clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ageless Wonder: DJ Shadow Is Still Building Steam and Breaking New Ground

The legendary producer discusses the importance of political music, following up his viral hit with Run the Jewels, and working with rappers like Nas and Pusha T on his new album, ‘Our Pathetic Age’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For someone who made his bones mining relics of the past, DJ Shadow sure isn’t afraid to try new things.

The 47-year-old crate-digging and producing legend born Josh Davis is best known for his 1996 debut, Endtroducing….., a 63-minute opus that redefined what people thought was possible to make with a sampler. Built almost entirely with a motley collection of records that included Giorgio Moroder, Funkadelic, Björk, and even Metallica, the instrumental album remains one of the most influential of the 1990s—a densely layered, deeply emotive work that’s hip-hop at its core, but isn’t beholden to any genre or sound. It had great influence on Radiohead’s OK Computer, not to mention the thousands of aspiring sample-based composers that tried to imitate it. It also earned him titles like the “Jimi Hendrix of the sampler” from the mainstream music press, which didn’t have the proper vocabulary to describe what it was hearing.

From there, things got interesting for Shadow. With Cut Chemist, he made two of crate-digging’s defining documents—the mixtapes Brainfreeze and Product Placement—before releasing Endtroducing’s true follow-up, 2002’s The Private Press. That album, which today stands as one of his more satisfying works, received mixed reviews at the time. Shadow responded to critics and a seeming insistence to box him in as a hip-hop purist with 2006’s The Outsider, a genre-hopping record that drew on the rap sounds dominating the Bay Area at the time while also incorporating folk and other unexpected genre forays. Speaking in 2019, he calls his third true album a “provocation,” but it may represent the purest manifestation of his artistic approach: “The whole concept behind The Outsider was zig-zagging from extreme to extreme, but what I hoped people would think was, ‘Damn, there’s not a lot of people that could pull this off,’” he says.

In 2016, he pulled off something not many expected 20 years after he first broke: a viral hit. “Nobody Speak,” a collaboration with Run the Jewels off Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall, is arguably the biggest single of his career. It was as omnipresent as a song can get without dominating the airwaves: You’ve probably heard it in commercials, on Silicon Valley, or in one of seemingly dozens of movie trailers.

Shadow returned this month with his latest career turn: the sprawling double album Our Pathetic Age. The first side is an all-instrumental affair that at times sounds like vintage DJ Shadow and at others pushes his music into new, thrilling places. The back half delivers something his fans have been clamoring for since Endtroducing…..: a producer compilation featuring legendary rappers and singers. Nas, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, Pusha T, De La Soul, and Future Islands frontman Samuel Herring all show up on Our Pathetic Age, and the results are sometimes transcendent.

On the eve of Our Pathetic Age’s release last Friday, Shadow sat down with The Ringer to discuss the new album, the importance of political music, and the meaning of collecting in a digital world. One thing remains as true for Shadow in 2019 as it did in the 1990s: He’s never going to stop digging for that new sound. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Let’s start with the new album. What’s the story behind the name, Our Pathetic Age?

I’m certainly sensitive to, or I’d like to think I’m sensitive to, the human experience in general, and that’s why I say, to me it’s not a political title or a political album, it’s a humanistic album with a humanistic title. I don’t consider myself a political artist, but there’s a time when you can’t just ignore what’s going on. It doesn’t mean that every song on the record is political. That’s certainly not the case—most of it’s instrumental, or a good chunk of it’s instrumental.

Prince had Sign ‘O’ the Times. I don’t consider Prince to be a political artist. Sly and the Family Stone did There’s a Riot Goin’ On. I just think when you live in an extraordinary time, you feel the need as an artist to put a flag in the ground and go, “OK, for all you people 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, this is what it felt like to live through this time.”

Can instrumental music be political? Can it fully represent the time that we’re in?

Any art, whether it’s painting or literary endeavors, or television, or film, or whatever the art is, it’s all about the intent. And it’s all about when you choose to make a certain statement. Free jazz in its pure form was extremely political. You can have a free jazz song called something like “Malcolm Lives,” or something like that. There’s nothing, there’s no words saying, “Malcolm Lives,” or talking about what’s going on, but the music is angry and chaotic and gives you a certain feeling. So, yes, certainly instrumental music, to me, is very evocative and can be political.

Were you purposeful in selecting the artists you wanted to appear on the album’s noninstrumental tracks to reflect that?

I wouldn’t go that far. As I was making them, I would write down the artist’s name. I wrote down “Pharoahe Monch” next to “Drone Warfare” very soon after the demo was being made, before it was even fully formed. Because sometimes writing artists’ names down helps me direct the track, and it kind of informs me like: What kind of energy am I trying to project? I wrote him down, De La [Soul], the Wu-Tang guys, and Run the Jewels.

In other cases, it’s at the other end of the spectrum. There was a song that I gave to like seven different artists, and all of them were like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I get it. I don’t know if it’s really for me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” And then finally I just threw my hands up and said to the label, “Do you guys have any ideas? Because I’m stuck.” And then it ended up being one of my favorite songs, which is “JoJo’s Word.” Every song is a different case study on that.

So, it’s a double album?

One side instrumental. One side is basically a producer album for mostly rappers.

I imagine you could’ve done a rapper compilation album at any point in the past 20 years. Why now?

I honestly don’t think I could’ve done it at any other time because I think it took all of these steps as an engineer—becoming a better engineer, becoming a better, smarter beat maker and producer. A more savvy sound designer.

Musically, I could’ve never made this record at any other time. If you go back to Endtroducing….., at that time juke and footwork hadn’t come out. Dubstep hadn’t come out. Trap hadn’t come out. Drill hadn’t come out. All these important artists. Clams Casino hadn’t started yet—other beat makers that inspire me. Conceptually? Yeah, maybe.

That’s somewhat funny to me: What you were doing in ’96 was beyond what a lot of people thought was possible to do with sampling.

I can recognize what you’re saying, but I know also at that time I was really just feeling in the dark for what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do in terms of the emotions I was trying to achieve with the music and the expansiveness of it, but when it came to actually mixing my own stuff, for example, it was so simple and so wrong in every way.

I can also recognize that there’s charm in that too, and it’s not like I want to go back in and fix it or ridiculous things like that. Back then I had a tool belt that had a screwdriver, a hammer, and a pencil in it. Now I’ve got all these other ways of thinking about things. And if I want to sit down and write a horn section, I can do that now.

One thing that’s really interested me about the past 15 years of your career: I think a lot of people would associate the crate-digging, sampling aesthetic with this purist mind-set.

It’s easier to market that way.

Sure. But really starting with The Outsider, you kind of planted your flag and showed you weren’t afraid to try new things. How do you feel about that album now? To me, it’s the most interesting album in your discography.

Oh, cool. That’s nice to say.

I didn’t quite fully get it when it first came out. It was this—

It was a provocation.

That’s what I always thought. But it kind of set the stage for the rest of your career. Now, you’re not afraid to try footwork. You’re not afraid to dip into trap. You’re not afraid to try jazz tracks.

To me, there’s sort of an arc. I grew up in a small town in Northern California with very few, maybe two or three other people, that I could talk about hip-hop with, and of course we were good friends. We didn’t live in the center of the hip-hop universe in the ’80s. The hip-hop universe might as well have been on the moon. I had never been to the East Coast. Growing up, we didn’t travel. Nobody I knew traveled to the East Coast. There was no internet, so any little scrap of information, any kind of anything that you could get about hip-hop, you clung to. You hung on to it, and for that reason I think it made us fanatics.

The key difference is if I was able to tune my radio dial in such a way that I could actually receive KDAY from L.A., you’d be hearing L.A. Dream Team, and you’d be hearing Egyptian Lover, and you’d get the latest stuff from New York, and you’d be hearing Sir Mix-a-Lot “Square Dance Rap,” and you’d be hearing Geto Boys “Making Trouble.” I always knew that rap was—obviously it started in New York, and that was where it was at its purest, and that’s where most of the dopest shit came from. But I was also checking for Miami, Seattle, L.A., the Bay. We would listen to Too Short and Jungle Brothers at the same time. In a way that almost couldn’t happen to somebody living in New York City because even in the ’90s you’d read The Source magazine and [articles would] be like, You mean there’s hip-hop in Virginia? It’s like, well of course there’s fucking hip-hop in [Virginia].

To fast-forward to The Outsider, I had already been dealing with several different instances like: I played Skratchcon, and I played a Lil Jon 12-inch. I liked Juvenile, I came up listening to Mannie Fresh’s stuff. I liked Three 6 Mafia. And I remember somebody being like, “Dude, I don’t think you can play that get crunk stuff here” I remember kind of being like, “Wow, what does that mean? What kind of conservatism is that where I’m being told what branch of the hip-hop family tree I’m allowed to engage in and what I’m not?”

This is the early 2000s?

Literally almost exactly 2000. So anyway, long story short, by the time you get to The Outsider, I was just kind of like, all right, if I’m going to do an album, I no longer have my Soleside’s Quannum crew to do my rap output. I’m not going to spare my fans any aspect of what I’m into. I’m just going to put it all together. I liked the idea at that time because what bugged me out when Endtroducing….. came out is that I realized that there were a lot of people who were now saying they liked hip-hop, but didn’t like rap. I remember being like, “Well, I don’t want to be your gateway to some sort of hip-hop lite or something.”

So on The Outsider it was like, “Well. I like David Banner, I like E-40. OK, I’m just going to put them all together in one record.” And, by the same token, though, it’s not like I’m suddenly going hardcore. I still have a fragile female folk song that I want these people over here to be like, “Whoa, I don’t know if I can get with that.”

Speaking of zig-zagging, I want to jump to the new album. There’s one song I want to talk about in particular: the Samuel Herring song. Did you intend to do a disco song with him?

I’ve never heard it described that way, but I’m OK with that. Yeah, there’s elements of—I mean, I guess there’s elements in all club music of disco. Certainly the guitar and the little keyboard part [has] that Hall & Oates kind of thing.

I felt pretty strongly like two days into the demo that this should be a centerpiece [of the album], and it also was the only demo on the record that I felt like I wanted a singer on. I wanted a voice that was mature and seasoned. Didn’t matter actually how old he actually was, but to me, when I hear his voice, he could be 70 years old. I like that quality in a voice because I wanted it to sound a little bit world-weary.

Who else were you excited to work with on the album?

I was surprised when Pusha T came in. So, he heard the beat to [“C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” a song on Our Pathetic Age featuring Gift of Gab] and was like, “I want to do something.” I’m like, “OK, that’d be dope if it happens, but in the meantime I’m not taking ‘C.O.N.F.O.R.M.’ off the record.” And then it was just in my inbox and I was like, “Wow, OK. That’s crazy.”

I know you worked with Nas in the past, but I can’t recall you ever working with Pharoahe Monch or De La.

I was just with Nas, and he was like, “Yo, I think a lot of people are going to flip. Me and Pharoahe Monch, we’ve never been on a record before.” That was another one though where it was very late in the process.

So, I got Pharoahe Monch. He wrote to it. Nas did his thing on it, and then Pharoahe Monch was like, “Can I hear what Nas did?” Then he rewrote what he did. Not as a competitive thing as much as it was genuinely like he just wanted to make his verse fit better, because Nas goes first and then Pharoahe Monch.

You got Run the Jewels back. That seemed like a no-brainer after how big the last collaboration got.

Yeah, and none of us wanted to do “Nobody Speak, Part 2.”

It’s a completely different song.

El-P—he’s super, super opinionated, and I’m always holding my breath a little bit when I’m getting ready to send him something because sometimes you can have a vision as a music fan that goes beyond ego, or this is what I want because I know it’s going to be successful. It’s sort of like, “I want to hear you guys on this beat. Please say yes.” You know what I mean? Fortunately—you know [Killer] Mike. Mike was like, “Oh yeah.”

It’s like a Three 6 Mafia “Stay Fly” kind of beat. I always loved that track and UGK tracks and stuff like that. To me it’s a cool little ... I like the idea of in 2019 making a beat that is tech but is not using the same Fruity Loops patches that every other [beatmaker] is coming out with.

How did it come about with the Wu-Tang guys? Did you have a connection with those guys to begin with?

Not really. Funny aside, I once DJ’d for them on the Beat.

When was that?

Early ’94 right after—what was the second big single? “C.R.E.A.M.” was the first single, and then it was “Can It Be All So Simple,” right? That was getting radio play on the West Coast at a time when hip-hop was so West Coast–dominated. For an East Coast group to get on that had nothing to do with Biggie and Puffy and all, that was a big deal. They were out here, and Mike Nardone and King Emz had the [radio] show. I was in town, they were like, “Yo, DJ for them. They’re going to do a freestyle.” And it was just one of those funny weird things.

I know you had had some records out at that point. But that was—

Nobody knew who the fuck I was. Especially the Wu-Tang guys. I remember I was all excited. I was like, “So what do you guys want? I’ve got ‘Impeach the President.’” And they’re like, “Play the remix to ‘Gin & Juice.’” I remember kind of being like, “Wow, it’s a different era right now.”

On the instrumental side, I noticed “My Lonely Room” turns into a footwork track. I know you spoke highly in the past about DJ Rashad. What is it about that genre that has attracted you?

Anytime there’s a new rhythmic vocabulary I feel like it’s exciting for me. I’m always trying to get what I call my “Public Enemy feeling,” which is when I first heard “Rebel Without a Pause.” It’s this rush of—it’s like a drug. It must be like a drug. I’m always trying to get that feeling either from hip-hop. And I’ll get it from a song like “Wassup” by A$AP Rocky that Clams [Casino] did. But I feel like my need goes beyond rap at this point. If I hear it in some new hybrid of super-wavy club music that stoner kids listen to, I’m good with it. I don’t need to suddenly be that, but I want to understand it. I want to learn from it. I want to incorporate any of the raw production techniques that I can into my music if it’s a step forward.

It’s no different with footwork. I also think footwork has such a cool cultural—I like when things are rooted to cities. In the way that techno is rooted to Detroit. Chicago house and then footwork. I like stuff like that.

Are there any genres that you haven’t explored that you’d like to?

I’m going to be 50 soon, and at some point you just kind of go, “OK, I’ve never dropped a needle on this record or records from this era, or records of this type. Maybe they can inform me?” And it’s a good question because it brings us right to records, or samples like the Belmonts. I would’ve never even dropped a needle on that record 20 years ago, 15 years ago.

I will say that sometimes people think I know a lot about every type of music. There’s tons of stuff I don’t know about. There’s tons of stuff that I haven’t explored because it’s never crossed my desk in a genuine, serendipitous way. I don’t like to go and explore something just because everybody’s saying that’s what’s great. I like it to make its way to me in a natural way. There’s classic albums I’ve never seen. There’s classic movies I’ve never seen, because I have no interest in being a cultural expert. I can be genuine about the things that I know about and that I love because it is genuine. I didn’t seek it out just because everybody was saying it was cool.

Are you still a record collector?

Yeah. Very much so.

What’s that like in 2019 for you?

It doesn’t involve going to a lot of record stores. It doesn’t involve a whole lot of eBay, or even that much Discogs. It’s mostly private collections. I have a good friend that I do the record thing with, and we probably get together about three weeks out of the year here and there. It’s to go take down scores basically.

So you’re not often sitting in basements like you were in Scratch anymore?

I am, but that’s a little bit different. For example, about a year ago I was in a genuine basement in a city setting, and the store had been for all intents and purposes closed for a number of years. And I had been to the basement—I think the last time I had been there was in the early 2000s. In my mind that’s long enough to be like, “Well I probably knew X, Y, and Z but I definitely didn’t know D and F.” So, I went back down and was like, “OK, go. This is fun.”

Has there ever been a record that you can’t find that you want?

Yeah.

Still?

Yep. I’ve had the same example for like 10 years.

What is it?

Power of Zeus.

Wow.

I have never found it in the bins. I’ve never seen a clean copy reasonably priced. I’ve probably bid on five, six copies on eBay through the years. Never win it. It’s just now become that thing where it’s like, I wonder what’ll happen when I actually get it. I mean, at this point it doesn’t matter. It’s just a break beat.

It’s a good break.

I’ve found records that are infinitely more rare multiple times, and I’ve never found that. It’s just a weird quirk.

What’s it like as collector in 2019, when everything’s digital? Does it mean anything to be a collector of a physical object in a medium that doesn’t serve the same purpose it used to?

Well, one thing that I confront all the time, and that I think is healthy perspective, is there’s nothing inherently valiant about being a collector. Way too much is made about the size of collections, or how many records do you have, or this or that. To me it’s completely irrelevant. And most hardcore collectors feel the same way. No genuine hardcore collector wants to be celebrated for the fact that they’re a collector.

I think that there’s, in some ways, a disconnect between what I think people that I value in music and in media. To me, collecting records and cassettes and CDs and 8-tracks, and reel-to-reels, is a function of: That’s where the human endeavors in music went to. For over 100 years, people expressed themselves, and those artifacts are records.

I can’t tell you how many times just dropping my kids off [at school], somebody’s like, “Hey, so I just went out and bought that 240-gram blah, blah, blah. You got that yet?” I’m never rude or anything, but I’m just kind of like, “Oh, no. Oh that’s great, that’s great.” But honestly, there’s really no reason for vinyl to exist in 2019. There just isn’t. I like the idea of there being somewhere a physical sort of hard copy. I don’t like the idea of it being all digital, but I’m just as cool with a CD, honestly.

The Ringer Music Show

‘Take Care’ vs. ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’

Higher Learning

Nicki Minaj vs. the CDC and Wellness With Devi Brown

No Skips With Jinx and Shea

How Death Row Records, Vibe Magazine, and Adversaries Made ‘All Eyez on Me’ a Classic

View all stories in Music