Born Joshua Davis, DJ Shadow made great waves with his first proper album, 1996's Endtroducing, which has been lauded as the first album made up entirely by samples. By then, he'd already made a name for himself as a producer with some singles and production work out on Mo' Wax Records, and with Entroducing, he'd all but reinvented the use of samples.
Since then, DJ Shadow has collaborated on an array of projects, including Unkle, an act that produced a critically hailed debut album in 1998, Psyence Fiction, which yielded a memorably haunting video for "Rabbit In Your Headlights" with Thom Yorke. In 2011, DJ Shadow released his latest album, The Less You Know, the Better, which, as he mentions below, he sees as the end of an artist era for his creative output.
We recently had a chance to speak with Davis about what he really intended to do with Endtroducing, the blurring of lines between sample and live instrument achieved on The Less You Know, the Better and the significance of musician David Axelrod's music on his own.
Westword: How many records do you own at some point? There's a figure circulating of about sixty thousand.
DJ Shadow (Joshua Davis): I don't know if it was accurate at the time. It wasn't something I ever said. It was just from a quote from ?uestlove. He was talking on NPR, and he said he heard I had sixty thousand. I ended up using that quote in a mix just because I thought it was funny. It's more than that, but it's sort of irrelevant to me. It becomes abstract after a while.
Why do you think it's important to have a collection that big, or do you?
Oh, I don't think it is. It's just something I've been doing my whole life. I collected baseball cards, and then comic books, and then I started collecting records. I've just always been a collector, and I think it has to do with the fact that growing up in the '70s, we didn't have a lot of money, so I always felt like I was denied all the things that other kids had.
So as soon as I started to have an allowance and a paper route and then a restaurant job...You know, I guess on a psychological level, I was trying to fill some kind of void. I'm old enough now that I can reflect on that stuff and try to understand that drives me to do it. I don't think having a huge collection makes someone a better DJ or a worse DJ. This is just what I do.
Incidentally, I still pursue music. I don't limit myself to vinyl because if I did that, I would be missing out on a bunch of music. I'm just as adamant about cassettes, eight-tracks and CDs. With the music I'm playing in this set, it's almost exclusively Internet based. I don't want to limit myself or cut myself off from a whole era of music just because the format doesn't fit my sensibility.
What sparked your interest in looking in used and cut-out bins to find stuff you didn't already know?
Initially, it was that I discovered that a lot of rap records that didn't get distribution in my area or my state would end up in the cut-up bin. So, lots of times I would hear mixes on specialty shows on the radio -- which was the only place you could hear rap in the '80s -- and I would know from the hook of the song, or from things people were talking about, kind of what the name was, and I would go to Tower Records or wherever and try to find it.
I didn't understand distribution back then. I thought that if I heard something, even if it was played on a mix at two in the morning, that it must be available in a store. What I realized years later was that point zero zero one percent of the music being manufactured at that time ever got distribution all the way to the West Coast, particularly the Bay Area.
In the '80s, what I didn't realize was that the music I heard was really being decided by people that may or may not have understood hip-hop. In the '90s, I discovered how much music came out of from the East Coast and everywhere and how little of it ever actually reached me.
Initially, when I was going through used bins or cut-out bins, it was looking for the weird rap records that didn't get formally distributed. Then starting in '87, maybe even late '86, it was to try to find the beats and the scratches that people were starting to use on records.
Who were some of the weird rap people you got into back then?
There were a lot of records I would hear in the mixes, and I didn't understand why I wasn't able to buy it. One of the things I used to do was, at eleven or twelve, my dad used to take me to Pier 39 here in San Francisco, and we would watch the pop lockers and the break dancers at the Pier -- and this is 1984. I would listen to what they were playing on the box, what they were popping to and breaking to, and I would write down what I was hearing them say, and I would just try and find these records as a new release or as a cut-out or as a second-hand thing.
I discovered a lot of stuff that way. Not only from California, because there was a lot of L.A. electro and rap that only got distributed down there, but also from Seattle, the really early Sir Mix-A-Lot stuff. You'd get stuff from Texas. That's why I think I said, years later, that the hip-hop and rap that reached my ears was a lot more diverse than probably what a lot of New York took in because in New York you have the epicenter, the home of it all. And there was a lot more product, stuff that I never, ever saw, until I looked on the East Coast and in England and places like that.
But what was interesting was that I was getting Seattle's take on rap, I was getting Houston's take on rap, I was getting Detroit's take on rap, the Bay Area, Arizona, L.A. -- all these records that never made it to the East Coast. As a result, I think that's why a lot of rap from the West Coast ended up sounding different because the gene pool was a little further spread in a way.
What I find interesting now, with the music I am playing in this set, was that it sort of took shape very organically over time, at the end of 2011, and working to now. I started noticing that a lot of music that I liked, that was new, was not coming out on vinyl, and was generally being given away for free and made by kids all over the globe.
What I found to be interesting in the last year is that lots of times I'll hear something that I feel like is exactly what I want to hear, and exactly what I want to play, and it sounds totally new and fresh, and I don't know if the beat maker is from Russia or South America or Asia.
But more than a handful of times in the last year I've discovered that that particular artist, who may have done two or three remixes, and I've followed them, I eventually find out that they're within a hundred mile radius of me.
They may be from small towns in the central valley; they may be from coastal towns or wine country towns, but what's interesting is that I locked on to their sound as being something indescribable and compelling to me, and yet they're from basically the same area. I think that, in itself, is interesting in a similar way.
Obviously you experimented with four tracks in making your early beats. Did you experiment with other types of tape machines as a kid?
I used to occasionally beg my parents to buy me something like Keyboard Magazine, and I would see producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis using a massive two-inch machine. That stuff was major money back then. The only other thing I could mention is that my grandmother on my dad's side had '60s little reel-to-reel Dictaphone machine. I used to kind of play with talking and then running the tapes at different speeds and rewinding them with the heads still up so that you could hear the sounds going fast.
I just thought it was funny as a little kid being able to manipulate my own voice in that way but it was just a left and right feature -- a mono one-track. It wasn't viable. I also used to walk around with a little cassette recorder and record sounds. You know, walk in the back yard and, "Here's what this sounds like, here's what that sounds like, here's the garbage disposal, and let me call up time on the telephone and put it up to the microphone and record the lady's voice." Stuff like that, that I think a lot of kids did at that time.
What was the appeal and challenge of making a record comprised entirely of samples?
There's been so much said through the years how Endtroducing is the first 100 percent sample-based record, and I don't know if that's true to this day. I wasn't trying to do that. I thought it had already been done. That wasn't in my thinking at all. But what I was trying to do was push the art of sampling forward because, as I was starting to make mixes in '89 on a four track and got my MPC in '92, all throughout that time frame, the manipulation of samples was becoming more and more intricate and challenging and people were pushing the boundaries.
Then around '93 and '94, sampling took a turn a little bit to the stylings of what Dr. Dre was doing with adding keyboards over the top and having live instrumentation played over just a couple of samples. By the end of the '90s, most hip-hop artists were barely using samples at all. This was happening as I was developing my discipline of using samples.
By '95, when I was really working on Endtroducing heavily, I was very much trying to make a statement about, "Why are we all abandoning this artform? What everybody else is doing is great, but I feel like there's a lot of work left to be done in this discipline." And I wanted to create a record that pushed that conversation forward. That was then and I've tried to do that through the year at various times still, just sort of be like, "Well this little moment on the record I'm going to try to blow people's minds."
The ironic thing is that those moments are almost never referred to or asked about in interviews. I grew up studying records and how people did this and how they did that and it would be conversations in the car with me and my friends and people that were also trying to make beats. I don't necessarily get the impression that those moments that I've done since have been the fodder of those types of conversations.
I still do it with other people's music. There's new beats all the time where I'm like, "Wow, the syncopation on this one part of the song, or the way the beats are laid out, is totally unexpected and really flips my ear. That's what I like to listen for in music: I like when the music is unpredictable and the beats are unpredictable and you can't predict what's about to happen. That's what I've always liked about hip-hop and then in the many styles of music that have emerged from that.
The Less You Know, the Better has diverse array of song styles and sounds and collaborations, and it seems like a good challenge to set for yourself as an artist. What did you find most rewarding about that project in that regard?
I'm not sure if this answers your question directly in terms of collaboration, but actually, I was thinking earlier today or maybe last night about that album. I think what I'm proudest of that record is that I gave myself the space to really revisit the level of concentration that I feel my music requires.
Life has become more and more complicated, society-wide, in terms of distractions and cell phones, and the Internet and constantly be under pressure to respond and be visible and be everywhere; that has obviously sped up since the '90s. And then, personally, I have kids, and I have certain responsibility that I didn't have back in those days.
But, at the same time, when it came to making albums and trying to craft something that was personal and had something to say, I challenged myself to disappear for the length of time that I thought was required to be immersive in the work that I felt I wanted to do. I didn't know whether I could do it, and it was painful, and it was challenging. But that's what I think of, and that's what I'm proudest of when I think of that album. I saw it through.
I really wanted The Less You Know, the Better to be kind of the final statement on that sound. Whatever that sound represents from Endtroducing, and even before that, like What Does Your Soul Look Like -- the stuff that I was doing for Mo' Wax, the sort of brooding, emotional soundscapes that I was trying to make and interpret through a hip-hop lens -- I wanted to have one final statement.
The other thing that I think about on that record, and this is actually one of the problems that I have with collaboration, not only on that album, but also the Unkle record as well: I think any time that someone looks and it says so and so from this band appears on the song -- let's say Tom Vek, for example -- if people know who he is, they know he's a multi-instrumentalist, as well as a singer.
I think a lot of people listen to that song, and they think, "Well, they just made this in the studio. Maybe some of them are samples, but there's a lot of live stuff." When I hear that song, I know that it's a hundred percent samples, and that it was very difficult.
What I was trying to push for on a sample basis on that album was really, finally, achieving a blurring the lines between whether you don't know if it's a band or not, to such a degree that it almost becomes impossible. On that song and on another called "Run For Your Life," I feel like I achieved that. Even I, when I play those songs now, I don't think about if they're samples or are they not; it's just "does it work as a piece of music?"
Once I felt like I achieved that, I thought that's good, but at the same time, not everyone else is privy to the process, and don't maybe understand or appreciate the work on a sample basis on a song like that. They think maybe the guitar is live, and then maybe it was chopped or looped. But it was all samples. I don't know if that's relevant at all to anyone but me, but I was proud of those moments, put it that way.
Blurring that line changes the artistic dynamic a bit, too, when you, as the artist, knows what it takes to achieve it, but ultimately what's important is whether or not it works as a piece of music.
Yeah, and there's things that people are doing with samples in Ableton and stuff that I couldn't have conceived of on MPCs fifteen years ago, nobody could have. Sound design has come to the point that, literally, if you can imagine it, it can be done. Thinking about samples differently is what I've done through the years, and I think it's much more difficult, in a way, rather than chopping a sample into a thousand pieces and reversing it, delaying it, echoing it and slapping a bunch of plug-ins on it.
What I was trying to do on The Less You Know, the Better was to remove it from all of that stuff. On the song "Redeemed," I never thought I'd be able to get that to work because all the elements were challenging. The drums were all over the place. In every sense, it was challenging in that the percussion was wildly out of time with the drums on the original sample.
There were noises in the vocal tracks that I must have processed about twenty times to remove. Every single element in that song was not just difficult, it was damned near impossible to beat into shape. So when I hear "Redeemed," initially, I always give it an emotion test -- does it say what I want it to say on an emotionally level. Secondarily I'm kind of geeking out on what I was able to achieve with the sample.
I don't think anyone wants the process to dominate. It's just something that I think that because I've gotten to the point where I'm using such off-the-beaten-track elements to begin with that it's supposed to sound deceptively easy, like it just came together. That's fine. If that's the message that it sends, I'm okay with that, but I can also be proud of what I know went into it. Maybe as people start to discover the individual elements, they'll start to slowly appreciate it.
What made David Axelrod's music something interesting to incorporate into music you've done in the past?
I started discovering his records in the late '80s, and I was drawn to the artwork on them. When I would play them, even though they had orchestral trappings, it obviously had a sort of street sense that I found very unusual and very unique in those type of records. Here it is on Capital Records, one of the biggest record labels. I guess the real story of why Axelrod has such a sort of thread throughout my work is that when James Lavelle, who ran Mo' Wax, first came to visit me and we met for the first time -- we had talked on the phone.
He flew to San Fran, and I picked him up at the airport, and I had this old, fucked-up, eight hundred dollar '77 Cadillac sedan, and in the tape deck, I just happened to be playing Songs of Innocence, and Lavelle -- I remember to this day, just driving on the off ramp to get out of the airport -- said, "Aw man, what is this? This is amazing!" I explained who Axelrod was.
When we got to my house, he was like, "When are we going to look for records?" So we went out, and he was like, "I want that Axelrod shit!" That's how he was. He was very animated and full of energy, when it came to music. If you're into music, and you're young, and you feel like you want to change things, those are great people to be around. He sort of became our talisman, in a way, musically, in terms of being an individual and saying something unique and putting a lot of thought into the theme of it.
With all of his records, there are thematic elements. The liner notes and the song titles are supposed to be part of a cohesive whole, and you're supposed to invest yourself into what he's doing. But at the same time, there are beats. He let Palmer just play and Carol come on top and play. He's so unique, and he opens the song up and doesn't overproduce. He just does it, and he has, like I said, a street sense to it. It was just kind of gangster in that way, as funny as that sounds to say. When I met him years later, he was exactly what I thought he would be: a street smart, intense, highly intellectual person.
Was he familiar with your use of some of his music in your own work?
I told him. I've come to know him well through the years now. We first contacted him in '98 to do a remix for the Unkle record -- we thought it would be just something totally out there. Later, I was at his house, and I just said, "You know, I used you on a couple of songs." He goes, "That's great!" He's very much a "if he likes you everything's fine" kind of person. That's sort of old school, as well. You were up front to me; you were a man, so to speak. You didn't try to hide behind it; you came right out with it, and I respect that. That was kind of his attitude.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.