The Shadow Sheds Light

Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, goes on the record about his latest project, 'Psyence Fiction,' the debut album from UNKLE.

Published September 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Next week, Mo Wax/London records will release "Psyence Fiction," the debut
album from UNKLE. More of a conceptual art collective than a band, UNKLE is the brainchild of James Lavelle, the 24-year-old founder of the London-based Mo Wax label. Various musicians, including Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato and Masayuki Kudo of Major Force, have worked on previous UNKLE singles and remixes. For the album, Lavelle -- who does not
write, play or mix music -- turned to the most acclaimed artist on his
label's roster: Davis, Calif., native Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, age 26.

Shadow's 1996 Mo Wax album "Endtroducing ..." was the first
fully realized, full-length instrumental hip-hop album. Though heralded as
a major step forward by Spin, New Music Express and countless other music magazines, it was, for the
most part, ignored by the rap mainstream.

For "Psyence Fiction," Shadow ventured even further into the uncharted realms of progressive hip-hop. Lavelle imagined the album as a sonic version of "Star Wars" -- an adventure of mythic
proportions, with plenty of action. He assembled a striking cast of characters (including Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Beastie Boy Mike D, the Verve's Richard Ashcroft and veteran New York rapper Kool G. Rap) to provide guest vocals.

That Shadow was able to seemlessly unify their disparate voices is testament to his alchemical skill. But "Psyence Fiction" is even more absorbing than a mix compilation. Despite the considerably more expansive terrain, it, like "Endtroducing ..." actually works best as an orchestral piece -- a full hour's entertainment. Remarkably ambitious, even pretentious
in places, but undeniably a work of intense concentration, "Psyence Fiction" transcends genre to an extent that the established critical language can't convey. DJ Shadow claims he had special training that prepared him for this kind of work -- specifically, his lifelong immersion in hip-hop culture.

What was the first record you ever bought with your own money?

"Street Beats Two," which was a Sugar Hill Records compilation. As they
were releasing singles, they'd put out a compilation. "Street Beats" was
1981, I think. "Two" was '82 or '83. I think I was about 10.

How'd you get into hip-hop at that age, living in a Northern California suburb?

I heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in
1982 on an AM urban radio station -- which is kind of rare
nowadays -- KFRC. They'd changed their format and were playing a lot of
Lakeside and Earth, Wind and Fire, Cameo and P-Funk and stuff like that.
I remember when I first heard it, I leaned over and pressed "record" on one of those little [clock radio] cubes. On the tape -- I found it about 10 years ago -- you can hear my parents coming in and saying, "What is this? Go to bed!" And I'm like, "Shhhhh! Go away!"
Even at that age, I was so sick of pop. I remember thinking there had to be something else out there. At the time it was Eddie Rabbit, Eddie Money, Foreigner and, um, Sheena Easton. Before "The Message," the tapes I would ask for for my birthday were Devo's first album, Blondie. I liked music that seemed progressive. And "The Message" was just so direct. It was actually the lyrics and the sparseness of it that attracted me, much more than the music.

When you were in high school, were there other white kids who were into

Yeah. But hip-hop kind of went in phases in the mainstream. After
"Breakin'" and movies like that came out, there was this "in" period. And then right after that, after the media overhype, '85 was the worst year for hip-hop, until fairly recently. Hip-hop was burned out on itself because it had all gone mainstream for a second. And then
everybody fell off and there was this weird transition where old
school seemed really old. It was all drum machines, and there's a
limit to how far you can go with that.

In seventh grade, I used to run into people who wanted to fight me because I
listened to rap. It was a really unpopular period to listen to it. But I
remember there was like five kids in the school who were really die-hard,
that weren't just passer-by kind of listeners. A lot of kids ... there would still be hits coming out, like "Just Buggin'" by Whistle, or "Batter Ram" by Tidy-T, then LL Cool J's album kept it just barely going. But there was such a drought. Then when the Beastie Boys came out in '86, it became cool to listen to it again. It was like the dips and valleys of hip-hop evened out.

My school was pretty much all white, and lots of people listened to rap,
but no one was getting into deejaying, or seriously collecting vinyl.

Yeah, well, a lot of records from New York never made it to California, so I would trade mix tapes with people. The most important person in my early hip-hop years was this guy Eighth Wonder, a graffiti artist. He was from the Midwest, but he had a lot of mix tapes from New York. And I had a lot of mix tapes from L.A., from a station called KDAY, which is legendary
now. So we traded. And I started buying records from all the other kids who were buying records. They'd make me a tape and there'd be a song on it like 2 Live Crew's "Revelation" or something like that -- which was their first record, on Fresh Beat out of L.A. -- and I wouldn't be able to find it, so I'd be like, "Hey, could you sell me that for a few dollars?" Before I
knew it, I had 50 records.

I got my first turntable in '84 and started practicing and stuff, scratching. I just started making my own mixes, and by '87 I was playing on the air, at the college station in town. This guy Oras Washington was a guy from Oakland who had the longest-running rap show
in the San Fernando Valley. I remember bringing him a tape. He was like,
"Damn, you made this?" So he kind of took me under his wing, and took me to
Public Enemy concerts in Oakland, stuff like that.

When was the first time you cleared a sample?

I remember the very first record I did, called "Lesson Four," for
Hollywood Basic, in '91, it was breakbeat mix and they asked me to list
every sample. At this time a lot of the industry still didn't know how to
handle samples, so people were trying to clear everything. I remember on
Hollywood Basic there was this one record that had nine samples. The credits take up the entire label. There's like 40 riders. I gave them a list and there were 70 things that I used, and they were like, 'Ah, never mind, forget it,' and just put it out anyway.

So the first cleared sample was not until "Endtroducing ..." There's a
Bjvrk sample on there that I thought should be cleared. There's a Jeremy
Storch record that I thought should be cleared -- things that I based an
entire song on, just because I knew it'd be recognizable to whoever did it.
But there's probably 1,000 samples on "Endtroducing ..." and I think we
cleared 10 or so.

One thing I really like about your stuff is that it's meant to be
digested over time -- your beats don't just repeat, they're a little
different every time around.

Pete Rock is where I got that from. Everything I do, all the lessons I learned growing up, is from listening to hip-hop music. Listen to a record like "Mecca and the Soul Brother" -- the drums change. There are no patterns that repeat, he's not just looping. He's very painstaking. Little subtle fills, but the fills are never the same. That was something that I
appreciated as a listener and as a record buyer. I always wanted to get a
sense that people were really trying and it wasn't just, "I'm gonna put
out a record and make Gs."

Who do you like to sit down and listen to?

Sort of like how Metallica doesn't listen to Megadeth for inspiration, I
don't really listen to a lot of stuff. People say, "You should
really check out DJ Cam," and I'm like [under his breath] I don't think
I'll be checking out DJ Cam. I was just listening to the Show and A.G. EP.
There's a producer named Gray Strider from Miami or somewhere in Florida
who I think is really good. I thought that Cornelius record was kind of interesting. There were a lot of little tricks that I didn't know how they
did them.

How do you see yourself fitting in the hip-hop world?

My mentors are the people that shaped my wisdom -- about the way I look at
music and the way I look at life. People like Bambaataa, Flash, D.ST,
Charly Chase, Steinski, Mantronic. Bambaataa was playing rock records to
urban kids, he was playing hip-hop to new wave crowds; it was all about
playing what people thought you couldn't play to them. If he hadn't mixed
Kraftwerk and funk, there wouldn't be any "Planet Rock." Back then it was
all about having an open mind.

What I've noticed more and more is that what I do appeals mostly to people who are older and
have been listening to hip-hop. All the people that I respect and that I credit for giving me my inspiration -- because everything I do is based on something else -- those people understand what I do and are not threatened by it. I met [Gang Starr's DJ] Premier on tour, and he understands that there doesn't need to be another Premier imitation. That's not going to help hip-hop. For me to imitate the RZA, for me to imitate Puffy, for me to imitate Premier is only gonna clog the market that much more. No matter where you go around the world, there's a Premier imitator. That is definitely all due respect -- obviously it's because
Premier means so much to everybody. But I have to show my respect in a different way, which is by putting my personal spin on it -- on what he did, what Large Professor did, what Mantronic did, what Steinski did, what Larry Smith and Orange Krush did, and all the way back.

By Adam Heimlich

Adam Heimlich is a regular contributor to Salon.

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