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An In-Depth Interview With DJ Shadow

We talk to the legendary DJ about the evolution of his process and his visual live show centered around the enigmatic Shadowsphere.
March 30, 2012, 11:16pm

DJ Shadow produced his seminal debut album Endtroducing….. during a simpler time. It was an age when you dug for records and didn’t download discographies in an instant, before you could Google or Shazam a sample you heard in a song, and before every kid in the world had the ability to make a beat at their fingertips.

Without Endtroducing….., the art of sampling would not be where it is today. Known widely for its credit as the first ever fully sampled album, it’s cited less frequently for its qualitative accomplishment of showing hip-hop heads, rockers, and purists of all sorts that there are definite patterns in music across genres and traditions, and that the seeming limitations of making music from other music are actually the liberating factors that make beat production a continuing phenomenon. Shadow never claimed ownership over this paradigm. He simply passed it to the world and let the beatmakers that grew from that seed run with it. A decade and a half later, we find ourselves in a different musical landscape.

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Shadow doesn’t long for the age of purism to return, for the sanctity of record collecting to be rediscovered, or the art of turntablism to once again rise to the forefront of hip-hop. He evolves with an ear to the ground and an understanding of the impermanence of musical styles, including those he holds dear. As music production became more of a visual process, and technology upped the ante for what a live show could be, Shadow adapted and excelled. Screens first appeared as part of his live stage set up in 2002 on The Private Press tour, his visual collaborator Ben Stokes filling the canvas fields with psychedelic imagery that fit the narrative of Shadow’s continuous, flowing set.

As time passed, the narrative strengthened, and the cohesion between Shadow’s music and the live visual element that accompanied it grew into a single symbiotic entity. The most recent incarnation of this beast is the Shadowsphere, a globe that encloses Shadow and his equipment, and sits in front of a projection screen. The projections designed by Shadow and Stokes are mapped to both objects, using their shape and position to create intense, illusory visualizations. As the images shift, Shadow uses a variety of equipment to create live renditions of his tracks that are vastly more electronic than anything on his records, giving his fans a completely new way to experience his music while giving its roots a sincere nod.

We caught up with DJ Shadow on the day of his performance at Irving Plaza in New York to talk about his ever-changing production techniques, the music scenes that claim him as an influence, and the process behind the Shadowsphere. We even got to step inside it.

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The Creators Project: I read recently in an interview that you’re using Ableton now, which is sort of the standard today. Do you think that there's a difference in the product going from an MPC or a four track and moving to something that's so visual?
DJ Shadow: I differentiate pretty strongly the work I do as a beatmaker and a producer or whatever I choose to use for the live scenario. Right now, I'm only using Ableton in the live context. Every time I sit down to do a live tour, the only thing that's really similar between the album and the live show… I take them both really seriously because they both make such a strong statement. An album is permanent, it's forever. In 1999, that was really my first opportunity just to sort of rewind and pull all the threads together.

After Endtroducing….. came out, anything that I did live prior to that, I was just DJing. If Group Home came out with a new single, I would play it just like everyone else—if there was some hot beat that Premier or Prince Paul did. I grew up on hip-hop so that's what I was doing. And then Endtroducing….. came out and I noticed that from that time on, people really weren't interested in hearing me play other people's music so much. They wanted me to play my music. So, the first tour I did was with Jeru the Damaja in the US in ’97, and that was really the beginning of me representing myself live. I thought it would be cool back then having an MPC on stage because there were lots of beats and things that I was working on. For example, I was working on the U.N.K.L.E. record at the time and I really wanted to play some of those beats in my show. So on the Jeru tour, and when I supported Radiohead in the UK, I was doing that in addition to the turntables. Just based on what my peers were doing at the time, I thought that was a cool extra thing to have in the live arsenal.

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Then in ‘99, that was really the first time I caved in and decided I was ready to do these big European festivals. Back then, again it was almost all rock groups at the festivals, especially the big UK festivals. It was sort of a novelty to have a DJ that wasn't a house DJ or an Ibiza style DJ at these festivals. I just tried to make it as live as possible, and also it was at the height of the turntable era. Now when I listen to those recordings, there’s tons of scratching—way more than I think I could even get away with now.

On that front, do you consider the turntable era to be kind of over?
I don't consider the turntable era to be over, but the turntablist movement was at its peak at that time, and I think it culminated with Scratchcon in San Francisco in 2000 when the Invisibl Skratch Piklz did their final performance. To me, it felt like, OK, we succeeded in bringing the DJ back to the forefront collectively between the efforts of, obviously, the Skratch Piklz and the X-Men and everyone who was trying to bring the DJ back to the forefront of respect and regain the rightful place within hip-hop. I think that happened, that dialogue was had, and we achieved our goal collectively.

After that, it became about how can we keep this interesting because it felt like there was a little bit of a stale period. And then for me, the next big development was the CDJ. So in 2002, that was my first big world tour and we had the CDJ and we also had visuals.

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Based on my experiences in ’99 at these festivals, it felt really cool in hip-hop to just come out with nothing but two turntables and a mixer and be right at the front of the stage and do that. But after doing it in ’99, I went, OK, the next time I come back… because I was seeing what the rock bands were doing and I was like, I'm learning from this. I want to involve the audience on a visual basis as well. So that's why, in 2002, we took that step to doing the visuals. In 2004, I think I was the first person to tour with the DVJ prototype, and that was on a Quannum tour. Then in 2006, Serato was brand new.

So to me, Ableton is just for whenever I have a big tour to do. Here's what we want to do. What's the equipment that will help us get there? I wanted to have turntables and Serato in the bubble, but a week before we left for tour in 2010, because everything was being built in real time, we didn't know if it was going to work. We still hadn't figured out what the surface of the sphere was going to be. At one point it was going to be a giant sock-type thing that would stretch over it and we looked over it the day before we left and just went, "No." I looked at how the table felt and thought if I try to, even with Serato, if the needle flies off it's still going to be fucked up. You can quickly hit the button that will make it play, but for me, Ableton makes sense, CDJ makes sense, so that's how we decided to run it for this show.

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Basically all the kids in the world who you've influenced are making beats sort of in your style, although sampling hasn't stayed the pure art that it's been because of the availability of breaks and music in general. So when you're digging for stuff now, what do you look for? Because the selection of samples you use now is much more eclectic.
Yeah, I think even going back to Endtroducing….. On Endtroducing….. I was using European prog and a cut from Metallica, Björk, etc. To me, that's simply following the same aesthetic as who I consider to be the real pioneers of sampling, whether it be Prince Paul and all the barriers that they broke on Three Feet High & Rising or hearing Large Professor flip something a little bit out of the norm, or Premier using Jean-Jacques Perrey, a French synthesizer pioneer. You see that and you kind of go "oh, there are no boundaries."

A lot of times, the really interesting and unusual breakthroughs in hip-hop at that time on a sample basis where outside the realm of James Brown. As much as I love any classic hip-hop track that uses “Funky Drummer,” and there are hundreds of them, but at the same time it's also really cool to hear a demo of a cassette from ’91 that never came out that uses Velvet Underground, and you kind of go "wow." There was another one from ’89 that uses Siouxsie and the Banshees. And it wasn't "back-pack rap," this was New York hip-hop. It's just the dudes were on another level. You look at all that and you go, that's brave, challenging, audacious. That's what I want. I don't want to be conservative or worried about what people will think if I use a brand new Björk song. To me, that's what it's always been.

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In terms of what I use now, I always like the analogy that if you were digging a tunnel and you start digging it 20 years ago, you'd be a lot deeper than people who started digging a tunnel just five years ago. So, I take that pretty seriously and I use a lot of one of a kind things whether that be studio tapes that I bought off a studio that closed down, acetates, or things like that. I never restrict myself to that. For instance, if I happen to pick up an album from a conventional rock group that did eight albums, and one of them is hard to find so I, for whatever reason, never got it until now… I mean there's so many samples in my catalogue that I think people pull that as "Oh, I found it! I know where he's at. I'm right there with him!" But there's so many that I consider to be pretty pivotal that people still ask me about 15 to 20 years later, and even with the internet, it's not out there still. And there's a lot of false information out there as well. Sometimes I'll get contacted by the artists or the record company and they're like "Oh, we have proof, it says right there on the internet." That doesn't mean anything—anybody can say anything.

As far as incorporating synthetic sound, the non-sample components, into your work, what's your approach to that?
On one hand, I can look back at when sampling first started coming to the forefront as a way to basically making it so the DJs didn't have to cut over a drum machine like “Peter Piper”. There was, especially from ’86 to ’88, frequently the primitive sampling done over top of synthesized sounds, whether it be keyboards or drum machines or both. I always felt like it was a very tricky balance. When you really come down to the classic Public Enemy and De La songs, most of them do have drum machine backing of some kind on the deeps and the highs because sampling back then tended to be very mid-range. I grew up with all of that, but at the same time, by the time I started working with an MPC back in ’92, it was the norm at that time to only have the samples doing all the sonic work, except for the occasional 808 kick which would also be sampled and put in there. I always found it difficult to get that blend just right.

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On “Stem” for example, the day that I mixed the song, I just happened to have Run's House in the studio. I just took the kick and the snare from the extended drum outro Run's House, or that bonus beat on the 12-inch, and just programmed it the way I would imagine a punk drummer would play. Little things like that do help, and I've always done a little bit of that. Then, if you move into The Outsider, I wanted to experiment with doing completely non-sampled tracks—a lot of the hyphy stuff on that record—people didn't sample in the hyphy scene, really. That was just a total nod to that scene and, if I was going to use Turf Talk, I didn't want the track to be some sort of Turf Talk crossover or experimentation. I wanted it to hit in that scene.

So what where you using to construct those tracks?
A lot of software synths that were around at the time. My assistant engineer who was trying to bring me up to date in that world was close with Native Instruments and hooked me up a lot of stuff. I was sort of like a kid in a candy store, realizing it was fun making beats without the perceived burden that every track I did had to be a some progressive sample masterpiece. It was nice to blow off steam and work on those songs. For me, that's what The Outsider was about in general: forget everything, I'm just gonna follow my own music, and make the music I want to make.

In the late 90s, hip-hop was in the midst of renaissance. The new renaissance that’s emerged now is LA’s beat culture, the Flying Lotus-led movement. What do you think of that scene? The ambient, hip-hop, sort of electronic stuff that's coming out?
That's the thing that's really cool about touring the world. If I'm on a festival set in Manchester or Lyon, France, Russia, or Thailand, wherever, you're walking from tent to tent, stage to stage, or backstage, and you just hear all these sounds and you see how people are reacting to this or that genre, and it really gives you a leg up. My show, what I've tried to do, is to take all of these influences and spit them all out. I have to be honest in saying that I think being a purest, as I considered myself to be until probably ’93 or ’94 in hip-hop, is really good for a scene at a certain time, especially when the scene is underground. But for me personally, it stops serving a purpose. So now, I really have open ears to everything, and I have definite opinions on what I think is cheesy or shit or genius. I try to be very vocal because I think it's really important to have an opinion.

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I started hearing about stuff like the The Low End Theory scene, Flying Lotus, and all those guys in the context of people asking me what I thought about it. And at the time, four or five years ago, I wasn't very familiar because I wasn't spending a lot of time in LA. I think a couple of people were like, “They credit you as an influence.” Sometimes, when I hear things like that, I say, "Oh, thats great to hear," but feel like I don't know how much I should really pay attention to this because it almost gets incestuous if you only listen to people who say they were influenced by you. Since then though, Gaslamp Killer was touring with me for a little while and I might spin at their SF Low End Theory at some point this summer.

I've been to a couple of their nights and I've just leaned over to Mophono or whoever happens to be standing near me at the time, and say, "What is this? This shit is amazing," and learning about people like Eprom. I think it's really hard as you age to keep your ears open and remind yourself constantly that you have to stay in class, but I think that's one of the things I'm proudest of, like being influenced by Rick Rock in the middle of the 2000s and wanting to express that in my music.

To me, it's really comforting to live in the past, but that's not living. You're not breathing if you're not also constantly being challenged about your opinions. That's another reason why I did Identity Fest last summer. I knew I was going to be thrown into the deep end. I was going to be playing for 18 year old rave kids that had no idea who I was, or maybe I was like their older brother's music or something. And being able to see what they’re into and trying to meet them half way was a total challenge. It's funny because there were people in my crew who would be like, "This is just noise." To me, it's not just noise. You're looking and seeing how it's moving the audience. That doesn't mean that you're just following a trend, but you just kind of go, "OK, that works for me, that doesn't work for me, that makes sense to me, that doesn't make sense to me," and just continue to evolve your program and your aesthetics and keep your ears open.

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Entering the Shadowsphere

DJ Shadow: There's two spheres. One's in Europe and one's here because it costs too much money to constantly be parading it back and forth. The heaviest part of everything is the base. It has a very solid steel base. It's just extremely heavy and that's really what holds everything together. Do me a favor and get up there. I wanna show you something.

It's shaky
Yeah, that's why I was like I don't know if the turntables are going to work at festivals and stuff. Look straight ahead. [Turns the outer sphere] It kind of fucks you up, makes you a kind of sea sick.

Totally. At some point this opening faces the crowd as well, right?
Yeah, that was something we were really into when Ben and I, at the beginning 2006, sat down and started kicking ideas and concepts around. One thing I wrote down that we really worked towards was sleight of hand. We really wanted to mess with people's perception about what a DJ's show could be. We talked about things like having two stages where they face one way, ’cause it's the natural way they're going to face, and, all of a sudden, I'm actually behind them and they have to turn around. We just kept working on these themes that we liked. One of the breakthroughs visually was when we discussed the concept of projecting on two planes. The visuals that are on the sphere and the visuals that are on the back screen are different, but they form an illusion.

Have you seen some of the other visualizations like Amon Tobin, Squarepusher? What do you think of those?
I haven't seen either of those shows, but I know they're similar in certain ways. Ben has actually seen the Amon Tobin show.

Ben: I haven't seen Squarepusher recently, but the Amon Tobin show is beautiful. I think the biggest difference between us and them is that we have a lot more narrative and content. The Amon Tobin show is very abstract. It's beautiful eye candy. And they keep doing very different, abstract things with the sculpture set. And I think we're doing a little bit more story telling.

So how do you select the video stuff as far as which visualizations you show? Is that something you do together?
Ben: It's a very collaborative process. I sometimes go a little off roads and come up with stuff and [Shadow] likes it, and sometimes he doesn’t. I'd say generally speaking we've sat down and talked a lot. Many hours have been spent brainstorming.

DJ Shadow: And we have themes through the years. Like in 2002, what was interesting for us at that time was video sampling. For this show and other shows we've done in the last six years, I'd just be like, "No video sampling. None. We're going to come up with all the content. It’s all going to be bespoke." My personal philosophy is that I'm just not that into digital wallpaper. Like when you see "Sad & Lonely" for example, I like when the imagery complements the music in a meaningful way. There are stories and there are themes. There’s a narrative. There's a beginning, middle, and end. And there's bookends. All of that I think is really important in my music. I always like to think of it in a literally sense of an introduction, the chapters, and the epilogue. Endtroducing….. is very much that way.

@ImYourKid