"FUTURISTIC THROWBACK: THE MUSIC OF DJ SHADOW (Mass Appeal)"
Among all the other amazing music released in 1996—Reasonable Doubt, It Was Written, All Eyez On Me—DJ Shadow’s masterful debut Endtroducing…, a cut-and-mix symphony compiled of obscure samples, illmatic scratches and atmosphere for days, would emerge as one of the defining albums of the decade. A California dude whose real name is Josh Davies, Shadow was born in 1972 and came of age during hip hop’s mid-1980s/early-1990s golden era when many gritty DJs were transitioning from radio/club performers into dusty groove boom-bap producers.
“I grew-up idolizing producers like Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Large Professor,” says Shadow from a hotel room in Toronto, Canada. “But, as much as I loved hip hop in the old days, I don’t think the answer is in looking backwards. The answer is always into looking forward. With that music being in my DNA the way it is, I like letting it poke out, but also marrying that to a contemporary sonic approach.”
Currently on tour, the turntable wiz recently dropped a four-track EP The Mountain Has Fallen, which features contributions from Nas (“Systematic”), Danny Brown (“Horror Show”) and Oscar-winning composer Steven Price (“Corridors”). Last year he released the full-length disc The Mountain Will Fall, but insists that while the titles might be similar, the EP is not a sequel of unused tracks. “These are not leftovers, but all new tracks,” he says. “I felt I had more I wanted to say and more that I wanted to do. Basically, I didn’t want to fall into the usual pattern of doing an album and then taking time to woodshed and not put out new music for three years. I had a little break in the winter, and instead of doing other things, I hit the studio.”
Back in the early days of his recording career, Shadow was part of the West Coast turntablist scene, along with Dan the Automator, DJ Qbert, Chief Xcel, Cut Chemist and other striving aural stylists. Building on ideas Grandmaster Flash first explored on his 1991 classic 12-inch “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel,” their music was a sonic collage for hip hop fans tired of braggadocious rappers screaming in their ears.
Rewinding back for a bit of history, in the 2000 book DJ Culture, author Ulf Poschardt described Flash’s masterpiece as containing “all of the possibilities, finer points and refinements of mixing and scratching vinyl…the turntables became instruments beneath the hand of the DJ.” In closing, “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” was described as a “sonic tapestry.”
In 2008, while digging up the roots of the culture in the Bronx, I hung out with pioneer Grandmaster Caz, who said, “In those early days of Kool Herc and Flash, it made you special to be a DJ. There were different levels, and not everybody in a particular crew was a DJ. Some guys danced, others carried records who would eventually become MCs. The DJ was always the one in front, but as things changed, the MC became the face of hip hop.” It was Shadow who sought to change that focus. After The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column featured Shadow in June, 1991, he made his earliest records (“Lesson 4,” Lifers Group “Real Deal” remix) on the Hollywood Basic label owned by Disney and run by the late Dave Funkenklein.
Signing to James Lavelle’s cool indie Mo’ Wax Records in 1993, the London-based label that was also home to Dr. Octagon, RPM, DJ Krush and Unkle (a revolving group that included Shadow and Lavelle), with graffiti artist Futura 2000 providing most of the covers. “I think the peak output of Mo Wax existed at the intersection of hip hop, jazz and ambient,” explains The Wire music editor Joseph Stannard. “RPM’s “2000” is a good example. Atmosphere and mood became hugely important as a result. This wasn’t really club music. It was for private listening, a personal soundtrack. The music also became a kind of lifestyle accessory, slotting in somewhere between Star Wars and Stüssy. One could argue that some of the material on Mo Wax was pretty vacuous, but Shadow always seemed more soulful than most, especially on tracks like ‘In/Flux‘ which is a beautiful piece of music.”
Shadow’s mission was simply to take hip hop on a different journey than was being represented by the Bad Boy/Death Row vibe that was so prevalent in the streets and on the charts. While early projects ‘In/Flux’ and “Lost and Found” served as an introduction to a larger audience, it was Endtroducing… that made him a star. Constructing an entire album of cinematically moody beats that were sonically dreamy, the album still had enough blunted head nodding power to appeal to the homeboys. The hypnotic “Midnight in a Perfect World” was the first single for an album that would go on to become a landmark.
Journalist/DJ David Ma, who recently penned an extensive DJ Shadow cover story for the newest Wax Poetics, has been admirer since the beginning. “With Endtroducing…, I think DJs were suddenly struck because the whole notion of what an ‘instrumental’ album is expanded by a million fold overnight,” Ma says. “This was a project that was completely instrumental, yet it had a narrative pushing it along–this is far from just having a lyric-less version of track. This was unheard of. Besides the Bomb Squad, I had never heard beats that were that textured before. On a personal level, the expansiveness of the songs blew my mind.”
In a perfect world, the race of an artist shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to making good music, but Shadow being white seemed to cause small problems as pop/rock critics tried to slot him under electronica or trip-hop, definitions that they believed removed him from the b-boy ghetto. “To me, trip-hop is a meaningless and unpleasant term,” says Joseph Stannard from The Wire. “A great deal of what was, and is, considered pure, unadulterated hip hop is trippy as fuck. Circa Endtroducing… I would simply describe DJ Shadow as an instrumental hip hop producer.”
There were also hip hop DJs of color claiming that the relative new jack was getting preferential press, because of his complexion. I once got into a big email argument with a prominent DJ who treated me like a race traitor, because I had no problem telling him that I thought DJ Shadow was brilliant.
“I think the issue of race will always be entangled with hip hop,” Ma says. “It’s easy for different groups to embrace or deny entrance into a wheelhouse they deem is theirs. With Shadow, when you heard Endtroducing… race was the last thing that crossed your mind–at least for me. I think a lot of writers at the time also had a narrow definition of hip hop and for Shadow, to them in the mid-90s, it was easy, or even lazy, to categorize him as ‘trip-hop’ both for racial reasons as well as the aesthetics of some of the music. Obviously nowadays people are more willing to accept that hip hop exists in different forms. Back then, not so much.”
Although DJ Shadow has contributed to various side and guest projects, his personal discography consists of five full-length discs that includes The Private Press (2002) The Outsider (2006) and The Less You Know, the Better (2011). Recently, I got a chance to sit down with DJ Shadow, a soft-spoken guy who, twenty-one years after being entroduced, is still coming hard.