DJ Shadow The Verge of the Third Phase
Published Jun 01, 2002Within a cluster of hiss and pops, a woman's voice appears above the crackling grooves of the record.
She describes how much fun it was keeping the children up to dictate the audio letter we're hearing. This is a private press record where people have the opportunity to produce their own vinyl, either recording themselves speaking to loved ones, or to forever capture their own musical efforts on wax. A private press album is the ultimate in rare recordings, limited to usually a few or even one copy. For someone like DJ Shadow, who has based his entire career on piecing together his own music through obscure samples of other people's music, a private press recording is the ultimate find. As the woman's voice disappears to allow another family member to speak, we're instead greeted by a wobbling electronic pulse followed by a crashing hip-hop breakbeat, and so starts DJ Shadow's latest effort, appropriately titled The Private Press.
DJ Shadow is essentially a hip-hop artist. When he first heard the flow of an MC and the cuts of a DJ, he dropped everything, sold his comic collection to buy records, and hip-hop became his guide. But the end result of his solo recordings is the sound of influences beyond hip-hop. When he's producing tracks for his Quannum (formerly Solesides) crew, Shadow is pure hip-hop, with a steady beat laced with a lyrical frenzy from Quannum MCs such as Gift of Gab or Lyrics Born. But left to his own devices, armed with an overflowing record collection and his sampler, Shadow's pieces become over-the-top instrumentals comprised of hundreds of sound bites that twist and contort into splendid new forms. At times, there's a distinct hip-hop feel, a flowing hard beat, but his sounds often build into a beautiful mess of noises, becoming a cinematic overture of not just urban flavour but electro pop, classic rock or freeform jazz. Though raised on a culture of b-boys and turntable rocking, DJ Shadow's music goes beyond, rising above the sum parts of the records he samples.
Josh Davis was raised in Davis, California and has called the sunny West Coast state home his whole life. Like most hopeful DJs, Davis started his pursuit through a series of mix tapes he would send out to various radio stations and other outlets of the Bay Area hip-hop community under the name Shadow. One of these tapes landed in the hands of Dave "Funken" Klein at the Hollywood BASIC label, and next thing he knew, Davis was recording his debut twelve-inch, "Lesson 4," with his remix of prison inmate hip-hoppers the Lifer's Group's "Real Deal" as the B-side. "It was just intended as a tip of the hat, in title if nothing else, to Lesson 1, 2 and 3' by Double D. and Steinski," explains the soft-spoken Shadow. Double D. and Steinski broke ground in the mid-'80s hip-hop community with their sample-heavy "Lesson" trilogy and like their original, "Lesson 4" is a classic breaks mishmash. It was quite an accomplishment for the 17-year-old DJ, but a far cry from the distinct sound he would later achieve after signing to James Lavelle's new Mo' Wax label.
While Shadow slowly produced tracks like "In/Flux" and "Hindsight" for Mo' Wax, he was also keeping a musical diary of more underground gems with his crew, Solesides. Along with Latyrx and Blackalicious, Solesides was where Shadow fine-tuned his craft of hypnotic break-beats laced with sample upon sample, creating abstract hip-hop such as "Entropy" and "Hardcore Hip-Hop." But as the buzz coming from the Mo' Wax camp got louder, Shadow began the transition from the underground to global recognition, especially after whetting fans' appetite with his What Does Your Soul Look Like? EP. Two of the EP's four tracks would end up on his debut full-length Endtroducing and industry and fans both were pumping with Shadow's then ill-named "trip-hop" in their blood streams. Josh Davis was just 23 years old when he crafted what many consider a musical masterpiece. DJ Shadow's Endtroducing was released in 1996; it featured a different flavour of hip-hop to much of what was then being produced, and six years later, its goosebump-producing melodies and hauntingly beautiful production remain untouchable. Built entirely on samples from his overwhelming and obscure record collection, DJ Shadow's debut full-length took hip-hop to another level, as far as production was concerned.
It marked the end of his time in the Bay Area's hip-hop underground, launching his sound to the world. "I take it as a compliment," Shadow says modestly. "I never want to sound like I ever got any kind of negative energy from people telling me how they feel about [Endtroducing]. I consider myself very lucky. Any artist, all they ever want is for people to hear their stuff. And the fact that after all these years Endtroducing is treasured by some people is a blessing. I would never want to be, Oh. It's such a burden.'"
Instead of taking full advantage of his new-found fame, in the six years since, Shadow has dedicated himself to several diverse projects, dropping treasures for dedicated fans while many awaited a second full-length effort. "I'm aware that to a large segment of the population I dropped out of sight for a few years," he says. "But on the underground level which is sort of more important to me anyway they know I didn't. I'm just driven more by what interests me musically rather than commercially."
In the five years it took Shadow to start work on his sophomore release, he busied himself by touring and participating in a variety of collaborative projects. Shadow's most notable side-project was in 1997, with an all-star gathering of mainly rock musicians who lent their vocal abilities to Shadow's cinematic production. Under the title of U.N.K.L.E, DJ Shadow released what he considers to be his greatest achievement: 1998's Psyence Fiction. Taking the organic sound of Endtroducing and blending it with a more electronic feel, vocalists were added to give the majority of the cuts a more accessible feel, reaching a more pop status. "I can't say enough about the whole musical experience of it all," Shadow remembers fondly. "It was an opportunity to test my bedside manners on established artists. As far as the collaboration process goes, like working with [Radiohead's] Thom Yorke and Kool G Rap [of Marley Marl's Juice Crew] was just unbelievably rewarding as an artist. All those songs mean a lot to me."
The Private Press is the sound of an artist who's matured with the musical evolutions of the last half-decade, with hints of Shadow's distinct abstract hip-hop woven throughout. The magnificent guitar samples carried by the neck-snapping beats of "Fixed Income" fall into the same league as Shadow's prior slow-paced instrumentals. But then come tracks like "Monosylabik," which Shadow declared on his web site will "separate the men from the boys."
"It's amazing how you can write one thing and it's the telephone game," he laughs. "As soon as it gets to three people it's like, He only wants to sell the album to men and boys?'" He meant, of course, that the album's first single, released only as a white label, would test people's dedication to where Shadow was heading musically. "I knew of all the songs on the record, Monosylabik' would be the most jarring. I put it out in England as a white label, 1,000 copies only. I like to start the vibe in England and have it cross back here. They're much more used to that type of music there. I like to have fun with what people are expecting. And that's not to say that I'm trying to make music that no one's going to like. It just means this is another facet of what I do. I'm trying to shine light in as many facets of that diamond as possible. This is just another way the light caught the ring I guess." He pauses and laughs. "Kind of a dumb analogy."
To those who've followed Shadow's work during his commercial hiatus, The Private Press won't come as a shock. Psyence Fiction, with its space-themed cuts and overall futuristic vibe, gave a good indication where Shadow might be heading. What might come as a surprise is that even though many regard Shadow as a hip-hop artist, this is his least hip-hop sounding effort to date. That he's a huge fan of '60s and '70s instrumental producer David Axelrod sheds some light on Shadow's gradual separation from hip-hop on The Private Press. A big influence not only on Shadow, but many other hip-hop artists and producers, Axelrod painted a psychedelic landscape with his hybrid of funk and soul. But more than being influenced by Axelrod, Shadow is emulating him, recreating his eccentric sound through samples. The Private Press is crafted through erratic and furious amounts of hip-hop beats and electronic noises, all sewn together with beautiful vocals and lush arrangements.
"There are people that like me when I do jazzy, down-tempo' stuff, and then there are people that can get with my larger body of work and understand that it's actually about a lot of different sounds and textures. But whenever I put something out, I always like to throw something at people. I wanna see who balks, who flinches. And then know maybe they're not really down with the whole plan, know what I mean? So I'm just having a little fun with that."
Some of the fun comes from using a lot of more computerised, new wave sounding beats. Before Shadow discovered hip-hop, he admits to throwing his pocket change down on Gary Numan and Blondie. "As a kid, the first music that I spent money on was Devo," he recalls. "But when hip-hop came into the scene, that was it for new wave or any other type of music. I grew up during [the new wave] era and was listening to all types of music or I should say I was exposed to all types of music. In the process of making this album, the store down the street got a huge modern rock collection right when I was starting to find things for the album. Modern rock meaning really '80s rock. So I ended up using a lot of those type of records. The vocals from Blood on the Motorway' come from such a record and on the record it says number 231 out of 500.' So it's totally a home-made record. That's the type of stuff I prefer to use."
Shadow's intervening time wasn't spent crafting and discarding beats this album only took shape when it was time to get down to work late last year. "I never finish songs that have no purpose. If they get to the demo stage and they're not working for me, then they're never going to get done. I put too much energy into making songs hopefully good. For me there's no such thing as an unfinished song or a song that was mixed and never got used. It takes me so long to do each song that I really have to have my full weight behind it. I'm not the type of artist that goes into a studio and just messes around vamping for two days, you know what I mean? I have to be very specific how I'm spending my time because that time is valuable."
His dedication and sense of perfectionism also extends to the DJ's time-honoured hobby-turned-career, crate-digging. Shadow and long-time friend and Jurassic 5 DJ Cut Chemist have developed a reputation for being overly obsessive with expanding their record collection. His serious collecting began in the late '80s, when the early '70s funk he loved was just 15 years old. "Now those records are 30 years old or more," he says. "It's much harder to find that era's music, especially for things that, after 15 years, I don't have. But that's the whole thing about being a collector you just keep adapting."
Along with Cut Chemist, Shadow produced two mix records consisting of all original 45 RPM singles, mainly funk. "I really have no interest in sampling a lot of funk 45s these days. There's a whole cottage industry now set up around trying to charge poor DJs exorbitant prices. Whenever the flock runs somewhere I'm always trying avoid it. At the same time I don't want to be one of those people who five years ago are like, Funk rules!' and now I'd be like, Aw, funk sucks.' It sucks when people do that. I'm not trying to pretend like I'm on some other level and I'm too cool for people or something. I just can't afford it anymore. And that's just the bottom line."
Shadow and Cut Chemist pieced together their first 45s mix, Brainfreeze, as a limited edition (2,000 copies) to sell during a tour immediately launching a bootlegging frenzy. "We had no idea who was going to want this thing. We only made a small amount because we didn't want to end up with boxes all over our house or unsold CDs that we couldn't get rid of. There was no indication. Nothing like that had ever been done before where it's funk, but it's hip-hop, it's old, it's new. There was no testing ground for that. So we weren't trying to make something limited, we just didn't have the time or resources to move that many units."
Dodgy knock-offs ranged from vinyl pressings to a collection of the original breaks the duo had used (an absolute no-no in the crate-digging world) led the duo to rethink its follow-up, Product Placement. "Bootleggers sold a lot more copies of Brainfreeze than we did, so we said let's try to make enough copies of Product Placement so that people won't get pissed off at us again, but not enough that we get into trouble.' Keep in mind that it's still not a legal mix. It's not like we cleared all these songs, so we couldn't go and make 50,000 copies or sell it to a major label, because we weren't going to be able to clear the use of the 129 records. And we've still got a few thousand left over the bootleggers jumped right on it before we were even sold out."
Ventures such as Brainfreeze and Product Placement were for the underground for followers of DJ Shadow, a musical reward for sticking with him as he pieced together his sophomore effort. The Private Press will bring a slew of new fans, and rekindle interest in people who lost touch with the producer. But just as Endtroducing marked the beginning and the end of a portion of Shadow's career, so might The Private Press. "I always consider the gap between Endtroducing and High Noon,' (his first post-Endtroducing single) which was only a few months, to be the part one and part two of my career. And I feel like possibly only time will tell part two will only go up until The Private Press." Just as fans are embracing the "return" of DJ Shadow, he may already have marked the end of a chapter in his career. It's with great anticipation that one imagines how high Shadow will set the bar for his third phase.
Entropy (Solesides, 1993)
Though "Lesson 4" was Shadow's first release, it wasn't until 1993 that he dropped what was the first glance at his distinct sound. "There are two versions that exist although I've only ever released one. One version of it exists as an entirely four-track thing. In the process of waiting for Lyrics Born to finish his side of the record I acquired my first sampler and decided in order to sound more contemporary I'd better put some new compositions on there. The end result is about half four-track and half sample-based." This track was re-released on Quannum's Soleside's Greatest Bumps.
Preemptive Strike (Mo' Wax/London, 1997)
A collection of pre-Endtroducing tracks intended for fans who wanted all of Shadow's work but couldn't afford the original pressings. "I regret it only in the sense that it was intended to be limited edition," Shadow admits. "It was my way of exposing people to the music that I had done previously, but somewhere in the process of doing it, someone was overzealous at London and decided to ignore my request to make it limited edition. I didn't really want to replace the individual memories of those singles, so in that sense I'm a little annoyed because it's not a great flowing sequence in my mind. It's functional. I love the original singles too much for that to still be hanging around in a weird sort of way." The first run edition contained Camel Bobsled Race, a mega-mix of Shadow's catalogue by scratch-champion DJ Q-Bert.
"Dark Days" (MCA/Universal, 2000)
The title track from a documentary of the same name about underground subway dwellers. Built mainly around the drums and guitar work of David McCallum's "House of Mirrors," this track runs the same path as The Private Press, with a tip of the hat to more classic soul and rock than hip-hop.
Brainfreeze (Sixty7, 1999) / Product Placement (One29, 2001)
The infamous 45 cut-up sessions. Extremely limited run of both albums, but a necessity for fans of Shadow to soak in the musical influences. "Just a very strange experience," Shadow laughs. "Two DJs that were good friends basically getting together for a week and having a lot of fun. It was a laugh and it ended up becoming something we never could have imagined." The second instalment, Product Placement, went even deeper than the funk-filled Brainfreeze. "In my mind, the better of the two sets," Shadow says. "It was one of those rare instances where the sequel out-does the original. I'm very, very proud of the work we put into it. We were really trying hard to just silence anybody who was daring to speak up in any negative way about Brainfreeze."