I Trekked into the California Wilderness with DJ Shadow to Learn the True Meaning of His New LP

As it turns out, the whole Mountain theme is a pretty good metaphor for making a record.

by Christopher Orr
Jul 27 2016, 6:10pm

Mark Madeo

Photos by Mark Madeo.

It's high noon on a dusty, tree-lined trail a few miles from Mount Tamalpais, a peak just north of San Francisco. The morning fog has lifted, and the sun is coming through the trees in golden rectangles. Sitting on a tree stump, the artist known as DJ Shadow is telling me how his latest album, The Mountain Will Fall, got its name. "The day I started on it, I did something I don't usually do: I posted on Twitter that I was beginning work on an album," he says. "[I tweeted] that starting an album is like looking up a mountain, but that in two weeks I'd think, 'Look how far I've come.'" Next, Davis fired off another tweet saying: "the mountain will fall." "Someone replied this would be a good album title, and I took note of it," he explains.

I'm a couple hours into a hike through the Camino Alta preserve with DJ Shadow, born Josh Davis, and a photographer. A few weeks ago, my editor suggested tapping into the meaning behind the new albumwhich dropped on June 24 on Mass Appeal Records, a label owned by the rapper Nas—by climbing a mountain together. My lower back had been aching for two weeks, but I took the assignment anyway, which is why I am now hanging with Davis in the middle of the California wilderness.

A few hours earlier, at 10AM, Davis materialized in the parking lot of the hiking trail—clad, not in professional hiking gear, but in a black t-shirt, black pants, and black baseball cap. Black sunglasses partially obscured his pale complexion—a studio "tan," no doubt. He'd greeted Mark and me with a firm handshake, and the three of us passed through a dusty entrance surrounded by bushes, trees, and rocks. Despite the obscured path, the views from the trail were beautiful: to the left, we could see the distant peak of Tamalpais, and to our right, land sweeping down to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the city itself.

While Davis currently calls Mill Valley home, he was born in 1972 in San Jose, California, and grew up in Davis. He started DJing hip-hop at the UC Davis radio station KDVS in the late 80s, and by the early 90s, was also producing beats for other artists, including Bay Area rapper Paris. In 1991, his work at KDVS caught the ear of the late Dave "Funken" Klein, who was writing for hip-hop magazine The Source and working as an A&R man for Hollywood BASIC, the short-lived hip-hop subsidiary of Hollywood Records. Klein featured Davis in his "Unsigned Hype" column before signing him to the imprint, giving Davis his first real break.

In 1992, Davis founded an imprint called Solesides with Lyrics Born, Jeff Chang, Lateef the Truthspeaker, Blackalicious, and Joseph Patel, AKA Jazzbo—musicians and writers he'd met at KDVS. The first 12" release on Solesides was "Send Them" by Lyrics Born, a Berkeley rapper—Davis did the beats, and contributed a remarkable 17-minute hip-hop collage divided into seven parts called "Entropy" on the B-side. By 1998, Solesides had put out future classics like "Lady Don't Tek No" by Latyrx and Blackalicious' Melodica; the crew had gone on a national tour with Jeru The Damaja and played shows with De La Soul. Even with all these successes, according to Chang in an interview on Lyrics Born's YouTube channel from 2008, the label still wasn't profitable enough to pay off its debts. In 1998, Davis shut down Solesides, and relaunched it as the label and artist collective that would henceforth be known as Quannum Projects.

In 1996, UK label Mo' Wax released Davis' first album, Endtroducing—the record that launched him to superstardom. Acknowledged by the Guinness World Records as the first album built entirely from samples, Endtroducing was a fluid but intricate amalgam of classic funk beats, rap acapellas, and spoken word snippets. It brought Davis to a wider audience, which, in the mid-90s, was being wooed by acts like Kruder and Dorfmeister and Nightmares On Wax, who explored a similar type of instrumental hip-hop to Shadow's variant.

As Davis takes in the sweeping views of Mount Tamalpais from his perch on the tree stump, I ask him what the initial critical reaction was like when Endtroducing first came out. He tells me that the album was far from an overnight smash. "I came back home to Davis [from England] to the crappy apartment in the same town where no one knew me," he says. "I was thinking, 'I might have to go back to my job at the pizza place.'"

"It was a slow build," he continues, likening Endtroducing to a midnight movie. "Not Star Wars—more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Davis ultimately credits Mo' Wax—and the label's founder, James Lavelle—for making the record a success by associating his experimental hip-hop with the label, and vice versa. "He identified his label with my album," says Davis. "Endtroducing became Mo' Wax."

In the six years between Endtroducing and Davis' second album, The Private Press, he continued working on various projects, releasing a compilation of his early singles from 1991-1997 on Mo' Wax called Preemptive Strike; producing the debut album of UNKLE, a collaboration with James Lavelle and future DFA founder Tim Goldsworthy; and working on the soundtrack to Dark Days, a documentary about homeless people living in tunnels in New York.

The Private Press was released in 2002 on MCA. Like Endtroducing, it featured a dizzying assortment of musical and spoken word samples, and boasted a similar funky grittiness. But Private Press—with tracks like "Mashin' On The Motorway," featuring Oakland rapper Lateef The Truth Speaker—hinted at the collaborative rap and song-based tracks Davis would go on to explore on subsequent albums.

"I didn't want to separate the different worlds of music I love, so I threw them together."—DJ Shadow

Around this time, Endtroducing was also beginning to be regarded as a classic by the press and music buffs. Davis recalls how, during a record-digging trip in 2003, he picked up an issue of URB magazine in Bremerton, Washington, and discovered that Endtroducing had been voted the top record of all time in a reader's poll. "That was one of the few times when I thought, 'That's incredible,'" he says.

In 2006, he released his eclectic third LP, The Outsider, on Island Records. The album weaved his ongoing fascination for psychedelic rock with his love of hyphy, the frenetic Bay Area rap sound being honed by artists like Keak Da Sneak and E-40. The record received mixed reviews from critics, and was, according to Davis, derogatorily referred to by some fans as his "hyphy record," implying that he had jumped on a hyphy bandwagon since the was hot at that time—even though he says the LP only contains three songs in that genre.

Stepping away from the tree stump to allow Mark to take a picture, I tentatively ask Davis if the criticism of The Outsider bothered him. He doesn't flinch. "When The Outsider came out, I felt everything was being condensed," he replies. "I was maturing as a producer. I didn't want to separate the different worlds of music I love, so I threw them together." With 2011's The Less You Know, The Better, he continued in this eclectic vein, placing rap and rock next to folk songs and the airy pop of Little Dragon. Davis describes that record to me as "an insular, withdrawn album," but when I counter that tracks such as "I've Been Trying" and the Little Dragon-featuring "Scale It Back" are quite pretty, he modestly concurs: "There's some beauty to it."

As far as his own creative process is concerned, Davis says that he'll never forget what Thom Yorke told him when he supported Radiohead on their 1997 OK Computer tour: "You're used to this adrenalin rush and when you don't get it, you try to recreate it by arguing with people. Before long, you're a mess." Davis pauses. "Album mode is the opposite of that."

Getting into the right mindset to produce music, Davis tells me, requires him to withdraw completely from the outside world, frequently regimenting himself to a grueling, ten-hour-a-day schedule: "It's a solitary, lengthy process," he says. "No phone, no movies." When it became time to record a new album, he had a rough idea of what he was getting into. "I didn't know it was going to be a [metaphorical] mountain, but I've done enough albums now to know what it takes."

With Mountain, Davis says his main goal was to step up his engineering game.

"Working exclusively with samples makes it very difficult to obtain ultra-low-end or ultra-high-end," he explains. Citing the way Dr. Dre merged live and electronic instruments on The Chronic as a big inspiration, Davis continues, "I've come to the conclusion that a live drum, a sampled drum, or a drum machine are equally useful."

To that end, Davis recorded sound from a super rare 70s synth called the EMS Synthi 100 and used these all over Mountain—particularly on the track "Mambo," which combines acoustic instrumentals with samples and synths. I ask Davis if Mountain's synthesized sound is a divergence from the canon of 80s and 90s golden-era hip-hop, which—with its sample-based sound and love of classic funk—had influenced his previous work. He answers knowingly: "Mantronix was probably my biggest influence," he says, referring to the innovative 80s hip-hop producer who stirred synthesizers, samples, and rap into a robotic but funky and danceable stew.

It's been twenty years since the release of Endtroducing, and his productions have evolved. Mountain is full of sounds from his hip-hop past, but also from the new, bass-heavy matter strewn around the place where contemporary rap has crashed into bass music, most notably on the roster of the German label SATURATE!RECORDS. During our conversation, Davis calls these new, post-dubstep forms of music—with their heavy low-end—the "new bully on the block."

My passion for hip-hop—rewinding back 25 years to another lifetime—made me want to contribute something. If people liked it, awesome. If they didn't, it would be an outlier, something to talk about for years to come.—DJ Shadow

From his perch on the tree stump, Davis turns around and looks into the vegetation-filled valley below us that sweeps down from the edge of the trail. He winces, and I wince too—the thought of tumbling down is mildly terrifying.

As we continue along the trail, we move into a discussion of specific samples used on the album. I tell him that I find the track "Three Ralphs" intriguing because of a sample from "The Beginning Of The Voyage (Heart Chakra)" on Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out, an album by American psychologist Timothy Leary, who advocated for the use of LSD in psychiatric therapy. Davis uses the sample mysteriously—isolating the name "Ralph," from Leary talking to fellow psychedelic ranger Ralph Metzner, and simply repeating the name three times.

Davis tells me that he got the idea to use the sample from his collection of rap cassettes. "I have this Chicago gangster tape on which the rappers shout out to their homies," he says. "One of them shouts, 'Three Ralphs.' I tried to imagine what that meant—was it three guys named Ralph or one guy called Three Ralphs?" Davis explains that using unusual samples afford him an opportunity to experiment with novel arrangements. "One of my gripes with beat-driven music is that it's intro, build, drop, build, drop, outro," he says. "I wanted to articulate that there are many ways to make instrumental music and have it evolve."

Davis reveals two surprising sources of inspiration for Mountain's slick, minimalist sound, marked by lush, synthetic pads and strings hovering elegantly over caverns of luxuriant, deep bass. The first is Scottish techno producer Neil Landstrumm's 2004 album Lord For £39, released on Planet Mu. Landstrumm is a Scottish techno producer, and on this album, he indulged his taste for grime, hip-hop, and the funkier side of techno. Davis says Lord is "glitchy, hip-hoppy, dubsteppy, it was where my head was at."

Secondly, Davis says listening to Steven Price's Gravity soundtrack made him think about "collaborating with instrumentalists—not necessarily beatmakers." To that end, Mountain features collaborations from a diverse range of artists, from British trumpeter Matthew Hallsall to German composer Nils Frahm, who is featured on a track called "Bergschrund;" the title is an obscure term, of German origin, for an icy crevice on a mountain. Davis also collaborated with Run the Jewels—the duo of Killer Mike and El-P—on "Nobody Speak," a tough hip hop cut embellished with quippy remarks from El-P about Donald Trump.

Another guest on the record is the Sacramento-based rapper Ernie Fresh, who Davis met through the San Francisco DJ Mophono (AKA Benji Illgen), an artist on Davis' Liquid Amber label, which, according to its website, was launched in 2014 as a resource for emerging artists and beat-oriented music. "I didn't want the kind of record that has the hot rapper or hot, new singer," Davis explains. "My philosophy with any collaboration is that I want it to be unique, something that we each couldn't have done alone."

We've stopped in a densely wooded area. It's darker here, and Davis is suddenly excited. Gesticulating enthusiastically, he explains how the idea for "The Sideshow," his track with Ernie Fresh, came from an obscure break with pops and clicks in it. "I thought, 'What if I make a scratch track where the scratches or breaks aren't familiar, but there's familiarity because of its conventional form?'" The track, he continues, would sound like it came from a different planet because it wouldn't have "fresh" or "ah" scratches—vocal parts on records that DJs scratch on one turntable while playing a beat on the other. He tells me that many of the samples on The Mountain Will Fall come from records no one would look for, including "a 1996 G-Funk track that wasn't a hit." "Wherever people aren't looking, I'm looking," he says.

As we move out of the trees and back into the sun, Davis spots a tiny caterpillar making its way across the trail. He stops and shouts, "Wow, look at that!" the photographer who has accompanied us on our hike exclaims. "Nature!" Davis answers, "It still exists!" We chuckle like schoolboys.

I ask Davis if he knew, back before he recorded Endtroducing, that he would have the discipline and sheer will-power to create masterpiece after masterpiece. He pauses, deep in concentration. "I knew I'd have to fight to make an album," he says. If there's one thing that has followed Davis throughout his long career, it's this ability to rise to the occasion and challenge his fans. When fans wanted Endtroducing 2, he gave them The Private Press, The Outsider, and The Less You Know The Better—albums that merged his disparate interests in psychedelic rock, hyphy, introspective folk, and dreamy pop into his developing production palette, surprising his listeners at every turn.

Amid all the experimentation, his love for hip-hop has remained another constant. Regarding Endtroducing, Davis says, "My passion for hip-hop—rewinding back 25 years to another lifetime—made me want to contribute something. If people liked it, awesome. If they didn't, it would be an outlier, something to talk about for years to come." He stops to think again as the sun cuts through the trees. Then he adds confidently, "Whether [the album] had value to people wasn't something I was thinking about."

We're back at the start of the trail. With a final handshake, Davis says a polite goodbye. His black-clad frame strikes a stark contrast to the pale, dusty, barren terrain around us. As he turns around to walk home through the searing haze in the air, he suddenly becomes DJ Shadow again—not the modest, jokey Josh Davis, but the enigmatic legend, crate-digger, and sample explorer. Unfortunately, the sun is too high in the sky for him to cast an actual shadow, yet I'm left with the feeling that no matter how much Davis reveals about himself, there will always be a part of him that we will never know.