Fifteen years ago, DJ Shadow released Endtroducing…, a timeless masterpiece that secured his legacy as a pioneer of instrumental hip-hop and inspired several generation of beatmakers. With his latest The Less You Know, The Better, released last month on Verve, the legendary turntablist returns to his roots after experimenting on his confrontational and polarizing 2006 album The Outsider. He speaks here about recalibrating people’s expectations, performing in the Shadowsphere, and meeting Francois Mitterand in the sixth grade. This interview by Lainna Fader.
You’ve said you have the collector gene in your blood—who else in your family is a collector and what do they collect?
One common thread I’ve noticed among collectors is that many come from lower-middle class backgrounds, where they were often denied ‘frivolous’ purchases, for obvious reasons. I suppose that was the case with me. I grew up collecting baseball cards first, because they were cheap and plentiful. From there I moved into comic books, and then sold them all to buy—new—rap records around ’85-’86.
How do you think growing up when you did and where you did influenced the music you make?
A positive component of the gravitational pull of the tech sector in the ’70s and ’80s was the influx of highly educated dreamers. In some ways, they helped prolong the utopian ideal that California has always represented. Growing up in a small University town—Davis—there were ideas and experiments happening constantly. I met Francois Mitterand when I was in 6th grade. He came to our ‘experimental’ neighborhood to evaluate our solar program. The press trampled our flowerbed. I’ve also gained a lot of respect for Davis since reading the book Our Band Could Be Your Life. There are several examples of bands who gained a following there before anywhere else. I guess the sons and daughters of dreamers had a lot going on upstairs.
You talk a lot about your hip-hop background, but the samples you use show that you’ve got an incredible range of musical knowledge—who first taught you that you should embrace all music?
The very first rap record I ever bought was a Sugar Hill Records compilation that contained The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel. Right there, on that one cut, is the basis for everything I do. Buy it and listen for yourself. No one told Flash he couldn’t mix disco with Queen and children’s records. This is a lineage that goes back to the mid-late ’70s.
How is the new record, The Less You Know, The Better, ‘a return to form’? How does it fit into the DJ Shadow discography?
If it is a return to form, it’s in that I’m back to the sample discipline primarily, and almost exclusively. On the last record, I dabbled into other ways of making beats. And that’s not to say I won’t return to that as well—I may return to that at some point—but on this record, I really wanted to zoom in on taking samples and trying to change my mindset as opposed to ‘more more more’ and ‘faster faster faster’—all the ways you can fool yourself into thinking that you’re doing something interesting as a producer. More cuts. More samples. Throw the whole kitchen sink in there. On this one, I kinda wanted to let the samples breathe a little bit. Thematically, I wasn’t trying to provoke as much as I was on The Outsider. The Outsider was a record I felt I had to do, and I felt I had to do it to clear the slate, and allow myself to start over and start fresh.
What mindset were you in when you went into and came out of making the record?
Going in, I pretty vividly remember—I was poking at collecting a bunch of samples on and off while I was doing other work for the first half of ’09, and then when I finally got into the workspace that I set up, which was away from home and away from everything, within about a day and half of sitting down by myself, with just my records and my gear, I was pretty amazed at how quickly I was able to get back to that level of concentration that I hadn’t really had the luxury of giving myself in quite some time. I felt really thankful for that. I suppose that the overarching feeling during that first session was gratitude at what The Outsider had allowed and had achieved in terms of recalibrating people’s expectations. And I realize that’s a pretty generous way of putting it. I know a lot of people had a lot of problems with that record, but for me, that record was a gift because it allowed me to work on this one. I allowed myself more time with this album to sequence since the first album. In the very end, I think I found a sequence that really worked for me, and I was really concerned with it prior to that moment.
You’ve said, ‘The more music that you make and the longer you’re doing it for, the more you realize how seductive it is to sort of slip back into old habits or slip back into a mode that feels nostalgic or familiar.’ How do you keep yourself from making the same kind of music every time given the success of Endtroducing?
My recipe is continuing to listen to other kinds of music. I grew up on hip-hop—primarily 80s hip-hop, because that’s when I was growing up—and I continue listening to ‘80s hip-hop, the stuff that I didn’t hear at the time, that I’m discovering now because it’s still so rare. But since then, I’ve taken in a number of musical hybrids, whether it’s dance music or rock music or whatever. And also, I’ve allowed myself to explore other styles of old music. That’s one of the reasons I’m not so prolific—I don’t want to put out a record that says the same thing as the last one, that carries the same message or emotion or theme. I like to give myself a lot of time to study what other people are doing and learn new things, and whether it’s contemporary music or older music, that’s what I spent most of my time doing when I’m not making my own music.
You’ve described yourself as a ‘long term artist’—what does that mean?
I sometimes use the term ‘artist’ or ‘musician’ because it’s the easiest term available to describe what I do to other people. But I don’t consider myself a grand artist in the pretentious sense. I don’t consider myself to be a gnat on an elephant compared to most of the people I respect and admire who make music. As far as how long I do it for, I do love listening to other people’s music and attempting to make my own. Whether or not its relevant to other people determines to what extent I share with people what I do. I can continue to tinker around in my lab after I return from my day job, and whether or not that music sees the light of day really depends on other people’s enthusiasm.
Posdnuos from De La Soul said the key to their longevity is a determination to be part of the game—what’s the key to yours?
Probably a desire to contribute. I’ve always tried to put out music that I feel is unique in the landscape and for that reason, often what I put out seems out of step to people, or doesn’t feel contemporary, or like what it’s supposed to. Sometimes when you have DJ in your name, people assume that you make club music—or dance music—and I’ve never ever done that. I can barely even make proper hip-hop. I think sometimes that confuses people. The term ‘DJ’ is pretty loaded, and in 2011, it’s probably as relevant as—well, I’m trying to think of a really cliché metal name, but you know what I mean. Nowadays if you make electronic music, your name is supposed to be two syllables and sound sort of like a shortened text with an ampersand or an A with a circle around it and all that stuff. I totally realize that—I totally realize that there isn’t much about me that says 2011, other than the fact that I’m still here and I’m still contributing and I’m still passionate about what I do.
A lot of DJs now incorporate video into their sets these days, but you took the performance aspect of a show much further with your Shadowsphere. Cut Chemist told me that he’s found it harder for people to see DJs as performance artists without elaborate stage productions these days. Did you feel any pressure to add something more to your concerts to make it more of a show?
I was given the unique opportunity to be a DJ who wasn’t stuck in the DJ tent at all these festivals. When you play the European festival circuit, often the rock bands get the main stage, especially in the late 90s. And I was given the opportunity to show what I do on a large stage, with a large audience, and I just felt it was my duty to make an entertaining show. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a celebrity DJ. I don’t take my shirt off or stage dive. I came up in an era when being a DJ was sort of a solitary pursuit—something you didn’t do to get famous. But I felt it my obligation to put together a show that would be just as entertaining as any band that was going to grace that stage that day. I started doing that in 2002 and continued all the way up to now. The concept is the same—basically to not yet let being a DJ stand in the way of playing next to any performer out there. I feel pretty confident that I can follow most acts, or precede most acts, and be respected, or at least tolerated.
DJ SHADOW WITH THE GASLAMP KILLER ON SUN., OCT 23 AT THE MUSIC BOX, 6126 HOLLYWOOD BLVD. 8PM / $30 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. DJ SHADOW ON MON., OCT 24 AT AMOEBA MUSIC, 6400 SUNSET BLVD. 6PM / FREE / ALL AGES. AMOEBA.COM