First published on 18 Oct 2011. Updated on 18 Oct 2011.
Five years ago DJ Shadow’s album The Outsider drew strong criticism from his fans. As he returns to Shanghai on the eve of his new record’s release, the master sampler speaks to Sam Gaskin about the art of not pleasing everyone
DJ Shadow has just come off stage at the Identity Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, when we reach him by phone. ‘This festival is very ravey,’ he says. ‘Most of the other DJs are house and dubstep DJs – there’s very little crossover. I think I’ve decided to make that a selling point for myself rather than wondering “do I fit in or not?” and it seems to be working really well.’
Just how well? ‘We’ve done this show, as of tonight, 100 times and I’ve had people come up and say “I’ve worked at this club for 30 years, I saw Pink Floyd in ’77, and this is the best show I’ve ever seen,”’ Shadow says. ‘It’s nice praise.’
That praise must feel especially nice after the decidedly mixed response that Shadow’s last album, The Outsider, received back in 2006. Many fans of his first two albums, which were dominated by dark, instrumental hip hop arrangements, were perplexed by a perceived lack of coherence and the introduction of guest vocalists and hyphy rappers from the Bay Area, where Shadow, 39, lives.
'If the last album felt more like a shove, then this album feels more like an embrace,’ he says. ‘And I know that probably sounds pretentious to people who don’t know what I’m talking about, but the last album was a provocation and intended to be a bit jarring, whereas this one just came really naturally.’
If the new album is an embrace, it’s a somewhat stiff one. The record is called The Less You Know the Better, suggesting in some ways Shadow would rather keep his distance. Ostensibly, the title refers to his dissatisfaction with the contemporary glut of information, something he says is especially trying in his ‘hood, Silicon Valley. Much of the artwork on his website shows smartphones running amok, tagging insults over photos and pushing a lawnmower through his bio, rendering it illegible.
'I think it’s okay to start asking that the internet develops a conscience and becomes a little more self-critical and self-aware,’ he says. ‘For the last 15 years we’ve been blindly accepting the fact that the internet is our saviour and at a certain point we have to ask for a little moderation here and a little conscience there. Maybe it’s okay to go out for several hours and leave your phone at home, look at things around you and remember what it’s like to not be linked in 24/7.’
Shadow’s career has grown up with the internet, starting with the revered Entroducing (1996), and continuing with The Private Press (2002) and The Outsider (2006), neither of which reached the same critical acclaim. The Less You Know the Better might easily refer to Shadow knowing too much about what his fans thought of his more recent efforts, and how much they know and expect from him.
'I’ve definitely felt there’ve been times in my career when if people know too much about what I’m doing, it actually makes things less interesting. I first became aware of that because of a fan-site called endtroducing.com, a very active site full of people who were really into what I was doing. But as soon as they made contact with me and I began to participate in what was happening there, the myth was destroyed for a lot of people and they lost interest.’
Other Shadow fans have lost interest when his music strayed too far away from their own preferred genres or preconceptions of his music. Although the new album isn’t coming out until Monday 26, Shadow has clearly signalled that he’s still not ready to settle down stylistically. Three singles drawn from the album were included on an EP released earlier this summer called I Gotta Rokk. The title track is composed of bare-chested drum-kit beats, guitar licks and hair-metal vocals; ‘Def Surrounds Us’ is a nihilistic number built from scraps of dubstep, d’n’b and grime; and ‘I’ve Been Trying’ is completely different again, a blues song that recalls one of Shadow’s biggest singles to date, 'Six Days’.
'I personally feel like my albums have always been really varied,’ Shadow says. ‘Even on an album like Endtroducing, which people seem to hold in high esteem in terms of my catalogue, I feel like “Organ Donor” sounds nothing like “The Number Song” which sounds nothing like “Midnight” and on and on.’
As well as challenging fans, this sort of eclecticism creates challenges for Shadow arranging the songs to create a cohesive album. ‘The sequencing of songs is one of the hardest tasks at the end of a record,’ he says. ‘I was really panicking about it for two weeks and then literally the day of my deadline I went down to my workspace and ended up trying one last idea and that’s what ended up on the final album. I genuinely feel like at the last moment I really, really nailed it. I remember feeling that way about Endtroducing as well but I haven’t felt that way about any other records.’
Among the new songs Shadow is most excited about, he says, ‘there’s a track called “Border Crossing” which really sounds like an authentic speed metal instrumental and it’s all 100 per cent samples. Then there’s a track I like because it’s really dark and it has an amazing spoken word performance that I found on a record and cleared.’
Endtroducing was famously the first album to be made entirely from samples. The Less You Know the Better is a return to this mode of music making, something that Shadow excels at despite the legal minefield it presents. Unlike more mercantile musicicans such as Dangermouse and Girl Talk who sample at will and release their mixes for free, Shadow asks for permission.
'A ton of energy goes into clearing samples,’ he says. ‘Anything with vocals, anything that’s major, I try really hard to clear. And lots of times it’s really hard because it’s not like I’m using James Brown and Parliament samples, or Bon Jovi samples. I’m using stuff that’s really, really obscure. There’s this song on the album called “Sad and Lonely” and the vocal sample comes from a recording made in the 1950s and I just assumed the singer was already dead. When I finally got around to trying to find her she’d passed away the week before. We eventually found her husband and son and played them the track. They thought it was beautiful and gave their consent.’
Constructing an album almost entirely from samples also raises the question of when to stop, especially when artists like The Avalanches have made names for themselves with the sheer quantity of records that they’ve drawn from.
Yet Shadow says ‘it doesn’t matter at all how many samples are used. When a track passes my bullshit detector it’s done. If I feel like there’s an empty spot then the song’s not done, and if the song doesn’t carry a consistent momentum throughout, or it ends a bit weak, then maybe there’s something wrong with the arrangement and another sample is needed.
'But I feel like it’s just like any producer in a studio saying we need to introduce some new element. On a song like 'I’ve Been Trying” having that little keyboard melody that comes in on the second verse, that’s what helps keep a song going. I’ve learned from other people’s music, past and present, what works. It’s tough when you can’t find a good bass line for a song or you feel like something else needs to happen but you’re not sure what, but I don’t think that loading it up is always the answer.’
Likewise, ‘people always ask me how many records I own, as though the more I have the better DJ I am. The number is irrelevant. You can have a terrible record collection with a million records or a great one with 500 records.’
When Shadow comes to Shanghai he’ll be playing at the Muse Mixing Room, a good-sized venue that has already hosted the likes of A-Trak. It’s a definite step up from the bottle service and bling club, Richy, that he played last time he was here in 2008.
'I just went, “okay, this is an introduction and you have to start somewhere”. I did think it was strange, all those tables that the drinks were on. That was certainly unique. But any time I go some place new I just roll with it and take it in and try to imagine next time how I could do it better. I thought the crowd was good and the way they responded to the music wasn’t boring.’
When our interview runs over the allotted time and Shadow’s manager takes the phone to end it, we can hear him in the background asking if he can’t at least say goodbye. Throughout the interview he comes across far less as the self-described, post-The Outsider provocateur than someone eager to please. He does his level best to answer questions, just as he conscientiously engages with fans and licenses the samples he uses. Weeks before the launch of his first album in five years, he seems at once resigned to the fact that some of his tremendously eclectic tracks will miss with some fans, determined to pursue his own interests all the same, and just a little bit burnt by not being able to have it both ways.
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