DJ Shadow Speaks on New Album, Handling Critical Reception Over Last Decade
Exclusive: The producer for Cage, Blackalicious, Latyrx and others speaks on his latest release, admits that his name now carries a lot of baggage, and recounts how music is still his sanctuary.
Talking to DJ Shadow can feel a bit like encountering a modern-day philosopher. He speaks with an almost cautious detachment, as though he's seen the death of countless careers first-hand, which in some ways he has.
Recall his standout scene from the 2002 deejay documentary Scratch – the iconic image of him in a record store basement, surrounded by vinyl that stacks to the ceiling – which suggests his bountiful thirst for the unheard just as much as it recounts the death of so much music that has come to pass. His words reveal an intimate, thorough understanding of music that only comes from being an obsessive listener, from absorbing countless albums while still holding on to the idea that the best record he's ever heard may still be unfound. Yet it's likely this same reverence, which has labeled him a genius of sorts (or at least the king of digging), that has in turn led to an almost vitriolic reception of his newer work from fans and press, whose perceptions of Shadow may not always match up to his own.
His mantra is simple: leave no stone unturned, and don't dare to attempt to turn the same stone over twice. That desire – to always push forward artistically – dictates each new move he makes, and while he knows those moves haven't pleased many as of late, as an artist he can't help but push on. After all, he's still following the same mantra that created an album every publication that covers him still likes to mention whenever they can.
The Less You Know, The Better, Shadow's recent release, finds him inching back to the sound people have come to expect: sampling, and lots of it. But don't take that statement to mean that his latest is just a retread of the past. While the album is rooted in Hip Hop, it liberally genre hops, almost to keep the listener on their heels, and even flirts with a mainstream sound rarely seen from Shadow. It packs a little bit of everything, so the best advice for what's in store when you listen is just to keep your ears open.
DJ Shadow spoke briefly with HipHop DX earlier this week about trying to release his first single under an alias, the artistic struggles that come with high expectations from the press and fans, and the joy of returning home to a stack of unheard music.
Photo by Dirk Lindner
HipHopDX: Going into The Less You Know, the Better, was part of your goal to defy truly pinning this album down to a particular sound? The second track on the new album,“Border Crossing,” is carried by a heavy metal guitar riff, while “Stay the Course,” which immediately follows, is built from a break beat. It seems like they couldn't be more dissimilar. With that said, did you want the listener to never truly settle in when listening to this album?
DJ Shadow: It's really difficult to answer that question objectively for me because I listen to all different types of music. If somebody approaches it from a purist aesthetic, then I suppose it is problematic, but for me, from growing up on Hip Hop and being a Hip Hop purist until the point that Rap crossed over in the early '90s, and then discovering and seeking out breakbeats in the mid to late '80s and discovering records – groups like Babe Ruth and listening to Jefferson Starship records for the break – you slowly start to appreciate soul music and rock music and R&B and so many other genres. Fast forward 20 years on from that time – I listen to so many different genres of music [now] that it's not jarring to me to listen to a rap song next to a Heavy Metal song, but evidently it must be for a lot of people because I get that feedback a lot.
DX: I think if you allow yourself to follow you on the journey with an open mind, it's not all that jarring, but like you said, it all comes down to different people's experiences coming into it.
DJ Shadow: Yeah, but then again, for me to try to dumb it down for somebody else – I think that's kind of betraying myself in a way. That's not to say that I'm sophisticated or that other people or their ideas aren't musically valid. It's just that I make the type of records that I make for a reason, and there's very specific reasons why my music sounds the way it does.
I think that having the opportunity like this, to try and articulate that, is really valuable because I always assume, I guess wrongfully, that people recall some of the adventures and experiments that Hip Hop has had through the years. But by the same token, I'm also not caught up in trying to jump up and down to tell people what I am or am not, you know what I mean? I just sort of let the music talk for itself. I don't think that there's any good point in me trying to kick up a big fuss and tell people that “Border Crossing” is a Hip Hop song because obviously aesthetically it doesn't sound anything like a Hip Hop song. But when I tell people what my roots are, really it's just to try and remind people that [Afrika] Bambaataa covered the MC5 and people like Boogie Down Productions sampled AC/DC and I sampled Metallica on “The Numbers Song” on Endtroducing. Rock has always been around, and I think it's just kind of like “Okay, after all this time that I've been making music and listening to music, why not just let the gate open up all the way and just let those influences come all the way out?”
DX: Speaking on that, you've referenced Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash as being huge influences in the past. With reference to the musical landscape of Hip Hop right now, do you think that a lot of what you mention as stasis in music is attributed to not having that kind of rebellious spirit any more, of not being willing to experiment with new sounds? Do you feel that that's sort of what's lacking with Hip Hop sonically right now?
DJ Shadow: If you're talking about Rap music specifically, Rap still has a hardcore element to it obviously if you pick the right music. There's a lot of crossover-y, trance-y kind of R&B rap right now. That's the pop stuff, and then of course you've got some of the lingering Southern Rap influences and this and that, but there's a lot of good music out there. I'm not one of those people who likes to necessarily walk around saying everything's bad, but I don't know . . . I think Hip Hop as a cultural movement obviously has seen its heyday. In my opinion, its heyday is over 20 years ago. The reverberations continue, as the reverberations from the height of Jazz continue and will never go away, but I think as a cultural movement, you know – Punk Rock, same thing. The cultural heyday was years and years and years ago. Yes, you're still seeing ripples in the pond of the giant wave that was started 35 years ago, but I think it's very similar with Hip Hop as a culture.
Again, if you're just speaking about rap music as a style of music, it obviously continues to go and continues to evolve. I would argue, though, that, as you hinted, that it's evolving slower than it has for a long time, and I think there's a lot of reasons for that.
DX: Probably too many to really cover in a short interview, unfortunately.
DJ Shadow: Yeah. I love talking about this stuff and I love thinking about it and using other styles of music as a way of helping to understand what's happening and what did happen. I just think that there's so many people trying to define what Hip Hop is and what Rap music is or isn't, it's just really not my place to get into that discussion. I just make the music that I like to make, and if people are interested, I can tell them all day long about the people that I listen to and where I got this style from and where I got this idea from. That's largely what the liner notes of Endtroducing were trying to do. I made it very clear what my influences were and I can go on from there, but it's a discussion that I think gets a little tiring and played out.
DX: Getting back to the album, can you tell me a bit about the track “Tedium”? It's one of my personal highlights. There's just such a delicate simplicity at play that ultimately creates a short and powerful song. I feel it may tend to get overlooked on the album, so could you shed some light on it?
DJ Shadow: To be totally honest, “Tedium” is on the record because I like it in the same way I think you probably like it, which is it sets an interesting tone and it's saying something, but it's saying it in a way that's different from all the other songs on the record. To me, “Tedium” represents all the failed afternoons sitting there working on the record and going down dead ends. Most of the dead ends that I went down became dead ends because I felt that I was going over old territory. In a certain way, “Tedium” is kind of my way of articulating to people that there's so much more that goes into doing a sample-based project than what ends up on the record. There were probably 30 or 40 aborted attempts at making something interesting in the process of making this record, which probably accounts for at least half of the time that I spent working on the record as a whole.
I wanted something on the record that, to me, was sonically different and kind of says something a little bit different from all of the other music, but frankly what's happening from a production standpoint is quite simple. I think it also lets the album breathe a little at a time when you've had quite a bit of complicated stuff happening and it's about to get into more complicated stuff, and I just wanted something on the record that slowed it right down for a second and in some ways hearkened back to a simpler style of production. But it wasn't something that I wanted to explore beyond what was there. It's just a sketch, and like so many other sketches that were made for the record, it just ended up ultimately not going anywhere.
DX: It seems like you did so much with so little on that particular track. There's not necessarily a lot going on, but you really turn those small moments into something larger.
DJ Shadow: Yeah. I don't consider myself a grand artist, but people who paint, they do sketches and they do studies. They do quick versions of the painting to decide how the light is gonna work and whether the light should come from this side of the room or if the objects are placed right on the table or whatever. I'm talking about a realist painting in this example, but I do a lot of that as well. I think it all ends up informing what I decide is worthwhile and what I decide is ultimately not as interesting. I like “Tedium” in that same way, but I would be alarmed if I had made a record that sounded like 70 minutes of that track personally.
DX: I had come across another interview you did recently where you mentioned that when you were planning the release of “Def Surrounds Us,” you actually wanted to release it without your name attached. What was the thought behind initially wanting to go that route?
DJ Shadow: It's something that I've thought about a lot because, unfortunately, I think that my name being attached to what I do now comes with so much baggage. A lot of people have very entrenched opinions about the music that I make, and if I deviate from those opinions, then there's a fallout from that, and it's not the most inspirational position to be in as an artist or as somebody who makes music, so I think sometimes if I'd put out music under an alias, maybe it'll be judged on its own merits rather than what I've done before.
DX: So for you, the acclaim is pretty stifling because you feel like it stops you from truly being judged objectively?
DJ Shadow: Well, I mean, it's nice of you to say acclaim, but I think certainly more in the last 10 years it's been the opposite of acclaim. I think that the perception was for years that I was a press golden child or something, which was not something that I ever bought into, but it seems like more recently it must feel somehow a balancing of the scales to have more of a negative opinion about what I do, which is fine. It's not my place to dictate to people whether they should be positive or negative about what I do, but I do think that it swings both ways. I try not to buy into the positive stuff any more than I buy into the negative, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't find you anyway.
DX: How do you make sense of that changing of the guard, or do you feel like it's futile to even try and make sense of it? The reason why you have such a fervent fan base is clearly because of your insistence on breaking new ground with each subsequent project you release. To me at least, it seems like your career trajectory has always followed those precepts, yet in recent years, like you said, the press and fans have really criticized some of your more recent choices, even though it seems like you've always followed the inspiration that created a work like Endtroducing. How do you make sense of that when you feel like you've been following the same inspiration, yet the press and fans treat those choices much differently than they used to?
DJ Shadow: Well, I think there's a lot that can be said, but I think that what you're saying is very accurate. Obviously, part of it is I don't think that people are necessarily wrong. I'm not here to change minds about their opinions on the music that I've made in the past or jump up and down and insist that I'm right and everybody else is wrong. I don't feel that way. I understand that some people don't care for some of the moves that I've made, but at the same time, I think the less I say about it in a certain sense, the better. I know that's sort of a pun on the album title, but I think there's a danger in protesting too much, and I think that I may have crossed that line on several occasions over the last 10 years. My intention isn't to tell anybody that their opinions are wrong, but by the same token, I'm simply trying to reserve the right to make the kind of music that I feel is interesting and valid for me at that time.
An analogy I've used in the past is that the mainstream tends to be a pretty flat line because there's kind of a consensus of opinion, and it may kind of go up or down slightly, but if you look at it on a scale, it's more or less a straight line. Any individual and anybody making what they purpose to be art or something that's going to challenge the mainstream way of thinking about things is going to sort of be all over the place and going up and going down, and occasionally you cross that sine wave in the middle where the mainstream is and you're both in the same place, but more often than not, I'm gonna either be way up or way down and far away from the mainstream. Maybe it's just one of those things that occasionally I've been lucky enough to sort of hit the bulls-eye and really kind of provoke people at the right moment, but it's also probably true that more often than not I'm not going to do that, and I'm simply going to make a record that satisfies myself and maybe a few of the die-hards, and that's cool too.
Like so many of the other subjects we've touched upon, there's so much more that could be said but I don't feel that it's my place to necessarily tell people that they're wrong in their opinions. I have mine and that's obvious, but I think that I have to be respectful of people's opinions and I have to understand that when you contribute something to the dialogue of music, you're opening the possibility up for hearing things that you may not want to hear back.
DX: With you being such a strong advocate for sharing music that people likely don't know of, does a lot of your joy with this craft still come from presenting familiar elements of music in an unfamiliar musical landscape? It does seem like the core of why you do your music is to essentially share. At the end of the day, is that what keeps you going – the incessant journey of putting things together that most people would never think to juxtapose?
DJ Shadow: On one level, yeah. I just came back from six months on the road. I was home about two weeks during that six months and came home pretty burned out and exhausted, but one of the first things I found myself doing was coming downstairs where some of my records are, seeing all these stacks of stuff that I haven't had a chance to go through yet or listen to – new, old, vinyl, CD, whatever – and just playing through that stuff and hearing one or two things that just make me go “Oh man, this is amazing” or “Wow, I can't wait to play this out at a Funk night,” or “Wow, I can't wait to sample this or loop this up.” It doesn't matter what's going on in my personal life or where I'm at in my own head space, but what matters to me ultimately is that I have music as a sanctuary. Music means a lot to me and it can really take me away from whatever discomfort I might be feeling or whatever struggles I might be trying to contend with.
The first thing I want to do is manifest my love for that music in whatever way is most appropriate, so if that means setting it aside to include in a future radio show, or include in some kind of mixtape or mix CD, or just put it on a CD for my own listening, I'm constantly putting music in stacks and trying to evolve my own taste and my own opinions about what's interesting and what seems relevant and what seems challenging to myself and to the people that are relatively interested in what I'm doing.