Interview: DJ Shadow

Life

DJ Shadow, real name Josh Davis, is a man defined by his past. For many the crowning moment of his career will always be 1996’s Endtroducing…, the instrumental trip-hop classic constructed almost entirely from samples. Ever since then some would argue that Shadow’s career has been in precipitous decline, reaching its nadir with The Outsider, an album that saw Davis try to cover a smorgasboard of genres but ultimately led to a rather incoherent work.

The Outsider is still an album that DJ Shadow feels a need to explain or perhaps even to justify. When we talk about his latest work, The Less You Know, the Better he tries to put it in the context of his previous work. “This album is really about clearing the decks. After making a record like The Outsider it was important to me that I created a record that reflected my values, my belief in sampling. The Outsider was supposed to be a provocation, but this album isn’t so much. I’m not interested in putting people’s backs against the wall.”

Perhaps one of the most important things that Shadow has carried over from previous work is an eclecticism that makes TLYK,tB such a varied and exciting work. The album oscillates between hard rock on ‘Border Crossing’ and urban blues on the magnificent ‘I’ve Been Trying’ and ‘Sad and Lonely’. For Shadow there’s little “nutritional value” in an exclusively hip-hop diet and he describes how his early twenties were devoted to moving away from the “hip-hop purist” to encompass more musical genres. “There’s nothing to be gained from prohibiting certain types of music from reaching my ears… I listen to so much different music; just because I’m not imitating it doesn’t mean it’s not influencing me.” Of course this genre-hopping mentality has been present ever since his earliest work and it was on his formative records that it reached its peak, so one wonders if Davis now sees Endtroducing… and his early singles as crosses to bear.

“It does feel like that album doesn’t really allow me much freedom. People are hung up on it and I don’t have a way out.” In particular he reserves a great deal of ire for writers online who seem obsessed with doing down the work of Shadow and others, something that reached a peak when he took to the internet to defend The Outsider in 2007: “There’s much less accountability and respect on the internet nowadays, people are so snarky. In the digital age there has never been less prospect for success so you’d think people would be pushing the music they love. But they just seem to want to put you down.”

Perhaps this has something to do with what Shadow describes as the “duality” of modern DJing. With software like Mixxx and turntable.fm “it has never been easier to DJ but proper DJing has never been less understood.” Shadow describes a tour he recently undertook with “celebrity DJs”, the sort of acts who play in baseball stadiums across the United States. “It was interesting to see them play up to what people think a DJ is.” The withering disdain in which he holds these celebrities is abundantly clear.

But on the subject of touring you’re probably aware that DJ Shadow will be playing the O2 Academy on December 8th, returning to the city where he once supported Radiohead, “a wonderful experience”. If you are yet to get your ticket, well, you’d be mad not to. For one thing Shadow’s live show, and the visuals that accompany it, is truly mind-blowing as he performs from inside the ‘Shadowsphere’ (think a Lady Gaga style cocoon overflowing with top-end equipment). He warns that this is “my last large fling in the UK, your last chance to see the Shadowsphere, but with some new stuff too”. Frankly you would have to be mad not to be there.

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