Shadow of Doubt

DJ Shadow interview

DJ Shadow seems confused. Confused and dejected. As if he can’t work out how to finish a puzzle, and all the other kids in the playground are laughing at him. He’s most vexed, though, that they’re all playing with the puzzle too and having a rum old time. It’s all a bit awkward, and during our chat he seemed to be waiting impatiently for the bell to go and break time to be over.

Since releasing his jaw-dropping album ‘Endtroducing’ in 1996, he’s been dipping in and out of the international music scene. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt? Well he doesn’t actually seem to like the t-shirts. In fact, he seemed so disconcerted with these symbols of prestige, he’d be more likely to go naked in the Arctic, goose-pimpled arms crossed in a stance of onlooker-less rebellion, than wear his t-shirt with pride.

Make no mistake, Joshua Davis seems like a nice man – articulate, polite and very thoughtful. And given his musical accolades to date, artistically gifted. He knows his music. Obsessively, compulsively and often begrudgingly. But his success seems less to buoy his spirits than to serve as a thorn in his side. A reminder of how it was. Way back Then. When him and Qbert were boys, men were men, and music was how it should be.

You might not remember Then but he can’t seem to forget it. ‘Then’ was, in fact, quite Bristol-based. Having been signed by Mo’ Wax, DJ Shadow became synonymous with the development of instrumental hip hop, and consequently trip hop. And pioneering that scene were the likes of Tricky, Massive Attack and Portishead. So it turns out, as a city we have an affinity with Mr Shadow, who first wanted to “inject his personality” into America’s hip hop scene. Thanks to the support from UK-based James Lavelle, this personality first shot out in England. Right around here. Bristol. He remembers it landing:

“I have a lot of good memories there. I used to play back in the early ‘90s, we used to play in this dancehall club…Bristol was always one of those places we’d go to in the Mo’ Wax days and we didn’t have to worry if it was going to be any good. It was always good because Bristol always seemed to be very up on what we were trying to bring to the table.”

Having started his music career at home, all the way over there in sunny Californ.i.a, it seems strange that he found himself representing the alternative sound of the West Country. “I think the fact that I was from the US made it kind of exotic for some people, and made people feel as though it was legitimate and something that’s happening, and they should be paying attention to it because it seems to be spreading round the globe”.

Of course, it would only be natural to ask an international DJ slash producer slash musician slash downbeat cogitator what his thoughts of our fair city are now: “You know I just think it’s a great town in England.” He acknowledged his answer may have sounded a touch condescending, but said it anyway.

And on the apparently controversial subject of ‘now’, talk turned to his new album, ‘The Less You Know The Better’, and how the name came about. There were, apparently, two reasons behind it – the first being “the mass communication that we all find ourselves distracted by”. Yes, it’s easy to imagine that digging through hours, years, eons worth of vinyl for That. Perfect. Beat. can become tiresome if you’re being texted every five minutes with reminders to pay your phone bill.

Therein lies the second reason behind the title. The sad one. It takes dedication, passion and deep-rooted love of music to do what DJ Shadow does. ‘Entroducing’ was lauded, if a little inaccurately, as the first album to be made entirely of samples, and each of those samples was searched for high and low. But what was initially an impressive and innovative method of music making, has now been rendered almost obsolete by the advent of file sharing, downloading, and all the loopholes in the world wide web that mean we have access to everything all the time. He explains that “…as far as the discipline in what I do: it just doesn’t seem to be respected that much in the way people make music now. And with so much information online, I think a lot of people just assume it’s as easy as snapping your finger”. You can genuinely sympathise with him – in as much as there are people out there who appreciate the old-fashioned ways, who fly the analogue flag with pride, who like a rummage in a record shop, they are becoming few and far between. He seems resigned to a life of self-inflicted torture, stating with a sigh that “The process that I use to make the music that I make has never been more painstaking”.

So it seems paradoxical that the man who’s devoted his life to finding out more, searching for more, always looking to expand his knowledge, his music and his samples, is now working towards the paradigm ‘The Less You Know The Better’. He confesses, “I wrote it as a message to myself in my studio log in big black letters. And I don’t remember writing it. But it’s just always been there on the first page in my studio log, covering the entire page…I just kept coming back to that page.”

The way we make music is constantly evolving. Yet Shadow is refusing to embrace this change, as if he’s digging his heels in and trying to stop evolution: holding the ape’s hand high in victory. He’s full of contradictions. He doesn’t like online music sharing, yet there’s a remix competition (with all stems available) on his website. He hates promo work but is speaking in an interview. If all this was down to publicity, you wonder why he has bothered, as he vocally maintains the fact he doesn’t care what people think of his sound.

For many people, Shadow has created some amazing and inspirational music. He’s dedicated his life to a unique process of music production that makes sampled and live music indistinguishable. One that he has mastered, and on some levels he acknowledges this, “There’s a few songs on the album that are 100% sampled and I think they’re as close as I’ve ever come to realising that really blurred line”. If only he’d be more proud of what he does. Hold his head high. Realise that the kids in the playground aren’t laughing at him. They were only asking if he wanted to join in. And if he tried hard enough, he might even have some fun. It is playtime after all.
Published in Venue (a new defunct magazine) yonks ago so no link.