The enduring love for the wheels of steel: An exclusive interview with DJ Shadow

“If someone turned it all off and we were left without the internet. Vinyl, Cassettes, and physical music could still be listened to and survive. That͛s why CD͛s still have a place too”.

– DJ Shadow

It’s a rainy Tuesday in Sheppard͛s Bush, with a stack of my own dog-eared records under my arm and in the middle of his, Mountain Will Fall world tour DJ Shadow has agreed to meet with me. For over thirty minutes, in the lounge of his hotel, joined by his Mass Appeal label manager, we talk about his Top 3 Vinyl Chart album ‘͚The Mountain Will Fall’, his new beats, inspirations and of course his thoughts on the resurgence of the Vinyl.  Sample. Noun. A sound of short duration, as a musical tone or a drumbeat, digitally stored in a synthesizer for playback.

I also find out what sample he used in a song that has been like the musical equivalent of looking for a discontinued pair of Adidas Spezials, a copy of Brain freeze (Cut Chemist/DJ Shadow) or a mother f*@#ing unicorn in Brixton.

DJ Shadow is not your typical DJ, he is a pioneer taking his inspiration from the likes of Public Enemy.You may recognise ‘Systematic‘ as the theme tune from HBO’s Silicone Valley which features Nas or his ‘Six Days‘ track from the Fast and Furious franchise. If you like Hip Hop, trip hop, rap, and artists such as Run The Jewels, Bonobo, DJ Vadim, DJ Food, Public Enemy, Unkle, Herbalizer, Cut Chemist or various other artists on labels such as Mass Appeal, Ninja Tune or Mo’Wax, then he is one to wrap your ears around.

Bit of background history

The music produced by DJ Shadow is as diverse, eclectic and unexpected as a good crate dig at a carboot sale in Brighton. Each track of his is a showcase of what is truly possible when you have an absolute understanding for, and the tools to create your own music. Be it the right equipment, software or record label behind him. Shadow personifies what having an innate understanding of the intricacies of building a song and ultimately an album means. If you are not familiar with DJ Shadow as an artist͛s then sit back, pop your headphones in and enjoy ‘Endtroducing, whilst you read this.

TRIVIA: ‘Endtroducing’ DJ Shadows first Album (released 1996) went into the Guinness World Records book for the “First Completely Sampled Album” in 2001.

Not one to shy away from a visual spectacle, computer-generated graphics and lighting effects on stage, DJ Shadows sets are as diverse as his albums. If you fancy yourself a DJ or love discovering new music then you should definitely get tickets quickly next time he tours the UK before it sells out. The stage visuals and ‘The Mountain Will Fall’ official music video are a treat for the eyeballs (and other senses, if you are that way inclined at a live gig).

For those not familiar with ͚sampling͛ and those who are new to and currently losing themselves in the vinyl resurgence, or perhaps ever listened to a Jay-Z, Kanye song then this is for you, something you’ll be familiar with. ͚Sample; Noun. A sound of short duration, as a musical tone or a drumbeat, digitally stored in a synthesizer for playback.

During my time at the Official Chart Company, as well as developing the world’s first Official Grime Chart with CEO Martin Talbot, we also launched the world͛s first Official Vinyl Chart in 2015 with the wider team and departments. A new chart which celebrated the resurgence and revived popularity of the original format. The ‘Mountain Will Fall’ reached Number 3 on the Official Vinyl Chart on its release. With that in mind I kicked off our chat.

With streaming services in mind. What effect do you think the resurgence has on releasing new music compared to when you started out.

DJ Shadow: Vinyl has been around for over 130 years now, it͛s an enduring format. I think a lot of people assume I am a Vinyl purist. I͛m not, for me it’s pragmatic, I collect cassette tapes, 8 Tracks, reel to reel, CD, MP3s, Wav files because that͛s how music is released. They all have place. But Vinyl is an archive. From a DJ perspective clubs a calibrated for the digital age. Younger people are buying it as a permanent copy, we can own that. With the digital age it͛s more difficult because we don’t ͚own a physical copy. If someone turned it all off and we were left without the internet. Vinyl, Cassettes and physical music could still be listened to and survive. That͛s why CD͛s still have a place too.

Do you think with the way ‘͚The Mountain Will Fall͛’ has been released across streaming services, it has had an effect on the music you produce. Now it is more commercially accessible to a new audience (who might not have known your previous work) who have been recommended it or it’s been suggested to them via a playlist?

DJ Shadow: Although I believe Vinyl is the most enduring format – I am not, which may come as a surprise, a vinyl purist. In the ͚old days͛ (1980-90͛s) we could sell 40,000 12” records on a weekend! Now the Number 1 electronic album in the states sells 7,000. So it’s difficult to really work out how it works now. When my first album (Entroducing) was released before downloads were available on the internet, there was a very established way people bought and consumed music. If you made a good record, on a commercial basis you could really prosper.

Now your entire back catalogue is on Spotify/iTunes – it opens you up to a new, younger, ͚streaming generation͛ rather than just the, your older, original fans?

DJ Shadow: We all have access to everything (paid for or not), we͛re all overloaded, inspired and so much choice at our fingertips. In the olden days, there was a narrower window, with gatekeepers only releasing a certain amount of records each week. You know, maybe 20 significant releases on a weekend. Now, with digital, you have something like 200 mixtapes, 500 albums, and 20,000 singles. Talking of our love for festivals, Glastonbury we discussed the 2003 BBC Essential Mix.

DJ Shadow: In 2003 I had no idea of the context of the essential mix. When I did Boileroom I had no idea. I just agreed and did it. I just went on a random rap tangent, then 2nd hour did something I had not done before – mixing psychedelic grunge records – it wasn’t house music, it was unique. I held back the cassette demo for years. And now I know that the essential mix is, I take it seriously. And not just something i throw out and think ‘that’s good enough’ i put a month into a 1-hour mix’. Sampling John Peel was a homage, introduced by Jules the audience now know – this will be special. Different timing to making an album but the process is the same. For Example. When I sit down to make music (this album took 8 months to make), it’s the last 20% that takes 7 months. The crux of the album takes like three weeks. The rest of the time of finesse. Finding those special moments that kick an album off and break it up from just a listen end to end kind of album.
That’s what No Body Speak – with Run The Jewel is. It came from collaboration and came from a joint message of us all wanting to make a statement. The video reflects that.

The video was directed by Sam Pilling and produced by Pulse Films, stars Igor Tsyshkevych and Ian Bailey, and was shot in NYC, London and Ukraine.

Do you think if you signed to Ninja Tune it would have influenced the music you released original?

DJ Shadow: I knew what their roots were. MO’Wax, Cold Cut. They teased and explored house music at a time when Hip Hop as a genre was my source of creativity. Ninja Tune took music in a direction I personally wasn’t headed at the time but was right for what was happening over here, they were pioneers for sure with releases from Cinematic and Tobin. I Was into hip hop and was in the US – you’ve got to know that at the same time Ninja Tune was doing all this cool shit over here – Hip Hop was at an all-time creative high. I wanted to explore that. Over time, Ninja Tune, MO’Wax evolved and created a new road map with (Mr) Scruff, Herbalizer.

The Quest
A quick bit of context, ahead of the next part of the conversation – that we called ‘The Quest’. Allow me to be rather profound for a second – Music is universal, we all listen to it, we all have our favourite songs, artists. One that makes you all warm and fuzzy, and another, a song that gets you ready to smash someone’s face in/or sweat on a treadmill. It’s the personal feelings evoked by a specific song, beat, sound, at a specific time or place that sticks with us and stops us from forgetting it amongst the mass of (overly autotuned, overproduced, poorly written) ‘bangers’ now available to us. But when it is a 20-second sample, and you can’t figure out what it is or just tweet it out to the universe. We’ll. That shit pisses you off if only in a ‘well, I still love you. But god damn it!’ kind of way.

The very reason I was even in the room speaking to Josh (DJ Shadow) in the first place was because I am a huge fan of both his music and his attitude towards music and creativity. I can appreciate his contemporaries and his views on hip hop. It was a love for this music that myself and my best pal Ollie met and became lifelong friends. (We even lived together and DJ’d together. 11 years on we are still hombres! … How sweet. I Love you, man). Anyways – So talking about my first experience of hearing ‘entroducing’ and DJ Shadows early mixtapes, I wanted to chat to him about that elusive sample (I mentioned at the start of this).

It played for about 15 seconds. “I’m going baaaaack to where I belong..” That was it. Frustratingly, but gloriously followed by a short guitar solo. It then mixed into another song. So often is a sample cropped, changed and altered to fit a new beat. AND, with Shazam not being about then, it made this f&@ing song a mystery to us. As we regularly sat there, in our pants, in our apartment, overlooking the Brighton nighttime skyline. We continually filled moments of silence with a look to each other that we knew meant “What the. F*@k. Is the song?” On this went. For years….Until. One day I get a text message. From Ollie. He’s found it. Turns out it is (are you ready….) Ruddy Norman -‘Back to the street’.

Oh yeah, I remember that ” Shadow chuckles. I looked at him laughing. Quietly on the inside, I thought; “You there. You. You did this to me. 11 years it took to find out!” We both (eventually) laughed. We spoke about how that was the joy. ‘The Quest’ for finding new music. This to DJ Shadow as a creator was the greatest joy. Especially in his early career. The finding of a sample and “to make something with mystery, a sense of something different – that’s where Hip Hop influenced me, make it original. But respect what it is you are using”.

This sums up to me why he is one of the greatest. It wrapped up our conversation in such an organic way – that except for a brief chat about Beyoncé and Shadows dislike for Ghost producers (who don’t get the recognition they deserve) in modern/pop chart success. I left me humbled, excited and inspired to explore more new and old music. Naturally, also run and tell all my pals I had just met a hero/legend (who actually lived up to expectations). As rainy days in Sheppard’s Bush go, this was up there with the best of them. I got to shake hands and speak to someone who I truly respected as a creator. An innovator and a super f#*@king dope DJ. Be sure to check out the Official Vinyl Chart Here

DJ Shadow Here
Mass Appeal Here
Ninja Tune Here

Next time.

I meet Priscilla Presley.