DJ Shadow: Outside the Lines

Since 1992, DJ Shadow has been active in several facets of Hip-Hop. The Davis, California native has taught legions of turntable owners how to dig in the crates for rare grooves. Shadow also worked as a producer, spearheading the Solesides/Quannum movement, before collaborating with everybody from U.N.K.L.E. to Cage to Paris. Most notably, the Schoolhouse […]

Since 1992, DJ Shadow has been active in several facets of Hip-Hop. The Davis, California native has taught legions of turntable owners how to dig in the crates for rare grooves. Shadow also worked as a producer, spearheading the Solesides/Quannum movement, before collaborating with everybody from U.N.K.L.E. to Cage to Paris. Most notably, the Schoolhouse Funk founder has delivered four studio albums to a cult-like following. Despite that secured pocket of fans, the 33-year-old DJ/producer still remains an unknown to 2006’s commercial rap consumer. As he stacked the tracks for his The Outsider album, DJ Shadow clearly went for the gusto.

The producer’s latest effort utilizes David Banner, Keak Da Sneak, and Q-Tip where Mos Def and Gift of Gab previously stood. Incorporating nominal doses of Hyphy, this album still has social and personal meaning to the artist. Fifteen years into a thriving career, DJ Shadow shakes things up in search of a new direction. Get a sense of the before and the after from one of Hip-Hop’s most knowledgeable beat-miners, with dusty fingers on the fader. As one of his new songs suggests, this time Shadow’s doing it his way. You were recently quoted in saying that The Outsider would make it harder for people to imitate your sound. But over the years, it never seemed that you were too affected by copycats or comparisons. Has that changed?

DJ Shadow: It was getting to the point where I was reading a magazine, minding my own business, and I’d see a review for somebody else, and everywhere, it was like “This guy is the new DJ Shadow,” or “he’s good, like back when Shadow was good.” It sorta seemed like it was okay for everybody to say, Entroducing was great, but Shadow doesn’t make records like that anymore, so we’re gonna start celebrating people who do make records like he used to.” It’s just sort of a weird predicament to be in as an artist, so that’s what it was. It wasn’t so much that I was trippin’ off of the music people were making, but it got to be rampant to be so comparative. I just wanted to make a record that more accurately depicted where I stand in music right now. Critically, it would be hard to argue that Entroducing isn’t your best album. But it also seemed like Private Press got the name out there more than ever, and was a commercial success. How do you anticipate the reaction to this one, judging by those two?

DJ Shadow: I’m already starting to get an impression that there’s a group of people who kinda get the album for all its intentions. I wanted to make a record that was a unique offering in the marketplace, as diverse as it is. Half of the people that heard it, appreciate that. Then there’s another group of people that is maybe not up to date with what I’ve been doing since Private Press or maybe they didn’t hear it, and they’re like, “Whoa, wait a minute, where’s he coming from?” Maybe I’ll lose 25% of people, but [hopefully] I’ll get 50% new. Every artist I’ve ever respected, be it LL Cool J, Neil Young, or James Brown, they’ve always had to shed fans periodically. I think it’s uncomfortable in the short term, but it’s [essential]. The single, “3 Freaks” pairs you with Keak Da Sneak. People fail to realize that your career started in producing with Paris. Now that you’re working with Keak, Turf Talk, E-40, and others again, do you sense a more unified Bay?

DJ Shadow: I think everybody’s unifying around this movement. That’s from Too Short to [E-40] and Rick Rock, the veterans, on down to everybody. Everybody really sees how it can help the Bay. The Bay has been in the dark as far as the rest of the nation is concerned. That all started to turn around with this incredible spark [Hyphy] that I feel was mainly generated by Mac Dre and Rick Rock. Tracks like “Bluejeans, White Tees, and Nikes” and “Hyphy” from 2002 and 2003, the Rick Rock productions, those sparked it. The [other] element was when KMEL, the main urban station in the Bay, once they got behind [it]. They started playing local stuff around the same time the movement started, and that really fanned the flame. They saw their efforts supported by huge jumps in listenership. Imagine how much longer it would’ve taken New York Hip-Hop to evolve if there was no [DJ] Red Alert, no Mr. Magic – it’s inconceivable. Yes, to answer your question, whether it’s Lyrics Born working with Mistah F.A.B., or me taking Turf Talk to Portugal, it’s something that can cross [boundaries]. You’ve got a song on the album called “Broken Levee Blues.” Tell me about this composition…

DJ Shadow: “Seein’ Thangs,” the David Banner track – he was the first person I got on the record back in 2004. My intention was to have Mystikal do the second verse, but I knew he was locked up. That turned out to be a little problematic. But a year later, I was still working on the album, I went back to Banner, and said, “It’s been nine months, I’m having trouble who to figure out to get on the second verse.” He said, “If you need me to do the second verse, let me know.” So he was in Memphis wrapping up Black Snake Moon, and Katrina had just happened. My whole concept for “Seein’ Thangs” was – imagine Geto Boys’ “My Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me,” but with political content. So the second verse, because it was fresh on his mind, was about Katrina. That segways into “Broken Levee Blues.” I had this piece of music that was kind of sitting around. I basically just panned the two songs together because they worked together. In the film Scratch, I was inspired by the segment in the basement of Cue’s Records, where you’re reflecting on the fact that these records are peoples’ lives, lost dreams, and so on. It rang profound to me. Have you ever considered writing, or expressing your creativity in other mediums?

DJ Shadow: Wow. Growing up, I used to draw. My dad was a commercial design artist. I used to do that. But once I found Hip-Hop, any inclination of drawing just completely stopped. I don’t know why. Every artistic impulse I had in my body was directed towards Hip-Hop, being a DJ, and also seeking out the music. Searching out the music, which I still continue to do, is still my number one hobby. I don’t have regular time off though, ‘cause I do have two kids now. I had one day off in Korea. I spent it, in sweltering heat, going through a bunch of really dirty records. Having young children, and being a music snob – for lack of a better, how would you feel if your kids developed bad taste in music? How do you plan to guide them?

DJ Shadow: I always like the stories of [Grandmaster] Flash. His dad didn’t want him anywhere near his records. He’d slap if him if he ever touched them. It seems that a lot of the artists who have this dedication, didn’t fall into it; it was something that kinda quietly discovered in their own terms. That’s the context I like. They’re twin girls, 20 months old, so they’re young. They seem to like whatever we play, and my wife has pretty eclectic taste as well. She manages David Axelrod. I’d rather be nonchalant about it, and see what they gravitate towards. I don’t want them to love classic Hip-Hop just ‘cause I grew up on. I always think it’s weird when kids like what their parents liked. Everybody hears the story of when The Chronic was made – broke rappers, eating Popeye’s chicken, sleeping in the studio. In my opinion, Blackalicious’ Melodica remains a definitive album in underground Hip-Hop history, perhaps its own Chronic. It feels like a moment in time. What was going on in your life when you made that record?

DJ Shadow: That’s interesting, nobody’s ever asked me a question like that – especially not about Melodica. [Chief Xcel] and I were roommates. We were juniors in college. It was late ’93, early ’94. X basically came to me because I had had a few records out and was like, “You’ve got an MPC, I’ve got a s**tty whatever it was, can you engineer the album for me?” I ended up producing one or two tracks. It was basically the same as it always was back then, which was – when everybody’s homework was done, we’d start working on music, usually for only three hours a night. Back then, when you’re that age, 22-23, the synapses are really firing, and you have lots of energy. When it was far enough along, we’d do that pilgrimage to [Dan the] Automator’s house, which was an hour-and-a-half [away]. Inevitably, we’d be driving when the sun was coming up, and X’d be stopping at truck stops to get Rocket Fuel and all this other fake energy boost s**t to keep from falling asleep. That’s what it was like. When I think of that era and I think of that record, I think of sitting in the little studio I had in my friend’s house – the guy who did the graffiti for us at Solesides – and I think about that drive to Automator’s and back at six and seven in the morning.