"It's more difficult for a song to become a lightning rod": DJ Shadow on the future of music

Salon spoke to the legendary DJ about vinyl culture, digitalism, and socially conscious hip hop


Scott Thill
September 5, 2014 9:30PM (UTC)

When last we spoke, DJ Shadow reminded me that the internet is not our savior. He might as well have added that saviors do not exist. Of course, that doesn't mean we haven't stopped looking for them, especially from the hip hop that DJ Shadow -- known to the I.R.S. as Josh Davis -- so thoroughly redefined on releases like "The Private Press," "Preemptive Strike" and especially his foundational 1996 debut "Endtroducing….." the first samples-only album in history.  Like a needle on the planet's spinning record, the defiant Davis has leapt from groove to groove, style to style and paradigm to paradigm as conformity and complacency have settled into pop and hop, challenging himself and even his fans, who still hold onto "Endtroducing….." like a life raft to a former world.

To wit, although he has been historically sanguine about the internet, DJ Shadow has nevertheless chosen this complicated moment to launch his own imprint, Liquid Amber, through which he will release his own music, as well as sonics from others that stir his interest. His imprint's first single, the future bass compendium "Ghost Town," was naturally released online first, and there's a good chance that will be the case with many of Liquid Amber's future releases, including his forthcoming full-lengths. Signs of the times, and all that.

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But the vinyl culture he exhaustively preserves and represents is simultaneously landing much love: On Sept. 3 in Boston, DJ Shadow and his fellow archivist/experimentalist Cut Chemist's Renegades of Rhythm tour begins schooling the U.S., using the legendary Afrika Bambaataa's prodigious record collection as textbooks. And what vibrant, relevant texts they care: Bam's vinyl collection, pushing 40,000 and permanently archived at Cornell University, is so influential and educational that its astounding diversity has earned its curator honorifics like the Godfather of Hip-Hop, the Father of ElectroFunk and many, many more. And just like Bam encoded disparate styles like punk, J-pop, krautrock and beyond into hip hop's sprawling DNA from the '80s to today, Davis is bringing Bam's socially conscious, purposefully inclusive cultural power to the people. He's also making positive future music from an uncomfortable present.

These are the important points to note, as Davis steps into another complex decade even as some critics and fans lean too heavily on those already behind him, waiting for "Endtroducing 2.0" even though such a thing is an impossibility. Meanwhile, Davis is content to spread the social and artistic gospel handed down to him from Bam, Public Enemy, KRS-One and other heavyweights of postmodern scripture, while creating joy for himself through his own music, on his own label, on his own terms.

Salon recently spoke with the soft-spoken Davis about postmodern scripture, vinyl culture, digitalism and more.

Let's start with the new Liquid Amber cuts. I'm hearing serious digitalism on "Ghost Town."

I feel like I'm just trying to be consistent in the way that I approach music and try different things. Sometimes when you try to make music that's different, you're set far apart from everybody else, in terms of what they're expecting or what they want to hear. And then other times, almost out of coincidence, you hit the mark a bit closer. I'm fine with either. The "Liquid Amber" EP represents what's been inspiring me over the last year, as opposed to 30 years ago.

Back then, hip hop spawned drum 'n' bass, trip hop and various permutations that reflected our widening interests. But our interests today seem more narrowly digital, so your new music feels more electronic to me.

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Sure. I think part of it is that I'm just trying to say different things with samples in different ways. I mean, I still use samples, but if you don't use a chunky, trashy drum break, your music is just going to sound different. And like other artists, I just sort of go,"Well, I've kind of done that and now I want to explore." I always just assume that everybody is on the same page in terms of artistic license .

The flip side of that digitalism is your tour with Cut, which is a bow to Bambaataa's vinyl culture and influence, and there's great synergy between the two. Both spring from the desire to reach forward into the future of music, while fully incorporating its diverse past, as Bam did.

That's exactly right. I mean, you nailed it on so many levels. Because Bambaataa is one of those voices in my head pushing me to do different work. If you follow his career, you find that it was not easy in 1981 or 1982 for him to bust out Public Image Ltd, Liquid Liquid and a bunch of downtown New Wave. That was radical. Now, 30-plus years later, everybody is still basically adding to a narrative that he started. He started the narrative, and that was inspiring to me. Obviously, his "Planet Rock" electrofunk wasn't something other people were doing. That was his idea. He was always at the forefront. And not everything Bam did resonated with me or the mainstream or critics, but every artist goes through that.

But what I find inspiring about his 30 years under the microscope is that he's always looked forward. I think there's a time and a place to celebrate the past, in the way that Cut and I are doing with this set. But I think it's also important to keep one foot forward as well, and I feel Bambaataa would agree with that sentiment. I mean, I've never really seen him be like, "Oh, everything used to be so much better back in the day." That's not something he ever really voiced. He's excited about all eras, and his record collection reflects that. He doesn't say, "Well, I'm just going to keep playing breakbeats." He kept growing, he kept evolving, and that in itself is one of the most powerful concepts in his definition of hip hop.

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For Bam, even in the early '80s, hip hop was from the future, like jazz was for Sun Ra. They were taking stock of what was happening around them, but always had their mind on evolving everything forward.

Right, and it's always that give and take, that push and pull. People want to go further. They want to move faster, but feel on a certain level that they have to hold back from going as far as they really want to go, because they don't want to lose everybody. And that's another thing that resonates with me: I want people to enjoy what I do musically, but if I make something that people aren't into or have a problem with, I can respect that. All I've ever asked in return is that they respect my desire to follow my own muse. We're not always going to be on the same page. Nobody is. No artist is. And at a certain point, I think artists that try too hard to please end up falling short because their music ends up formulaic and stale. That's why Bambaataa's career is so fascinating to me. He kept doing what he wanted to do. He was popular and his music had hits, and then for a time they didn't. He was relevant, then he wasn't, then he was, then he wasn't again. I mean, I'm not him and I don't know for sure, but I get the impression he's at peace with all that.

I'd put you two together that way. When your earlier work came out, it felt so forward-looking. Now here you are in the future, with a vinyl tour schooling kids on the past, as well as your own imprint entering a mostly digital marketplace.

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Yeah, and to your earlier point, which I appreciate, for me that's my ideal state. To be able to simultaneously occupy both spaces, hopefully authentically. You know what I mean? It just so happened that this ended up working out the way it did, but I like it. I like when I'm able to do something for one part of the day that's hopefully pushing everything forward, or continuing to navigate unchartered territory. And the other challenge, the other half, is to say something new with time-worn, classic material. Both are challenging for different reasons.

Speaking of challenging, Bambaataa was heavy on social awareness, and your work like "In/flux"  also has that. That type of activist spirit could come in handy now in Ferguson and other flashpoints.

I read a 1984 interview with Bambaataa yesterday, where he was trying to help the interviewer understand where the term "rap" came from. And he pointed to socially conscious rappers like The Last Poets, as well as H. Rap Brown and Stokeley Carmichael. I mean, I'm sitting here looking right now as some of Bambaataa's Last Poets records, and they were obviously much loved by him, because he kept buying them through time. They resonated with him, so just as he perpetuated James Brown's message, he also perpetuated the messages of Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X and others that were socially conscious thinkers when he was growing up.

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Flash forward to me as a 10-year-old, hearing Bambaataa's views on social issues, as well as hearing Public Enemy, X Clan, Brand Nubian and the conscious wave of the '80s.  You know, some kids had punk rock, some had hardcore, some had heavy metal. You name it. But for me, it was rap. Things I learned from Chuck D, Rakim and KRS-One helped set me on a course as a young man living in America, trying to fit into the society of that time. But it also became a roadmap that never left me. There are certain quotes I still fall back on in the same way other people fall back on scripture. These were my teachers. I'm not going to say for my generation, because so many people were into different things. But for me, and my clique, these were our teachers.

Do you think hip hop still has that appeal for social change, handed down from generations, in today's marketplace? I hope it does, given tragedies in Iraq and Fergsuon, but I'm unconvinced.

It's hard to say because people take in information in such different ways now. When Howard Beach, Rodney King and other flashpoints of the '80s and '90s happened, there was no internet. Few even had cable at that time, so most everyone got their information from identical sources. Perhaps three different options, in terms of ABC, NBC and CBS, but everyone received their information concurrently, and everyone was given the same filter through which to understand it. After that, it was up to the speakers of that time, from Al Sharpton to Phil Donahue to anyone you were inclined to listen to, to give their opinions on what was happening.

Today, a lot of people don't even watch television, and news they get on the internet is filtered according to what they are looking and watching for. So I think everyone gets alternative views of the news, or no news if that is what they are into. And that I think is the difference. As a consequence, in some ways it is more difficult for music to become a lightning rod, or a sounding board, for the same reasons. Music is so marginal now, in terms of how it is disseminated. You actually first have to want to find it, and then seek it out. That's the difference.

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While we're on the means of production, when last we spoke you told me the internet is not our savior. But now you've got your own imprint in a digital era that finds selling physical copies a challenge. How has what you've learned in your 20-year career about both vinyl and digital culture influenced the way you're approaching your art as commerce?

Well, I think that like so many others, especially musicians, were all just trying to grope in the dark, to do what we love for a living, make ends meet, and be joyful in what we do. And I definitely don't have all the answers, but part of the process for me is going, "OK, this is the way things are." On a certain level, you have to just push forward. I want to project positivity in what I'm doing. I want to project constance and joy in the music. And what I'm doing today might not be what I'm doing six months from now, and might be different than what I was doing the last time we spoke. But that's part of the journey.

I'm trying to fit in these pieces into this puzzle. I'm the last person to ever say I've got anything figured out. I just want the music to have a chance to be what it is, without me having to put a bunch of stuff on it. If people are going to hear it whatever manner they hear it, that's great. I hope they like it, you know what I mean?


Scott Thill

Scott Thill is the editor of Morphizm.com. He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

MORE FROM Scott Thill

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