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Over the past 15 years or so, Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, has earned a reputation as one of modern music's true innovators, mainly for the way he constructs complex soundscapes out of borrowed beats and forgotten soul samples. For his latest album, The Outsider, DJ Shadow goes back to his roots, giving half the record over to a cadre of contemporary rappers, for whom he provides backing tracks that are simultaneously hard-hitting and more than a little weird. The results have polarized his fan base; recently, he discussed this consequence with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: After a spoken-word introduction and "This Time," The Outsider rolls out four consecutive rap tracks, very different from the sound of your earlier albums. Was sequencing the album this way an attempt to push your fans a little bit?
DJ Shadow: Album sequencing is one of those things that scares the shit out of me, because I'm making all this music, and I try not to think too much about how it fits together until the very end. I try to let it be organic, just like the way I'd format a mix-CD or a compilation I make for myself, with the DJ mindset in play. That's kind of what decides the track listing. Initially, the E-40 song "Dats My Part" was going to be first, and it ended up being second to last on the U.S. version. So I didn't really know all along what was going to be where, and I definitely didn't know the funk track was going to be first. But those lyrics seemed to make such an announcement all on their own.
As far as the hyphy coming after that, I knew I wanted "3 Freaks" or one of the more kinetic hyphy tracks early on in the sequence, and it didn't seem like it made much sense to break up the hyphy stuff. And I didn't want them tacked onto the very end. So the way I look at it, you have your intro, you have this kind of funk track that I thought was really strong, then it goes into the hyphy stuff, and then the crunk, which is another style of music I like a lot, and then a political interlude, and then more familiar Shadow territory.
So yeah, I don't generally tend to monitor my own press, but I know that there's basically two groups of people as far as this album is concerned: the people that kind of understand what the record is trying to do and appreciate the risk involved, and the people that maybe aren't as up on the developments of my career in the last few years, and are sort of mystified. But I had to do it this way.
DJS: I was just tired of being in everybody's little boxes. "Oh yeah, he's the guy that did Endtroducing He'll never top that record. He does stuff with samples. I read interviews from him 10 years ago and he said this, and that's who he is." Well, wait a minute, you know? I don't think any artist likes to be conveniently compartmentalized for the sake of not pissing off a small group of journalists or bloggers, you know what I mean? And I think in general that music is so vast, and after going through a few experiences and brushes with mortality, I just decided I can't wait for people. I tend to absorb music quite fast, and I like to listen to a lot of different types of music and formulate new ideas about music on a continual basis. I suppose to some degree over the last 10 years, I've been sensitive about not moving too fast and alienating my core fans, but I've decided I can't think that way. I just have to do what I do, and move at my own pace, and hope that people eventually adjust. And I'm not saying I'm like some futuristic guy. I've just decided that I can't wait any more for people to decide if hyphy is what their hipster bullshit friends are supposed to be listening to or not.
AVC: You mentioned people having impressions of you based on interviews from 10 years ago. What may be surprising a lot of listeners about The Outsider's hyphy tracks is that in those interviews from 10 years ago, you sort of indicated that you didn't have much use for modern hip-hop.
DJS: I'm not going to say that I never said anything along those lines. I definitely remember criticizing commercial hip-hop at that time, and one of the reasons was that Tupac had just been killed, and then Biggie was killed. And I started saying, "You know, I don't know if this is the way we really want to be going, where you have these bicoastal wars." So, yeah, as a lover of hip-hop and as somebody who grew up on hip-hop, I had issues with the music at the time. But I think a lot of people, particularly outside of hip-hop, misinterpreted things I said, and came to the conclusion, based on the song "Why Hip-Hop Sucks In '96," that I didn't like rap. Which, even in 1996 when I was saying those things, rap was still the main music I listened to. It's just that, like anybody, I had opinions on the music of the time, and I think to some degree, I got misrepresented. Probably because of that song title.
AVC: One of the downsides of being a recording artist who only puts out a record every few years is that the people who don't live with you day to day don't have a sense of what you're really thinking or listening to.
DJS: I find that various people have issues with the work that I do based on their awareness only of my major-label albums. I'll be somewhere and people are like, "Why does it take you so long to do albums?" And I'll always say, "Because I didn't get into music to churn out an album every two years." And really, my output is enormous when you factor in all the side productions that I do, and all the mix albums. And compilations, I do for fun. I do a lot of stuff that hardly sees the light of day, just because I like to do it.
AVC: Are you generally fiddling with something just about every day?
DJS: [Laughs.] Music-related? Yeah, because everything I like to do revolves around music, whether it involves shopping for music, i.e. "digging"—which is a term I'm not that fond of, but there's no other term to say—or I'm making music or thinking about music or writing music or helping somebody with their music. On the rare occasion that I have a night off at home, I'm making my own little CD of music to drive around and listen to for the next couple weeks. So yeah, almost everything I do relates to music. Unless it relates to my immediate family, being my wife and kids. That's the only other thing that competes.
AVC: After spending so much time "digging," do you find it easier to break down a song to its component parts, or can a song still surprise and overwhelm you?
DJS: To the second part of that question, I'd say definitely say yes. One of the questions I can't stand answering is, "What are your 10 favorite albums of the moment?" Because I don't generally listen to music that way. I actually spend a lot of time listening to the radio, because in the Bay Area, where I live, radio is really exciting right now. Almost half the artists you hear are local, and a lot of what you hear are MP3s just bouncing around on MySpace or something. I'll frequently hear things on the radio that make me say "Holy shit," and right now it's the hyphy stuff, because that's the art form that, in my opinion, matters right now. I remember before I left on tour, there was a song by Ray Cash, who's a Cleveland rapper, and there was a track on his record produced by Rick Rock, who helped invent the hyphy sound. When I heard that, I was like, "Goddamn, this track is hot!" And then later I found out it was Rick Rock, and I was like, "See, there's no way I could ever touch that guy."
That's what I like. Digging and sampling are just about detecting moments of brilliance and then synthesizing them into some sort of cohesive whole, whether it's a brand new Rick Rock production or some accident from 1965. That's why it's so hard for me to say, "Well my favorite 10 new albums are " Because that's just not the way I digest music any more.
AVC: Do you have an iPod?
DJS: I have, like, four. One is a first-generation, and I just keep it around because it looks funny. I have this pipe dream that someday Apple will come calling for it because they didn't keep any themselves, and it will be some artifact that people will care about.
AVC: You said hyphy was the most important thing going on right now. Why?
DJS: Well, undoubtedly civic pride plays a big part. It's good to see my region doing well again, because ever since Tupac died, it's been dark. So to me, it's exciting. The funny thing is, about a year ago, Christmas 2005, I was waiting at a stoplight in Vallejo, and these kids were getting out of school, and it was raining, and they were wearing the hyphy attire, and they were all growing dreads. And one of them was walking across the street doing this little turf dance, going "Turf Talk and Keak Da Sneak," and singing the hook from "3 Freaks" because it was getting radio play.
That's what I'm talking about. You know, rock guys are always like, "Why are you jumping ship?" And I'm like, "Well, you guys didn't support me anyways, so why should I fuck around with you?" I mean, I'm no different than anybody else. I want people to hear my music, and hyphy gets radio play in the Bay. People make records, send MP3s to the key DJs in the Bay, and they have a chance of hearing them on the radio that night.
AVC: Were The Outsider's lyrics written by the people who sang or rapped on them, or did you collaborate?
DJS: In the case of Nump, he wrote everything, but he was writing it there in the studio, so he consulted with me. Everybody is totally unique when it comes to how they work, and that's one of the things I find exhilarating. Nump, Phonte Coleman, E-40, those are all examples of people who wrote with me there in the room, and every once in a while would be like, "What do you think about this?" And nine times out of 10, I'd be like, "Yeah, that's cool." In the case of Nump, a couple times I was like, "Oh, but you know what would make that even more fresh, is if you said this." And then there's people like Federation, Q-Tip, and Christina Carter who basically did everything, and I was like, "That's great, fine, don't need anything else, thank you."
I would say the song I had the most input on—and it's probably the simplest lyrically because of the structure—was "You Made It," because that song was really, really personal to me. I wanted to make sure that the lyrics were vague enough that anybody could put their own context to it, yet personal enough to me that it made sense.
AVC: There's more live instrumentation on The Outsider than you've ever used before. In the past, when your tracks were more sample-heavy, did you build the songs around the samples, or did you look for samples that approximated some sound already in your head?
DJS: The way I look for samples, I just keep looking until elements reveal themselves. "Artifact," from the new album, is a punk track where the elements don't come from punk records. I made a track that I wanted to feel like a weird punk hybrid, but I didn't go looking through punk records to get them. That's why making music tends to be really, really time-consuming.
One of the things that I find frustrating is that any time on any project, if I say, "This song features live instruments," or "There was a guitarist on this track," people generally assume that what they're hearing is basically new stuff, re-sampled. A song like "The Tiger" off the new album, which features a couple of the Kasabian guys, that is one of the best samples I've done, and the only thing that isn't a sample on there is the main guitar line, which is actually kind of a vamp on a sample that was in there already. So that's an example of what I'm aiming for.
Since I love music, I really appreciate live instrumentation, but it's just not my medium. So I try and work with samples to make it feel more live. I think my peers have tended to say what they appreciate about what I do is that it sounds so real and organic, and it's through a lot of little techniques. Like on "Napalm Brain," from Endtroducing . When drummers lay into the groove, the first couple of bars, they drag a little bit. So I programmed that song to work the same way.
Now as far as using live instruments on this album After working on The Private Press, I started to feel a little tired of not being able to write music on the spot as I felt it. A really good example of different disciplines coming together to form a real natural-sounding whole is "You Made It," because there's samples, there's live instruments, and a string arrangement that I wrote on the synthesizer but was recorded live. The drums are sampled, but to me, they sound really live. I didn't hold back from using any of the disciplines that were available.