American DJ and producer DJ Shadow talks inspirations, challenges and his quest to create something genuine with his new record, Our Pathetic Age.
Reader's Digest: Good morning! How's it going?
DJ Shadow: Good! I'm in Ladbroke Grove right now. This is my old stomping ground, really near where I would come when I first started coming to London. It's actually been two years since I was last here, which is crazy. It's the longest period [of absence] since I started coming out here.
RD: The sound of hip-hop has drastically changed in the 20 years since your debut, Endtroducing. Is there a specific period you relate to the most?
DS: There are aspects of certain eras that I find exciting and I try to retain. I try to understand what it was that made those moments so exciting and I'm always looking for little ways to reintroduce them.
I think one that I've talked about a fair amount was the time when people would edit their tape. The Latin Rascals and Omar Santana—people like that would do these fancy edits on the tape machine. It was something that was around for a while and then just sort of disappeared, but it was always a highlight to me in songs. So that's an example of something that had its time and a lot of people, kind of, forgot about it and it isn't really done anymore, but I try to find little ways to spring it on people once in a while.
Shadow photographed by Derick Daily
RD: You've said in the past that you think it's possible to be critical about something but still engage with it. Does this apply to your view of the modern hip-hop and rap scene as well?
S: Yeah, totally. I think at 47 years old, it's OK that I acknowledge that the rap music coming out of cars driving to high school is not being made for me.
I really don't want to be that dude, 50 years old, showing up at a gig and everybody else looking at you thinking, Whoa, is that guy lost or what? I think it's still possible to learn from it though. I'm never trying to imitate someone else, but if you can learn a little something… I hear a little production quirk or something really ill in the programming or I just need a new way of thinking about something. I might hear something and think, OK that's dope.
Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of new stuff, a lot of old stuff. I just listen to all of it.
"I don't want to be that dude, 50 years old, showing up at a gig and everybody else thinking, Whoa, is that guy lost? "
RD: Would you say your music is more influenced by one US coast than another?
S: I think it's a pretty good mix. I like my albums to seem very varied in terms of inspiration and my approach, and that's exactly how it was for me growing up.
I grew up in a small town in Northern California, far away from LA, far away from New York, and that allowed me to explore hip-hop from all over the nation and all over the globe. [I was discovering] on my own terms and there were no magazines telling me I was wrong, no websites or social media telling me, Oh you're wrong. That's whack, this is dope. I just, sort of, figured out on my own what I thought was dope and what I thought was weak.
The fact that my buddy and I were driving around the town I grew up in playing Ultra-Magnetic Critical Beat Down from my car speakers while everyone else was playing whatever pop-rap thing was out at the time, kind of seemed like we figured out pretty quickly what we thought was hot s**t and what was not.
RD: You've often been described as a "hip-hop purist"—does that label ever frustrate you?
S: I think sometimes when people say purist, what they mean is that you're an authority or someone who can relate to a lot of different topics about the subject.
But, yeah, there have been plenty of times [that it's felt frustrating]. For example at Scratch Con in 2000, which was like the Woodstock of the turntable scene, in one of my sets I played "Get Crunk" by Lil Jon and nobody knew who Lil Jon was yet. He hadn't broken or anything. I played it because I thought it was dope, and I remember a friend of mine after I came off said, "Yeah, man, I don't know if you play that 'Get Crunk' stuff here".
That type of mentality has always made me laugh. I'll always just go for [playing] what's dope and, moving too quickly for some people. Sometimes you're moving too slowly for some people but you just have to go for your heart and where you're at.
RD: How does time in the studio compare to performing live? Do you have a preference?
S: I didn't grow up wanting to be a performer but I realised at a certain point that if I didn't perform my music, it was sending a message that maybe I thought that the music didn't deserve to be supported. I had to learn how to do that stuff. It's definitely not in my nature.
Making music is what I always wanted to do, and being in the studio is definitely my primary mode. Put it this way: I've learned to able to be on stage because that’s how much the music matters to me.
RD: Do you feel that new DJs have it easier nowadays because often all that’s required of them is a USB stick?
S: I don’t know. I’d say as somebody who’s been a DJ through all these years…there was something to be said for the level playing field of everybody using decks and records. You had to have skills and deal with all of the pitfalls that come with playing vinyl.
But saying that, I’ve done DJ gigs just with CDJs. I’ve done DJ gigs just with Therodo and Ableton. And I think it really comes down to always the same thing, which is getting into the audience’s head and amping up the moments that you feel are going to create some kind of reaction.
RD: What does an average day in your studio look like when you’re making an album? Is it any different when you’re not?
S: To the first part of the question…I mean, that’s pretty easy to answer because I’ve done it so much in the last two years.
I probably get down there at about in the morning, 8:30 in the morning and play music. Just whatever it is. Music that someone emailed to me. Music from a playlist. Music from some records that I have laying around, you know, old stuff. And that’s how I get my brain going. Then I’ll start poking at a few emails. Once all that’s stuff is clear around 10am, I switch everything off and switch to music-making mode. I’ll probably do that cumulatively for about eight hours. Usually, I leave it after that. Maybe get some dinner and then go back downstairs and have a playthrough of what I did that day. Unless I’m scared to hear it, in which case I give it to the next day.
"I've learned to able to be on stage because that’s how much the music matters to me"
If I'm writing music at a keyboard, that’s stuff that is really subjective and I have to be in just the right mood to listen to it. I think it’s all about having that pure bulls**t detector on and not letting any laziness or predictability through. And it’s hard to sustain that over the course of a whole album because at a certain point, you just wanna be done and need to be done. But the more you can have it on and functional, inevitably, the better the music and the record’s gonna be.
RD: Do you have anything against sampling a new song? For example, a number one, like, Old Town Road. If there was something in there that you felt was screaming out to be flipped, would you still flip that or is there some kind of DJ Shadow code that says it has to be at least five or 10 years old?
S: It doesn’t have anything to do with era, but I definitely would have a bit of a problem sampling, a number one hit. To me, that just feels like something I shouldn’t do.
I think there are plenty of other people out there that would do it and do it well. But that just doesn’t tend to be my mode.
Shadow photographed by Derick Daily
RD: Have there been times when you’ve missed out on a potentially classic record because you just knew the sample would never be cleared?
S: Yeah. I’ve had a couple of times where a track was all ready to go and there was even a video being made. You get signals that it’s all gonna be fine and then they change their mind. That’s happened a couple of times.
It’s brutal. Because it feels almost blasphemous to me. I feel like art is made to be shared. And to me, there’s really no purpose in making art if you’re just gonna keep it to yourself or if it’s just gonna sit on a shelf somewhere. It feels sad and it feels blasphemous. It sucks. There's no better way to phrase it.
RD: Are there any records in your vast collection that your fans would be surprised to know that you owned?
S: Probably! I have a constantly evolving 'hard collection'. Te records in there are 'hard filed', meaning they’re not gonna rotate out [of my collection]. Once they’re in there, they’re in there permanently. It's fairly diverse and there are a lot of things you would probably expect to be in there. But a lot of things that maybe people wouldn’t expect.
One of the things that I’ve been finding myself adding more and more lately is easy listening from the early 60s, simply because the production values are so incredibly high. Even though it’s not necessarily my style of music or anything that I wanna be listening to on a regular basis, sometimes you just listen to something and think You know what, I probably throw away 99 out of 100 of these things, but this one’s pretty good.
RD: Moving onto the new album, Our Pathetic Age, every piece of work you do will inevitably be compared to your debut, Endtroducing. In your opinion, how does this one measure up?
S: To me, it’s just so different. I couldn’t make a record like Endtroducing again if I wanted to. Yet, at the same time, it’s incredibly simplistic. I didn’t understand how to mix music back then. I didn’t understand a lot of things, which is part of its charm.
I think it’s corrupt artistically to go backward or tread water, so I continue to forge on. The last record, The Mountain Will Fall really did a lot to wipe away the narrative of Endtroducing and that era. It had the most successful song that I’ve ever made on it, Let Nobody Speak with Run the Jewels. So I just sort of feel like I entered this album with a very healthy mindset and one of just OK, I’m gonna set the bar really high. I’m gonna try to make a double album and I’m gonna have half the album be instrumental and half with vocal features.
To me, there’s no comparison because that was literally almost a quarter-century ago. I’ve learned so many things that I didn’t know then and taken in so much music and had so much inspiration that it’s very difficult for me to compare.
RD: The track titles featuring rappers on Our Pathetic Age are very reminiscent of the kind of titles the rappers would feature on their own albums. For example, "Rain on Snow" sounds like it could’ve easily been on Wu Tang's 36 Chambers. And as soon as I saw "Drone Warfare", I thought, That just screams Pharoahe Monch. Was that deliberate?
S: Not really, although that’s a really good question. When I made "Drone Warfare", I wrote down Pharoahe Monch and I wrote down "drone warfare". And I like to do that to help me to be able to finish a track. It almost helps me shape the identity of the track.
Sometimes when you first start out on something you think, OK, what am I trying to say? What direction am I trying to go in? And giving the songs a name in that moment helps.
And for me, if it’s a vocal track like that, then references of who I could hear on it really helps me be able to finish the track. I would say only about 30 per cent of the time, the names that I write down actually transpire. But in his case, it did.
RD: The album cover for Our Pathetic Age is an illustration of a woman by herself, engrossed in her phone. Over the years, you’ve commented on your mixed opinions on the 'Internet Age'. Where are you at with it now?
S: I think it’s nice that at least now, as opposed to seven years ago, you can find opinions that suggest maybe this isn’t quite healthy. Because seven years ago, you couldn’t find that opinion if you polled 1000 people. The opinion was universal that [the Internet Age] was the greatest thing and that no harm could ever come from it.
"I think the internet is almost an Achilles’ heel of the human experience"
I think the internet is almost like an Achilles’ heel of the human experience. I don’t know how humans can possibly deal with some of the stimulus and information that they’re being fed at the rate they’re being fed it. It’s gonna be interesting to see what happens.
RD: Some of the titles on the album are quite intense, for example, “If I Die Today", "My Lonely Room", "We Are Always Alone”. Are they representative your thoughts whilst making the album?
S: I always try to come up with music, and in turn song titles, that reflect something I’m feeling.
"We Are Always Alone" was originally made for the soundtrack inspired by the movie Roma, which came out late last year and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I was asked to contribute music to a soundtrack that would come out after the film, and that refers to a line from the movie.
In the case of "My Lonely Room", I don’t know. I just thought it was an interesting title and it seemed to match the mood and the music.
RD: In the press material for Our Pathetic Age, you say the track "Rosie" represents who you were, who you are and who you hope to be. So who were you, who are you, and who do you hope to be?
I guess the best answer I can give you is that I hope in the future I will remain a music lover. When I make music, what I’m trying to do is contribute. I’m trying to give people something to listen to that is hopefully on one level kind of affirmative. I like to make music that offers a bit of light and offers a realistic interpretation of what’s happening. And also a bit of personality and ultimately, an alternative to everything else that’s coming out at the time.
I’m sure you feel this way too—album cover art and song titles and even artists’ names seem to follow certain styles. It's like, everybody’s into this type of cover now and everybody’s doing that type of cover now. That’s cool, but I’d really like to see something new or different. That’s always one of the things I’m hoping to achieve when I put out a record, something that feels different. Maybe it’s not gonna top the Hot 100 or whatever, but if nothing else, it’s a valid artistic expression that is different and feels genuine. That’s always what I hope people feel when they take in my work.
About the interviewer: Rowan Faife is a rapper, YouTuber and events promoter. He worked as a consultant and lyric writer for the BBC-backed film, VS. He's currently the host and coordinator for the Don't Flop 11th Birthday Tour. He tweets at @twitteurgh
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