DJ Shadow has to get used to being in the spotlight again. Born Josh Davis, the artist gets his moniker from the idea that producers were meant to be behind the scenes. Putting his background in turntabling to use, Davis accepted that being a performer would be the best way to represent his music in a live setting. Now, with a career spanning 32 years, DJ Shadow is still balancing stepping into the light with returning to live events and the release of his latest project after being away for four years.
Following an intimate show for A-Trak's 15th anniversary of Fool's Gold last month and just before he released his seventh studio album Action Adventure — his first instrumental album since Endtroducing… — the producer sits on Zoom to chat with The FADER about stumbling upon his first sample source, the art of mentorship, and avoiding social media negativity.
The FADER: I was actually at the Fool's Gold party at Public Records the other week where you performed.
You were? I liked that show, but I should have kind of reminded myself what it's like to do really, really intimate shows. I just wasn't used to people being like a foot away with their phone directly in my face. I'm used to being on stages, so it had been a long time since I had done something like that. Afterwards, I was like, "Oh. I should have prepared myself a little bit better mentally for that."
Do you still want to play more intimate parties after that?
Yeah, totally. It was just the first time I've done something like that in ten years — maybe more — so I really had forgotten what it's like. I mean, ten years ago, the phone thing wasn't nearly as prevalent [either]. I didn't grow up wanting to be a performer. I'm not like a natural stage personality, so I get really self conscious.
I feel like now that there's social media and fans are in parasocial relationships with artists, it's even worse. Do you worry about that after experiencing that kind of setting at that show?
I haven't had any negative experiences. I was just taken aback, you know what I mean? And like I said, it just makes me want to recede. It doesn't fill me with confidence. I feel like I'm not at my best when I feel self conscious, or when I feel under a microscope.
I also feel like when you live by social media, you die by social media, and I haven't really set into that in my career much. To me, social media is not something I've ever really been that comfortable with. I saw it pretty early on. It's obviously just advertising, whether it's for a politician, a musician, a sports figure or, I think there's a latent understanding that it's somebody promoting themselves, their product, or their brand. So pretty early on, I decided not to engage in it much.
What does make you feel at your best?
Being in an environment and in a situation where I'm set up to represent my music as best as I can. So when it comes to live, I think you need all the time you need to get it right, you're in a good headspace, and you feel well rested.That's why when I go out on tour now, I don't do anything during the day. It's really about energy conservation and trying to give yourself the best chance to represent the music as well as possible and to perform as well as possible. It's not the aspect of my career that I got into making music for, but it's something that I feel is important. And I think it's important to show that you're willing to put yourself out there for the sake of getting the music out there.
Something interesting that you said in your recent Zane Lowe interview was that you take your fans' opinions into consideration when making music, but don't base everything you're doing on what they think. With DJing, what is the balance between reading the room and giving people what you think they need?
In an ideal world, I'm on a wavelength and the majority of the audience follows that wavelength. But it doesn't always happen that way, especially in the old days where you're winging it and playing different music every night. When I'm doing my "live" show, which is formatted for people who want to come in to hear me play my music, that's a little bit different than in the days when I would turn up with a crate of records and play different stuff to try to read the crowd and try to get the crowd in my pocket.
Tell me about the first time you went to a record shop.
Long story, but my dad's girlfriend at the time lived in one of the few neighborhoods in California that had cable really early on. They had MTV, and when we would be staying over there, I saw the video for "Whip It" in 1981. So I bought Devo's first album [Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!] thinking that "Whip It" would be on there and it wasn't. Somebody gave me $10 For my birthday and that was what I decided to use the money on to try to buy that song and I wasn't even successful.
That's funny because you've said in the past that everyone who's been successful has experienced failure, and that was kind of like your first failure.
I don't even think I like looked at the songs on the back of the tape. I think I might have asked an employee and they were like "Who's this eight year old kid?"
I definitely remember the first time I went to a used record store with the express purpose of looking for older music like James Brown and breakbeats. It was '87. It was interesting, because a 12 inch had come out by a rapper named King Tee. It was his first single, called "Paybacks A Mutha." A month later, I went to a record store and saw The Payback LP by James Brown. It was like, "Oh, I just found the sample of this new brand new record that I really like. That's kind of interesting."
Is there anything better than stumbling upon the origin of a sample?
It's something that I still geek out on today. But when I find the sample source of all these great records that I grew up with, it's a total thrill. One thing I should point out is, I never Google anything. So I'm sure I could've just Googled at any point in the last 15 years when I was thinking "What's what's the sample on blank?" or "What's the break on blank?" I just don't like to do that. I just would rather there be an element of serendipity.
I was just going to ask you if you used WhoSampled.
No, I don't. I don't because I just have a lot of conflicting feelings about it. And I don't need to go into them. But there's an element to it, where I'm just like, "Well, what fun is that?" You know what I mean? That's not fun. That's not how it was done in the day. I think everybody makes their peace with emerging technology in whatever way they can. For me, I make my own rules that work for me. I could totally just Google it or hit up WhoSampled to answer all these questions, but I already know it's so much more rewarding when I connect to it on a personal basis, in my own time.
I feel like you must have a lot of patience, because sometimes I'll know a sample and I can't place it so bad that I use WhoSampled.
When it comes to music, it's such a vast world and when you're confronted as a collector, the eventual realization that you'll never have it all, it actually opens a lot of doors. It's this enlightening moment where you realize it's not a race. It's not a big heated rush. I can explore all these different corners of music on my own time, knowing that the end game is that I will never know it all. That's sort of calming. On one level, it's tragic, because you want to know it all. But it's inevitable that you can't. Even if I had, 500 years, there's no way, intellectually, that I could process, fathom, or fully comprehend it all.
That's such a humble answer. I expected you to be pretty humble, because even when you talk about your successes, you attribute it to people who've shown you kindness, like your mentor, DJ Oras Washington. Do you feel like the art of mentorship is lost in this generation of musicians?
I have to think back to when hip-hop was at its most competitive and combative, which would probably be like the early to mid '90s. It was a time honored component of hip-hop culture — from b-boying to rapping to DJing —that emerged out of people like [Afrika] Bambaataa trying to train youth away from gangs and instead of fighting with knives, let's fight with words, let's fight with our bodies and our dancing. So there's always been this element of hip-hop being a competition. I was completely caught up in that, even though it was never really my personality to stick my chest out. But I was very opinionated and I think that's important I think you have to be opinionated and advocate for the things that you think are superior.
But one of the first people I met that just totally did the opposite of all of that was paradoxically one of the best DJs, which was DJ Qbert. When I met him, I expected him to be a certain way, but it was really interesting because he was completely the opposite. He would turn it to you and be like, "How do you do this?" I realized over time, and spending more time with him that it was just his philosophy to be very open with information. He uses the exchange as an opportunity for him to grow and learn. It was the first time I really met anybody like that in hip-hop. I think a more mature and sophisticated way of looking at your place in a discipline is to acknowledge that you're forever a student first. And that's something I've really taken with me as well
It's also still true to the essence of hip-hop, too, because the fifth — and often forgotten — pillar of hip-hop is knowledge.
Yeah, totally. A lot of my biggest heroes like Prince Paul and Premiere are two producers that you still see and hear wanting to give back and wanting to foster excellence in those around them. It's really cool to see because as a youth, you just sort of follow the people that you think are doing great work. But it just so happens that a lot of people that do great work think very deeply, passionately, and spiritually about what they do.
What signal did you have that you were ready to make Action Adventure.
I definitely was not in a good headspace to make music for about a year and a half and it wasn't until I found a bridge back into music that made me feel good again. In this case, it wasn't new music that brought me back to music. It was older music presented to me in a unique way via these mixtapes that I had bought off eBay that were recorded in the early to mid 80s. I found myself really excited about listening to these tapes, having them get in under my skin, and feel the enthusiasm. It was what I've been missing. It revealed that giddy little kid that I was when I was listening to music and every new 12 inch and everything seemed so fresh. Those tapes got me back in and over time I looked up and went, "I think I'm ready." I felt the inspiration and connection back to music again. It's not fun when you feel untethered and you're just floating. I need to be tethered to appreciation and tethered to a consciousness above my own, to be able to do anything worthwhile. And that's what got me there in this case.