DJ Shadow… Still Finds Something New Under the Sun

DJ Shadow In 1996, DJ Shadow released his debut album Endtroducing… which not only changed the face of hip-hop but opened the eyes and ears of an entire generation to sample-based music. Since then, he has released several albums and EPs and collaborated with the likes of Blackalicious, Little Dragon and Cut Chemist. With a career spanning over 20 years and a myriad of styles, Shadow is not one to be pigeonholed into one genre or another and has constantly reinvented his sound as he alone sees fit. The culmination of this extensive back catalogue is now available in a limited edition box set entitled Reconstructed: The Definitive DJ Shadow. I was fortunate enough to chat with DJ Shadow about his work over the last two decades, what inspires him and whether or not hip-hop still sucks in 2012.

Back in the day you started on four track and then moved on to an MPC. What other pieces of gear have you picked up since you started and how has your production changed or grown over the years?

DJ Shadow: There have been a lot of things that I’ve tried. Concurrent to me using a four track, I was able to play around with an SP-1200 sampler, which was the standard before the MPC; and the reason I chose the MPC back in ‘92 was because it was something different and because it was new and untried. I had heard a lot of good things about it but there really wasn’t anyone using it yet and it would be several years before people started to make the switch to it. I’ve always liked the idea of using things that were a little bit different because I felt that it would make my sound different. Also, around ’93 I was exposed to Pro Tools and what it could do. Back then it was basically a digital four-track recorder without plugins or anything. I liked the editing function of it and the fact that you could do edits without the use of tape, which is something that always intimidated me. Ultimately it comes down to what’s going to allow me to get from point A to point B the quickest or what will allow me to spend as little time as possible reading manuals and more time being creative and actually making music.

Endtroducing… is almost entirely sample-based but since then you have collaborated with different artists such as De La Soul’s Posdnuos and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Has there been an increase in live instrumentation in your music or have you remained pretty strict about staying sample-based?

DJ Shadow The U.N.K.L.E. record [Psyence Fiction], which I worked on after Endtroducing…, was a way to broaden my pallet and try new things that I never had the budget or opportunity to do on my own. I’m trying to think about anything on Endtroducing… that wasn’t sample based. I mean, Jason Newsted played theremin on it but I don’t think we recorded any drummers because I was very adamant about doing all the drums myself. There’s very little instrumentation on U.N.K.L.E. and with The Private Press I went back to all samples.

With The Outsider I opened it up a lot in the sense that I made tracks with absolutely no samples. A lot of the hyphy [short for hyperactive] sounding stuff has no samples because hyphy isn’t sample-based music and I wanted to make pure hyphy on that record. On The Less You Know, the Better, I went back to all samples again and, to be honest, I felt that I had achieved what I had been trying to do for several years, which was to blur the lines with samplebased music to the point that it doesn’t feel sample-based anymore. There are a couple of tracks on that record, like “Run For Your Life” and “Warning Call” (with Tom Vek) for example, that for me feel like a band playing. I was really proud of moments on the last album as well; I felt like I had finally achieved the removal of “is it or is it not sample-based?” from the dialogue. I was able to create sample-based music that was so seamless that even the experts were fooled as to whether it was sampled or not. I do feel like sampling is more risky now, especially with the internet and people blowing your cover and

As far as manipulation of samples, do you do more one-shots or loops? Do you use any different techniques such as time-stretching or reverse to completely change the sound of a sample?

DJ ShadowI’ve done a little of everything that you can do. I’ve always employed any technique that will get me where I want to go. I’ve always looked at sampling almost like sound effects work in the movies. You see some films that didn’t have a large budget and you can see artifacts; or it doesn’t feel totally convincing when you’re looking at the special effects. Then you see others that the effects are a notch above and you can tell they were done by a real craftsman/artist. I’ve always tried to apply the same aesthetic to my sample work, so to speak. Certainly with electronic music right now, people are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with samples as far as really demolishing sounds and turning them inside out in really interesting ways. I really enjoy listening to that but the path I was on, at least on the last record, was taking samples that are very clean and pristine and working with them in a completely different context. Almost like trying to do the impossible with a completely different set

What is the most gratifying thing in performing your music live but also in the studio? What compels you to write and keeps you going?

Just a desire to contribute. I became a DJ to expose people to music that I thought was worthwhile and underappreciated and that aesthetic still applies when I DJ. I don’t want to play things that people have heard five trillion times if I can help it. I like to expose people to new and different things. To that effect, I spend a lot of time listening to new music and keeping up and staying current, making sure that my sets are contemporary. There’s nothing more dull and depressing than going to see a DJ that I respect and who’s been around a long time playing what they think the audience wants them to. As far as making music, it’s similar. I became a producer because I wanted to contribute to hip-hop culture and music and at that time in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, it was still a very cohesive cultural movement. Obviously, a lot of that has dissipated over time (as with any genre) when it becomes a victim of its own success and excess. I still have a desire to contribute in a more general musical sense and as my listening has become more diverse, I feel less and less of an obligation to be “more hip-hop than thou.” I just like to manifest music out of all of my influences.

Is that something that you consciously decide before you sit down in the studio? Do you go in and say to yourself, “today I’m gonna do a hip-hop tune or a hyphy tune” or do you sit down and whatever comes out comes out?

I usually sit down with some sort of inspiration in mind. 99% of the time I sit down with something and it takes a left turn and I think that’s where my music gets interesting. Just like with anything, if you pick up a guitar you might start with something you’re familiar with like Hendrix or “Smoke on the Water” to warm up. You imitate your heroes for a while and when it gets important and interesting is when you start applying your own personality to it. Lots of times in the past, I would sit down to do this kind of track or that kind of track with some producer in mind but I’ll usually give it up or stop halfway if I feel like it’s an imitation of someone else. I feel like it will only be interesting to other people and it will only be contributing if I take it in a direction that’s unique.

You put a lot of detail into your drumwork. Do you play drums or are there any breakbeats or favorite drummers that you find yourself going back to over and over?

I had a vintage Slingerland kit that I bought as a gift to myself in the late ‘90s and played it until the neighbors couldn’t take it anymore. Interestingly, it’s just recently come back into play because I have started using pads during my DJ sets so there’s a performance component to my sets now. I’m continuously tapping out drums any time I sit down or when I’m bored. A lot of people do that but people have told me I’m obsessed because my hands literally never stop moving. Drums are the single most important element to the music I love, whether it’s hip-hop, funk or any type of music. Drums are it. The patterns, the fills—I’m into all that and certainly breakbeats even if they’re not ultra-obscure. Something like “Funky Drummer” is a break that I’m constantly tapping out. It’s drilled into my brain. So many hip-hop records used that break and it’s an amazing performance and a cool syncopation. The swing on that beat is deceptively difficult to master and I just think it’s one of the most genius breaks of all time… and “Amen, Brother” of course.

As far as crate digging, I’ve read that you go in and look for certain producers or labels. Is there anything that you look for or is there a system you use to find what you’re looking for?

It’s a journey. When I started in the ‘80s, records were cheap—especially the type I was looking for. It was really a time and knowledge thing and it was all wide open. There was no reference guide or internet article that you could print out and take with you or have on your phone. The knowledge was hidden and it took me 25 years to get where I am now. In that 25 years, I’ve looked at literally millions of records and if there’s something that you come across that you’ve never seen before, you’re going to stop and look at it and if it’s cheap, you’re going to buy it because it could be anything. I don’t necessarily go out and look for drums anymore. It’s more that this is an interesting record and there are so many reasons to buy it outside of sampling or any kind of crate digging aesthetic. I spend just as much time listening to new music because I like to support new music… I think this is kind of the golden age for bedroom producers to get their stuff out there. I hear amazing stuff every day that inspires me as far as the programming or in terms of how they approach what they’re doing and making old things sound new. I think people fetishize crate digging a lot. It’s a nice archetype and it’s been an incredible part of my life but it’s something I’m kind of private about. It’s not a very social thing for me. It’s more of an individual pursuit. There are all kinds of magazines and websites now that celebrate it and ask questions like, “What’s your most expensive record?” I feel like I never have answers for those kinds of questions because it’s a lifestyle thing for me, because it’s something I do but it’s very solitary. At a certain point I feel like it was important to tell people what it was and what it was about; but it’s become so fetishized over the last 15 years that I find myself not really talking about it.

On Endtroducing… you have a song called “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ‘96.” Does hip-hop still suck in 2012 and why?

You’ll be crushed to learn that you are not the first to ask that question and I probably answer that question on a weekly basis. [laughs] It was a tonguein- cheek title but I love hip-hop or I wouldn’t have made the record I made. I still love hip-hop but the culture, as I said earlier, has sort of dissipated, which is sad. But as with any tree there are all kinds of branches and roots that come out of it. It continues to influence what I like and what I represent in my DJ sets and the music that I make. It’s still relevant and there’s still some good stuff as well as a lot of trash, just like always. I wouldn’t have made that type of record and written those liner notes if I didn’t love hip-hop dearly.


DJ Shadow will perform at the Republic on December 13th, as part of the monthly Bassik night. For more information on Reconstructed: The Best of DJ Shadow and Reconstructed: The Definitive DJ Shadow, check out djshadow.com