Interview: DJ Shadow

Spheres, shadows and creating ‘instrumental Hip Hop’: is told all by the veteran DJ

The warm reception and complementary bottles of water on arrival at Leeds’ O2 Academy did nothing to stop me nervously screwing up the first question I gave to my favourite artist with a ‘DJ’ in the name. I was, however, somewhat relieved to find myself talking to a sombre and thoughtful 30-something without feeling too belittled by him.

California-born Josh Davis has been creating albums under the moniker ‘DJ Shadow’ for the best part of 15 years, and is best known for his first, the genre-creating Endtroducing…. Cited as the first ‘instrumental hip hop’ album, its genesis is from samples and samples only, for which it holds a Guinness world record as the first to do so. However I’m sure Davis is fed up of being asked too much about an album that came out a decade and a half ago, and so instead I start by attempting to enquire about the title of 2011’s The Less You Know the Better, before my tongue decides it’s going to do its own thing.

“It’s better to hover above rather than walking in the crowd – I want to see how all the chess pieces move”

Luckily my interviewee is much more relaxed and immediately sets the tone; providing sagely answers to my questions, followed by much head nodding from me. After reeling off ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, ‘Automatic for the People’ and ‘Nevermind’ as examples of “classic” titles that are “open to interpretation”, he explains how his latest album title is based on the distracting influence of having too much media in your life. Much like his musical approach, DJ Shadow prefers to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture rather than getting swept away in the latest fads.

“It’s better to hover above rather than walking in the crowd – I want to see how all the chess pieces move.”
DJ Shadow isn’t easily swayed by musical trends, but instead likes to pick and choose his favourite samples from a wide variety of eras: “I definitely would not suggest listening to less music” is one of the many guiding principles he hands down to me in the 15 minutes I have with him; and he sticks to this maxim with great vigour.

Reported to have a record collection numbering in the tens of thousands, (everything from hip-hop to metal to 50s’ crooners fuels his five LPs), it’s no surprise that pinpointing his musical style tricky. So people decided to invent a new one up for him: Instrumental hip-hop. Instrumental hip-hop is effectively hip-hop without the rapping on top, and many hip-hop producers and electronic artists have added to and been influenced by what DJ Shadow started with Entroducing…; RJD2, part-time collaborator U.N.K.L.E and Madlib, to name a few, have carried the sound forward.

The latter also carries over to the gig itself, which I’m here to see later the same evening. An ageing crowd enthusiastically greets someone who, for them, probably released one of the most important albums of the ‘90s. But this doesn’t mean DJ Shadow caters just for them, and the set is a mix of his own material and others. We are treated to a whole range of his five LPs, most of which have been tweaked for the dance floor. A particular highlight was a ridiculous out-of-nowhere remix of Lil Wayne’s ‘A Milli’ but the music was almost eclipsed by the frankly incredible mirage of the ‘Shadowsphere’ – a now iconic feature of his live sets. A giant white sphere effectively functions as a film screen onto which a spectacular array of animations, images and messages are projected during the show.
I’m curious to find out more about the inspiration behind this ‘Shadowsphere,’ and he seems proud to talk about it; he lets out a brief chuckle as I recall his Glastonbury set last year – an event which caused a friend of mine to be quite overwhelmed by the visual ecstasy that ensued. I am also treated to a brief history of DJ Shadow in live form: from supporting Radiohead to playing Glastonbury with nothing but his own DJ turntables as a show and a one story high platform with nine screens in the tour prior to this. “I could have either gone bigger or more flash or more conceptual,” says DJ Shadow, and whilst my opinion is that it seems both of these are true, he sees it as more conceptual. When I finally get to see the magic globe it does not disappoint. One minute being cut in half with a saw, the next flying over cities and forests, then a death star; the sphere could have been synced to JLS and it probably would have still impressed the ageing crowd.

Shadow’s diverse and sharply synced music however, takes the experience to new heights. Shadow spent half the time hidden within the sphere, the other half swivelled round and viewing his audience as he played with the wide array of equipment: ranging from typical record players to a miniature drum kit hooked up to the visuals. DJ Shadow explains to me how he puts as much energy into his live performances as he does his albums, and I believe him; despite angering the crowd near the end by mistakenly thanking Birmingham, rather than the Leeds crowd who he was actually playing to.

By the end of the night my most vivid memory of the interview, is one of the last anecdotes of many that DJ Shadow left me nodding away to: “When you listen to music for a long time you realise that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to just blow with the wind, nor does it make sense to close your ears off.” Coming from the man who’s been a DJ for longer than I’ve been alive, he imparts a final piece of wisdom: “I try to find a middle ground where it can be inspired by an artist…but not imitate someone.”

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