Cali High: DJ Shadow
By Eric Demby
If you left Tramps before DJ Shadow made his New York live debut late one night last month, you missed more than just a mind-bending performance. The heads that remained were quickly sucked in by the sick elephantine beats that typify Shadow's sound, as heard on his masterful debut album, Endtroducing.....DJ Shadow (MoWax/ffrr). Included in the mix was a reworking of the brilliant pipe-organ-fueled track "Organ Donor," which got the small core of fans wide-open at the same time enlightening them about the varieties of the hip-hop experience. Shadow is unique in that not only is he a purveyor of fine beats, he's also on a bit of a mission. "Hopefully it sort of broadened a lot of minds," Josh Davis (aka Shadow) says from his home in Davis, California, of his recently completed U.S. tour, "by showing people that don't normally listen to hip-hop that it's a vast genre, it's not all one thing as some people think."
At the age of 24, the northern California native (he's lived in Davis since attending the state university there he graduated in 1995 with a double major in computer engineering and rhetoric) is the most visible artist in a virtually faceless offshoot of hip-hop that is by its indefinable nature label-resistant ("trip-hop" has, reluctantly, become a sort of catchall). The rise in popularity of turntables and samplers, as well as their affordability compared with traditional instruments, has given birth to a generation of kids who are just as content bobbing their heads to a fat beat and a funky groove as they are memorizing every rhyme in a Beastie Boys song. "One of the greatest things hip-hop culture gave to I was gonna say to the kids of the world anyone in the world is that it was always about taking what was around you and making it accessible to anyone, making music out of what was already done." Hip-hop has always known this, snatching snippets from funk and soul, even reaching back to jazz. "I think instrumental music is different from rap instrumentals," Davis says, "and I think a lot of what passes off as instrumental hip-hop is just sort of beats. It sounds like a resume to give to a rapper."
What sets Shadow and other creators of instrumental DJ-based music apart is the revolutionary idea of expanding the musical palette to include any sound ever recorded and then manipulating or rearranging whatever is sampled beyond recognition, so that the new noise is entirely the DJ's own. Every heavy drum beat, haunting melody or driving bass line on Endtroducing is culled from Shadow's enormous record collection and then tweaked, using a sampler or sequencer, so that each song, as well as the album as a whole, is really a construction, a sonic collage. Whether it's the supercharged jump-up beats of "The Number Song," the melancholy "Stem/Long Stem" or the runaway rhythm of "Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain," Shadow never stops keeping you guessing or thinking. What's amazing is that as varied as each track is often switching tempo several times within a single song after listening to the album to its conclusion, it's impossible to come away unmoved or without a sense of Shadow's style. "It's important to me that the album sounds like there's a thread that runs through it," he says. "All my favorite albums are meant to be absorbed in one sitting, and also sound good just to visit."
Producing this overarching vibe required more than just an idea for a theme; Shadow's creative process was key to attaining his goal. "I would work for a couple weeks on a song and then before it was done just quit and start another song, so they were all sort of building up at the same time," he explains. "There was never a song that was finished before another song until the last month. Tracks tend to change and evolve away from their original intent, usually for the better."
As far as what Shadow is trying to convey through his music, it's not so much a specific feeling as it is an awareness that a human is behind the sounds you hear. Declining to nail down exact meanings, Shadow does say that, "Every song on the record, if it makes you feel somewhat alienated or if it makes you feel like having a good time or if it makes you somewhat melancholy, that's all pretty accurate." He actually wrote and sang lyrics for "Stem/Long Stem," believing that he needed to for the song to feel finished, even though he knew they wouldn't end up on the final version.
With the spotlight shining so brightly on him, perhaps DJ Shadow should think about changing his name. But at his Tramps show, it was clear that the name fits: Even after DJing with the San Fran duo Latyrx, some people weren't even aware that he was in the house. Shadow, as always, is quick to highlight the positive: "Even the hard heads and B-boys that don't want to accept anything different had to at least acknowledge that there is a vital presence outside of just the same old shit."