DJ Shadow Steps Into The Light
Pioneering turntablist returns to San Diego
Since emerging in 1996 with the release of his groundbreaking album, Endtroducing. . . DJ Shadow (aka Josh Davis) has been the preeminent force behind creating some of the most influential music in hip-hop and has helped spread turntablism worldwide. His adept ability at sampling and manipulating preexisting songs and various audio snippets quickly made him one of the most sought after DJs around the world, making him a reluctant media darling in both the United States and overseas. He followed up Endtroducing. . . in 1998 with a compilation of his early singles called, Preemptive Strike.
The following year he teamed up with the production crew from Mo’ Wax Records to create the supergroup known as U.N.K.L.E. Six years after Endtroducing..., Shadow released his proper sophomore album, The Private Press in June 2002 to positive reviews from fans and critics alike. 2006 saw the release of his third full length album called, The Outsider, which featured guest vocals by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, which would eventually lead to DJ Shadow’s first appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. His latest album, The Less You Know, The Better is a return to form for DJ Shadow as the massive break beats and his uncanny scratching layered atop vintage samples proves that this album is truly one of his best to date. The title is derived from Shadow’s ongoing experience with technology and how in this era of nonstop social networking, the sharing of pointless information seems to be cluttering up the collective consciousness of America and the world.
SanDiego.com had a chance to speak with DJ Shadow from his home in San Francisco and talked about his music, vintage comedy albums, and his newest and most unique piece of DJ gear: the Shadowsphere.
I’ve read that your personal record collection is housed in different storage units around the city. Is that difficult for you when you’re trying to work on music and need to go diving through your bins in search for specific albums?
DJ Shadow: It is in the sense in that if I wanted to put a set together, like a somatic set. For example, a couple of years ago I was going to try to do this radio show for one the stations here in the Bay Area where I was going to be mixing vintage bay rap, but my records, especially my hip-hop records are so out of order that it made it almost impossible to go through and find what I needed. So it doesn’t work for me in that respect, but in the sense of needing a lot of records around at my disposal to be able to grab a stack and start going them looking for samples it works quite well because I like when it’s a little bit chaotic. I like that there’s stacks and stacks of records I haven’t bothered to listen to yet, or have a chance to listen to yet. So I like the fact that it isn’t like a library of records that are just sitting on a shelf. I like for it to be a little disorganized so there’s a karmic element of like, ‘Oh, okay I was meant to grab this stack at this moment.’
Where did you get the sample from the opening track, “Back to Front (Circular Logic)” that goes, “I’m back, I forgot my drum.”?
DJ Shadow: It’s a really obscure R&B 45. It’s actually kind of like black beat poetry over kind of progressive jazz. It’s probably from the late 50s early 60s.
I thought it might’ve been a sample from one of Eddie Murphy’s early sketches on Saturday Night Live. Do you collect vintage comedy albums?
DJ Shadow: I have a lot, but in the early nineties it was just one of those things you would pick up when you first start out collecting. You pick up all the Richard Pryor stuff, all the Laff Records stuff, the Redd Foxx stuff, the LaWanda Page stuff. You pick all that stuff up because people like 2 Live Crew were using it and there’s a lot of scratches and Dr. Dre was using Richard Pryor’s stuff and Eddie Murphy’s stuff. I do have a lot of that stuff but it didn’t convert me into being a raging stand-up comedy fan.
It seems that most of you recent albums have a genuine intensity about them and there hasn’t been too much room for a sense of humor.
DJ Shadow: Well, let’s use my most well known record as an example; I mean “Organ Donor” is pretty frivolous, silly; I thought people were going to hate that track just because it wasn’t serious and it was a little bit silly and tongue in cheek. And also interspersed throughout some of the more somber moments on the record you have those little interludes where Lyrics Born is saying stuff like, “She has eyes like Jolly Ranchers” which is pretty silly. I think that the music that I make, I like it to reflect a lot of different moods and emotions. I cherish the intense stuff because I think it’s hard to make that stuff, and hard to do it well. In the same way that a good drama film is always a little more satisfying to me than a good trashy sci-fi flick. I try to do a little bit of everything, because I feel in your daily life you experience a little bit of humor, a little bit of sadness, a little bit of dark a little bit of light - and I like to blend those all together.
What makes this tour you’re about to embark on different form your previous outings?
DJ Shadow: This show specifically was built for a long big tour with a lot of outdoor festivals out in Europe and all over the world. So we’ve done 130 shows so far of this show, and because we were going to be playing in all sorts of environments, I’m not using any 1200s during the show. I use CDJs during the show. Every tour is different, but on this tour it’s CDJs and Ableton and I’m also doing some drumming stuff as well with some electronic drum pads. And I’m inside this thing we call a Shadowsphere, which we have a 3D map on the visuals and there’s also a back screen behind that, so it creates all these interesting illusions. We built the show to stand up next to any rock group or any of the other groups I was going to be playing before and after on these festivals. We wanted to pack in just as much entertainment value as anybody else and I didn’t want to have people saying, ‘Oh, what do you expect he’s just a DJ.’ I mean the show is intense. I think it’s every bit as evocative and cinematic of the music that I make. I think it’s a really good show.
Is performing inside of the Shadowsphere a psychedelic experience for you?
DJ Shadow: Being inside of it, I’m not visible for only about twenty minutes, and then after that we turn the sphere and I’m facing the audience. I think some people don’t understand that when they see short clips on YouTube and they think maybe I’m hidden for the whole show. It’s designed so that so that I can turn the opening I go into towards the audience so that they can then see me. But for the time that I am hidden, it’s really interesting because when we conceived of the show, we wanted to play with building up the tension and seeing what we could get away with and how long I could be hidden. We tossed around all these themes like slight-of-hand and creating a lot of illusion there. It wasn’t until I did the first show that I was able to register how it was going to feel for me to be in there. What I ended up realizing is that, like when you hear people who are temporarily blinded talk about all their other senses being enhanced. It feels a little bit like that, and I know that’s probably not the best analogy; but I feel like I can really hear the audience and sense them in a way I don’t when I’m just exposed. It’s kind of interesting.
Do you remember when Old Dirty Bastard rushed the stage at the Grammys?
DJ Shadow: Yes. That would’ve been 98’, is that right?
Yes that was in 1998. One of the things he said when he got on the mic was, ‘Wu Tang is for the children”. . .
DJ Shadow: He [also] said, “Puffy’s good, but Wu Tang is the best!” Yeah, I do remember that.
With that same respect, does DJ Shadow have a message for the children?
DJ Shadow: If I answer this straight I’m going to be accused of being pretentious, but I’m going to answer it straight anyway. My answer is, just be yourself. Whenever people ask me advice about being a DJ, ‘What would you tell a young DJ getting started?’ my advice is always just be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, because whoever your hero is, they’re already there. So by simply imitating other people you’re never going to contribute anything meaningful to the universe of music. What music needs is individuals and unique personalities, and that’s why I think people should just be themselves.
DJ Shadow performs at 4th & B Saturday, October 22.