"It's Not About Grails...it's About Serendipity:" DJ Shadow on Sampling & Digging in The Discogs Era [Interview]
Ahead of his expansive sixth studio album, Our Pathetic Age, the legendary producer, DJ, and record collector, reflected on his career, detailing new revelations from the studio, as well as a complicated, yet still evolving, relationship with sampling as a beatmaker.
Though’s he’s been occasionally referred to as one of sampling’s great legitimizers, Joshua Davis, better known to most as DJ Shadow, is a little reluctant to accept the title.
But as a pioneer of the production method — and a collector whose stock has grown north of 60,000 pieces over four decades of record hunting and researching — Davis is acutely aware of the weight, physical and emotional, that accompanies an unending pursuit of new source material. His approach has evolved, as any producer with more than 20 years of credits might, but his mission remains anchored to perpetual refinement, exploration, and composing music that is at once of its time and beyond it.
All of this factors into the elements that make his new album, Our Pathetic Age, as ambitious and experimental as anything in Davis’ vast catalog. Front-loaded with a searching and unrelenting instrumental suite to lead the back half’s blitz of bars from rap royalty — with features from De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, Run The Jewels, Pusha T, and more — the set is expansive in both its runtime and citations by any set of metrics. But also hosts something for every denomination of Shadow fan, seasoned or newfound.
During a recent stop in NYC, we caught up with the legendary producer to discuss the state of his current digging habits, how they’ve changed as the vinyl market’s consolidated and moved online, and whether the Discogs era of vinyl has influenced his craft as a beatmaker and a self-proclaimed “pseudo-musicologist.”
DJ Shadow’s Our Pathetic Age is out today via Mass Appeal Records. Stream it below and scroll on for the full chat.
There are a lot of records we can point to before Endtroducing — your 3 Feet High and Rising, Paul’s Boutique, these masterpieces of densely-stacked sound collaging — that are testaments to sampling as a production method. Why do you think people tag you and Endtroducing, specifically, as this gateway to a new world of production?
I can’t speak to why people do or don’t do stuff, but I think in the case of Endtroduing, maybe it has more to do with it just sounding so different, by virtue of the fact that there’s no MCs on the record. I never wanted to make instrumentals that sound like they need a rapper. Figure if I’m going to make instrumental music, it should give me artistic license to do anything I want. I can change tempos, I can go off and have two minutes of just sort of ambiance. I can go over here, I can do that.
But I know for a fact that a lot of people within hip-hop were like, “This doesn’t sound like hip-hop to me.”
In previous interviews, you seemed kind of ambivalent towards sampling today. Has your relationship with it changed over the years?
In 1984 I used to have my dad take me down to the music store in San Jose, and I would be like, “Just come back in like eight hours,” because what I wanted to do in 1984 and 1985 was Egyptian lover shit. Synths, drum machines, Jamie Jupiter, all those productions. That West Coast-like electro Kraftwork shit, basically. And that was a part of me in the same way that 2 Live Crew was a part of me, in the same way that Geto Boys was a part of me, in the same way that Mannie Fresh and Three 6 Mafia were apart of me through the years. Like I’ve always had an open mind to music that has nothing to do with samples.
Another answer I could give you is it’s hard working in a hyper-capitalist society trying to make illegal music. Another answer I could give you is that, to me, as a producer, the more tools I have in my tool belt, the more potent I can be and the more I can shorten the distance between idea and execution as somebody trying to express themselves. There’s a song on the record called “Firestorm,” where it’s like, OK, in a classical sense, what are the correct string instruments to layer to convey a certain emotion? I want to have that knowledge the same way I want to have the knowledge of what that breakbeat was for X, Y, and Z song.
And in the same way, I want to know what this fucking snare is that’s in everybody’s production in 2019 — what sample pack it’s from? To me, it’s all just knowledge. As a music maker, as a producer, as a beatmaker, what I realized is it doesn’t matter whether that kick drum is from Octopus Breaks or a drum machine or a live session or whatever. It’s all sound.
And if it isn’t that I want it — it’s that I want to know what it is because it’s my job. And as a kind of pseudo musicologist, it’s interesting to me when you hear the same thing pop up over and over. Just as it was when I didn’t know what “Ashley’s Roach Clip” was and that stab that this person’s scratching on “One For the Treble” by Davy DMX. There it is again. What is that sound? Why do these guys know what that is and I don’t?
I imagine even the most notorious samples had their moment of discovery.
Every single one of them. What people on the east coast sometimes won’t understand is that Ultimate Beats and Breaks didn’t make it to the West. There was no distribution network that brought those records over. The first time I ever saw it was 1990. And that was because a guy I knew in Oakland had been out there and brought back these super crate worn versions of that iconic one with the skull and the gold teeth and the chain. It was like a scroll.
So you were really relying on people that were coming out from here in those earlier days?
Yeah, but I also remember reading Spin Magazine and Biz Markie had his top five breakbeats, and one of them was [The] Skull Snaps. [And I was like] “What the fuck is Skull Snaps?”
But where I lived, it was as easy as, all right, let me go down to Recycle Records. Skull Snaps? Cool, $2.99. That’s how easy it was back then. Records were everywhere.
That’s wild. When I was really starting to do the research, those compilations were an amazing resource to have. But I’ve also heard a lot of producers were not big fans of people having such direct access to the source material.
You know what, man? First of all, they’re incredible. But, to me, they’re incredible just in terms of the impact they had on popular culture. Obviously it starts with Zulu Beats. Then it goes to Octopus Breaks, and then Ultimate Beats and Breaks. And if it wasn’t for Africa Islam and Bambaataa and everybody finding 90% of those records, those wouldn’t exist. And I will say, my opinion is at least 90% of the records we all love come from those records. I remember hearing the version of “Amen, Brother” that’s on Octopus Breaks and it’s such a fucked-up sounding recording, but it’s like, that’s where Special K and Teddy Ted pulled from. That’s the version. Just like the copy of “Impeach The President” on Ultimate Breaks and Beats where the static is in between the kicks and the snares and the high hats.
Jesus, that’s your marker? That’s a pretty granular detail.
The sea change for me was “Peter Piper.” Obviously, I had heard the little “duh duh duuum” used on records, like, again, “One for the Trouble.” But nobody ever just let the beat play with the bells. And then you hear that little radio voice going through the beat. And I just used to hear that over and over. It wasn’t until 2014, when we did the tour with Bambaataa’s actual records, that I realized the magic for him and for a lot of the Zulu beats records and radio shows, was drums, plus weird sound. It’s so interesting because there’ll be breaks in his collection that didn’t get used and aren’t all marked up that are just drums and it seemed like they just didn’t have enough character.
So you’ve got to go fuck it up with something?
Yeah. Or add a weird dub effect or something that just made it have character. I’ve never lost that thirst to understand.
Would you say that earlier you were letting the sample itself do a lot more of the work?
Yeah, but that’s just what you did back then. To me, it was more like isn’t the selection of sounds that I’m offering interesting? But then you do it and it’s like, OK, I want to do different things. It’s about an evolution as a beatmaker, but also a music lover. I don’t understand how you can be aware that something is happening within your profession and not want to have an understanding of it.
I feel like there are some folks assuming producers are just people with really expensive taste. And that’s fair in some cases, but the songs you sample on this album are not from grail records. They’re pretty obscure, but not rare or inaccessible in any way.
You just hit on it. I like occupying a space where nobody else is. It’s not about grails. It’s about serendipity. It’s about being on a wavelength. Being receptive to new ideas and new resources and new perspectives. Something like that Phoenix Singers album, I would’ve never picked that up 10 years ago. I’d be like “Early-’60s? Nah. There’s not going to be any drums on this.”
Once you’ve been making music with samples for a long time, you just want to start exploring other vistas. Your typical 1972 sub-major label rock record, after a while you’ve heard them all in a way. But there’s so much out there still.
You think so? With Discogs basically owning the market and pricing for vinyl, sometimes it feels like everything’s being consolidated and price-gouged. I’ve talked to a lot of collectors and shop owners who are kind of worried about where it’s all headed.
But at the same time, five billion songs just got uploaded. The bottom line is: do people listen to music or don’t they? Still, on any given day, I’ll process a couple of dozen records I bought from wherever. And it’ll be some major label, white label promo from 1978 — doesn’t exist on Discogs. Two hits on Google. Some fell through the cracks. And people are very myopic, sure. They move in groups and it’s like this record, that record. And I get it because I was the same way. It’s like I want to know what that breakbeat is. But it had nothing to do with money back then. No records were expensive. I remember walking into a shop in 1993 or 1992 and seeing this guy opening copy after copy of Maceo & All The King’s Men, checking for warps. And I was like, “How much is that?” He’s like, “They’re $10 bucks.” And I turned to XL from Blackalicious, I was like, “$10? Fuck this.” I had never paid $10 for a record before.
And just like, why? On what basis is it $10? All records are $2 or $3 or $4 or $5. And slowly it became a money thing as the reissues started coming out and the boutique record stores started coming up. And then, by the late-’90s, it was on, obviously. But I was never really into throwing a lot of money at records. And it’s not because I’m a cheapskate. I’d still end up paying. [I would] go into A1 or something in the late-’90s, early 2000s and somehow spend three grand, but I’d be leaving with…crazy records. And they’d give me a deal on this and that.
But I was just as interested in some Downtown Science acetate for $2 as I was the Professor Lett album or the Del Jones album.
I guess at the end of the day, rare records tend to be expensive, but expensive records aren’t always that good. At which point, you have to wonder who’s setting those prices.
Yeah, and I’ve always had this feeling where, if it all ended tomorrow, I have so much music to enjoy. And in 1980, ’81, ’82 — before I had a career — that’s all that mattered to me. There’s still so much to experience. Just the other day, I dropped the needle on an Isley Brothers’ record because I was like, “It’s probably been 25 years since I listened to this album.” I just listened to it front to back, cleaning it up, and I’m like, “You know what? It’s kind of amazing how a lot of “diggers and collectors” really just don’t listen unless it’s a grail.
Does your relationship with a record or a song change after you’ve sampled it and gone through the legal gauntlet to get it cleared?
It’s a sacred thing. A gift. Especially when you go through the process of clearing it and everything. It’s heavy, it’s weighty. I’ll have conversations with my legal team where I’m like, “Please let them know this is intended as the highest respect.” This isn’t just some kid running around stealing this or that. Although let’s be honest, there’s an element of that within what I do.
I think sampling by design is subversive.
Yes. And so, I mean something like Catarina Valenti or Samantha Jones. I mean, I’ve been lucky enough to meet several people through the years that I’ve sampled and it’s a heavy experience.
What do those discussions sound like?
I was thinking just specifically about this guy Jules Blattner who had an album come out on Buddha in around ’69, ’70. And it’s an obscure album. It was for Uncle, the science fiction album. It was cleared, but back then I wasn’t doing the clearing, it was the label and whoever else. But I think I was playing St. Louis and he was out there for some reason. I got word that he wanted to come to the show and I was like, “Yeah, I’d definitely give him a backstage pass and everything. I’d love to meet him.” And he had a very cool attitude. He was like, “Yeah, man, I get these checks every six months and it’s great. That’s what you are going for. You’re going for this idea that somebody feels validated a little bit on some level.
To me, that’s the highest form this sampling exchange can take. Where the people that never really got a look are finally able to collect the check on it. That’s beautiful to me.
It’s beautiful as long as it’s equitable. What I mean is that a lot of times the problems come when there’s a skewed concept of how much money is being generated or how much income is supposed to be received. And, it’s like, if a song only makes $500, how are you thinking you’re owed $50,000? And unfortunately, conversations like that aren’t constant.
I guess there’s a lot of misinformation on what these splits are supposed to be.
It’s a lot of things. And unfortunately, sometimes it’s not being treated well by the industry the first time around.
Can you speak a little bit to sound design in terms of beat making? I’m not sure how many producers or listeners are thinking about that right now in what they’re hearing.
Not in hip-hop. And that, to me, is key. Sound design is the biggest innovation in the last 10 years to me as a beatmaker and as a music maker. And the possibilities. That’s truly interesting. And that’s why, to me, it’s cool to sample something, but way cooler to sample it, fuck with it, re-sample it, fuck with it some more, re-sample that. And by the time you’re done with it, it just sounds like no sound. It doesn’t sound like a synth, it doesn’t sound like a sample, it doesn’t sound like anything identifiable and that becomes exciting.
Right. It becomes something singular unto itself. Creating and then owning the sound palette.
Yeah. And then if you can do that to every kick and every snare and every hi-hat and every fill. And I hate to say it, but it’s always such an absurd question to me when people talk about why stuff sounds different now than it did in the Entroducing era. For one thing, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t understand anything about how to mix or control sound in any way. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it in the same way that there’s nothing wrong with how on “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, he starts to sing two bars too soon and they just leave it in.
But my point is the amount of time I spend shaping every single component of the sound is one of my proudest developments as an engineer and a producer. I have so much more of an understanding of what’s required to make the end result sound the way I’d like it to. I used to just be frustrated. Just sit there and go, “I don’t get it.” But now, I’ll spend two days just cleaning the sample. And sometimes you do it and it doesn’t end up clearing and that can be tough to swallow because you got to face your family at dinner. But to me, that’s part of the process and it’s part of honoring the source material. I use words like that a lot because to me, I want to have that relationship with my music. I want it to be pure. I want it to be 100% for the right reasons.
I’ve always seen it as an expression of reverence. Certainly not as pulling off some grand heist.
Although let’s be honest, that era did exist. In other words, if [MC] Hammer hadn’t cleared Rick James.
Sure, or what Bad Boy used to do, just sampling classics to flex, which is not different than what Khaled’s doing right now by remixing songs that were huge only like 10 years ago.
Sure. And I don’t know if you feel the same way, but it fucks with me how in, let’s say, in 1987, the James Brown records people were using were only 15 years old. And now like when I think of 15 years ago, it’s like, “Hey Ya.”
I guess it’s true that what music sounded like in 2004 isn’t that different than where we’re at right now.
Do you know what that’s called?
Honestly, I don’t really know what to attribute it to.
I have a theory that we don’t really have time for. But it’s called “cultural stasis.”
Like we’re stuck?
If you look at people on the street in a photo in 2004, they’re going to look exactly the same as they do now. Now imagine like 1974 and 1989. Same time span, but could not be more different. So I think you can talk about movies, you can talk about television, but I know it’s related to the internet in some way. I don’t know know how yet. But I know the internet basically threw up this strange fracture in the ability of culture to incubate. That it interrupts the incubation process and makes everything stillborn.
Like culture can’t get beyond itself anymore?
Not when everything’s always everything.
Because it all keeps getting funneled back in and never actually completes a cycle of influence?
Yeah, but interestingly, I do think there have been innovations in music, as I alluded to earlier. But it’s so much slower than it used to be. Everything’s so much slower.
And that runs entirely against the narrative that it’s all hyper-speed now, which isn’t true anymore and maybe never was.
Well, yeah. None of what we were told is true.