Thought I’d post this old interview I held with DJ Shadow in Sydney, in what must have been late 2006 – around the time The Outsider came out. Haven’t written on music for a while, but just took on a job for a mate – so thought, hey, why not see if it this gets some traffic ;) Originally written for http://www.inthemix.com.au, it was published in the 2006 (print) annual.
It just so happens I’m drenched to the bone as I sit down with a relaxed Josh Davis in the club lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel. Our gazes wonder away from the well-dressed breakfasters, across the spectacular harbour, through the rain towards the Tasman Sea. I’m here with a man who has probably done as much for popular music as anyone else in the last ten years, a producer who, on the previous night, played to a packed Hordern Pavilion with an audiovisual display that left most of the crowd astounded. Nine mega-screens broadcast a plethora of eye-candy to thousands of eager fans, from hip hop heads to goths, many of whom spoke of this master of sample-driven atmospheric music in an almost god-like manner. Funny; I’d planned to ask him if he felt he was perhaps overrated. If, despite the status of the universally-acclaimed Endtroducing (‘First album to make the Guinness Book of Records for containing nothing but samples’ etc), the hype placed on ‘DJs’ in our day and age, himself included, is somewhat unwarranted. Yet after seeing an intrinsically detailed, impeccably well planned, and downright fucking fantastic show the night before, I decided, probably rightly so, that it might appear churlish.
‘The thing that’s hard is that I’ve done quite a few tours, and particularly as I’m working with songs from Endtroducing right now it’s hard to come up with better ways than you’ve done before’, he explains as a bowl of bran flakes is swiftly ushered towards the table. ‘So in the case of some parts of the set like what I did with ‘Organ Donor’, I was like “fuck it, I’m just gonna do what I did last time, ‘cos there’s nothing that could work as good as that” – that’s always the highlight. I try my best- the encore took like a week and a half to put together, just trying to figure out good ways of doing it’. And a great encore it was, like much of the show, welding together huge chunks of music from Endtroducing, The Private Press, music from Shadow’s Unkle projects with James Lavelle, and tantalisingly, sneak previews of his latest work The Outsider.
For despite having Mos Def in the support slot, you could be forgiven for letting it slip your mind that DJ Shadow is in fact a hip hop artist, so thorough is his genre-transcending. It was Shadow, along with buddies Latyrx and Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab, that set up Solesides, now Quannum Projects, the constantly expanding Bay Area label. And the Outsider, unlike earlier albums, has rappers on it. Crazy. ‘I just didn’t want to soften it this time, and wasn’t worried about people not being able to follow the thread.’, he explains. It almost seems as if Shadow may in some way be burning some bridges, so likely is the alienation of large swathes of his fan base. But power to the man – he’s just not that bothered. He denies, however, that it’s more of a straight hip-hop record. ‘No, it’s just very diverse’ he answers. ‘There’s rap, all different types, with Phonte from Little Brother, Q-Tip, E-40, David Banner, all kinds of different artists. Then there’s also rock music and folk music, and very ‘Shadowey’ sounding music’
Indeed, as amusing as it is to hear this modest man describe his own music as ‘Shadowey’, you know exactly what he means, in the same way ‘Pharelley’ or ‘Aphex Twinney’ could be applied to the music of those artists. Following the ominous introduction, the first of these ‘Shadowey’ tunes, This Time, provides a warning of sorts for what’s to follow. ‘This time, I’m gonna do it my way’, the sampled crooner explains. Once this short track hits its end, the barrage of hardcore Bay Area ‘hypie’ rap that takes up almost half the album starts in earnest. Not only is it unlike earlier DJ Shadow material, it’s miles removed from other Quannum artists, as well as other so-called ‘underground’ hip hop often placed on a pedestal. When you realise the first US-wide hypie hit was produced by crunk big-timer Lil’ John, with Bay Area veteran E-40 on vocals, along with young buck Keak da Sneak, both of whom also feature on The Outsider, you get a better idea as to how different this album is to either Endtroducing or The Private Press.
‘The type of rap I’ve been listening to for the last five to seven years is not the Jurassic 5/Quannum rap, it’s the hardcore gangsta stuff’, he clarifies when I look surprised. ‘That’s the music that’s been influencing me lately, and I wanted to make sure it was represented on the record.’ And to dispute the likely claims there was a commercial aspect to the decision, that of including radio-friendlier hip hop (he himself admits that ‘for the first time in my life I’m getting radio play’), one needs only to look at the rappers used to ‘slap’ the beats, as he puts it. With the exception of E-40, Q-Tip and Quannum’s Lateef, most are relative unknowns. ‘I was making beats which I put tried and tested MCs on who I’ve known for years, and it just didn’t sound right. It was only when I reached out to the kind of people I was listening to on the radio that it all kind of started to make sense.’ Funnily enough, despite Shadow’s global reach, the rappers contacted turned out not to be too familiar with his work. ‘Everyone in rap knows my name and knows who I am’, he puts it matter-of-factly, ‘But when you talk about people like Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk, who are ten years younger than me, they know the name but don’t know my music. They don’t remember Endtroducing, they were too young, and everything I’ve done since then hasn’t been in a rap vein. Even stuff like Quannum – hardcore gangsta-rap dudes in the Bay maybe don’t even know who we are…Keak Da Sneak is huge in the Bay Area, he can’t walk down the street – he’s like the Pied Piper.’
Halfway through the album, The Outsider starts to move away from the hypie sound, with acoustic rock-inspired instrumentation resulting in music that Unkle fans might be pleased with, in the form of collaborations with UK vocalist Chris James. Yet work with Unkle-partner James Lavelle, perhaps disappointingly, appears unlikely. ‘What happened in 1998 when Mo’ Wax sorta got pulled out from underneath him, he sort of lost everything in a sense, and I think he became quite disillusioned with the way he had been treated by the majors, and unfortunately to some degree he has a hard time relating to all his old artists. I think he feels in a way that we all abandoned him or something. …He’s a passionate guy – I still consider him a friend but we don’t see each other that much.’ The same sort of label-mess that resulted when ‘a Liquor company bought a cigarette company or something’ in 1998 means Shadow now appears courtesy of Universal Records, and not Universal Music. After a long-winded explanation he describes the situation as ‘complicated and convoluted’, but is, essentially, satisfied as to how it turned out. ‘What happened recently is I ended up on Geffen’s doorstep, and I didn’t really want to be there. I was tired of being dumped off on people, and I feel it’s much better if somebody has to fight for me to be there, because then there is a vested interest in America for me to be a success – so I put my foot down and said no. So Universal Records, a part of Universal Music, said ‘Ok, we want him’.
And now that they have him, it remains all about the music for DJ Shadow. Fans will be aware of the obsessive record collecting, the work of a man in love with sounds. For him, the fame people perceive he experiences means even less than it used to, especially in light of the traumatic time he and his wife went through with the complications involved in the birth of their twins. ‘I’m not the type of person who walks down the street and gets recognised’, he explains, ‘I like the anonymity, I don’t wanna make millions of dollars, just enough to continue to do what I do. You always hear people like Woody Allen or Spike Lee say that they only wanna make enough in the movies to make the next one. I feel the same. I want to be in a position to make records and get them to as many people as possible.’ It’s the kind of laissez –faire, modest, confident and satisfied response he provides to all my queries. Apart from the shame he expresses at the actions of President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger, and the annoyance he says he feels when predictable questions from uninterested journalists are fired his way (‘Does Hip Hop Still suck in ’06?’), he’s a relaxed and amiable dude. ‘I’m not gonna pretend that I don’t wanna be here,’ he says almost coyly, as two suits march past the table, gazes peering down their noses at the bloke in scruffy wet jeans, across the table from the slight American in tilted cap and baggie-pants. ‘Actually, he’s probably one of the most important recording artists of or our age, you nob.’ At least that’s what I thought of saying, but only afterwards when I’m making the thirty-floor descent in the lift.