hip-hop music and what it sounds like and what it means.
How would you define the new album? Do you think of it as coming from hip-hop?
Well, I'm usually really careful. I certainly wouldn't insist that a song like "Border Crossing" is a hip-hop song, it just confuses the issue. I think the music that I make is just music that comes from a hip-hop paradigm but I totally understand if to most people it doesn't sound like hip-hop. I don't think "Border Crossing" sounds like a hip-hop song. I'm not deluded in that respect but hip-hop is what informs me and is what inspired me to seek out all this other music and it's the screen through which I view things. I didn't grow up a metal kid but that doesn't mean I can't now respect what it brought to the table as a genre of music. As a sample source I'm out there looking for records and if I see an interesting metal record I'm not gonna put it back just because I'm not supposed to be dabbling in that or whatever and I know a lot of people resent the fact that I don't just stay in my lane, don't just keep using James Brown and P-Funk and stuff like that but I dunno, I've just always been fascinated by a lot of different types of music. The last few books I've read ― the last one was about Captain Beefheart and before that it was about the Sex Pistols and before that it was about the Germs so I'm hungry to learn about a lot of different types of music whether or not I grew up identifying with it.
Your music has always been very eclectic in its sources; What Does Your Soul Look Like? had these folk samples and Endtroducing is quite varied in itself so I don't feel it it's a new thing for your work to be eclectic in that way.
Sure. I don't really know. The one thing I can really say is that I don't know what people expect of me but at the same time I can't let that dictate to me. Maybe I shouldn't even say that because again, it sounds like I'm being defiant or something. I dunno. I don't quite understand that either. I think we live in a time where everybody has an opinion and I think that's healthy.
Maybe it's just because an album like Endtroducing was really cohesive as an whole despite its eclecticism, whereas the new album is quite erratic with a more post-modern approach, which a lot of other people are doing too, jumping around in style from track to track.
Well, I agree. Far be it for me to say that. I noticed that a couple of days later I don't know if it was Pitchfork or Fader or somebody had a story where Lil Jon was saying something to effect of "the next record is going to touch on every genre possible" and I'm quite sure that will be celebrated as a positive step and it should be but I dunno. There's nothing really I can say about it, is there? [Laughs]
You said before that you feel that The Private Press was your best album. Do you still think that?
I guess it depends on the day and the time that I'm asked. I remember thinking that The Private Press was. I don't remember saying that recently but The Private Press was a record that I thought was far more sophisticated than Endtroducing but it's weird when I try to talk about what I like or don't like in my own back catalogue. I'm just as proud of The Outsider, I'm just as proud of this album. I think the new album, personally for me is a more rewarding record than most that I've done. I feel like I overcame a lot of struggles just in terms of arrangement and working with a lot of really stubborn samples that were difficult to get into place, particularly on songs like "Redeemed" and "Sad And Lonely" where they may sound rather straightforward but the individual samples themselves were difficult. The process that I used is painstaking so I felt really good about the amount of effort and the amount of focus that I gave the new record and for that I feel like it's up there in my top two.
You had Lateef opening for you on some of your U.S. shows. So you're still hanging out with the Quannum crew?
Yeah, you know, everybody's got mortgages and kids and everybody's older and we all live in different parts of the bay and in the current way the record industry is you have to hustle three times as hard to kind of stay in the same place so everybody's just super busy ― always on the road, always grinding it out so we don't get a chance as much to hang out. We used to all live within a block of each other, be in each other's dorm rooms making music and driving into San Francisco to watch shows and all that, so naturally it's going to evolve. We're not 22 anymore but it's family and like family you can go six months without seeing your brother or sister and everything's cool ― you reconnect, you're right back where you were. That's how it is with us.
You mentioned recently on Twitter that you found an amazing breakbeat and you'd been trying to find one like that for years.
I just saw fit to tweet about it because it dawned on me, just like I said in the tweet, I've been looking for breaks and samples for a really long time and I was on tour in the U.S. about two months ago in upstate New York and just wandered into a place, found a fair amount of stuff and the guy working behind the counter was really cool and it was just one of those good days out and I bought something and I looked at it and I acknowledged that I'd never seen it before. When you've been looking at records for a long time and you've looked at millions, you always see the same thousand or so over and over and over again, at a certain point you can immediately tell when you haven't seen something in your life and it becomes immediately a source of fascination and I bought it and got it home and it's literally in my top three breakbeats after all this time. I always talk with friends that have been digging a long time and we always talk about when you first start out you seem to find breakbeats left and right that are really cool and over time you find them less and less and I thought "wow, that's pretty cool" that after all this time I found something that's never been used, is unGoogle-able, none of my peers know it, I don't know it and it's just super huge and heavy. It would've been massive, if somebody had put it on an Ultimate Breaks & Beats comp in the mid- to late '80s it would have been used about 5,000 times and it would be a hip-hop legend by now but it wasn't.
So are you gonna tell us what the record is?
[Laughs] I'm not even gonna tell you! A bunch of people have been asking me.
You did that track "March Of Death" with Zach De La Rocha and around the time there were a couple of instrumentals floating around the internet listed as being sketches for that project but without Zach's vocals. What happened to that project, were there supposed to be more tracks or was it intended as just a one-off track?
Well, that's a really long answer but to talk about it quickly. Trent Reznor was also involved and you may also find some explanation from him floating around but basically Zach and I were in the studio and I started noticing after a while that it was taking a while to get a vocal take and eventually what happened is we finished in the studio, he still hadn't done his vocals and he was meant to fly to New Orleans to work with Trent Reznor on finishing the other songs and he never showed up in New Orleans. A lot of time went by and that was it [laughs]. Obviously, I don't want to say anything that would embarrass or disrespect Zach but I've never talked to him since.