DJ Shadow on Technology, Music, & Glorified Wedding DJs

In the fickle world of dance music, where consumers and producers chase after new sounds and styles, only to abandon them once something fresher and edgier comes along, DJ Shadow (born Josh Davis) has admirably stuck to his guns. After two decades in electronic music, he remains relevant as ever, as evidenced by the excitement surrounding his latest release, this month’s The Less You Know, The Better. But as well-regarded as he is in the States, he approaches deity-like status across the pond. It was in 1996, with London’s legendary Mo’ Wax label, that Shadow recorded Endtroducing…, an album built solely on samples, and widely considered to be one of the best of the decade. We recently sat down with the notoriously press-shy DJ in the back of his tour bus to talk about his new album, his ambivalence towards technology, and why a laptop doesn’t make you a DJ.

Could you tell us a little bit about your new album, The Less You Know, The Better? Well the last album, Essential Mix, was a provocation—it was designed to be one. So it was, I guess, a bit of a deviation in terms of what I consider to be the lineage of Endtroducing to The Private Press to now this album. Which is not to say I think in any way that this record is not challenging or that I’m just sort of giving up and going back to a default mode. Definitely not. I do think that every record has a different design and this record was more about going “OK, I cleared the air. That was accomplished.” Now it’s just time to kind of get back to refining my art with samples and making music that will resonate with people. Because ultimately that is always what I want—for the music to matter to people and for them to feel invested in it and for it to speak to them.

Let’s talk a little bit about the campaign illustrations that accompany this new album. It’s really just to have a little bit of fun. I’m the subject of the satire.

Like with that “You’re either with us or against us” line I saw on one of the drawings? I live in Silicon Valley, and it’s well-established as the world’s best testing ground for any new gadget. So as a result, the message that I receive on a daily basis is that my life is incomplete and my soul is unfulfilled unless I have this new product or this new app. It’s just sort of accepted, especially in this country, that that is our salvation, and I think that has come at a cost for a lot of art. I didn’t grow up wanting to start my own tech firm. I grew up loving music. So I think naturally, my reaction is to be a little suspicious. I think it’s OK to have a little bit of pushback and to say that maybe this isn’t the healthiest message. I think it’s just kind of not going to rock the foundation of any of these major corporations by one artist saying, “You know, hey, if anybody else out there is feeling a little bit ripped off by this whole philosophy, then you’re not alone.” And I think that for some reason, I feel like a lot of artists are sort of afraid to take that stance because they don’t want to be beaten with the Metallica schtick. And I just sort of feel like it’s apples and oranges and it’s really not about that for me.

I see you have these big cases of cassettes on the bus, which you rarely see anymore. Let’s talk a bit about how much DJing, and music in general, has evolved—not only the sounds but the actual forms—how DJs started by spinning and scratching vinyls, to hopping onstage with just a laptop. And just pressing play. What’s astounding to me about all of that is not so much the methodology or the technology. It’s the fact that we have access to 10 millions songs, and yet they’re still playing the same fucking 100 songs over and over and over again. That’s the part I don’t get. It’s not like they’re going out there saying ‘I’m gonna expose these people to 50 songs they’ve never heard of.

And now you don’t even have to get your hands dirty crate digging. You can just go on the Internet, so I’m sure the lack of astonishment is compounded by the fact that it’s so easy to access some pretty obscure music now. I understand where technology has a place, and it’s hard for people to understand that you can say these things without being a Luddite. Technology isn’t going to make you less of a lazy person. And if you are a DJ that really doesn’t care all that much about making a personal statement or trying to break any new ground with your audience, then essentially you’re just a glorified wedding DJ. There’s people who are like, “What’s wrong with giving people what they want?” Nothing. But that makes you a wedding DJ. For me, it’s a compulsion to expose people to music.

What are some particularly memorable finds during your career? It happens almost every other day. But where it really matters is, for example, working on this record. One of my ways of sort of clearing my head and stepping away from my workspace would either be to make some lunch, or go out and just wander into a thrift store and there’s kind of this karmic element of “Am I going to find the ingredient that’s gonna get me out of the arrangement issue I’m having.” So there’s been so many times where I go to a thrift store that I went to last week, and there’s a box of new records there and it’s like, “Woah, this looks really crazy,” or “This looks interesting.” Or you just get this sort of vibe where you’re holding it and you’re like “I think I know what this is but I’m not sure. It’s only 50 cents so I’m gonna buy it.” So many times I’ve taken those records back and within the first 5 minutes, it’s like “Ah, that’s it.” You know what I mean? And I really like that. Like I said, it’s almost like this karmic element that you’re meant to find that record at that time. And I just don’t personally feel like the same thing would happen if I just start googling peoples’ names.

You’re from Northern California but you’ve made quite a name for yourself in the UK. How does the UK scene compare to the scene in the U.S. for a DJ? You know how they used to say about New York, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere?” I feel like London is that for electronic music. It’s the most discerning and most forward-thinking—and not just London but other cities in the UK. The UK is a music-loving country, there’s just no other way to say it. As an artist, you want to go where people care about what you’re doing and it just seems like people care there. These days, when you touch down in the States—no matter who you are, I’m sure a lot of artists would identify with this statement—that it just seems like people care a little less about the arts in the U.S. right now. It just seems like it’s not a priority, it’s not where people are getting their emotional fulfillment. I don’t know what that means, but for me, it’s a truism. I don’t see a lot of people running away from home and defining their life on any one genre of music right now. I don’t think anybody’s gonna be doing that for your average pop catastrophe that’s ruling the charts right now.

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10 Things DJ Shadow Hates About the Music Industry

Producer, turntablist, and “musician” DJ Shadow’s latest album, The Less You Know, the Better, marks his 20th year in the business. That’s a whole lot of time to harbor a whole lot of hatred for the music industry. You could say he’s nally scratching that itch.

1. They don’t make record executives like they used to. An archetype often used to condemn the traditional music industry is that of the “evil record company boss,” a balding mobster behind a mahogany desk, wearing dark sunglasses and smoking a big cigar, who cheats naïve kids out of their publishing royalties. Of course, that has about as much in common with the modern music business as the Savage Skulls do with post-Giuliani New York. Suge Knight, for all of his wrongs, was perhaps the last of the true record company gangsters, a Morris Levy for the ’90s. It’s hard to imagine Levy or Nate McCalla submitting to the tech-geek larceny of P2Ps. If the recent crop of execs were just a little more badass, artists wouldn’t have to resort to doing the free-download shuffle just to stay competitive.

2. Quantity over quality. It annoys me when I hear artists talk about the 200-odd songs they left off their latest masterpiece. How is that supposed to make us feel better about the end product? Likewise, the current trend of recording minimalism: “I created my latest album on a laptop while sitting in airport lounges.” Nothing says rock ’n’ roll like spilled lattes and Fox News.

3. The VMAs. How is MTV still allowed to have something called the Video Music Awards, despite the fact that they abandoned the art form years ago? I can’t say that Justin Timberlake and I have connected on many topics, but when he exclaimed “Play more videos!” during the awards broadcast a few years back, he climbed a few notches on my righteous meter.

4. “Tonight.” Turn on any pop station that plays Black Eyed Peas, Pink, and the like. Listen to the music and lyrics. If you don’t hear the word “tonight” at some point during the hook or chorus, I owe you five dollars.

5. Burning Man. Maybe “hate” is a little strong, because I’ve never actually been. What I mean to say is that I hate the 40-something investment bankers and efficiency experts I meet at social engagements who describe their Burning Man experiences as “transcendental,” and then when pressed for an example can only offer that an erection resulting from being jabbed in the stomach by a cattle prod is unlike any other. Either way, Burning Man is strictly a no-fly zone for me.

6. I miss Tower Records. I was on a road trip through Houston recently and stopped to look for old vinyl. I did okay, but I noticed that there were essentially no stores in town selling new music—even the swap-meet scene was dead. Over the course of several days listening to satellite radio, I heard promotional interviews with many different artists, all of whom invariably concluded the conversation by saying, as is customary, “Yeah, so go pick up the album at your local record store.” After the third or fourth time, I literally screamed at the radio receiver, What record store?

7. Hotels. Being a touring “musician,” I stay in a lot of hotels all over the world. It doesn’t matter whether you spend $30 for a room or $300—all hotels are shit. Designer minimalism that renders faucets and light switches unusable, 24-hour room service available eight hours a day, and bed bugs are just a few of the wonders that await the weary traveler. The only hotel I ever stayed in that wasn’t shit was the Grand Hyatt Santiago in Chile. Just putting that out there.

8. The “Steven Tyler Effect.” Contemporary society loves to perpetuate myths about the staggering wealth of recording artists. It’s easier to justify illegal downloading when you imagine every artist to be an eternal Peter Pan, ditty-bopping through life with bare feet and a tenuous grasp on reality. Similarly, I’ve noticed that one of Yahoo!’s favorite home page topics is “wealthiest rappers,” a list that hasn’t been updated in five years. What I’d like to see is a story about all of the rappers who’ve had to go back to hustling because they can’t pay their bills.

9. Not enough political novelty records. In years past, any scrappy non-talent with a few dollars could voice their opinions about a given political issue in a manner that was productive, creative, and (essentially) harmless. This seems to have peaked in the ’70s and early ’80s, when favorite topics included the gas crisis (Gotta Have a Little Talk with the Peanut Man was one such gem) and the Middle East, in which every dictator and political bogeyman from Khomeini to Gadda was instructed to “shove it.” Sure, it was ignorant and banal, but at least the outbursts were contained within seven inches of paper and plastic. No harm done.

10. Too much Shakira, not enough Charo. At least Charo was in on the joke.