There are times when you hear an album and it changes your whole perspective on music. Joshua Paul Davis AKA DJ Shadow, has done that with pretty much every album he has put out (four, not counting mixes, soundtracks and collections). If you pride yourself on being up on music, you already know. But readers too young to have been buying CDs at the time of his groundbreaking 1996 debut Endtroducing may need to be um, re-endtroduced. Suffice it to say he is a giant in the worlds of sample-based music and instrumental hip-hop–the rest you can get from the man himself. Read on to find out what he had to say when he connected with Okayplayer’s April Lanier about his new LP The Less You Know the Better, working with Little Dragon and the thrift-store epiphany that is C.E. Rabinowitz:
Okayplayer: It has been five years since you put out your album The Outsider, have you been working on it the whole time?
DJS: No I toured for a year behind the last album. Literally I think the same week I was set to finish that tour. I got a call from Cut Chemist. Who I had been friends’ for a long time and he said that the Hollywood Bowl had reached out and wanted us to do a headlining set for Brainfreeze, which was kind of a notorious mix CD that we had done. We didn’t want to do that so we put together a new show using all 45s, 8 turntables and all this other crazy stuff. We put so much energy into that show because it was the Hollywood Bowl and we didn’t want to hash that. So we ended up touring behind that for a year. So, it really took about 2 years on and off. But I would say a year and a half of consistent effort to get the record finished.
OKP: Would you say there is a cohesive story or idea behind the album?
DJS: Well, by the fact that you’re asking the question I’m assuming perhaps you were thinking it wasn’t very cohesive, haha. People say that every time I put out a record. Maybe after the 10th album, people will kind of go, Oh this is kind of what he does–he likes a lot of different kinds types of music and were kind of used to this now. But until then I don’t know; hip-hop taught me, it opened up my ears and in the process of looking for beats and looking for samples leads you to absorbing different types of music.
OKP: How has it been working with Tom Vek what’s your collaboration onstage like?
DJS: The vocals were the very last thing to be added to the record because for the last couple years I intended for the record to be instrumental. As it often happens when I near the end of a project I decided to break the rules, my own rules. I felt that a couple of the instrumentals would be better with vocals. I had been trying to find sample vocals for a year and couldn’t find anything that worked well. In case of Tom Vek, Little Dragon, Talib, Pos, there’s no one on the record that was a 2nd choice. I only wanted those people and if they weren’t able to do it then the song wasn’t going to be on the record. My favorite demo for the record didn’t make the record cause I couldn’t get who I wanted on it. “Scale It Back” and “Warning Call” were really important to me. I only reach out to people whose music I know really well and have affected me in some way. The Little Dragon song to me reflects everything that I was trying to do with the record. I think its beautiful and I think it’s challenging in the way that it’s put together and the way that it’s not the traditional verse, chorus, verse.
OKP: What about “Give Me Back The Nights”? What sample is that–or is it a sample?
It’s a sample. It’s another important record on the album. I worked really hard on the album trying to find elements that were off the map. I was thrifting one day in Sacramento and it was a dark cold January day. And you can get kind of melancholy when you thrift cause they play all this lonely music from your childhood. It can be kind of dirty cause you know you’re going through people’s stuff. It’s a weird feeling, and lots of times you don’t find anything. But I found this record, it had a weird quality to it and a strange cover of this guy partially obscured in a loincloth. It was sealed and that’s the funny thing with these types of records. They’re either beat up or sealed, there’s never any middle ground. I literally put it down and picked it up three different times. It’s a poem record essentially. All the poems on the record are whatever but then I dropped it on this one and was totally blown away. For people who look through millions of records in your lifetime, you know how rare it is to find a moment like this on a record like this. These moments of pure kind of primal release, especially records that have a religious content. I Googled it, there was nothing in Google. When I finally got a hold of the guy he basically said that he took most of the records to the dump. He kind of renounced it, it was a moment in his life that he was ambivalent about. That one moment on the record to me symbolizes a lot of what I went through on the process of making the record. What ends up on the record is only a small portion of the effort that it takes to convince all these elements into something that makes sense. There are tons of false starts, tons of dead ends, unfinished threads, and wasted time. I love that song for a lot of reasons. To me it represents a small victory in finding something really special and shepherding it to people’s ears without getting in the way of it.
OKP: What’s the artist name?
DJS: [His name is] C. E. Rabinowitz. This is just someone documenting a moment of pain in his life in the most unobtrusive and un-obstructive way that he could. And those moments are so rare, and those moments of honesty are always what I’m looking for in my own music that I’m making.
OKP: Can you sum up this album in a few words?
DJS: It’s my most well-rounded album. Entroducing will always be the debut, the introduction to people and the zeitgeist that it was, which was totally out of my control. The Private Press was a very worthy follow up and in some ways superior in many ways. Far be it from me to tell people what to think. The Outsider was the provocation–I intended this album to be more of an embrace.
The only thing that hurts about negative press is when people imply that I don’t care about my fanbase. And there could be nothing further from the truth. With this album I tried to find a nice middle ground between my own explorations, my own pace, my own sensibility but at the same time trying to make a record for my fan base that would be easy to like. I think my fanbase is behind it and that means the most to me.
OKP: I don’t know if you remember this but when you released The Outsider in 2006, you responded to a fan saying “Repeat Endtroducing over and over again? That was never, ever in the game plan. Fuck that. So I think it’s time for certain fans to decide if they are fans of the album, or the artist.”
DJS: I wasn’t responding to any one fan specifically. I replied in a matter that was defiant and a matter that was opinionated about the record I just made. I definitely think that I could have handled that whole episode better. I know that quote is often used as evidence that I don’t care about my fanbase. The more that you say and the more opinions that you offer the more chance that something is going to be taken out of context. And I’m not going to fall back on that old tired excuse about something being out of context. All I can say is that to the extent that it was seen as me being thin-skinned or defensive. I do regret that and–I mean, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. It was a relevant point because I did not understand until that time…I just sort of assumed if people like Endtroducing then they’re going to like everything I do. That was my own naïveté and I’ve learned since that that’s a ridiculous conceit.