A Conversation with DJ Shadow - Believer Magazine
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A Conversation with DJ Shadow

[WRITER]
“ANYTHING CAN BE HIP-HOP, BUT CAN HIP-HOP BE ANYTHING? CAN YOU IMAGINE HIP-HOP TRANSFORMING NOT JUST ITSELF BUT THE WORLD AROUND IT?”
What’s happening in America:
Everything’s getting subdivided
Fools are dancing really hard
Futuristic kid shit
by Jeff Chang
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

A Conversation with DJ Shadow

[WRITER]
“ANYTHING CAN BE HIP-HOP, BUT CAN HIP-HOP BE ANYTHING? CAN YOU IMAGINE HIP-HOP TRANSFORMING NOT JUST ITSELF BUT THE WORLD AROUND IT?”
What’s happening in America:
Everything’s getting subdivided
Fools are dancing really hard
Futuristic kid shit
by Jeff Chang
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Conversation with DJ Shadow

Jeff Chang
14 Snaps

DJ Shadow’s first full-length record, Endtroducing, was released in 1996 under James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label, and its dizzying, baroque assemblage of samples single-handedly extended the boundaries of experimental hip-hop by an order of magnitude. In the years since, Shadow has been restlessly tweaking and redefining his method and technique, only to double back and head off in a new direction with each project. His latest album, The Outsider, is an exercise in formal diversity, each track a surprising departure, melodic soul giving way to breathy, funk-laden ambience, which in turn yields the frenetic, loopy dissonance of an emergent style of rap known as Hyphy.

Jeff Chang is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, an innovative cultural history of hip-hop that traces the origin of the genre from its antecedents in Jamaica in the late 1960s, through its formal birth in the Bronx in the ’70s, to its transformative rise to mainstream dominance through the next quarter-century. Chang writes about hip-hop not as a style of music but as a force that runs parallel to the history that gave birth to it. He is currently editing an anthology titled Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop.

Long before Endtroducing was entered into the Guinness World Records for “First Completely Sampled Album,” Chang met Shadow working at KDVS, the college radio station at UC Davis. They formed the influential Solesides label with other nascent hip-hop groundbreakers such as Chief Xcel of Blackalicious and Lyrics Born, and released some of Shadow’s earliest singles in the early ’90s.

The two have kept in touch over the years. Shortly before the release of The Outsider, Chang met Shadow at his house in Mill Valley, where they had the following conversation.

I. BAMBAATAA’S CRATES

JEFF CHANG: I know every time you come out with a new record you’ve got to do the press, and every time there’s that one question that you don’t want to get, but for whatever reason it ends up being the one that everyone wants to know about.

DJ SHADOW: “Does hip-hop still suck in 2006?”

JC: Is that the one that people are asking?

DJS: That’s the one I’ve gotten every time I put a new record out. “Does hip-hop still suck in ’98?”“Does hip-hop still suck in 2002?”

JC: I guess you’ve got to live that down now.

DJS: I thought it was a clever title. I thought it was an evocative title—it didn’t really mean anything, particularly, but I just thought it sounded good. But I think people who don’t listen to rap but who got into my record saw it as, “Oh, he doesn’t like rap, and I don’t like rap, so now it’s okay—we can all not like rap together.”

JC: Just validating what they already thought about hip-hop. But that’s really interesting in the context of The Outsider, because it really fucks with the way people think they ought to be listening to music. I think people are forced to see their identity in terms of what they consume, and, in a lot of respects, even though most people listen to a wide variety of music, when they walk out the door, they think, “I’m a hip-hopper, and this is what I think hip-hop is.” And that’s what’s really interesting to me about the way you’ve created this record.

DJS: A lot of people ask what the album title refers to, and to me what it refers to—I always come up with a title to help me finish a record—

JC: So you don’t come up with it at the beginning?

DJS: No. I always have a title at the beginning, but it never ends up being the title.

JC: What was the original title for this one?

DJS: Skull Fuckery.

JC: Huh?

DJS: Skull Fuckery.

JC: Skull Fuckery?

DJS: And it was intended to be really political—when I started the record in 2004, I thought it was going to be really political, but then what I realized is that I’m only political about 5 percent of the day, and I didn’t want an album that was disproportionately political— and after the 2004 elections I just felt like I couldn’t even dwell in this world anymore. So the album started to become more about how human beings create constructs—for people, for situations, for everything—to help them understand and compartmentalize things.

JC: And I think it’s actually gotten worse since you and I started listening to hip-hop—it’s gotten to a point where everything is really subdivided.

DJS: I’ve got a great example of that. There’s a song on the album called “You Made It”—which is a bit of a departure. It started to get played on AAA,Adult Album Alternative—that mom-and-pop type of radio format. And then about a week ago I was talking to the label and they said, “Well, what’s happening is that the program directors at these stations are starting to realize that your album is a hip-hop album, and they don’t want to steer their listeners down the wrong path.”

JC: Is that really what happened?

DJS: Yeah, so a bunch of stations started to drop it from their rotations.

JC: Wow.

DJS: I always had this vision about getting airplay simultaneously on as many different kinds of stations, in as many formats as possible, but it’s hard. And, just like you said, I want The Outsider to challenge people’s perceptions of what an album is supposed to be. Because it’s a mix tape world—it’s an iTunes world, so the idea of doing a whole album of songs in this one format, just so it can be marketed to this one audience, is, to me, just really depressing.

JC: It’s interesting that people are acting surprised, because you’ve been consistent with this your whole career—like when you came out with Endtroducing, it seemed like the thing you most wanted people to know was that you were just another son of Afrika Bambaataa, in that Bambaataa was saying anything could be hip-hop. And that’s what got me thinking, over the long run, about how there’s actually a way that you can look at Bambaataa’s crates or DJ Kool Herc’s crates or Shadow’s crates as a way of understanding the world, of how history can be hip-hop. What I’ve found is that artists would take hip-hop and start doing their own thing with it. Now you have hip-hop in theater or hip-hop in visual arts or whatever, hip-hop in contemporary dance. At some point these artists all get asked by critics or whoever, “What is it you’re doing?” And sometimes they get really defensive. They’ll say, “Well, I’m doing hip-hop—can’t you see it’s hip-hop?” I think that the wall people kept hitting was understanding the whole thing in reverse. Yes, anything can be hip-hop, but can hip-hop be anything? Can you imagine hip-hop transforming not just itself, but the world around it? In other words, you can imagine taking your crates and going in to your room and making some music, but then can you imagine what that music would look like if you flipped it around and said, “This is hip-hop—now go deal with it.” That requires not just a worldview but a vision of how you want the world to be. The Outsider seems to me to be all about offering not just a worldview but a vision too.

DJS: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I was at a point in my career where people were trying to tell me who I was. People were saying, “This is the box you’re in—you’re the sample guy. You made Endtroducing, you’ll never make a better record than Endtroducing. OK? That’s DJ Shadow. Next artist.” You know what I mean?

JC: Right, right.

DJS: I’m thinking of records that blew our collective minds like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, where it was like, “Whoa, what is this? A French record and some Turtles beat slowed way down, and a thing that sounds like a country-western sample?” [On that record, Prince Paul sampled George Clinton yodeling on a rare early Funkadelic track, and everything from Hall and Oates to Cymande.] Those elements all worked together under the guidance of Prince Paul because he provided the right context. And that’s where people get confused, because you could take those same samples and make something that sounds like MC900 Foot Jesus or Consolidated, which isn’t hip-hop at all—it’s techno. It’s all in the context. Using samples doesn’t make some thing hip-hop any more than writing on walls makes someone a graffiti artist.

II.THE SHAPE OF THE BAY

JC: I’ve always wanted to ask how you felt about the Brainfreeze mix tape you put out, whether you felt that it served its purpose. What I like about it is that it gives people an alternative sense of history—it’s the type of thing where all of those stories, accumulated, tell a different kind of larger story about the way music has gone over the last thirty or forty years.

DJS: Well, I think that exploring the past, and learning from the past—and living in the past to a certain extent—is very seductive,and there’s something nice and warm about it. It’s kind of easy to say, “Oh, it was so much better then,”and people love to say that about hiphop. But I definitely noted that it was happening to me while I was working on that mix tape, and I told myself I didn’t want to live in that world exclusively, because I’ve always been listening to new music; but I had to take an active step and decide to be choosy about when I celebrate the past and how I do it, because I feel like it’s more important to keep an eye on the future.1

JC: That’s the other thing about hip-hop—it’s always kind of looking to the past while moving into the future.

DJS: That’s why I love Hyphy. I was just talking to someone the other day who said, “Hyphy just reminds me of West Coast electro from the early ’80s,” and I was like, “Yeah, but no.” Even though Rick Rock is old enough to remember that era, and it definitely inspired some aspects of what he’s doing, that’s not what the culture is about—it’s so important to get the context right.

JC: And for me, I just walk out the door and folks are bumping the stuff and that’s how I heard about it first, and that’s maybe why I feel so connected to it in a way. I feel like a lot of people maybe don’t have that kind of direct relationship with hip-hop—I think it’s more of a remote-control thing—turn on the tube, go on the internet, download a bunch of tracks off an MP3 blog, and that kind of thing.

DJS: And then try to tell other people what to listen to and what to think. That’s my biggest pet peeve.

JC: Right now there’s a lot of futuristic kid shit that’s happening on the regional level all across the country. Fools are really dancing, like dancing super hard—there are these new dances all over the place,2 and you know that when a fourteen-year-old has invented a brand-new dance, the music must be incredibly vital and is going to last another ten or twenty years.

DJS: I also think it’s nice that rap has been around long enough to where it’s sort of OK to say that New York has its history, Atlanta has its history, Houston has its history, the Bay Area has its history, and it’s no longer the case where one region is being looked at as better or worse than the next. I was just overseas and everybody wanted to hear me talk about Hyphy and would say, “Right off the bat, I’m not the Hyphy spokesperson. I don’t go to shows—I hardly even go to clubs—I’m a good ten years older than most of the people in the scene, if not more.” But what I do tell them is, “Look, in the same way that you can be over here and listen to and understand bounce music but it really helps to go to New Orleans, and you can have all your Chopped and Screwed CDs but it really helps to go to Houston to understand, it’s the same with Hyphy.” From Sly Stone to Digital Underground to now, Hyphy is a witty, quirky take on things. And you have to be in the Bay and know the diversity of the Bay and its weird geographic shape, with its pockets of extreme poverty right next to pockets of extreme wealth, and all that weird interplay that creates the Bay as a whole. Even the weather—the weird way all the clouds butt up against the coast—it’s like everything’s cruising along and then all of a sudden you get to the coast and everything’s turbulent. And it’s always there, that energy in the air—it’s always turbulent, never still. And all that factors into Hyphy. But then it gets into the whole hip-hop then-andnow, like, “You weren’t listening in ’88.” “Well, you weren’t listening in ’82.” “Well, I was living in Bronx River projects.” It’s like who’s the more authentic—

JC:“I got shot in front of Bambaataa, taking a bullet for him.”

DJS: It comes down to if you’re not DJ Kool Herc, you’re not going to win the conversation. So I’m quick to point out that, of course you can understand and enjoy Hyphy music if you’re not from the Bay, but it does help to have lived here—it’s a complex dynamic.

III. STEPPING UP

JC: I remember you telling me, before you were done with The Outsider, that this was a new phase—you’d seen your career go through a couple different phases over the years—

DJS: Yeah, I mean, Endtroducing—people rarely ask me about the title—why the “e-n-d”—and it’s because that was the end of a trilogy that started with In Flux, jumped over to Lost and Found into the What Does Your Soul Look Like EP, and Endtroducing was part three of a sound that I was sort of doing for James [Lavelle, president of Mo’Wax Records] basically—it was a sound that I had been cultivating for him, and Endtroducing was sort of the culmination. People always ask whether I’ll make another album like Endtroducing, but it was always intended as an ending—it was exactly what I wanted to do at the time, so why would I do it again? And that was the end of that era because I jumped right into doing UNKLE, before Endtroducing even came out, actually, and I grew exponentially working on that UNKLE record—I mean, to me, if you compare the two, as far as the craft, as far as achievement song-wise, structure-wise, what I was doing with the samples, I mean, it’s like night and day. So that period, just after Endtroducing all the way up to The Private Press, is the second phase.

JC: How would you characterize what you were searching for during that time?

DJS: I can kind of define that era as struggling with my own artistic abilities and trying to take the art form to the highest possible level.

JC: But you were kind of already doing that before, weren’t you?

DJS: Yeah, but I think that, for the first time, there was a public perception of me as an artist, so I had to top my previous work, and I felt a lot of pressure from myself to top what I’d done before.

JC: I remember that period being very dark for you.

DJS: Yeah, I mean I was out of school, and I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I knew I wanted to do music, but I didn’t have any idea whether it would be viable. I never worried about things like doing a show and getting paid. You know, I’d do a whole tour with Lavelle and at the end of it he’d say,“Here’s a couple hundred pounds,” and I’d be like,“Cool.” I never worried about it. I guess it was nice that I had the luxury of living cheap. When you’re at that age you don’t worry about tomorrow, you just do, you know? You eat Chunky soup every day, like I always did. So during The Private Press I was particularly rigid with myself. That was not an enjoyable record to make.

JC: It wasn’t?

DJS: No, it was hard, it was hard. I mean there were days where I felt like I was an animator—I’d work for ten hours and get maybe five seconds on certain songs.

JC: Holy shit. It’s a record that seems more fussed over than your other stuff, but at the same time there’s a looseness or a humor to it.

DJS: I feel that in order to make the darks dark you have to add some light to show the contrast. Even Endtroducing was like that. Any good movie, same thing—any book, same thing. It’s all darkness. But I always like it to end on a high note. After The Private Press I knew I didn’t want to make another instrumental record, so I knew that The Outsider was going to be different, but I didn’t have to worry about it for a while because I went on tour for nine months and then I did a three-month drive just to be alone for a while. And then when I came back I was commuting to and from the studio—

JC: That’s when you had the studio in San Francisco set up.

DJS: Yeah, and that’s why I was listening to the radio so much, which is how I discovered Hyphy in its mature infancy with songs like Keak Da Sneak’s “T-Shirt, Blue Jeans and Nikes,” Federation’s “Hyphy,” Turf Talk’s “It’s Ah Slumper,” E-40’s “Gasoline,” and songs like that.

JC:That’s when the logjam finally broke at KMEL and they started actually playing local music again.3

DJS: Yeah, and so it’s all coincided with that. So I think this era—the era of The Outsider—represents a new confidence that came largely from my experience with the girls and having to step up.4 I feel like I was twentythree for about eight years, and I didn’t have to confront anything—the wheels were sort of just turning and I was just keeping up with it, but then when the situation arose with the girls, it was like,“Well, you can either sort of fold or go,‘OK, it’s time to be a man and confront the situation head on and tell the doctors exactly what we want to do, because there’s no books on the subject. It’s sink-or-swim time.’” When you go through a situation like that it makes it really hard to take some blogger from New Jersey seriously when he’s critiquing your style of Hyphy. It sort of puts everything into perspective.

JC: So it’s all about longevity.

DJS: I always saw this as a thirty-five-to-forty-year plan, so why start repeating myself now?

JC: You’re going to be like the Neil Young of hip-hop.

DJS: Neil Young, James Brown, Lou Reed. All those people—they all have their ups and downs, but the thing they all have in common is that they never repeat themselves. I have to respect people who don’t do the same thing over and over again just because their fans demand it of them.

 

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