DJ Shadow - London, UK - Winter 2006
21 Dec 2006
"grime sounds like london - it's the weather, the youth culture, the way people dress, their sensibility about music. the music feels like that place..."
For a man who has been hailed as the creator of Trip-Hop, Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow remains unsurprisingly excited by music and records. After all, a lasting image is the cover of his breakthrough album: a man flicking through endless record racks. Artists who release an album which is considered seminal often resent this kind of benchmark as an albatross, to which all ensuing material is compared unfavourably, but DJ Shadow is pleasantly willing to accept that 'Endtroducing' will be how people will remember him.
After all, we're all remembered for something, and a groundbreaking, lush, atmospheric hip hop record is probably better than trying to get off with your cousin before falling into the buffet table at Aunt Joan's wedding. As he says, "I'm happy to have ever done anything that people feel that much ownership of, that connected to." However, his records will always change, like most creative people he relishes a challenge, and hip-hop, of all the musical genres, is an ever-evolving phenomenon.
Making most recent LP 'The Outsider' has clearly been a creative time, showing a move away from his trademark instrumental hip-hop, this time with guest vocalists including Q-tip, David Banner and Kasabian, but he remains loyal to the "slogan (he) came up with in 1989, which is hip hop reconstruction from the ground up." For 'The Outsider' his working methods were similar to his Unkle project, when working with Thom Yorke and Mo'Wax supremo James Lavelle amongst others.
On a new track such as 'You Made It', the pace he was working at even resulted in his usual sample based, creative process, being eschewed in favour of live instruments. Hip Hop and live bands are not new, if anyone remembers the Brand New Heavies' Heavy Rhyme Experience, with Guru and Gang Starr, or The Roots, amongst others, but it makes for a satisfying listen. 'You Made It', for example, started as a sample, but soon evolved into a live track, with him playing a synth line and arranging the strings for a hired orchestra and live drums.
An influence on this album, the Hyphy sound, is a kind of West Coast take on Crunk, originating around 2001 with producer Rick Rock. DJ Shadow describes it as "In the same way London has grime, Atlanta has Crunk, Houston has its sound, it's rap plus the environment. Grime sounds like London. It's the weather, the youth culture, the way people dress, their sensibility about music. The music feels like that place."
The Hyphy (San Francisco) Bay sound is influenced by "a certain tempo because ecstasy moved from the rave scene", spilling into other genres and scenes. Its origins are based on the word 'hyper', describing the energetic rhythms and dancing, it's a shift from the preoccupation of gangsta rap with death for example, to celebration and energy. The relief at the arrival and success of Hyphy seems almost palpable to musicians and rap artists in the Bay area - "It's all about people making music that relates to their place, and not trying to be like New York, making their own take." It's an interesting look at the growth of musical, from the blues to punk, to the present day, a generation finding their own voice. However although he says some people wanted him to make an entire album of Hyphy, he left some tracks off the album, resulting in a greater variation than perhaps witnessed on previous DJ Shadow albums.
Previously the film soundtrack influence on his style has been evidenced by working with Director Wong Kar-Wai on the Craig David-esque, but much hipper and moodier, day-list song, 'Six Days', and his new single, 'This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way)' a heavily sampled soul-stomper, which he challenged fans to make a video for. He's an artist having what Quincy Jones described as 'big ears,' unafraid to try new things, like touring, which he's aware is part of the promotion process. He wants people to hear his stuff, noting that when Carly Simon had stage fright and stopped touring her record sales dropped. Likewise with Tracey Chapman. This shows a man who, despite operating below the top ten radar, has an appetite for popular music and the machinations of big labels, although running a small indie label himself, he sees the benefit of being signed to Island as "a major label is still the best way to reach the most people possible. They have the resources."
He has always been one of the pioneers in his field, often reaching milestones, even those like getting married and having kids, before other contemporaries. This settling has not however caused the death of his artistry, instead he needs "the downtown to succeed, I don't like to go back to the (creative) well too soon. I need time between projects, to listen to music, to see what other people are doing." It is refreshing to hear a musician to say how "all that (family) stuff focuses you." For a man who apparently has his life well balanced, he refuses to be found at age 50, regretting having only ever focused on music; a lifetime spent sifting through dusty records for that elusive beat or break. After all, life is what happens while we're all busy listening to music, and for DJ shadow, making it too.