Say the name DJ Shadow to any hiphop head who came of age in the 1990s, and they'll stop what they're doing to recall a favorite track. For some, it's "Organ Donor," the methodical-yet-spastic gymnastic of an instrumental. For others, it's "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt," a misty, railroad-like tune featuring dialogue perhaps plucked from a psychedelic Hitchcock film. But whatever the song, DJ Shadow, with his mixing board and collection of 60,000 records, has been integral in the development of hiphop over the last two decades.
Shadow burst onto the national the scene some 21 years ago with his masterpiece Endtroducing..., which Time magazine has since dubbed a top-100 album of all time. Since then, Shadow has released four more studio full-lengths, including his latest, 2016's The Mountain Will Fall, a classic-yet-surreal display of humor, musical acumen, and wisdom. Even more recently, Shadow released a song with the rapper Nas, 2017's "Systematic," for the Silicon Valley television series.
He took some time to talk about his latest tour (which hits Seattle on July 14 at the Neptune), his current-day scratching abilities, and how he composes new music.
There are a lot of eclectic sounds on your latest record, The Mountain Will Fall. It starts so playfully and ends so thoughtfully. What's your process?
There's kind of an emotional palette—a painter has a color wheel, a palette of colors, and I sometimes think in terms of a palette of emotions for a song or album. Oftentimes it can be difficult to connect to the emotion—it can be rage, happiness, joy, sadness. A lot of the time when people say "emotion," they think of the darker stuff. But to me, Public Enemy made great expressions of rage and energy, which is very emotional—it drives. And I learned a lot from groups that made more somber stuff from different genres of music. For lack of a better example—or maybe it's a great example—bands like Radiohead.
Do you have a favorite decade of music you like to sample from?
It totally varies. A lot of people still think about sampling as a guy with a backpack in a dusty record-store basement. To me, I sample from, and always have, even on Endtroducing, videotapes, cassettes—it's not era- or format-specific for me anymore. The classic era that most people associate with sampling would be the 1970s, because that's the era hiphop culture developed in, and because it's a direct descendent of funk music. Hiphop was the first generation of music to embrace sampling and push the envelope in terms of technique. That will always be the case—open drum breaks that really came into vogue starting in the late 1960s.
What is your opinion about vinyl records in an increasingly digital world?
I'm not a vinyl-or-die kind of person. I need to start accepting the fact that some music will come out and exist only in digital form.
Where are the best places to buy records?
I have a giant mountain of stuff I purchased in the past and never had time to listen to. All formats—hundreds of cassettes and CDs, thousands and thousands of records I bought from trips 15 years ago in Hong Kong, Korea, the United States. When it comes time for me to make music, I just kind of grab stacks at random. It's something I've been doing my whole life; I've always bought more than I can process. I saw the writing on the wall early when records were becoming fetishized things. I spent a lot of time in the 1990s and early 2000s buying records to protect myself from the eventual scarcity, which is where we're at now.
How do you know a record will make a good sample? Do you have to hear the record before you buy it?
I think after you've been looking at vinyl for 20 or 30 years, you get to a point that if you see a major-label rock record from the 1970s that you've never seen before, you know you're looking at something scarce, same with jazz and soundtracks. I'm a hiphop completest, if I see a 12-inch I've never seen before, I buy it.
I rewatched your performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon with Run the Jewels. In the performance, you have a scratching solo, and I wondered how has your scratch game changed over the years?
I've never considered myself a turntablist. Frankly, I have too much respect for that class of DJ. I chose pretty early on to divide my time between practicing scratching and making beats and looking for records—trying to master a lot of different components of the DJ-producer. So because of that, I never put in those extended hours, like eight hours a day, practicing scratching, flaring, crabbing—those things real turntablists do to make themselves the best in the world. I enjoy scratching, and it's something I do a lot of in my shows. But I didn't grow up in the era watching YouTube tutorials of the best DJs in the world and become incredible at age 12. That era didn't really exist in my time.
Are there aspects of an older hiphop narrative you're trying to resurrect with your new work? Or do you see your career as purely forward-thinking?
I definitely feel it's very important to listen to and support new music. I play new songs and old songs. I started a monthly radio show a few months ago on a college station in Southern California, to have a format to place new stuff I like. When I'm at home, on a daily basis, it's about 50/50 new/old, and the music I make largely reflects that. I would rather the music I make be breaking down doors or challenging things or be forward-facing more than any throwback style.
But saying that, there are very obvious throwback connotations on a few songs on the last album. When a lot of classic hiphop albums came out, the MC would be talking about the DJ. But even within that, there are touches in production that make [the album] sound contemporary. I think that's something quite different and deliberate I'm trying to engage in, making a hiphop song that evokes a memory of a definitive classic era, but is 2016-aware enough to make sure that it sat sonically well next to other contemporary rap tracks. If it evokes a time frame, you have to keep it one step beyond to keep it sonically in a contemporary dialogue.
What will your set in Seattle be like?
It's definitely a career-retrospective-type set. When I put a show together, I think of it in the same way I think a good rock band that's been around for a couple decades would do it. You want to showcase newer stuff, but you don't want fans to leave disappointed if they came to hear songs from 20 years ago. You have to meet people in the middle.