DJ Shadow Emerges as One of the Best in the Biz
By Kyle Eustice
DJ Shadow, real name Josh Davis, is one of those artists that seem untouchable. He’s hard to get on the phone, doesn’t do many interviews and is, overall, a bit of an enigma, much like his music. Imagine having the opportunity to have not one, but two interviews with the elusive DJ in one week, thanks to an unfortunate incident with a tape recorder and a car door.
Underneath the surface, Davis is as congenial as can be, but very serious about his craft. And it shows. Since emerging with his groundbreaking album, Entroducing, in 1996, Davis has molded a successful career as a preeminent DJ and producer. In fact, he’s among the upper echelon of contemporary hip-hop artists. His name is consistently mentioned in the same breath as Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark of Jurassic 5. He’s worked with everyone from Gift of Gab (Blackalicious) to Thom Yorke (Radiohead). The point is he’s an innovator. He’s credited as bringing instrumental hip-hop to the forefront and holds the title of “First Completely Sampled Album” in the 2002 Guinness Book of World Records.
His new project with Jurassic 5 DJ, Cut Chemist, was just announced this week. It involves the music of hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. His records are the most important in the history of the genre; the patient zero whose breadth of genres influenced, knowingly or not, every subsequent DJ and hip-hop producer. While Cornell University continues to digitally archive Bambaataa’s 40,000+ record collection, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist will embark on a five-week tour this fall using records strictly culled from Bambaataa’s collection.
Davis graciously took a second stab at an interview (third, if you count my 2011 interview) with me to discuss everything from De La Soul to his high school yearbook class.
Take two, huh?
Yeah, yeah [laughs]
What are who made you want to become a DJ in the first place?
Um, just all the people I was hearing on records. People like Grandmaster Flash are at the top of the list because he was one of the first people I heard scratching. So basically anyone that was doing scratches on records around 1980, I guess that’s when people started scratching on them, then towards ‘81, ‘82, ’83, ’84, ’85, and beyond that. That was the first wave of records. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had “Scratch on Galaxy.” TFO had Mix Master Ice. Whodini had Grandmaster Dee and then you know, there was DST who scratched on “Rockit” and all those people. Later, people like Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money and that second wave of other DJs that were really, really good and were introducing all these new techniques. The other side of that, the DJs I was hearing mix on the radio were inspiring because starting on the radio in 1985, I was able to tune in to KDAY in L.A. I was able to hear mixes played on radio stations in Fresno and Oakland, the Bay area. All of those DJs, they all had different styles and different emphases. Most of them weren’t solely hip-hop at the time because hip-hop wasn’t accepted on the West Coast to the extent that you could just play an hour of straight rap or electro. You usually had to mix it in with other hits of the day by people like Madonna or Janet Jackson and other pop rock acts.
You did mention growing up in Davis, California and how you were one of the few in your area interested in hip-hop. You mentioned another local group that came out there though. Who was that?
That’s right. I remember now. I was talking about a guy named Todd Curry. He had a record out in 1987 or 1988. His group was called Tee Oh and the DCB Posse. It stood for Davis City Breakers. They were slighter older. They were about three or four years older than I was. I would run into them at school. I knew I wasn’t the only kid interested in hip-hop in my town. It’s just that most of the kids doing anything in hip-hop were older than I was. By the time I was their age, they had gone, left of gotten into other things.
Was it harder to get your hands on hip-hop or was it easier because you were close to L.A. and places like that?
Well, the two main connections for me was my Dad lived in San Jose where I was born so he had custody of me every two weeks and we would frequently go to the city. We would go to Fisherman’s Warf and I would watch the pop lockers on Fisherman’s Warf and I would listen to the songs they were playing. Then my Dad would take me to Tower Records and I would try to figure out who the artists were. So that was a good resource.
The early days of record digging, huh?
What gave you the idea for Entroducing and did you realize you were doing something so innovative at the time?
Well, I mean it was just another record in the sense that I had already done quite a lot of singles and remixes and already appeared on maybe a dozen and a half releases up to that point. An album was inevitable after the first few singles from Mo’ Wax. It wasn’t a concept record in the sense that I didn’t sit down to make something radically different from what I had been doing. It was just that it was an album so it reached that many more people. At that time, it was an album market. You were only going to get so far with a single. Since that time, it’s obviously switched back and forth a few different times whether singles or albums are stronger. But, yeah, at the time I was making it, I didn’t anticipate anything in particular. I just wanted the people in the U.K. who had been following what I was doing who had been following the Mo’ Wax sound and what I was doing to view the album as a complete piece of music and a step forward. When that happened after it came out, I was really happy about it. It started to slowly spread from there. I think I said in our initial conversation, it wasn’t an overnight thing. It took 6 months. And if you look at it another way, it’s still working its magic on some people, even 15 years later that never heard it at the time and are now just hearing it for the first time, which is great.
We talked about this last time and I thought it was interesting. I asked you what one quality all of the artists you work with share because you have worked with underground artists like Lyrics Born to more mainstream artists like Thom Yorke of Radiohead, you said you had the project in mind first and then you approach the person. Can you explain more about that process?
Sure. Well, it all just starts with me making a beat. Once the beat gets to the point where it starts to get interesting, well first of all, if I don’t think it’s interesting, I drop it right then and there. If I feel like, ok this is one of the better ones I made then I try to keep it moving and keep building on it. It usually gets to a point where I decide whether or not to keep it instrumental and make it my own or whether I feel like it’s going to be stronger with a talent on top of it, whether it’s a singer or rapper and then I just start to imagine voices in my head over the music I’m making; sometimes they’re famous, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s just of the moment. It’s just totally depends on the voices that pop into my head that I hear over that.
Not in a crazy way [laughs].
Right, exactly [laughs].
Another thing I thought was interesting was when you were talking about De La Soul. I read somewhere that Prince Paul was an influence on you. What about De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was so intriguing to you?
I heard both 3 Feet High and Rising and Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. in the same setting, which was in yearbook class in high school. I had a friend that had a car, I didn’t have a car yet, and he was into rap. He would buy hip-hop on cassette because he wasn’t a DJ, he didn’t need vinyl and it was easier for him to listen to it in his car. He’d leave during lunch and come back with all these tapes. We would both be awaiting these releases, but he would always be able to get them first because they would be out that and he would go at 11:30 in the morning to buy them
Because he had the car, right?
Yes, he had the car. So he would check them out in the car and then walk into yearbook class, hand me the tape and go, ‘you’re not going to believe this.’ I remember I brought my Walkman or something, I popped the tape in and the first track was “3 is the Magic Number.” The extreme creativity and really innovative use of, not only the soul samples obviously, but they used stuff from all over the place. It wasn’t in the normal realm of what people used to sample back then. That was hugely inspirational for me and it harkened back to what I loved about the original mixes by Grandmaster Flash and Steinski quite a bit earlier where they were using these left-field sample sources and places they were finding them. That just really spoke to me. It was just one of those moments I will never forget. Same thing happened with Paul’s Boutique and many other albums since then where my mind is captivated by somebody else’s creativity in the studio. That’s what made me want to produce.
Thank you Josh. I feel very lucky to have 2 interviews with you in one week.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, I’m really sorry that happened. Sorry it couldn’t be longer.
Me too! Hopefully we run into each other in Lincoln.
Ok, sounds good. Thank you.
DJ Shadow with Unlimited Gravity, Brent Crampton and $pencelove, May 31, at The Bourbon Theatre, 415 O Street, Lincoln, 9 p.m. Tickets are $20/ADV and $25/DOS. Visit www.bourbontheatre.com for more information.