The Shadow Knows

DJ Shadow makes instrumental music. But he can't keep quiet about the state of hip-hop.

Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, is a provocateur. Plenty of hip-hop artists are dismayed by what's happening to their chosen musical form, but most take a cautious, it's-all-good approach to remarking about it in the press. By contrast, Shadow goes out of his way to twist his blade in hip-hop's flabby gut. His brilliant debut full-length, Endtroducing..., is an instrumental showcase, with only a bare handful of words popping up amid the rich, bracingly ornate mix. But Shadow gets in a prime dis anyhow, by titling one of the tracks "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96." In conversation, he hardly needs to be coaxed into elaborating on this topic; he gushes out a seemingly endless supply of thoughtful but unmistakable insults.

"Back in 1990, I read this Prince Paul article in Spin," the 24-year-old Shadow notes about the artist best known for his work with De La Soul, "and he was like, 'It's a shame hip-hop had to die so young.' He said it was just another case of when something isn't allowed to incubate quite as long as it needs to because of all the media glare and the media heat and the money. At the time I remember thinking, 'No, we can still save it.' But now I understand where he was at. When everything is thrown into the pot, the music is no longer underground, and anybody who tries to pretend otherwise is just deluding himself. Bottom line, hip-hop was kidnapped back then, and a lot of people--me included--don't like the direction it's been going in since."

DJ Shadow's music presents an alternative route for hip-hop, but thus far, not that many people have taken it. Although critics have been virtually unanimous in their praise of Endtroducing..., these plaudits haven't translated into mega-sales, and for a very good reason--the disc makes absolutely no concessions to market realities. It has so little in common with most other hip-hop platters in stores today that many observers have insisted that it isn't hip-hop at all--a contention with which Shadow vociferously disagrees. In his view, the primary reason the CD sounds different from other recordings is the refusal of their creators to venture beyond the stereotypical.

"Hip-hop used to be a rounded cultural renaissance, but it's such a rap-propelled genre now," he says. "And it makes sense, since rapping is the easiest hip-hop element to sell. A DJ can't be throwing his hands in the air and saying all these controversial things when he's at the turntables. He can't dance around, he can't really grimace, he can't do any of the things that have nothing to do with skills but get you noticed anyway. And it's so easy to dismiss what a DJ does. Like beat chopping--how exciting is that? You're just locked away in a dungeon all day. You can't make movies about that."

As a result, Shadow has dedicated himself to making movies of his own--and while you can't see them outside of your imagination, they're as vivid as anything on the screen at your neighborhood googol-plex. Shadow makes sure of that. "I look at books and film as being as equal an inspiration to me as music is," he says. "I look at things like leitmotifs and foreshadowing and different plot devices that move a movie along, and then I try to use them musically. I've even thought of different stories I could tell. I didn't want to do it for Endtroducing..., but maybe I will eventually."

This outsized ambition blossomed in an unexpected place: The adamantly average Northern California suburb of Davis, to which young Josh moved with his mother and older brother when he was five. By the time he was in junior high, he had taught himself to scratch along with his favorite hip-hop tracks using a single battered turntable. He subsequently enrolled at the University of California at Davis and joined the staff at the college's radio station. It was there that he honed his hip-hop infatuation into a salable skill.

"I trained myself to only think about music when I was in the studio--to throw everything else out the window as soon as I closed the door," he says. "I had to do that, because sometimes I would only get two hours to work on music. So I had to be really focused and channel however many days' worth of mental anguish that I felt because I couldn't work on music whenever I wanted to into those two hours."

In 1990 this attention to detail paid off: Shadow made a remix tape, Hip-hop Reconstruction From the Ground Up, and shipped it off to various record labels and publications like The Source. The response was immediate. Numerous imprints put out feelers, and before long, Hollywood Basic's Dave Klein hired him to remix a song, "Lesson 4." Today Shadow refers to Klein, who died of cancer in 1995, as "my mentor. He hooked me up with a lot of great things, like this Austrian radio show that I did four years ago or so. They paid me to go around the country to different cities and buy records at places like Albums on the Hill in Boulder--and I got to keep the records after I was done. That's what I call a pretty good gig."

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