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FILTER 50: I See A Darkness: The History of DJ Shadow

By Kevin Friedman on January 15, 2013


FILTER 50: I See A Darkness: The History of DJ Shadow


If Josh Davis was a filmmaker, he would likely make horror films—moody, somber, introspective pieces like The Exorcist or Something Wicked This Way Comes. There is a darkness that runs throughout his oeuvre that justifies his moniker, DJ Shadow. It’s not hard to imagine him as a character in one of the classics of the genre, a caped phantom tirelessly slaving over his creations, fusing together body parts, creating life.

Davis began making beats during high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, learning the art of sampling rather than following the typical amateur DJ path of wedding and nightclub gigs. As a student at UC Davis, he co-founded the Solesides collective along with fellow members including the duos Blackalicious (Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel) and Latyrx (Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker) and began releasing records as DJ Shadow. A remix caught the ear of UK vinyl pioneer James Lavelle, who encouraged Shadow to make his first full-length album in 1996. That effort, Endtroducing….., would change the world of DJ music, and with it, Davis’ life.

Endtroducing….. was a dense, magical bolt of quicksilver from the blue. Its samples drew from films and television, like The Prince of Darkness, Twin Peaks and THX 1138, but also from cinematic musicians like David Axelrod, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and the Italian film composer Giorgio Moroder, establishing Shadow more as a meditative sonic collagist than a block rocker. The album helped establish the heady, downtempo genre that became trip-hop. Pulling from his famously deep crates and displaying a mastery of his instrument, he conjured what stands in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first album created entirely from samples.

Like any good sorcerer, Davis wasn’t one to be rushed. Six years separated Endtroducing….. from its sequel, The Private Press, which continued his journey through a chiaroscuro forest of sound. He stuck with minor tonalities and slow-motion grooves best described as melancholy, or even foreboding. 

Despite the lengthy periods between his solo releases, he was never idle. He collaborated with Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy in the group UNKLE, whose 1998 album Psyence Fiction included vocal contributions by Thom Yorke, Mike D and Richard Ashcroft. Davis compiled a collection of early recordings for the album Preemptive Strike and produced the soundtrack to the documentary Dark Days. But months of 20-hour days spent making the UNKLE album left him exhausted and drained. He was forced to confront the limitations of his own mortality and manage his work differently.

To some, the time he took between albums was seen as a testament to his attention to detail, but fans of Endtroducing….. and The Private Press were presented with something they neither recognized nor expected from 2006’s long-awaited The Outsider. Fans were divided by this Frankenstein’s Monster of an album, featuring vocals and emcees in place of dense head-tracks. Shadow employed a more conventional production technique to accompany frantic, hyphy rappers like David Banner, Nump and Keak Da Sneak. While Davis had always considered himself to be a part of the hip-hop world, that inclusion hadn’t been as clear to his listeners, many of whom weren’t eager to follow him there. The incorporation of this wide range of influences and sounds was jarring; nevertheless, the combination of styles would become standard issue on Shadow’s future releases.

Most established artists who have experimented with new directions have faced an uprising from disgruntled devotees, but Shadow seemed genuinely taken aback by the pitchforks and torches outside his castle walls. The backlash was so disruptive that Davis was driven to release a statement: “Repeat Endtroducing….. over and over again? That was never, ever in the game plan. Fuck that. So I think it’s time for certain fans to decide if they are fans of the album, or the artist.” It would be five more years before a new Shadow LP would give people the chance to decide.

In the fall of 2011, Shadow released The Less You Know, the Better. Ironically, for a genre so heavily reliant on technology, the album’s title and central themes took a decidedly Luddite stance. But one misses the point by assuming that because Davis uses modern equipment rather than traditional instruments to create his music he is a technophile. On the contrary, as his record collection would attest, Davis is first and foremost a music lover with a pathological obsession with primary source material—a purist who loves listening to scratchy singles on a portable record player in the basement of a warehouse. Like Shelley’s obsessive doctor, Davis attempts to create something pure from the finest parts he can harvest. Myriad breaks, sound bytes and singular moments are discovered only from weeks, months and years spent poring over stacks of wax, savoring every needle drop and dreaming of the next one.

This fall, Universal released Reconstructed: The Best of DJ Shadow, a greatest hits album, as well as Reconstructed: The Definitive DJ Shadow, a multi-disc box set. These collections capture Davis’ evolution as an auteur, one who maintains a characteristic and identifiable approach while exploring a number of genres, always striving to keep the listener—and most importantly, the artist—from feeling like they’ve seen his movie before. 

Only The Shadow Knows:

A Conversation with Josh Davis

How did you get your start working with turntables and samples?

We didn’t have a ton of money growing up, so I had to take baby steps and save up paper route and pizza delivery money to buy my gear. I always had to stitch things together in a really unusual way. I didn’t know that I wanted to make beats until my senior year of high school. A lot of my mentors who used to mix on Bay Area radio had residencies at local all-ages nightclubs. I thought that was what I would end up doing until I started getting more serious about finding samples.

That also coincided with hip-hop’s initial golden age in ’88 and ’89, where the music started getting so creative and taking such extraordinary leaps. By then, I was looking for samples and breaks as a DJ and starting to put my little crew of beats together on my four-track. That’s when I started to formulate a clear idea of what I hoped to do. It was really difficult to peel myself away from my equipment every night to go back to prepare for a test or something. That’s the mode I was in when I was starting to get serious about making music. 

Did you want to work with emcees? Or keep things instrumental?

I hooked up with the Solesides guys and we started connecting and pooling our resources around ’92. That’s when things started to change. By then, I already had a couple of 12-inches out on Hollywood BASIC, and I was searching for like-minded musicians to [build] a unit. The first rapper from Solesides I worked with was Gift of Gab, and we did a lot of 12-inches. And then in ’93, I got a call from James Lavelle of Mo’ Wax in London. James very much wanted to pursue the instrumental direction. He had heard a track I had done called “The Legitimate Mix” for a group called Zimbabwe Legit. He really liked this sort of spacey, ethereal direction that I took on that, and he wanted me to do something like that for him. That ended up setting the stage for my first single on Mo’ Wax [“In/Flux”]. Then he wanted me to do a follow-up, “Lost and Found,” that became a critic’s thing in the UK where I was mentioned in a lot of the Top 10 lists, alongside groups like Oasis. Mo’ Wax and James felt very empowered by all of that and he encouraged me to do [more of] that, and that was fine, because that was an area I was interested in. If I ever wanted to make a good head-nodding beat, I would just call up one of the Solesides emcees and work with them.

What did you want to accomplish with Endtroducing.....?

I spent most of the summer of ’95 working on an EP called What Does Your Soul Look Like? I had been listening to sample-based music via hip-hop for a good decade. It’s what I grew up on. In some sense, more so than the turntables, the sampler became my instrument of choice. I took it just as seriously as a guitarist or a drummer takes their craft. I was listening to what everybody else was doing—including music outside of hip-hop, any type that had sampling in it—and studying and trying to one-up anybody that was doing it. It was a statement: “This is what sampling can be. I’m gonna take all the inspiration that came from the last 10 years, from all my heroes that ever sampled anything, and try to apply a ton of sweat equity into it and be the best that I can be at this instrument.” Still to this day, I’m trying to do things with samples that other people aren’t doing.

Were you conscious that you were doing something different at the time?

I had a whole set of very specific influences. If you look at the liner notes of Endtroducing….., that’s what they’re about—to try and articulate exactly what my influences were. I felt that I owed that to the music that had given me so much. Not to get too spiritual or anything, but the music has always been more than just a hustle or a good time on the weekends for me; it’s my life. And it was like that at a young age. Hip-hop guided me as a young man; it guided my philosophies on life. I would focus on and obsess over records that made very little impact on a mainstream level—little 12-inches that came out four years prior that I saw some genius in that I would champion and play years later, raising up some forgotten effort that resonated so strongly in me—that process continues. With Endtroducing….. I was trying to channel those moments and create something that would transport other people in the way that I was transported by this culture that was so foreign from the environment I grew up in.

When you put it out, did you feel like you were part of the hip-hop world?

I think it opened up a new avenue for some people to explore; that more than anything, it was a gateway for others to discover hip-hop. I don’t think it forever changed the direction of rap music or hip-hop [like some people said]. It offered a new perspective on what sampling can be and what hip-hop music can be, but it’s such a slippery slope, because to me rap and hip-hop are two completely different things.

After Endtroducing….. came out, a lot of people tried their hand at making an instrumental record, and whenever I would listen to those records I was disappointed. They were just instrumental rap beats. I'm very proud that none of my instrumental records are simply beats waiting for a vocalist. You have to construct the music differently. I’m trying to tell stories with the songs that I make. To me, there is such a huge difference between the two. And I think that’s why Endtroducing….. remains a favorite for some people. There’s a lot of layers to it, and I’ve tried to apply that to all the albums I’ve ever made. It’s actually a lot harder to pull off a seven-minute instrumental track and have it hold your attention than it is to have a vocalist carry it for you.

What changes did you go through in the six years getting to The Private Press?

I had released an album of some acclaim with Endtroducing….. and it changed my life, and UNKLE, which I jumped right into, was where I really felt like I came into my own as a producer. It was a quantum leap. But I hit the wall. I became sick working on the UNKLE record. I was working for 20 hours every day in the studio. And it was the first time in my life where I realized I better slow down a little bit, that I’m not invincible. I found myself, around 2000, with a very different life and not a lot of support structure. The Solesides/Quannum crew—everybody was living their own lives. We weren’t hanging out on a regular basis the way we were before.

The Private Press was a very personal record, and I don’t know that I’ve ever worked as hard on anything since. I think some of my best songs were on that record, and it was another huge leap.

And then The Outsider is another totally different leap.

After The Private Press, I felt as though I had fulfilled my obligations to my fans, and it dawned on me that it was ridiculous to ask any artist to slow down or to not follow their muse or to not take their creativity as far as one can. With The Outsider, I just didn’t pull any punches. I let it ring out, from the hardest of the hard to the softest of the soft…all the influences that were in my life at that time. I’m very impressionable and very open-minded. I got tired of holding that back. I just wanted to let it all happen. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.

Can a broad appreciation for different genres become a pitfall when producing a record?

I don’t worry about it in the sense that I know it’s been done before. Famously, there’s a Turtles album [Battle of the Bands] where they approached every song as if they were a different band. That album became a cult classic for that reason.

You surround yourself with all this music and all these ideas, and nothing’s new under the sun. Many of my heroes have reached far—Trevor Horn, Malcolm McLaren—and when you grow up with these records that are really audacious, it’s hard to limit yourself to whatever conservative mindset the mainstream is in 2006 or 2012.

It seemed there was a response from some fans that they weren’t following you. Was that upsetting?

From some fans, sure. “Disappointing,” I think is a better word. It’s sometimes difficult for people to understand that I’ve actually moved on and that I don’t still sit around making music in the exact same way. I’m not a robot and I don’t want to make robotic music. If I’m not interested in what I’m doing and I’m not learning anything, then ultimately I feel like it’s going to be dissatisfying for people. I’d much rather give people something completely different, and whether you succeed or you fail is sort of irrelevant in the sense that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.

A lot of people in this era think artists are there to serve them—to please them. Ultimately, my first and foremost goal for making music is to satisfy myself and to express something. And if people are interested in that message, great; if they’re not interested in that message, again, I think the sentiment is disappointment. 

Your first album was a solo venture but you’ve moved into increasingly collaborative scenarios. Is that something you have come to enjoy more?

Going all the way back to when I first started working with the Solesides guys, I would do a beat for somebody; maybe they’d like it, maybe they’d be like, “What else you got?” That’s how it really started. The UNKLE record was the first time I worked with a guitarist and a vocalist on the level of someone like Thom Yorke and Richard Ashcroft—people who came from a completely different universe musically from myself. 

The collaborative process can be really rewarding and it can be disappointing. It can make music great and I’ve also seen it make great songs weak. That’s why on [The Less You Know, the Better] I tried to limit it to just a few, because I didn’t want to compromise. I think when I work by myself that’s when my vision is purest and that’s when I’m able to dig deep to communicate something. The collaboration process—I consider it to be a close second.

And now you’ve got a retrospective album. How does that feel?

Well, it’s one of those ideas I resisted for a long time. But after the last record I felt like I finally had enough material to justify something like that. I had about six hours of solo material to choose from, and just had to whittle it down to an hour or so. I was able to pick my favorites from all of the records, and there were a couple brand new tracks for it as well. I’m happy with it. I think it serves the purpose and I’m proud of it. F

The history continues...featuring contributions from Cut Chemist, Z-Trip, James Lavelle, Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker.

This article is from FILTER Issue 50