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I think there is so much that can be done with samples, but fewer people are making an effort to raise the bar," says DJ Shadow via phone from somewhere in the Midwest. "So it just makes the evolution of the sound slower."
Even though the art of sampling seems to be making a comeback in hip-hop, represented in recent mainstream and underground records by such artists as Kanye West and 9th Wonder, Shadow (aka Josh Davis) feels there is still a lot more work to be done.
"I think every instrument has that natural arc," he says. "Whether it be guitar or whatever, somebody will come out from somewhere with a sound that is so completely different, it challenges everybody's view. The electric guitar existed for years before Eddie Van Halen decided to start playing the way he did. And it made everyone kind of like, 'Damn, I didn't even know you could do that on that instrument.' And things like that will continue to happen."
Needless to say, Shadow's innovative use of the sample has inspired kids -- who in past generations would have purchased guitars and other sundry instruments -- to embrace the sampler as a musical device. Instead of kids dragging Mommy down to the local pawnshop to buy a Fender Strat, kids now save up their loot to purchase an Akai MPC 2000 sampler, some Technics 1200s and a Tascam four-track so they can attempt to replicate tracks as smooth as Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World."
The DJ's auspicious 1996 debut, Endtroducing..., elevated the level of play for sample-based productions. The whole album was based on the manipulations of samples and featured actual compositions as opposed to just random cut-up slices of found sounds. The record used hip-hop as a jumping-off point, and from there it took listeners on an engaging aural excursion. Instead of utilizing the obligatory funk samples, however, Shadow sampled obscure jazz records and minutiae that could only be found by spending hours obsessively digging through crates -- which Doug Pray brilliantly captures Shadow doing in Scratch, his documentary ode to turntablism.
"Hopefully, it made people realize that hip-hop is just a broader spectrum of ideas and musical sensibilities than a lot of people gave it credit for," says Shadow. "That's what I was hoping to reflect on the album."
Tracks like "Stem/Long Stem" were actual experimental hip-hop symphonies with movements that would have made Marley Marl proud. Long before he felt the power of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and UTFO's "Beats and Rhymes," Shadow says, his innate sense of song structure was born in the checkout lines in suburban California supermarkets, where he was introduced to classical composers.
"When I was really young, for some reason my mom picked up on the fact that she thought I had a musical ear, and she would buy me records all the time," Shadow recalls. "I remember a lot of the supermarkets in the '70s had programs where you could buy really cheap music of Mozart and a lot of the masters as an educational tool for children. So when she would go shopping, she would pick up another one, and before I knew it, I had a little collection."
Thus began a lifelong fascination with collecting sounds that have turned up in Shadow's records, in one shape or form, over the past decade. His last full-length release, 2002's Private Press, pays homage to the practice of making and pressing your own recordings in the mini-studio booths that were prevalent in the '50s and '60s. Press starts off with "Letter From Home," an audio letter on a phonograph -- or, as they were known at the time, a "recordio-gram" -- that documents a Richmond, California, woman describing a tragic chain of events involving her brother. The date of the recording: September 9, 1951. Similarly, Shadow unearths lost treasures such as Colonel Bagshot's "Six Day War," from 1971, to augment Press's psychedelic, folk-tinged "Six Days," a protest song that, taken in context, accurately depicts the shell-shocked hangover felt by many as the U.S. prepared to go to war with Iraq.
But Shadow's music isn't just the perfect soundtrack for modern reality. With the splattercore sonics of tracks like "Blood on the Motorway" -- which would not sound out of a place in a B-Movie sci-fi horror flick -- there's also a noticeable cinematic quality to his material. Understandably, Shadow is often approached to score films. Although he rarely gives the green light to such projects, he made an exception when approached by director Marc Singer, who had used Shadow's music when he assembled his movie Dark Days.
"Someone from the Cult introduced him to my music," says Shadow of Singer. "Unbeknownst to me, he started using my music in the film while he was cutting it; it helped him to have music in there that fit the mood that he was trying to get across." The film, released in 2000, chronicled a segment of New York City's homeless community who dwelled in subway tunnels underneath the city. It went on to collect awards from Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Part of the documentary's success can be directly attributed to Shadow's evocative soundtrack, which mirrored the suffering and transcendence of the film's subjects.