DJ Shadow: "What Lasts, And What Survives, Is Good Taste"
DJ Shadow is one of the most recognizable names in experimental hip-hop. Occasionally controversial, and ever-influential, Josh Davis also has a reputation for being a bit of a shut-in when it comes to the media, so Rocks Off jumped at the chance to grab a few minutes with the sampling sorcerer, who stops by House of Blues Saturday night behind this year's The DJ Shadow Remix Project.
We got ten, interrupted by occasional countdowns from Shadow's handler. Plenty of time to grill him on the mythology of the Shadow, video games, and DJs of the future.
Rocks Off: So where does the Shadow moniker come from?
DJ Shadow: Back in the late '80s, when I was trying to settle on a name - at the time, rap had not broken through the mainstream [and] wasn't a radio staple, yet. There were a lot of producers and DJs trying to step out from the background and be stars in their own right.
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At the time, I felt that a DJ's place was behind the boards and a producer's place was in the studio. At the time, the name was supposed to represent "be heard and not seen."
RO: That points to something that's been part of your reputation for a long time, being kind of reclusive. Do you think that's deserved?
DJS: To a certain extent. Personal fame and recognition was never my goal. I think it gets a little bit old, as well, when you try to be too mysterious and you never take photos without a shroud on your face or behind a helmet.
I've seen all the gimmicks, we've all seen them; it gets a little old. I think it's just about being honest and being who you are, and who I am, I don't feed off the limelight, so I don't seek it. I just try to let the music be the focus.
RO: Is there any extent to which you try to balance your innate shyness?
DJS: Well, you know, yeah. When you do a live show, you kind of have to take hold of the situation, or the situation will take hold of you, and that's something I've kind of had to learn over the years. I mean, if in 1985, somebody said I'd have to address 20,000 people in the field because the sound just blew, and I'd have to ad-lib for five minutes, I'd probably never have pursued DJing.
You're put in those situations, and you have to do them. At the same time, there are other situations where... for example, there was this one time I was a presenter at an awards show in England, and there was a red carpet, and I've never felt so idiotic as having to stroll down this thing. I felt like, "They don't want me, they want Ewan MacGregor" or whoever's going to be walking down the thing.
It's just such a ridiculous situation to put yourself in, so I just try and avoid those kinds of situations. You just take it as it comes, I guess.
RO: With so much of the creation and production of music going digital these days, what does it mean to you to be a DJ?
DJS: To me, at its purest most basic sense, it's exposing people to music. I think it's a great honor and a great power, and I love doing it. I mean, I bore people to tears all the time. Just last night on the bus, chatting with the crew, someone was playing a Just-Ice song on the CD player, and it takes me right back to the time, and I start talking about the video and how great it was, [like] "Have you seen the video? I have to show it to you, let me pull it up on YouTube. If you like this, you gotta hear this; let me pull it up on my iTunes."
You know, it's just that, this innate need to. In the same way, when I was first able to drive, I used to be the only person driving around Davis, Calif., playing Ultramagnetic [MCs] as loud as I could just imagining some passerby hearing it and just freaking out, you know? That's why I do it. To me, the technology can be a boon or a curse, it's really down to who's using it. It's made a lot of people lazy, but good DJs are still good DJs.
RO: How involved were you in the creative process for the DJ Hero video game?
DJS: I was supposedly the first person they pulled in, as far as being an outsider, not somebody in England developing the game. I was the first kind of freelance, journeyman DJ they pulled in like, "OK, here's where we're at, what do you think? Does it feel right, does it look right, what could be better, what are some things we could add or do?"
That was about a year before the game came out. I basically just answered all those questions and worked with them on a lot of music input. Chances are, if there's music on there that's slightly familiar but kind of unknown, it's probably something that I stuck in there as kind of like "look, you can't have a DJ game and not have this in there."
RO: So I hear the stuff on the new album is supposed to be a "return to form." What exactly does that mean for you?
DJS: I think what it means is, with my Mo'Wax material, there was a lineage. I mean, there was In/Flux, then the What Does Your Soul Look Like EP, then the album, and there were digressions in between those things, but that was, Endtroducing... was spelled that way to sort of signify the end of a trilogy - you know, from In/Flux to the album.
The Private Press was a follow-up that took a long time to do, because I had a lot of other things to get out of my system. I did consider it a proper follow-up. Then with the last album, I considered it a detour. I wanted to throw up an album that would sort of obliterate people's expectations of what my albums are supposed to mean.
Having done that, which I was glad to do and think served its purpose, with this album I hope to pick the thread up again, with the music that I think is purest to my heart, and the music that I think best represents me and what I'm about. By that I mean that there's no collaborations on the record, it's 100 percent me. There's no guest stars, none of that.
I think fans consider it baggage, like, "Why is this person on there and not this other person?" People tend to be very invested in who I work with and why. . .so, while I don't necessarily agree with those assertions, that won't be an issue on this record.
RO: What would you prefer for your legacy: to remain well known, or to wind up as some kid's long-lost gem, discovered in whatever alternative the future has for the bowels of a used record store, then spun into the music of tomorrow?
DJS: I mean, that's a really good question, and I think about it a lot. I think that what I've learned through the years is that what lasts, and what survives, is good taste. While that's a totally individual concept, it's different with everybody, I do think that, ultimately, music that's ironic or meant to represent a specific time or place can be sort of fleeting. There's some music that's just eternal.
We all have our own definition of that as well, but that's what I'm working toward. You know, music that's not necessarily of a time or place; it could've been made at any point. I think in order to achieve that, you have to not only learn from the past, but very specifically, you have to champion the present and look to the future, as well. I know that that sounds very cliché, but I do think a lot of my peers get trapped in the past.
I think it's really important to not get settled into that easy-chair. You have to constantly be learning and stay in school, and never think that you know it all, because no one can ever know it all. In some sense, it's kind of the harder road to take, but I think it leads to a much more interesting body of work.
With Pigeon John, 10:30 p.m. Saturday, November 6, at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, 888-402-5837 or hob.com/houston.
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