The re-endtroduction of DJ Shadow
In 1996 two white dudes from California released landmark albums that redefined the boundaries of hip-hop. Beck teamed up with The Dust Brothers – the producers behind the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and hits for Tone Loc and Young MC – to create Odelay, and a few months later DJ Shadow emerged from a record strewn basement to release his debut album Endtroducing….
Both records were era and career-defining albums build (almost) from scratch on dusty vinyl samples. But while Beck celebrated the two turntable and a microphone approach, Shadow spun over 500 records spun into the mix on Endtroducing… from deeply obscure things found on crate-digging missions to snippets of sound lifted from Bjork, Giorgio Moroder and Nirvana.
Another of the prominent samples on Shadow’s record was the voice on ‘Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ‘96’ that memorably delivered the simple answer: “It’s the money.” But neither Shadow or Beck have let dollars cloud their sense over the past 20 years. Sure, there have been reissues of Endtroducing… – and Odelay – with bonus material but that’s expected with any album that you simply Must Hear Before You Die. But in a year where DJ Shadow could reasonably be expected to wallow in the profitable nostalgia for his debut album he’s pushing forward.
Shadow has refused to be pigeon-holed, defined or intimidated by his debut. He and James Lavelle fused indie rock and trip-hop on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction dragging Thom Yorke, Ian Brown, Kool G Rap, Mike D and even Metallica’s Jason Nested along for the ride. He released a series of legendary all 45 mixtapes in collaboration with Cut Chemist. He shocked his army of chin-stroking fans with an album laced with indie rock and the hyphy sound of the Bay Area. More recently, he founded Liquid Amber, a digital-only self-funded imprint showcasing his Nite School Klik side project with Santa Cruz up-and-comer G Jones and other like-minded acts.
As he recently told his legion on Twitter followers, “Nobody ever made interesting music worrying about their ‘legacy’.”
FASTERLOUDER: You recently told Pitchfork that every record that you’ve made is a response to the aspects of what you did on the previous record. I was wondering what specifically were the things you were wanting to focus on this time around that you weren’t thinking so much on The Less You Know The Better?
“I intended [The Less You Know The Better] in some ways kind of a parting gift to elements of my fan base”
DJ SHADOW: Well there’s a lot of different ways I could answer that but what I usually just do is go to my mindset. In 2012 or so after the prior record had kind of done its thing and I definitely felt as though the last record was kind of … I intended it in some ways kind of a parting gift to elements of my fan base that only wanted a certain type of sound, a sample base sound, and I definitely was ready to turn my attention to other things, but I didn’t really know what that was gonna be, and that’s sometimes why it takes me a while in between records. I like to tour, and be out and about and seeing and hearing what my peers are doing what their working on, what kind of new vocabulary is out there, to be inspired by.
So I think in a lot of ways the The Less You Know the Better was a very turned inward record. Whereas this record, I allowed myself to really soak in a lot of things. It’s sort of like I was allowed to just kind of be in the same mode, and it all felt really natural and kind of strong, it felt like a natural evolution of my own sound as applied to some of the new vocabularies that I picked up along the way.
You’ve mentioned a couple of the tracks on the record are made without any samples at all, is that the first time that you’ve taken that approach, and gone completely from scratch, like abandoned that “sample guy” image?
No, not really I mean I’ve done tracks with live instruments in the past, and I’ve done tracks using all in the box synths and drum machines and stuff like that before. I think on this record what I wanted to do is really not obsess over, any kind of rules or, forcing myself to take any one approach or one type of discipline, and what that allows you to do is do things that you didn’t know you could do.
I think a lot of people probably assume that the horns on ‘Nobody Speak’ are a sample but its actually a dedicated horn part that I wrote and recorded. I knew I wanted a horn piece. I knew what I wanted to say with it, sat down and wrote it out in MIDI, and then exported it as MIDI files and got four or five people together and said right, “You play this, you play that, you play that.” Its one of those occasions where it could have turned out crappy, but I was really happy with how it turned out.
I wanted to ask specifically about that track. It’s such an amazing intro to the record especially with El-P opening verse. Did you set out to write that as a track for them, or did it evolve into something where you decided, “I’ve got to get RTJ on this”?
I allowed myself in a couple of instances on this record to go like a classic boom-bap hip-hop style, which I maybe would have prohibited myself from doing at various other times for various reasons. But when I heard the sample I just was like I got to hook this up and I don’t want to hook it up to be anything other than just a really heavy head nodding, kind of classic hip-hop piece, and so that’s what I set out to make. But even within that there’s a lot of production techniques that’s gone into making it sound sonically full, that I didn’t know how to do 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.
To me ‘Nobody Speak’ is a good example of how far I’ve come as an engineer and as a beat maker in the small ways like in the sweetening in the arrangement, and really the dedication to the mix, which I always felt like was one of my weaker areas, historically. This is really the first record that I’ve done most of the mixing on, since probably Entroducing really, because I had a lot of in the studio help.
In answer to your question specifically, it was. Once the beat was kind of there as a demo for someone to write to, I just wrote in big letters in my little studio notebook that I use to make notes, I just was like Run The Jewels that’s it. That’s all I want for this track, I only want El-P and [Killer] Mike that’s it, and if I wasn’t going to get them on the track the track probably wouldn’t have made the record.
Hearing you and El-P together kind of reminded me that you guys were both a linked to that Zack de la Rocha solo album that was widely regulated and never got released. Do you know anything about what happened to that, is that just some mystical thing that’s going to be stuck in a vault forever?
I have tried to do my part to air out the songs that I worked on, I basically did four songs, and all of them save for one has come out in various sneaky ways, ‘March of Death’, was released. Early on before it was widely done, back in 2004 we released it as like a free digital track, but there was really kind a thing set up to do that yet, there wasn’t Pandora or Spotify or Soundcloud or any of that stuff yet really. Not a lot of people heard it, but I kinda bootlegged it on a little website-only thing that I did on my own website.
‘Artifact’; I used the instrumental version on The Outsider because Epic didn’t want me to use the vocal version. They were still thinking they were gonna do something with the record, maybe at some point. I don’t want to say leaked the vocal version but I think it’s probably find-able if you look hard enough.
“To be completely honest, it was soul-crushing”
Another demo for that record was ‘Disavowed’, which I ended up using on The Private Press, as a B-side. [On The Private Press single ‘You Can’t Go Home Again!’]. And the fourth track, which was actually my favorite, I’ve played it in shows and stuff but most people have never heard it.
To be completely honest, it was soul-crushing. It was like the biggest disappointment in my career to that point, and the ironic thing was how long that Zack had chased me to work on the record. He first reached out in ’98, and then the first time that we found time to meet up together in the studio was 2000, and then we re-upped again in 2003. So it was like this five-year process of talking about it and then when it went curflooey I was crushed. Zack’s somebody that really pushes you to do you best, and it was work I really wanted to have people hear, and it was really strong. He was doing incredible stuff, he wrote incredible lyrics and I thought we were on to something. So yeah, it was a shame.
Do you think it was just the pressure of the expectation that made him second-guess releasing it all?
I don’t know, I honestly don’t know. I think that it’s possible, there’s probably an element of that but, beyond that, I was a work for hire and I was compensated for my work so it’s not like I have any claim to the music beyond that. But I don’t do music as a 9-5, punch the clock type gig. To me it’s something I pour everything into. I’m not very prolific I don’t sit down and make 50 beats in a night and put them all out on a mix tape or whatever. I’m pretty deliberate and slow about what I do, so it makes it extra hard when four of my, I don’t want to call them my “babies,” but you know what I mean? It’s like, they don’t see the light of day.
Nobody ever made interesting music worrying about their “legacy”
— DJ Shadow (@djshadow) April 2, 2016
If we go back to some of your other recent stuff, I wanted to ask about the Nite School Klik stuff that you released, fairly anonymously. Was it really liberating to release that without the burden of expectation that comes with having the DJ Shadow name on it?
Yeah, I think now I’m kinda past the point of trying to be really coy and trying to deliberately underplay my name. I mean it’s the type of thing where if you wanted to know, you knew. If you didn’t know, you didn’t know and it didn’t really matter to me either way. Because, I do feel like it’s important that people know, as on The Outsider, as on so many projects that I’ve done, step-out projects, side projects, to me there’s a universe to explore with all of my favourite artists. And I’m, in my own small way, trying to provide a universe of my own of all the things that I am into of all the different, approaches that I think are interesting and valid.
I actually am in the process of putting together the live show now, and, I played ‘Nice Nightmares’ and it dawned on me how I can’t wait to do something with that live because it’s so visual. A lot of my shows usually have visuals as this one will, and I can’t wait to try to build something. I really like that release and, it’s kind of an interesting time to put out music because it really doesn’t matter what people think or how many streams it gets or how many times it’s played or downloaded or paid for, nothing really matters in that way.
One of the more recognisable samples on the new record is the Timothy Leary snippet on ‘Three Ralphs’ . Were you a big fan of his work?
I’m always processing, and what that means is I’ve done record-buying trips since I was in my teens, and a lot of that stuff I was buying faster than I was able to listen to. Just by the nature of being on the road and touring and stuff, and buying records for fun. As a result I have a huge backlog of stuff to go to. I picked it up somewhere at some point and it just happened to come up in the rotation at a serendipitous moment when I was working on a track.
This is another example of trying to do this in a track is not just having intro-build drop, build drop, outro, because that’s the format of so many so many, kinda headsy electronic music these days. I like when you play a track or you play an album and you start to loose a sense of where you’re at in the sequencing. Songs within songs. That quote allowed me to do that with ‘Three Ralphs’, to take it in a completely different direction. There’s actually a third part in ‘Three Ralphs’ which I just edited out on the album. Songs like ‘California’ and ‘Ghost Town’ have a similar things where, where it isn’t just content to be a beat, it evolves and goes in different directions, and that was something I felt like I could bring to the table within the space.
We last got to see you out here when you were on Afrika Bambaataa tribute tour with Cut Chemist. I asked him then if he could imagine a time in the future where other DJs would raid his collection for a similar tribute. How would you feel about that?
Yeah, I can. I think it’d be amazing. We were talking about the show – “Should we do it? What do you think?” – and in the process of talking it out it really dawned on me that this is an entirely new concept. We’re paving new ground her by using another DJ’s collection to tell their history. It just seems like an amazing opportunity. I think that I hold all the artists who’ve influenced me in such high esteem, to me those are my heroes and I never think about how I stack up or how measure up or any of that kind of stuff, to me I’m just an ultimate fan.
The Outsider came out in 2006, so it’s the exactly mid-point between Entroducing – which for better or worse is the album that I guess will always define you – and now. How do you feel the album now?
“When you put something out [like Endtroducing…] it becomes kind of beloved, it takes on a life of it’s own”
The problem is that I underestimated … I thought people knew who I was, and I thought people knew that I grew up listening to hip-hop. I didn’t just grow up listening to quote-unquote “conscious” hip-hop, I grew up listening to, everything from hardcore rap to Miami bass to electro. There was dope Miami bass and there was wack Miami bass, there was dope gangster rap and weak gangster rap and I was into all of it.
I guess I sort of misjudged aspects of my fan-base because I thought they were educated about what my roots were and my influences were, which I always try to be so painstaking in pointing out. But I think I also didn’t understand that sometimes when you put something out [like Endtroducing…] it becomes kind of beloved, it takes on a life of it’s own, and people don’t want you to mess with it, they don’t want you to taint it or in anyway challenge their perceptions of who you are to them.
But ultimately that’s creatively a dead end, and for better or worse, it was a difficult time for some of my fans and for me because I realised that we weren’t gonna be able to see eye-to-eye on everything. I always assume that it’s gonna be a large percent of people that probably don’t care for any aspects of anything that I do or, they might have a problem with this track but they might love that track, and I think once I realised that that was gonna be the case it was liberating, and that’s ultimately what The Outsider was about for me.
DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall is out now via Mass Appeal.