The Shadow Knows

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."  

Over the next several years Shadow developed his own style--one that explored the musical possibilities hidden in the grooves of the vinyl long-players he continues to collect with a fervor that's positively obsessive. He and four pals from UC-Davis formed SoleSides, a name that he uses for both his independent record company and his so-called crew of fellow hip-hop music makers. He also forged an alliance with Mo Wax, the London-based firm that's been on the leading edge of the trip-hop movement. Mo Wax released numerous Shadow singles and an EP, What Does Your Soul Look Like?, that established him as far more than your typical manipulator of the wheels of steel.

Still, these projects were a mere prelude to the real bomb. Although Endtroducing... features the rudiments of hip-hop (scratching, sampling and so on), it touches upon so many disparate sonic styles that simply listing them would take up half this page. "Building Steam With a Grain of Sand" is filled with drum breaks, but it also includes funky guitar, a brooding melody and background vocals that suggest a sci-fi equivalent of Ennio Morricone; "Changeling" merges slamming percussion with Seventies-jazz keyboards; "Mutual Slump" uses a prominent rhythm track, vocal samples and random cacophony to create a thrilling exercise in doom; "Midnight in a Perfect World" caresses a listener with a combination of ethereal sound snippets and brawny backbeats; and so on, and so on, and so on. The blend is so dense that words are completely unnecessary--which to Shadow is a large part of the point.

"When I do stuff with SoleSides, I work with rappers, so it's not like I can't do it," he says. "Endtroducing... reflects only about half of what I do. But I felt like it was okay not to have a rap track on there. Believe me, I thought about doing it, but in the end I decided that I didn't want to stymie the instrumental thing, because I didn't want to get that specific. Besides, this type of music is very close to me--I put a lot of thought into it, and it does mean a lot to me. It's not just some stuff that I tossed out there and next week I'll toss out some more stuff just like it. It took a long time to generate. And I like the challenge of it. With songs like these, there is no pre-existing narrative. I create the narrative, and that makes it tougher.

"I tried to be more of a guiding hand than anything else--to let the tracks go where they're going to go. And whatever mood I was in is what I'd work on that night. In other words, if I had a good day and I was about to go do something exciting, I'd work on one of the more up-tempo songs on the album, like 'The Number Song.' But if I was in a more subdued or introspective mood, I might work on something like 'Stem,' which is by far my favorite song on Endtroducing... And then, when I was done, I had to find a way to get from one mood to the other."

The result of these efforts is a recording that demands to be taken as a whole rather than in tiny bites--meaning that it's hardly ideal radio fare. Add to that its obvious artistic aspirations ("I worry that I take myself too seriously," Shadow admits) and you've got a package that may put off listeners interested in immediate gratification. Still, Shadow insists he's no snob. The last thing he wants to convey is that he thinks he's better than hip-hop.

"I've never been into the Jeep-booming kind of hip-hop, because I was never a Jeep-booming kind of person," he says. "I was always the headphone-at-home kind of person when I listened to rap. But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't listen to the great hip-hop groups everybody else fell in love with. I love Miami Bass, and I used to be really into 2 Live Crew and Public Enemy, too. I never really cared where it was made or whatever. I would listen to anything that was good and innovative and vibrant--things that don't go right down the center. And that's what I'm into doing now. All I'm really interested in is articulating through the music that hip-hop used to be a much broader realm musically. Everything's so status quo and so trendy right now, and that's a big part of the reason why there's so much crap out there. It's gotten to the point where the people who I grew up with in the hip-hop world don't even bother to listen to rap anymore at all."  

Such comments haven't made Shadow Mr. Popularity in the hip-hop community. Fully half of his reviews in publications specializing in rap pointedly refer to him as Caucasian, as if his pigmentation should immediately call his credibility into question. Shadow tries to laugh off this situation. "It'd be frustrating if I wasn't white," he jokes. "But I totally understand why people would want to do it. You see, hip-hop journalism has always been somewhat of an oxymoron. In the beginning, it was strictly fans writing about the music. And then in '89 and '90, they started reacting against encroaching commercialism that was symbolized in their minds by people like Vanilla Ice. And there's still some hangover from that.

"But my opinion on this has always been that I know what the roots of hip-hop are. I grew up on hip-hop, and I've never tried to pretend that I'm something I'm not. I've never really had a chip on my shoulder about it, so nobody ever really tries to knock it off. Even though I know that American society finds race extremely interesting, it's of no relevance to me."

Do race-baiting critiques prevent African-Americans into hip-hop from experiencing what Shadow has to offer? He doubts it. "I think a lot of journalists don't give enough credit to most hip-hop fans," he claims. "There's a few very vocal people within hip-hop who use rap as their own soapbox for whatever political agenda they have at the time. But most hip-hop listeners don't care. They only care if it sounds good. I mean, I don't remember ever thinking that Third Bass [a white rap act] wasn't as good as some other group for that reason. And not too many other people that I know think that way. So it's a media-generated situation--a macro issue where people like to use hip-hop as a mirror to reflect their own sort of biases."

Of course, Shadow has prejudices of his own--against musical complacency, for one thing. By embracing cliches, he could make himself very wealthy. But selling out isn't on his itinerary. "It would be really easy for me to say, 'Fuck, this is my one chance to make it; I should do every commercial thing that comes along.' But then I think about my heroes from other musical genres--people who've retained some sense of consistency and some sense of duty to themselves to continue to make good music. I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of these funk guys who recorded on dozens of different labels and never made it, and some of them are bitter. But most of them still like music, they're down-to-earth, and they still get out there and gig in their hometowns, wherever they may be. And I think, 'That's how I'd like to be.' All this other stuff is just chaos and noise."

Jeru the Damaja, with DJ Shadow. 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $16.80, 443-3399 or 830-

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