DJ Shadow isn't so sure that Endtroducing was the first 100 percent sample-based record
Born Joshua Davis, DJ Shadow made great waves with his first proper album, 1996's Endtroducing, which has been lauded as the first album made up entirely by samples. By then, he'd already made a name for himself as a producer with some singles and production work out on Mo' Wax Records, and with Entroducing, he'd all but reinvented the use of samples.
Since then, DJ Shadow has collaborated on an array of projects, including Unkle, an act that produced a critically hailed debut album in 1998, Psyence Fiction, which yielded a memorably haunting video for "Rabbit In Your Headlights" with Thom Yorke. In 2011, DJ Shadow released his latest album, The Less You Know, the Better, which, as he mentions below, he sees as the end of an artist era for his creative output.
We recently had a chance to speak with Davis about what he really intended to do with Endtroducing, the blurring of lines between sample and live instrument achieved on The Less You Know, the Better and the significance of musician David Axelrod's music on his own.
Westword: How many records do you own at some point? There's a figure circulating of about sixty thousand.
DJ Shadow (Joshua Davis): I don't know if it was accurate at the time. It wasn't something I ever said. It was just from a quote from ?uestlove. He was talking on NPR, and he said he heard I had sixty thousand. I ended up using that quote in a mix just because I thought it was funny. It's more than that, but it's sort of irrelevant to me. It becomes abstract after a while.
Why do you think it's important to have a collection that big, or do you?
Oh, I don't think it is. It's just something I've been doing my whole life. I collected baseball cards, and then comic books, and then I started collecting records. I've just always been a collector, and I think it has to do with the fact that growing up in the '70s, we didn't have a lot of money, so I always felt like I was denied all the things that other kids had.
So as soon as I started to have an allowance and a paper route and then a restaurant job...You know, I guess on a psychological level, I was trying to fill some kind of void. I'm old enough now that I can reflect on that stuff and try to understand that drives me to do it. I don't think having a huge collection makes someone a better DJ or a worse DJ. This is just what I do.
Incidentally, I still pursue music. I don't limit myself to vinyl because if I did that, I would be missing out on a bunch of music. I'm just as adamant about cassettes, eight-tracks and CDs. With the music I'm playing in this set, it's almost exclusively Internet based. I don't want to limit myself or cut myself off from a whole era of music just because the format doesn't fit my sensibility.
What sparked your interest in looking in used and cut-out bins to find stuff you didn't already know?
Initially, it was that I discovered that a lot of rap records that didn't get distribution in my area or my state would end up in the cut-up bin. So, lots of times I would hear mixes on specialty shows on the radio -- which was the only place you could hear rap in the '80s -- and I would know from the hook of the song, or from things people were talking about, kind of what the name was, and I would go to Tower Records or wherever and try to find it.
I didn't understand distribution back then. I thought that if I heard something, even if it was played on a mix at two in the morning, that it must be available in a store. What I realized years later was that point zero zero one percent of the music being manufactured at that time ever got distribution all the way to the West Coast, particularly the Bay Area.
In the '80s, what I didn't realize was that the music I heard was really being decided by people that may or may not have understood hip-hop. In the '90s, I discovered how much music came out of from the East Coast and everywhere and how little of it ever actually reached me.
Initially, when I was going through used bins or cut-out bins, it was looking for the weird rap records that didn't get formally distributed. Then starting in '87, maybe even late '86, it was to try to find the beats and the scratches that people were starting to use on records.
Who were some of the weird rap people you got into back then?
There were a lot of records I would hear in the mixes, and I didn't understand why I wasn't able to buy it. One of the things I used to do was, at eleven or twelve, my dad used to take me to Pier 39 here in San Francisco, and we would watch the pop lockers and the break dancers at the Pier -- and this is 1984. I would listen to what they were playing on the box, what they were popping to and breaking to, and I would write down what I was hearing them say, and I would just try and find these records as a new release or as a cut-out or as a second-hand thing.
I discovered a lot of stuff that way. Not only from California, because there was a lot of L.A. electro and rap that only got distributed down there, but also from Seattle, the really early Sir Mix-A-Lot stuff. You'd get stuff from Texas. That's why I think I said, years later, that the hip-hop and rap that reached my ears was a lot more diverse than probably what a lot of New York took in because in New York you have the epicenter, the home of it all. And there was a lot more product, stuff that I never, ever saw, until I looked on the East Coast and in England and places like that.
But what was interesting was that I was getting Seattle's take on rap, I was getting Houston's take on rap, I was getting Detroit's take on rap, the Bay Area, Arizona, L.A. -- all these records that never made it to the East Coast. As a result, I think that's why a lot of rap from the West Coast ended up sounding different because the gene pool was a little further spread in a way.
What I find interesting now, with the music I am playing in this set, was that it sort of took shape very organically over time, at the end of 2011, and working to now. I started noticing that a lot of music that I liked, that was new, was not coming out on vinyl, and was generally being given away for free and made by kids all over the globe.
What I found to be interesting in the last year is that lots of times I'll hear something that I feel like is exactly what I want to hear, and exactly what I want to play, and it sounds totally new and fresh, and I don't know if the beat maker is from Russia or South America or Asia.
But more than a handful of times in the last year I've discovered that that particular artist, who may have done two or three remixes, and I've followed them, I eventually find out that they're within a hundred mile radius of me.
They may be from small towns in the central valley; they may be from coastal towns or wine country towns, but what's interesting is that I locked on to their sound as being something indescribable and compelling to me, and yet they're from basically the same area. I think that, in itself, is interesting in a similar way.
Obviously you experimented with four tracks in making your early beats. Did you experiment with other types of tape machines as a kid?
I used to occasionally beg my parents to buy me something like Keyboard Magazine, and I would see producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis using a massive two-inch machine. That stuff was major money back then. The only other thing I could mention is that my grandmother on my dad's side had '60s little reel-to-reel Dictaphone machine. I used to kind of play with talking and then running the tapes at different speeds and rewinding them with the heads still up so that you could hear the sounds going fast.
I just thought it was funny as a little kid being able to manipulate my own voice in that way but it was just a left and right feature -- a mono one-track. It wasn't viable. I also used to walk around with a little cassette recorder and record sounds. You know, walk in the back yard and, "Here's what this sounds like, here's what that sounds like, here's the garbage disposal, and let me call up time on the telephone and put it up to the microphone and record the lady's voice." Stuff like that, that I think a lot of kids did at that time.
What was the appeal and challenge of making a record comprised entirely of samples?
There's been so much said through the years how Endtroducing is the first 100 percent sample-based record, and I don't know if that's true to this day. I wasn't trying to do that. I thought it had already been done. That wasn't in my thinking at all. But what I was trying to do was push the art of sampling forward because, as I was starting to make mixes in '89 on a four track and got my MPC in '92, all throughout that time frame, the manipulation of samples was becoming more and more intricate and challenging and people were pushing the boundaries.
Then around '93 and '94, sampling took a turn a little bit to the stylings of what Dr. Dre was doing with adding keyboards over the top and having live instrumentation played over just a couple of samples. By the end of the '90s, most hip-hop artists were barely using samples at all. This was happening as I was developing my discipline of using samples.
By '95, when I was really working on Endtroducing heavily, I was very much trying to make a statement about, "Why are we all abandoning this artform? What everybody else is doing is great, but I feel like there's a lot of work left to be done in this discipline." And I wanted to create a record that pushed that conversation forward. That was then and I've tried to do that through the year at various times still, just sort of be like, "Well this little moment on the record I'm going to try to blow people's minds."
The ironic thing is that those moments are almost never referred to or asked about in interviews. I grew up studying records and how people did this and how they did that and it would be conversations in the car with me and my friends and people that were also trying to make beats. I don't necessarily get the impression that those moments that I've done since have been the fodder of those types of conversations.
I still do it with other people's music. There's new beats all the time where I'm like, "Wow, the syncopation on this one part of the song, or the way the beats are laid out, is totally unexpected and really flips my ear. That's what I like to listen for in music: I like when the music is unpredictable and the beats are unpredictable and you can't predict what's about to happen. That's what I've always liked about hip-hop and then in the many styles of music that have emerged from that.