DJ Shadow created a category of his own. A champion of his genre, and a “pure of heart” music lover, he discusses exactly how he was able to create Six Days and the dedication it takes to work alone.
Episode 6: DJ Shadow - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: For three decades and counting, DJ Shadow has been simultaneously reconstructing and preserving the legacies of music from every genre, and every era. A self-confessed and sincere music fan, and master of his own craft, he’s been creating hypnotizing collages from the discarded gems of record collections’ past since the early days of sampling. He’s watched himself and his peers go from musical plagiarists in the minds of the music industry to respected archivists, who take from the past to create something entirely new and incredibly beautiful. This is DJ Shadow.
Shirley: So, I am sitting opposite DJ Shadow, who, uh, I have admired from afar since as far back as... I think for me it was 1994.
DJ Shadow: Wow.
Shirley: It was my little sister who told me about this amazing guy who was on her label. She worked at Mo’ Wax at the time and she was, uh, James Lavelle's assistant and she said, “We've got this amazing artist, so I think you'd really love him. And she sent me a cassette, I think it was, and uh, I was kind of blown away, and, and the rest is history in terms of your ridiculous career, but welcome DJ Shadow.
DJ Shadow: Thank you very much. Great to be here.
Shirley: [Laughs] That was a nice introduction, wasn't it?
DJ Shadow: That was very cool. That was. Very sweet.
Shirley: I was trying to be really smooth.
DJ Shadow: Yeah, that’s sweet. Well, I mean when you mentioned your sister it conjures up this time, that was very sweet and innocent and I would come from the States and everything was, I was just pure excitement and energy.
Shirley: Well, she says of you that that's a word she has actually used in, in describing you as pure, pure of heart, I think was the expression she used.
DJ Shadow: Aw, sweet. Very sweet.
Shirley: Um, which is, uh, and I think, a description we could apply to your music, which is incredibly pure. It's very specific, coming from a specific standpoint.
DJ Shadow: Mhm.
Shirley: Is that fair to say?
DJ Shadow: Um, yes. I-I know what you mean. Yeah.
Shirley: What do I mean?
DJ Shadow: Um, I think what you mean, well, when I-I sit down to work on music, to me it's an opportunity. It's a gift. It's something not to be taken lightly. And when I have the opportunity to work with other producers, other artists, um, it's an opportunity for me to, you know, add something new into the tool belt. And, you know, some of the people that I've worked with through the years or have truly astonished me. And, um, I think having a willingness through the years to do that and not just kind of kick back and go, “Ah, I've achieved, there's no higher point I can go,” which you know, is, is a ridiculous conceit. Um, so, to constantly have that desire to learn and to grow as an artist, I think is what, you know, hopefully keeps the music interesting to other people's ears.
Shirley: Mhm, I mean obviously the, I mean it goes without saying. You've been such a student of music from the very beginning. I mean the fact that you referenced so many other artists and you have this enormous record collection. I think that speaks for itself, that you're an enormous student and fan, which I love. I think it's important to be a fan when you’re making music.
DJ Shadow: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean that's what made me want to be a DJ in the first place was exposing people to music that I felt like was under appreciated.
Shirley: Do think of yourself as a DJ?
DJ Shadow: Yeah.
Shirley: That’s how you-
DJ Shadow: First and foremost
Shirley: First and foremost? Interesting cause that was, that was a question that I had. I was very curious about how you saw yourself because I've seen you describe yourself also as a collage artist, which I loved.
DJ Shadow: Yeah, well it's a collage medium, sampling, you know, and, and I also think it works as a way to, you know, take some of the legal angst out of it just to help people understand that maybe aren't fans, or weren’t, you know, when it was more of a novel idea. Like, look, no, no. You know, you've been to an art gallery, you've seen when people cut things out of magazines. This is a similar aesthetic and I think it takes a lot of the air out of it.
Shirley: And have you found a difference in, well, since records no longer have this commercial agency that they once had, when records were selling by the truckload-
DJ Shadow: Absolutely.
Shirley: People were obsessed with, “Hey, I'm going to lose money. You need to pay me this.” Have you found that artists have been a little more willing to go, “You know what, this is no skin off my nose. Take my beat, take my vocal. It's good, cross, you know, marketing. Has there been a change, a shift in people's attitudes, or no?
DJ Shadow: When it comes to the artists, my feeling is for every hundred artists that I approached, there's going to be a hundred different responses and that's literally everything from, “This is beautiful. I'm so proud to be associated with this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Which I, which happened on this record, the most recent record. All the way down to like, you know, it's almost like you're poking a hornet's nest and you're digging up relationships and anger and frustration and bitterness that you can't even-
DJ Shadow: Fathom. Yeah. And it's really easy to get, sort of, to catch collateral shrapnel from that. And, and almost invariably, these are not like name brand artists. These are, I tend to sample artists that, you know, maybe didn't have huge success the first time around.
Shirley: More obscure
DJ Shadow: More obscure. Now on the business end. Uh, I think what we're seeing, you know, as, as the industry continues to consolidate, and consolidate, and consolidate to the point where there's really mostly three large companies that own 85, 90% of everything.
Shirley: And everyone.
DJ Shadow: And everyone, um, you, you, there's a general sense of like, well, this is a known quantity. Now we kind of get it. We, you know, we're all gonna kind of work with each other and play ball. We don't have any int-, you know, w-we don't want to get burned. We don't want to burn you. Let's work, let's work it out. I mean, it isn't like the old days where it's kind of like, “Sampling. What's that?” You know what I mean? Which, when I first started, that was the case.
Shirley: Yeah. So on this show, we talk about a moment in an artist's career where something changes for them in some, some way it can be a million different things. But in this case, you have picked the song Sixties, which comes off your sophomore record-
Shirley: A Private Press, correct?
DJ Shadow: Mhm.
Shirley: And the song is made up in part using these very two obscure artists, which I had never ever heard of which I’m ashamed to say. And I should let you take-
DJ Shadow: You shouldn't be ashamed.
Shirley: Well, I, cause, cause you sample Brian Farrell of Liverpool band, Colonel Bagshot.
DJ Shadow: Correct.
Shirley: And I Cry in the Morning by singer Dennis Olivieri, right.
DJ Shadow: Olivieri, I think is-
Shirley: Olivieri, excuse me.
DJ Shadow: Yeah.
Shirley: So tell me, first of all why you pick that song as, as a moment in your creative endeavors, that, that created a shift of some kind.
DJ Shadow: I was trying to think about the arc. I mean, Introducing was in a lot of ways, very inaccessible in the sense that I didn't think about singles. I didn't think about what would sound good on the radio. I didn't think about any of that stuff. And with A Private Press, I kind of found myself going, okay, I would like there to be vocals. I don't want to bring a vocalist in. I want to keep it to the sample aesthetic. Well, I kind of feel stuck. I don't know how I'm going to do this. Um, and what I used to do, is I basically looped it, had it running on the MPC, and I would just start playing records over the top of that loop.
Shirley: So you're just shifting through your record collection, playing random stuff?
DJ Shadow: Just playing things. Yeah, just, just, grabbing records, putting them on, and the first thing I would do is I would put them in key or in pitch. So if it's a flute player playing a flute or you know, the keyboard intro or a piano intro, I would go, okay, I wonder if, you know, using the pitch control on the turntable, if I can get it to actually be in tune. Because that was another thing I was trying to push. I hated hearing samples that were out of tune, to me that was just like, “Come on guys. Like let's pull it together here. We can do this.” I was reaching at the time for something more melodic and put on this Colonel Bagshot record, which came from the basement of the store on the cover of Introducing, and back then of course it was like stereo. So they'd pan all the vocals hard left and all the music hard right. And I kind of could hear that going on in my, my DJ speakers. So, I panned everything hard left. And at that point it was just an acapella. So, and it's playing and I go, wow, this sounds really cool. And I put it in pitch and for the first time I felt like I think I can make commercial music or in other words, you know, music that has potential beyond, sort of, the heads and retain my aesthetic, and not compromise my aesthetic. And that's when I think for me it was, I-I hit on something special.
DJ Shadow: So Automator is a peer, but he's, I think about, hmm, four years older than me, maybe five. And, um, so when I met Automator again, I was like, “Oh, I know all your records, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And he never had anybody, I don't think ever-
Shirley: Be enthusiastic!
DJ Shadow: Yeah! Just like, “Oh, you, you really? Like I put this stuff out and you paid attention and you, you genuinely like, wow, you know, you really know my stuff.” And, and that can be very, um-
DJ Shadow: Well, and, and, and intoxicating I think for people and, and, and the fact that it is genuine enthusiasm coming at them. And so he went, “I, you know, I like this guy. You can use my studio.” What I would do is, and this is even pre ADAT, he, we used a format called DA-88. Which was-
Shirley: Oh, I remember them well.
DJ Shadow: You remember that?
Shirley: Oh yeah.
DJ Shadow: So-
Shirley: I'm getting like sweats on the back of my neck just having to think about it..
DJ Shadow: It’s it fun when they get caught in the machinery?
DJ Shadow: Um, so I think it was like eight tracks on a D-88 and I believe he had two. So that was 16 and I would do the mix live in other words, like any reverbs, any panning effects, anything I-I would be doing it live. And I'd do it a few times and then edit together the best passes.
Shirley: So now looking back at Six Days and the production of it, the physical production of it, do you have regrets? Are there things you want to change? Are there things that you listen to and you go, “Oh my God, why did I do that?”
DJ Shadow: No. And, and the reason I can say that honestly is that I knew when I made it at every step of the way, there's hundreds of decisions that you have to make about the mix, about the arrangement, about the source material, about the way you choose to, you know, do the drum fills about, you know, there's so many thousands of decisions. To me it was as close as I got to that point of making all the right decisions.
Shirley: So you work alone, correct. With Six Days you made that by yourself.
DJ Shadow: Yeah.
Shirley: How do you know when you're done?
DJ Shadow: Well, and that's another, that's another great question. And I, you know, I think as somebody who makes music, you probably have also seen where you've been privy to these incredible projects that go from being like, “This is perfect, put it out!” to four more months or six more months or a year's worth of tinkering to like, “Ah, what have you done?” You know what I mean? And I've seen that happen with friends projects and I've seen people get to a point where they seem to just be stuck and it's scary. I try to just be really honest about just, kind of going, all right, fuck it. I think we're there. I think we're good. I was certainly almost exclusively starting with drums. That loop I just thought was so powerful and I say loop, I actually hate the term loop because it implies that it's very simplistic and in this case there was quite a bit of work that went in- that went into making the musical bed sounds so seamless. It wasn't actually just a straight record. You know what I mean?
Shirley: I think you can tell though, I mean you're really meticulous. You can tell by listening to your music that there's this insane brain behind it, obsessing over every detail.
DJ Shadow: Yeah, I mean we, you know, me and other music makers, I always feel like we're trying to one up each other. And I, lots of times when I sit down to work on music, I'm trying to, I mean I get excited by thinking, “Oh, I can't wait to play this for this person or that person.”
Shirley: Who's the first person you played Six Days for?
DJ Shadow: Wow. Probably my wife, actually.
Shirley: And can you remember the response?
DJ Shadow: Well, I do remember playing her the whole album. Um, because you know, your partner in, in life, whether it's your husband or your wife or whoever it is, they e-experience all of what you're experiencing just by virtue of being in your proximity, right? I mean, that's something that I try to be mindful of. And, and I think I was ready finally to just play it to somebody and we were driving from our house in, uh, Marin to the Oakland airport for some reason. And I just let it play in its entirety. And we pulled up to the curb and she goes, “Why is it so sad?” You know what I mean? Like the whole album, like we listened to it all and I don't ever talk, I don't say anything. She didn't say anything, and she didn't mean it in a negative way, but she, you know, it was like, it affected her.
DJ Shadow: I don't consider the entire album to be sad, but I do think that emotion is good in music. It's, it shows that you're, you're pulling some strings, you're, you're working some levers. So, um, I, I actually liked that response.
Shirley: So, so talk me through a little of how you put Six Days physi- literally, physically together. I mean, you're incredibly disciplined. I mean, to work alone requires you to be the master of yourself and your creativity, so you're asking two different things of your brain, right? You're asking to, to be really creative and also be, uh, you know, a disciplinarian.
DJ Shadow: Yeah, yeah. And I also think, you know, just so many of the things that I do, I mean, because I'm not in, I'm a band of one and so when I tour, it's just me when I, you know, am worried about whether or not these suggestions for management sound right or wrong. I don't have anyone else to talk to or consult or bounce things off of it.
Shirley: Yeah, that's intense. Do you have a specific intent with your music in te- in terms of you're like, “Okay, I want this album to sound”, I don't know, you know, “triumphant and joyful.”?
DJ Shadow: I let the music dictate the path, whatever the initial spark is, whatever the element is, whether it's a sampled riff or a, uh, drum sound I like, or lots of times as well these days I'll take a very simple sound, mangle it, run it through some vintage synth or something and change every quality of it so that it becomes a new sample source and then manipulate it more, and then the next thing you know, you've got some strange, beautiful creature, but the sounds and the notes are what dictate to me what, what sort of emotion I'm trying to achieve. I let the music start it.
Shirley: How long does it traditionally take you? I mean, how long did Six Days take, do you think, from inception to, to production?
DJ Shadow: Um, strictly on an, in a nonlinear since, it was kicking around as a, as an idea for probably, wow, five years, six years. But it, if you compress all of that time together, it probably took, I don't know, maybe about three months to make.
Shirley: And is that typical? Like you'll concentrate on one idea for that long or-
DJ Shadow: No, it's not typical. I think at this point it's- my comfort zone is usually like one to two months per, per song. Um, anything beyond that, anything shorter than that. And they tend to be songs that are problematic.
Shirley: I'm lucky in that I have a band. There's, there's more than me and I know the toll it takes sometimes on everybody. Um, and so you have nothing but my insane respect ‘cause I think it speaks of an incredible ability to be a rebel and be a kind of fuck you to everyone and everything.
DJ Shadow: I mean, you know, we can get as deep or not, but you know-
Shirley: Let’s get deep.
DJ Shadow: [Laughs] But I mean, I, to me, when I think of my youth prior to age five, it was just total chaos. It was my mother, um, sort of trying to get away from my father and living in, you know, living in a house for a week and then living in another house for two weeks and just absolutely no stability on any level. And then we ended up in Davis, it was college town in Northern California and things immediately just seemed to gel and stabilize. We just didn't have a lot and music was a lifeline for me. And it was something that I felt I could, I-I just felt I had a, it was, it was something that was offered and something that I just was so grateful to have, whether it was, you know, I-I think the records at that time, like, um, Lipps Inc. - Funkytown was a big one for me or, um, Last Train to London by ELO or, um, later records, like Rapture by Blondie or, and then, you know, I found the Message by Grandmaster flash and the Furious Five and that's when I was 10 years old at the time. And that's when I sort of felt like, I don't know what it means. I don't know where it's going, but this is mine. And it was the first time I ever felt that way and it wasn't anything I had to buy or save up or, you know, trade with other kids at school. It was, it was free. It was on the radio. It was something bigger than just a material good. It was, it was something else.
DJ Shadow: A lot of kids in my school, and, and especially in California in the early eighties, hardcore Black Flag groups like that. Um, but it just seemed to me that hip hop was the future. It seemed like those other things, those were great, but they didn't, they weren't mine. And for whatever reason, I seized on hip hop as that. And then as it grew and as it became, you know, it, as it sort of reached its glory with groups like Public Enemy and you know, I mean Rebel Without a Pause, a lot of people my age and hip hop have that. They remember that moment when they dropped the needle on that record. And, and it was, it was a feeling I've always tried to get back ever since. Um, I call it my Public Enemy Feeling, you know, it's just this, it's when nothing else-
Shirley: [Laughs] I love that.
DJ Shadow: It's, it's everything that was before, and then that moment on. And I, I know some people have described that with, um, it's strange. I read a book with people like Gary Newman. Then they talked about the first time they heard I Feel Love by Donna Summer because it was that ultra syncopated machine-made music that just seemed more punk rock than punk.
DJ Shadow: You know what I mean?
Shirley: Of course.
DJ Shadow: In somehow it was like this-
Shirley: Breaking all the rules.
DJ Shadow: Incredible epiphany, yeah. And so in any case, that was mine, you know, and, and then later with other re- so many records and, um, and then NWA and Ghetto Boys, and I mean, just, it goes on and on and on and De La and, um, all these incredible moments. And it also coincided, of course, with my high school life, and growing up as a, as a human. [Laughs] And it was the soundtrack of my life, and for that, it'll always be that bedrock. That's- it’ll always be in my DNA.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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