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DJhistory classic interview: DJ Shadow

DJhistory classic interview: DJ Shadow

Californian DJ Shadow made his name as the sample-auteur of the trendy Mo’ Wax in London with his debut album Endtroducing in 1996. Since then, he’s forged a reputation as both a collector and DJ who stays one step ahead of the pack in his constant quest for new and interesting records. Juno Plus is proud to present Bill Brewster’s in-depth interview with Shadow from 2005.

When did you start collecting?

I had always been a collector. I collected baseball cards as a little kid and then when I was about 8 I started collecting comic books. Then I started getting into hip hop in about 82, you know, on the radio, listening to The Message and going to the store with my allowance and buying 12-inches and the few albums that existed then. From the moment I started buying vinyl, I was a collector. I mean the first 70 records I owned, I’d put a little sticker on them denoting the chronology of when I bought them. The first album I bought was Street Beats vol. 2 which was a Sugarhill Records compilation and I bought it because it was good value.

Anyone who was into that culture kinda gravitated towards one another and in my school there was perhaps only a dozen or so that were really into it. I remember this one kid who used to go to Sacramento quite a lot, which was the nearest major city to where I lived. He had access to some records that we weren’t able to find locally and when he decided to sell his collection I bought all his stuff, so I was always out there fiending. Then I started buying older stuff around ’87, because I started being obsessed about sampling and the samples that people were using and what they were; from my dad’s record collection I was able to start spotting certain samples. He had some Isaac Hayes records and some other jazz stuff like Clifford Coulter, jazz artists with semi-funky cuts on them.

I didn’t get into 45s until about late 1989, it was my senior year in high school which was 89-90. The impetus for that was this cat was staying in town, which was a college town, and he was the first guy I knew who had an SP1200. He was from New York and he claimed to have some sort of ties to the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production company. He had a big stack of 45s and I was looking through going, ‘What’s the point of these?’ I always thought 45s were just shorter versions of things you could find on albums or 12-inches. He said, ‘No no man, 45s are where it’s at.’ He proceeded to play me some and I remember General Crook’s ‘Gimme Some’ was one of them. I remember staring at the label.

Yellow and red label?

That’s right. So I thought, ‘Whoa, better start paying attention to 45s.’

What was it about vinyl collecting that got you?

I think initially it was this: I have a collector gene in my blood. Aside from the fact the music was everything to me. It satisfied multiple dimensions. It was tactile in the way that comic books are tactile. And yet, they spoke to you sonically as well. I was a collector, but I was never a collector that wanted to find everything in pristine condition or trying to find the rare versions of things until probably the mid ’90s.

But I guess if you’re into scratching you have to have a slightly throwaway attitude towards the records…

Yeah. Also I never thought of rap as being worth anything to anybody other than me. I was fiending for it on an educational basis more than anything. Also rap didn’t circulate back into the used market until the early 90s anyway, so you couldn’t really go to shops, nobody knew where to put this stuff and nobody was buying it anyway. It was marginal music. So just to clarify it for you, it wasn’t about that sort of collecting it was simply that I had to get my hands on as much stuff like this as possible.

Now you’ve accumulated this music what do you see your role as, curator, archaeologist, or just a DJ?

I have a close circle of friends who, when they come over, we geek out for a few hours on the stuff I don’t let out of my sight, the one of a kinds or whatever. But for the most part my records are stacked and they’re not in any order. I need a lot of stuff coming through the door, one for inspiration, two for DJ use, three for sample searching… there’s so many reasons I buy this stuff. I suppose in some ways, it’s obsessive compulsive, but I have this fear that one day I won’t be able to bring records in to the door any more. You know used record stores are closing down. So I want to make sure I’m not caught playing the last record, you know, I don’t have any more new records to play. There are obviously things I bought ten years ago that I never thought I’d listen to them again and now they’re quite interesting. As far as what I consider my role to be, I don’t have any grand illusions about what I’m doing, even though I know on a personally collection basis, it’s pretty large. But I don’t have a precious attitude about it.

Yes, but at the same time you did help exhume the career of people like David Axelrod, so even though it might not be the motivating force it is a by-product of it.

I overheard a phrase about eight or nine years ago: urban archaeology. And sometimes when it’s all clicking, in a unique environment, looking through records you’ve never looked through before, in a unique place in the country or in the world, there is an electrical charge that I get and I’m sure other people who dig get, when they feel like they are doing something noble, in a way. Even though they’re probably not.

“There’s so many reasons I buy this stuff. I suppose in some ways, it’s obsessive compulsive, but I have this fear that one day I won’t be able to bring records in to the door any more”

It’s almost like digging for bones in Egypt. There is that parallel.

Yeah. I mean there’ve been basements where there are rats running around, water seeping in from the Michigan River and you’re knee deep in it and you’re just sitting there thinking, ‘Shit, this is my one shot to get in here and rescue some stuff’. Possibly for the purpose of putting them on to a compilation reissuing things, or putting them on a mix so people appreciate and look for them. In its most noble form, and there are a lot of aspects of record collecting in which there is nothing noble, a lot of scummy people that engage in it.

Does your constant digging spoil your enjoyment of music itself?

I don’t think so. No. What hip hop taught me really early on and I always have to go back to hip hop because hip hop is what got me digging and hip hop is what got me appreciating other types of music. I didn’t have any respect for conventional rock’n’roll until I listened to what was being sampled in hip hop records. People sampling Black Sabbath breaks, Led Zeppelin. I hated the Beatles because I thought that was my parents’ trip. Growing up I loved music but I had a real resentment for anything that I felt was being shoved down my throat. I remember in about 1986 all those baby boomer acts like Stevie Winwood, George Harrison, Travelling Wilburys, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship were making really atrocious pop music and it was all really successful because my parents were buying it [laughs]. I just despised all that stuff. Ok, so you can’t hear any rap, but all you hear is this rehashed tripe. So it was only slowly that I began to appreciate and allow myself to appreciate other types of music and it was all through looking for samples and sort of adopting the hip hop aesthetic that anything can be applied. Kraftwerk are a textbook example.

Do you think your level of digging has forced other people to dig harder? Like I got the impression that Kenny Dope was pretty impressed by Keb’s extremes of digging.

That may apply to Kenny Dope but that man has been digging since before it was cool to do it, and he’s been producing hip hop records since 1988 and house records since about that time so far be it from me to say anything on his behalf. I can tell you what happened to me when I first came to England. I didn’t barely know what northern soul was. A guy named John Hillyard, who lived in… he actually died in his storage locker. I started coming to DJ here with James Lavelle. I’d been collecting funk. The only person I knew who did it was my good partner 8th Wonder, that was his graffiti name, we got into funk in a big way, but we start to do these big road trips. There was no reference point. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was no website that told us what to look for. There was nothing. So we listened to everything.

So you just turned up and looked in the Yellow Pages?

Yeah, old school, nothing scientific. We would only go 200 miles or so. We were not driving cross country. My first cross country trip was 1993. So 1991 and ’92 we were getting into all kinds of records some of which are still considered rare today, some of which we liked but aren’t considered rare at all. Then I came to England and I was at Mr Bongo and there was guy in there saying, ‘Do you have any of these funk 45s?’ And I remember Hugh saying, ‘No, but you might wanna try Soul Jazz’ So I said can I see that list? Anyway, to make a long story short, it was Malcolm Catto. He’d be saying, ‘You’ve got Spitting Image? Who are you?’  Post rare groove there wasn’t a funk scene. So I was intrigued by this person with this list, because I had some but there were others I didn’t. Our first trade was for Spitting Image I think because that was a Californian record and I had a few of them. Then I met Keb down at Camden Lock market when he had a stall there.

Do you regard your music as hip hop?

It’s the type of question that’s almost unanswerable. Hip hop is what got me interested in music as a career, hip hop is the paradigm through which I view everything. It was like my religion for lack of a better word (and I really don’t like the word at all). It was the screen through which I saw everything, be it politics, history or anything, it’s where I learned a lot, it’s what taught me most things about my life. So when I make music there’s a lot of good listening coming out through me, and I’ve spent over 20 years listening to this stuff so it’s hard for me to imagine that what I make isn’t hip hop, but at the same time I’m at the age where I don’t have the interest in restricting myself to one style or one scene or genre. I feel like I’ve learned more than that would allow me to do. I’ve moved beyond being just a purist.

“I overheard a phrase once: urban archaeology. And sometimes when it’s all clicking, in a unique environment, looking through records you’ve never looked through before, in a unique place in the country or in the world, there is this electrical charge that I get”

How do you feel about the price inflation when you’ve sampled a tune or used it on a mix?

Well, when I do see it, it’s usually the same three or four records that were always easy to find. It’s not like anybody’s pulling out this incredible break on this record that still nobody knows about. It’s the same three or four and trying to squeeze every last penny out of their lame record. It was sort of amusing at first, but now it doesn’t even register any more.

When you started making records only using other people’s records was that an aesthetic decision?

Yeah. What first got me into rap was the music. I heard the Message and Planet Rock almost at the same time and Planet Rock was being played as an instrumental on the radio for some reason. The Message was all about the lyrics. My favourite era in hip hop coincides with a very fertile moment in anybody’s musical listening, which is the 13-16 year bracket when your brain is like a sponge. I tried to dress like my idols, I put their records on my wall, started trying to go to concerts. During that era it was all about sampling. To me sampling was the Secret Knowledge that only a select few DJs in New York had. I was really intrigued and tantalised by that. On the rare occasion that a nugget of wisdom was divulged like in Rap Attack or in in Breakin’ where’s there’s a scene where you can see two of the records spinning. Any little moment where you can somehow grab some article. I used to buy the NME, Melody Maker and Soul Underground, because there was a newsstand that specialised in European magazines so I’d buy Melody Maker and there’d be Sweet Tee on the cover or NME with a five page feature on Just Ice. That just did not exist in the States. You could not get that here, not in Rolling Stone or Spin. Spin started changing in around 1987 with an article on Boogie Down Productions. You couldn’t read about hip hop. There was no Source magazine. There was no internet. None of the black magazines supported rap.

So when you’re in a studio, is it just a bag of samples, a sampler and you?

Well, yeah, but nowadays it’s mostly Pro-Tools based because it’s so much more flexible. I got tired of the rigidity of the way you have to use an MPC. The first two albums were all about me wanting to make a statement about sampling. I’m not really fussed now about whether I’m allowed to put a bass guitar on it. It’s not an aesthetic decision anymore. It used to be, because it was valuable to make those points and it may be again at some time but right now I feel really liberated being able to do whatever suits the track.

What’s the most trouble or danger you’ve gone through to get a record?

In the gatefold of Endtroducing you’ll see a picture of a gatefold cover and it says Blackout. It’s got these guys in costumes with a blue sky behind them. That’s a high school record from Oklahoma. Lyrics Born, who’s also been known to dig, but goes off on his own tangents, he was the first guy I ever talked about high school records with. He had this thing and I didn’t have it. He got it at a swap/meet in Oakland. So when I was in Oklahoma, right after Endtroducing came out, I went to Oklahoma to find this thing. I went with B+ who did the album cover; Chief Excel from Blackalicious. It snowed one night. I was going through the phone book calling people trying to crack this thing. Went to a music store and guy says, ‘yeah, I went to Douglas High, I might be able to get my hands on some of those in the morning.’ B+ was driving and the streets were icy when we woke up in the morning he was really unhappy about the situation. ‘Dude, I don’t know, this is messy’. So we get in the car and cars are sliding all over the road. Eventually we slid hard into the kerb. He said, ‘Look this is madness’. I was in the backseat, ‘OK well I’m going’ and started walking… it was one of the moments when I wasn’t going to be deterred.  You do end up in funny parts of town or in uncomfortable situations. A lot of these people are pack rat and anti social so you don’t know what they’ve got up their sleeve… sometimes you take these big leaps of faith. We went to look at this guy’s records with a buddy of mine. This guy was really big, he always had this weird expression on his face, and he was socially strange. He said, ‘I’ve got a bunch of records’. We met him at his place and of course it’s out in the woods in Pennsylvania. Before we went in, we agreed: OK, if either of us gets uneasy about the situation, the code is ‘I have to go and pick my sister up at the airport’ and then we hightail it out of there. He let’s us in and it’s in the cellar. So…

Did you find anything?

Yeah, a few things, it was worth the trip.

What makes a great DJ?

Someone who can read the crowd. It has nothing to do with the skills. The skills are a plus. The ability to read a crowd and keep the crowd moving is what matters. And I don’t think by any means I’m the best in that category. I didn’t grow up DJing for people. First time I ever DJed in a club was 1993 in Germany.

So you became a DJ through your records?

Yeah. I was a mix DJ. I did all that at home. I always thought, growing up in the late 80s I didn’t know what future rap had for itself then, not that I thought it was gonna end, but it wasn’t a money thing. I knew at some point I’d have to earn a living. I always thought I might be a club DJ playing Expose and Tone Loc or Miami Bass.

Was it a steep learning curve coming from that angle?

I remember playing You Know How To Reach Us by Kings of Pressure, which is like a downtempo, intense hip hop record and I thought, ‘mm, maybe I should keep it a bit more uptempo and moving’. It didn’t take long to figure out. After five or six dates on that tour, I thought I was starting to hit. Also, I’d never been to Europe before so I didn’t know what people knew. I got around it by playing a convincing set of what I liked and what was hot back home. My big problem today is that my tastes tend to be very male and aggressive. I can listen to hard funk all night long but most of the people that come to those nights they fall in there and wanna have a good time. They don’t care whether the record is unknown or not. I’ll always play a few James Brown records that cost five quid, just for the sake of it.


Interviewed by Bill Brewster, Jul 7, 2005