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FILTER 50: I See A Darkness: The History Of DJ Shadow As Told By Cut Chemist, James Lavelle + More

By Kevin Friedman; photos all courtesy @djshadowphotos Flickr on January 16, 2013

 

FILTER 50: I See A Darkness: The History Of DJ Shadow As Told By Cut Chemist, James Lavelle + More


Read the first part of our history of DJ Shadow, including a retrospective interview with Josh Davis.


Below are interviews with Shadow's contributors and collaborators from throughout his career.


DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and Z-Trip


CUT CHEMIST

Lucas McFadden, aka Cut Chemist, a renowned turntablist, was the DJ in Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli. He and Shadow have collaborated on three releases known as the 7-11 Slurpee Series—Brainfreeze, Product Placement and The Hard Sell


What is Endtroducing.....’s place in music history? 


He gave us an emotional landscape that I don’t think anyone in hip-hop had the guts to explore before him. He didn’t hang his hat on rough drum breaks and funky bass lines but something more personal, as though the album was some sort of courtship between two people. 


What is the process when you work together?


The first time we ever did something together was Brainfreeze. It was just, “Let’s hang out and listen to records and figure some things out and then play it live a week later.”


Product Placement was the next mix CD we did together. We started to take it more seriously. Our first order of business was to find out what we hadn’t done before. Once we had a foundation, we built from there. We just go through records and bridge the gaps and fill in the transitions and build this mix. We try to go in as many directions as possible musically while keeping the same feeling to the whole concept. 


Once we got to The Hard Sell, it was a completely new template with eight turntables and loop pedals and portable turntables. I’ve never seen so much note-taking in my life. Shadow writes everything down to make sure we remember a mix because we’ll forget it tomorrow. Then we think, “How can we execute this live? Oh, we need two more turntables!” It’s pretty involved.


What do you consider his finest work?


“Stem”—it’s a beautiful song that builds and there is no rhythm until far enough into the song; it’s unexpected. You are anticipating it for so long that it makes it more effective. It’s like a small movie scene with music, which I think is what everyone appreciates about DJ Shadow and it all has a strong emotional impact.


That whole UNKLE record was a completely different direction. It shows that he could produce a vocal record. It was a big step from the notion that he was just an instrumental producer. “Lonely Soul” is my favorite; it’s just perfect on its own. 


“Fixed Income” off The Private Press kind of harks back to that Endtroducing….. style. It was so intricately done. The way the sample is actually in a six time signature and the drums are in four so that the loop lands differently gives it such a unique movement. That kind of intricate approach to a song reminded me that he’s really doing something so subtle that most people probably wouldn’t recognize it, but he’s paying attention.


“Seein’ Thangs” was just a great rap song. It holds up the moodiness that he’s famous for but it’s made with a different set of tools. Again, it’s very cinematic and he and David Banner have a good chemistry together.


What should people know about him that they don’t already?


He’s funny as hell! He’s great at balancing being an artist, businessman, a family man and one of the world’s most serious music collectors. Being an artist, living in the right brain world—to be able to catalogue and compartmentalize, which is very left brain, is very difficult. He’s very hands-on about his business and his music, and on top of that he’s had time to raise a family. This man is not human.


Z-TRIP

Zach Sciacca, aka Z-Trip, is known as an innovator of the mashup movement and one of the world’s best DJs. He toured with Cut Chemist and Shadow for the Brainfreeze, Product Placement and Hard Sell tours. 


My first exposure to Shadow was the Hindsight 12-inch that he did on Mo’ Wax. At the time, people were making instrumentals—but this was different. It had mood and texture. The next thing I heard was Endtroducing….. I started to realize that it was this guy and his whole crew coming out of the SF area. He’s definitely someone I looked up to. He taught me it was obtainable; that you didn’t have to play fucking hits in a club and DJ that way. You can actually take it a different route and you can have fans and enjoy it.


What he was doing at the time, nobody was doing. He was influenced by a lot of the same people that I was, but he went down a road that wasn’t traveled. It’s a really hard thing to do, but if you can do it in the right way, you will have longevity. I think that he’s a living testament to that because he’s always done his own thing. 


He’s constantly trying to think about how to push boundaries and challenge himself. It creates a lot of polarizing opinions but if you think about any great artist’s full career—The Beatles, Pink Floyd—you’re always going to have these moments. Not everything is going to be Dark Side of the Moon. That’s what makes it a really interesting body of work.


He’s super intelligent and he’s really a music guy, 100 percent. He really, really gives a shit about all the music he plays in the background. More than that he’s a great producer and a great performer; his archiving skills and his music knowledge are top-notch. I remember going digging for records with him in Japan; he is just a machine. It made me appreciate the level at which he operates. I don’t know many people—a couple, maybe—who can keep up.


DJ Shadow, James Lavelle and Blackalicious, 1994.


JAMES LAVELLE

James Lavelle signed DJ Shadow to his label Mo’ Wax and released Endtroducing….. He also founded UNKLE and collaborated with Shadow on the album Psyence Fiction.


The first time you heard Shadow was on a remix of a Zimbabwe Legit song. How did you track him down from there?


I was 17 when I got Zimbabwe Legit. I didn’t really think too much of it, but there was this weird mix on the B-side by DJ Shadow. I became very attached to it. When I started my label, I rang up Albee [Ragusa] of Tommy Boy: “Do you know about this guy DJ Shadow?” He was like, “Yeah, we tried to work with him, but he’s not right for us. He’s a little too alternative. I think you guys would get on really well.” And he gave me [Shadow’s] number and I called him, and that’s how it all started.


What kind of guidance did you provide in those early days?


I encouraged Shadow to try and continue making records that were beautiful, soundscape-y and instrumental and not worry about trying to fit into the American way of hip-hop thinking, which was either to be Kenny Dope or DJ Premier or Pete Rock.


DJ Shadow now is very different from the DJ Shadow of when I met him. He had never played in a club before. He didn’t know anything about that world. I showed him all of that, and taught him. I brought him to the UK on numerous occasions, took him to clubs and played him what was going on at the time: drum and bass, Massive Attack, Björk, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Oasis and Radiohead. If he had been in America, or on an American label, I don’t think he would have made a record like Endtroducing….


So how did your relationship develop through UNKLE and the Psyence Fiction collaboration?


Unfortunately, that record started with this sense of wonder and delight and ended up with every fucking nightmare possible. There were some amazing moments, like recording with Josh and recording with Richard Ashcroft and doing stuff with strings, but I don’t like that record. It was a bit of a poisoned chalice for me. 


I think there’s the impression that DJ Shadow made the music and I was some kind of Svengali character, but that’s not how that record was made. Josh is a programmer and put that side of things together. I put together most of the ideas we were doing musically and collaboration-wise. Lots of stuff went on when Josh wasn’t around.


Josh is incredibly focused. He’s a very insular person. He’s a solo artist. He’s not a producer, really, or a team player. He’s a composer, which is great; it’s why he makes brilliant records. But in many ways he became more of an introvert, more shy. I think he found it quite difficult. I don’t think he felt completely comfortable being away from home. Making a record is such an emotional affair.


How did it all play out between you two?


Psyence Fiction wasn’t a particularly great experience toward the end. It was all very much about Shadow. He got the publishing and made the money on that record. I’ve never made one penny from Psyence Fiction and he’s made a fortune off it. I felt pretty pissed off. It was my idea, my network, my record, the artwork; everything accumulated to create this thing and I ended up with nothing out of that. There were so many conflicts of interest. Management changes, record label changes. Lots of clichés that unfortunately get way out of hand when you’re young. But we’ve seen each other a bit recently and it’s been nice. I’m cool with him. Hopefully at some point in the future we’ll work on something together again; I’m totally up for that in the right context. 


We did Endtroducing….. Any fan can look at that and know that dreams can happen. We didn’t have any fucking money; we had no agenda; we loved music; we broke all the barriers. We were two kids and for all the bullshit about what I’ve done or what he’s done, for one moment we made music that changed the way people look at music forever and no one can take that away from us.


THREE MC’S AND ONE DJ

WITH GIFT OF GAB, LYRICS BORN AND LATEEF THE TRUTHSPEAKER

These Bay Area rappers are three founders of the Solesides collective and met DJ Shadow while in school at UC Davis. Gab was the first emcee to work with Shadow and formed Blackalicious with Chief Xcel. Lyrics and Lateef comprise the group Latyrx for which Shadow contributes production.


How did you all start working together?


Lyrics Born: We met at KDVS, the radio station in Davis. I had met Chief Xcel in one of my classes and told him about this dude [Solesides member Jeff Chang] on campus with a hip-hop radio show. That’s where I met Shadow. Chang was like, “You’re working on your demos, Blackalicious is working on theirs, Shadow is working on his…why don’t we pool our money together and make a record?” We knew we wanted to make a 12-inch, so I wrote and produced my song [“Send Them,” as Asia Born] and Shadow wrote and produced his side [“Entropy,” as DJ Shadow and The Groove Robbers], so we each had our sole sides—that’s where the name came from.


Asia Born and DJ Shadow at the mastering session for their first Solesides record, 1993

Above: The Solesides/Quannum crew circa 1999, Oakland


What was Shadow’s music like when you first met him in college?


Gift of Gab: He was doing stuff with drums, sample-wise, that I hadn’t heard anybody else doing. The patterns were way more complex. He put a lot of thought into what he was doing.


What is his place in the world of turntablists and producers?


Lateef the Truthspeaker: Shadow is an interesting character. He has a very good ear and can hear new sounds coming before they arrive. He’s a great scratch DJ. His scratches are very precise, and he’s very committed to that part of his craft. He’s a phenomenal producer. He can do almost anything and tries to do what has never been done. The guy is credited with creating an entire genre, yet you will never hear him say so—he will just credit those that came before him. He’s a very thoughtful and thorough artist—from songs to the stage to business, he is very savvy and calculating. He’s not afraid to take risks, but the risks are always calculated.


How is he as a collaborator?


Lyrics: He’s very thorough. Even if he doesn’t totally have a clear idea of where he wants to go with a song, he’s willing to go through all the permutations to get there. He definitely has the process of a solo artist, but I think that he looks to collaboration to get outside of himself. With other producers I collaborate with, there’s a lot less talking. With him, the songs are extremely complicated sometimes, so they require a lot of collective navigating. 


On the Latyrx stuff there’s a spirit of, “How can we make each of these special in their own way?” And frankly I think it’s some of his best work, and mine.


Gab: We collaborated on “Count & Estimate,” which was on that first Solesides single. He played me the music, which was incredible, and I wrote something to it and we put it down. It was chemistry. 


Lateef: Shadow really challenged me early to always be on point. Professionally, in the studio, on all levels. Back in the day when our budgets were absolutely shoestring, while working on my first single [“The Wreckoning”] our motto was “don’t step in the booth if you can’t kill it within 10 takes.” To this day it rarely takes me more than three.


What was it like to witness his rise when Endtroducing..... came out?


Gab: We’re all crew; we’re family; we’re brothers. To see him doing that was amazing. He deserved it. One incredible thing about Josh is his knowledge. You could play any music from any period of time, and he’ll start going, “That was such and such, they recorded in such and such year, this guy was on the horn, this guy was on the drums…” His music knowledge and library…I’ve never met anybody like that.


DJ Shadow with Q-Tip and Lateef at "Enuff" session, New York, 2006

Above: DJ Shadow and Gift of Gab. circa 2002


What is his legacy?


Gab: He’s gotten way more diverse. His stuff is more dimensional than it was. He’s like a traveler. He’s never gonna do the same thing twice. He wants to explore. 


Lateef: You should really listen to every DJ Shadow song as if you never heard any of his other work, as if you don’t know who did it. You will be listening to it the way it [was intended].


Lyrics: Artists can become victims of their own success and try to prove that they can do other things, and that can sometimes work for you and against you, but one thing that no one can dispute is Endtroducing…..


He’s not done. He’ll continue to make music forever. Whether he has the next genre-defining album again or not, he’ll still be doing his thing 20 or 30 years from now. He’s an artist at heart.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 50