Two decades after its release, the success of DJ Shadow‘s Endtroducing….. still surprises the artist behind the iconic beatmaking album. The producer, born Josh Davis, laughs off any rags-to-riches narrative regarding his debut. “People ask me what was it like when the record came out, and my response is always that it was pretty low-key,” he tells Rolling Stone. Twenty years later, Davis’ latest, The Mountain Will Fall, is another bold step for the now 43-year-old California native: Though he has built his career around manipulating the work of other musicians, the album predominantly features his own original compositions.
“My method’s always been to rethink some part of the process that’s going to put me out of my comfort zone and force me to embrace a new way of getting from point A to point B,” Davis says. That method has also included a career-long history of collaborations with artists ranging from Thom Yorke and Depeche Mode to Q-Tip and Run the Jewels, who guest on the new LP along with Nils Frahm, Ernie Fresh and others.
In advance of a September and October U.S. tour in support of The Mountain Will Fall, Davis recently spoke to RS about the future of sampling, the legacy of Endtroducing….. and why real hip-hop may be a bygone art form.
What led to you focusing on original material for this record?
In the process of making the last record, I started to realize that the way I think about sound and also the way I view a lot of contemporary platforms to create sound. To me, there’s three distinct disciplines when it comes to sound. One is the sample vocabulary, one is the live instrumentation vocabulary, and the third is synthetic sound vocabulary like drum machine, software synths, vintage synths. Once I realized all of them were essentially the same when it came to me sampling, it opened me up to being able to utilize whatever I wanted, and especially with the knowledge that in doing so I would be able to have my music occupy a much wider frequency range.
From a creative and a philosophical point of view, I’ve always tried to do this in my music and in my DJ sets as well. I think that’s one of the things that people kind of miss is that I have tried through the years to always update the tools and the message that I use to achieve the end result, which is the art that I make. To me, it’s just about having fun and finding more interesting ways to express yourself. I’ve just never wanted to imitate anybody else. I wanted to learn from all of my heroes, but I didn’t want to emulate them.
Obviously a lot has changed from a technology standpoint during the past 20 years. How has that affected your process?
Well, fortunately I still manage to hear music every day that blows my mind, and I still manage to hear ideas, new ideas when it comes to making beats, and new rhythm patterns. It’s just one of those interesting things to me where someone like DJ Rashad from Chicago who helped kind of cement the footwork sound, he’s not using any piece of gear that’s bespoke. He didn’t invent a piece of gear that allows him to do something nobody else can do. It’s just a simple idea of the way he puts his rhythms together that hadn’t been done before. In the same way that Juan Atkins in Detroit put his rhythms together in a way that hadn’t been done before or any of my peers through the years that I’ve looked to for inspiration. They’re doing things that are original, and a good original idea will always trump technology.
It’s sort of like when people say to me, “Anybody can be a DJ now and everybody is a DJ, so does that make your job harder?” And, to me, I just kind of shrug and tell them that when someone’s making music or putting together a DJ set, the most important questions for me would be have they spent a lot of time with contemporary music, have they considered the lessons of the past and applied them to the technologies that exist today.
Are there still just as many good ideas for you coming out of old, obscure records as there are from music coming out today?
Yeah, definitely. But the message has changed, and you have to be aware of that. I mean, the more time I spend on the Internet looking for interesting ideas, good music, the less time I need to do it looking in the bin. That doesn’t mean that I’m looking for old breaks on the Internet, because that’s not how I prefer to look for things like that, but when you talk about inspiration in music, I’ve always tried to look equally to legends from the past and also contemporary music through the years. For example, in 1987, records like LL Cool J’s Bigger and Better and discovering James Brown and P-Funk and things like that were new lessons to my then 13-year-old brain … As time goes on, you delve deeper into the past, and you open it up.
Now there’s drum ‘n’ bass, and now there’s dubstep, and now there’s these emerging new genres that didn’t exist five or six years ago. You can’t shut off one faucet without turning the other one on, and that, to me, is the recipe for how interesting new ideas can happen. It’s when you have a familiarity and an open-mindedness to new music and old music, because there’s a lot of lessons from the past. They get obscured, and they get lost, and when you can apply them to a very young, emerging type of vocabulary that’s brand new, I think there’s an increasing likelihood that something interesting or unique will happen. The minute you shut your mind off to what’s being done right now, I think you really limit your ability to make something genuinely new.
“The minute you shut your mind off to what’s being done right now, I think you really limit your ability to make something genuinely new.”
Talking about new music, what kind of evolution have you seen in hip-hop during the past 20 years?
As far as hip-hop, of course, it’s the age-old debate about hip-hop as a culture being born in one or two very specific neighborhoods in New York City in the early-to-mid-Seventies. I mean, you’re talking very specific intersections at parks and schools in the Bronx. Then later it expanded to Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, etc. To me, that New York doesn’t exist anymore. That time and place is gone. The music remains, but when I hear contemporary rap music, which I still love and support and listen to, I disassociate it from hip-hop because the cultural context is no longer inherent in the music. The music has taken on a life of its own outside of the cultural connotation. I enjoy contemporary rap, but it has very little in common with Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Islam and the roots of the music itself. It’s just something else entirely, which is as it should be.
That’s one of the reasons why when people ask what hip-hop I’ve heard in the last few years that I like a lot, I always have to say that if they’re talking about hip-hop in the traditional cultural context, I haven’t heard much, because usually anything recent that proclaims itself to be hip-hop means that it’s kind of longing for a time that doesn’t exist anymore, and as a result, artistically, it’s not very compelling to me, whereas rap is still an enduring art form in its own right. I mean hip-hop and the lessons I’ve learned as far as the original five elements, that’s permanently ingrained in my core, and in the way I view the world, and in the way I view music, and in the way I view everything.
But I also think there’s something inherently creatively bankrupt about making any kind of music that seeks to return to an era that doesn’t exist anymore. You can celebrate the past, learn from the past, you can long for the past, but then at a certain point you have to merge those sensibilities and those lessons and those ideologies with what’s happening right here and now. That’s what all of my heroes did back then. I decided long ago for myself that that’s how it would be done. You should understand the past and apply it to the present while looking towards the future.
Obviously streaming services, for good or bad, are a part of that future. You watched the industry move in that direction firsthand during the past two decades.
There’s so many things that have happened to the music industry in the last 15 years. We basically took 100,000 square miles and compressed it down to 1,000. Record label deals with artists ranging from the Beatles to the Eagles to you name it helped foster an environment where musicians felt supported in their art, and felt through that kind of mutual exchange with their fan base, that they were able to achieve artistic heights that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years prior. Now, remove the commerce from the equation, and you make it really difficult for a large number of artists.
“Anything recent that proclaims itself to be hip-hop means that it’s kind of longing for a time that doesn’t exist anymore.”
That’s one of the reasons I think that DJs have proliferated, because it’s very difficult to be a rock band in this era for simple monetary reasons. There’s so many boring, non-creative factors that go into being a successful recording artist of any genre, and I think that’s why almost everybody has to be solo. It’s the side that people don’t really want to talk about because it tends to be the same. It tends to be a rather severe discussion where people are entrenched in their own opinions about the subject, and nobody wants to reach across the aisle and see the other person’s point of view.
As a recording artist who existed before and now during the Internet, I know a lot of artists that no longer make music because they can’t afford to make it work for them. As a result, you have less people contributing to the idea pool and contributing to the competition. I think the good news is that there’s still a ton of music out there to be discovered, more than ever; it’s just that it all tends to come from a younger demographic who’re either living at home or have a support system around them where they don’t have to rely on music to make a living.
The face of sampling and musical influence has changed too, especially in light of the “Stairway to Heaven” case and other recent copyright suits.
I feel like in the last 20 years in this country, our society has kind of moved into this hyper-capitalist direction where the courts are used by any means necessary to obtain wealth. The irony is that music has never been worth less, and yet things like sampling are subject to this strict uber-capitalist usage of the law, and it’s gotten very skewed. To me, sampling does not involve reaching into somebody’s pocket and taking money out that existed. It actually involves creating a new revenue stream, and there can always be a discussion about sharing that revenue stream, but I don’t think there should be a discussion about there being some kind of evil, malicious intent to defraud or anything along those lines. My interpretation of sampling is that it’s part of a collage medium, and if there are 100 elements that make up a song, then you’d have to have a musicologist determine who owns what from that song.
As far as Spotify and the streaming stuff, I chose not to resist a tidal wave that I couldn’t possibly survive and just tried to take the path of least resistance as far as the business model that’s ever-changing, because I’m really just a piece of drift wood at this point, and when it comes to the ebbs and flows of what’s happening in the music business, it’s impossible for any one artist to keep their head above water on their own so I just went back to the art. I still feel lucky to be a recording artist. I still feel rewarded in my art and in my craft both intrinsically and extrinsically, and I just sort of chose to accentuate the positive.
It seems like age and experience would bring about that perspective, and for you that all started with Endtroducing….. Do you see the album differently now than you did as a 23-year-old making his first record?
I guess the only thing I can say is that I still am incredibly grateful for the impact that it had. My life didn’t go from pauper to prince or anything like that [laughs]. It wasn’t a money thing, but it was the type of record, and I’m not comparing it in terms of its artistic integrity, but one like The Velvet Underground [& Nico], where that record sold 100,000 copies, and it was bought by 100,000 artists. If that’s even remotely true with Endtroducing….., it would be an incredible thing to have achieved.
Being a student of music and reading about other artists and their aspirations, I know how difficult it is to connect in a meaningful way and have a record that endures for 20 years the way this one has, so I know how lucky I am. I know how grateful I am everyday that I managed to achieve that at least once in my lifetime.