DJ Shadow Goes Public

Turntable maestro recounts his sonic journey

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DJ Shadow, a.k.a. Josh Davis, may have started out as a Bay Area youngster messing around with turntables, but he's managed to make a lot of music while altering the general concept of songcraft. From his early singles to his 1996 debut LP, Endtroducing . . ., Shadow not only created multi-layered songs primarily using samples, but his hip-hop-influenced work also resonated strongly within the developing trip-hop community. Later challenging his textured, largely instrumental style, Shadow paired with Mo' Wax Records founder James Lavelle on the U.N.K.L.E. project, whose 1998 release Psyence Fiction included original vocals from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the Beastie Boys' Mike D. and the Verve's Richard Ashcroft. Now the notoriously reclusive DJ Shadow is back with The Private Press, his first proper solo album since Entroducing . . . . It's a return to sample-based music, but, not surprisingly, with an entirely different approach.

How did you first get involved in music?

When I got my first turntable, which was in 1984, and I was just imitating my heroes in the same way that anyone that picks up a guitar imitates their heroes when they hear their records. For me, I was just trying to scratch like Jam Master J or Dr. Dre or Mixmaster Ice or any of the DJs that had solos.

What were your first experiments with turntables like?

My first turntable was a Sears combination turntable/dual-cassette/receiver [laughs]. I found that when I was dubbing a tape and I had the selector knob between Phono and Tape I was able to overdub scratches. It was just a glitch in the way the system worked. So I learned very unconventionally and that's why -- for DJs out there -- I learned what's called "hamster style," and that means backwards. It was ten years before someone said, "Hey, you do it backwards." And I was like, "Oh no! Does that mean I'm going to have to re-learn?" Then I found out that Q-Bert [of San Francisco turntablist crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz], one of the world's best DJs, also learned the way I did, and I was like, "Whew! If he can do it, then maybe it's not such a bad thing."

How did you move into the recording realm?

Around 1987, I started doing mixes at the local college station. I got a four-track in 1989 or early '90 and put out my first record in '91. It was a slow building process -- it was not spontaneous. It was me trying to find a musical outlet of my own to express myself and my love for this new emerging art form called "hip-hop."

Recount the journey from those early recordings through Entroducing . . . and The Private Press?

Endtroducing . . . opened a lot of doors for me. I wanted to try to and do music for a film, which I did for a documentary called Dark Days. I wanted to get out there and tour a lot, which I did with U.N.K.L.E. I knew it would be a while before I was ready to do a solo album. In 1999, I must've done 150 shows, and in November '99, I just kinda went, "Boy, I'm through. I need to take a break." And that's what I did. Also, I had to move house, I got engaged and just took care of a lot of "life stuff" for the first time in ten years. After I took a few months off, in the beginning of 2000, that's when I realized that I was ready to start, but I still had a couple things to get out of my system. I did this turntablist track for this Bay Area turntablist compilation and performed at Skratchcon, the Woodstock of turntablist culture. After that, nothing came close -- that was the peak of turntablist culture -- and then I was ready to start on a new record. I had to take that break to realize I was really ready.

Did you go back into the studio with a specific goal in mind?

For the listener, I wanted it to be challenging. I didn't want to cater to my fans. I think, as a fan, when I fall in love with an act, I really want them to keep just doing that again -- until I hear them do the same thing again and then I realize that's the last thing I want. You know you want a band to grow, progress and expand, so that's what I felt like my goal was.

One track from the record, "Monosylabik," was leaked to the Internet long before the record's release. How did you feel about that?

I guess it's not as bad as bootlegs. I'd rather have people download stuff rather than buying stuff that people are making money off of. On one hand, it's nice that people are so interested that it becomes like a "who's going to get it up there first" kinda thing. On the other hand, as an artist, you want people to hear the work that you do in a context that you present to people. [You should] be hearing it for the first time while you're looking at the artwork, and you want to hear it in the right sequence, so that's the annoying part as an artist. You want people to hear it the way you intended to it to be presented. A director intends his movie to be shown in 70 mm, big screen, big sound; but if people are watching it on a bootleg video tape, they are going to get a very different impression of the film.

How difficult was it for you to clear the samples for this record?

Clearing samples is always difficult and interesting and time consuming and frustrating. It really shows you that the legal profession is really just who talks the best talk and who fights the best fight. It's just all semantics and who wants it more and who is glib and who is the biggest BSer . . . It is quite unsettling as an artist. The music that I make is a collage medium. The music industry and the legal profession need to update the way they think about samples. The way it's done now, lawyers still pretend like it's some great infringement -- an affront to everything musical, which we all know is not the case. Sampling has been around long enough. There are many classic songs that everyone loves that are made from samples. So to try to pretend that it's some sort of "How dare they!" is just silly. They do that so they can say, "If you're going to use a sample, we want seventy-five percent of your song." Now if you've sampled fifty things to make your composition, how is that justifiable and how are you supposed to clear anything else? So it's silly. There are very easy formulas that could be invented on a musicologist basis for clearing samples, but nobody wants to do that.