DJ Shadow

Interview ( (2006)

DJ Shadow is a turntablist, producer and songwriter from California, who has reached legendary status since entering the musical arena during the early Nineties. He is famed for his atmospheric, sample based sounds and is often cited as the leading creator of the trip hop genre. He has also been heavily involved with the Hyphy hip hop movement, as his latest album The Outsider, released late last year, demonstrated. Since his introduction to hip hop at a college radio station as a teenager, DJ Shadow has toured extensively and garnered immense recognition and praise in the process, making him one of the most respected yet underrated DJs out there.  Anna Nathanson caught up him to discuss music, image, marketing and how this has changed over the years…

DJs often get overshadowed (excuse the pun) by MCs. Do you feel that there is an undue emphasis on this aspect of the genre?

It’s funny you should say that because throughout the nineties and before, most DJs felt ignored. As far as hip hop is concerned, it began with the DJ. It was only later that the MC was introduced, who would talk about what the DJ was doing. So it’s definitely ironic that the DJ then went on to be ignored. It’s not so much the case today as they’re now being exploited by the media and used on massive advertisement campaigns, but rappers are still easier to market as the DJ is always chained to their equipment. It’s pretty much known as rap music nowadays, there doesn’t even seem to be a hip hop anymore.

What makes a great DJ?

A lot of practise and a willingness to inject your own personality into what you’re doing. Everyone is unique but it’s not always the case that people let their own self shine through. Personality is a key factor here.

Your name reflects the fact that you prefer to be heard rather than seen. Do you sometimes wish you were more visible?

I didn’t get into the music for the fame. I’m just trying to perpetuate the music and keep it moving forward. When I see features on myself in magazines, they’re still using photos that were taken 12 years ago. I very rarely do photo shoots, I prefer to let the music do the talking. I’m not trying to be a pop superstar. It’s not like I’m trying to hide, I just don’t think what I look like is that relevant. I like what Daft Punk and The Gorillaz have done and to an extent I follow that philosophy.

Do you think that unnecessary prominence is placed on looks in the music industry?

To deny this would be foolish, it’s definitely the case, be it actors, dancers or anybody doing art. If you’re exceptionally good looking then you do tend to get a free pass, and it can work for you or against you. If you’re a female singer and you’re exceptionally good looking, people may not focus on your music as much or take you seriously enough, and that can affect the music you then make.

How do you feel about the way music is marketed?

I actively try and resist marketing. Everyone these days is placed into different categories based on demographic, age, race, sex, and that’s what I try and avoid. It always makes me laugh that every time you go on Amazon a little box pops up saying “well you bought this last time, so you’ll probably like this”, I think that’s funny. I like a lot of music out of sync, and what I mean by that is I don’t necessary like it when I’m supposed to. As I’m on the road a lot I may not get to listen to brand new beats, and may not get a chance to hear something ‘til a year and a half after it’s released, and same goes for stuff that may not be commercially released for a couple of years, I may hear it before. I don’t feel obligated to like stuff when I should. My mother was naturally cynical, she had a great distrust of the media, and this had an impact on me; she taught me to follow my own thing.

What’s it like being a white DJ who does hip hop?

The only time it’s ever been an issue is when I first did press in Europe, years ago. They were very suspicious when I told them that nobody cared about my race. They assumed it must be a constant struggle for me, given how America is obsessed with race. But it hasn’t been at all, and it hasn’t surprised me because that’s the only reality I know.

How has your album been doing in terms of sales since it was released in September?

Good I guess. Nobody sells as many units as they used to, that’s just the way the market has evolved. Ten years ago you may have sold a million, five years ago half a million, and now it could be in the thousands, that’s just the way it goes.

Some fans expressed disappointment with this album as it’s very different to your earlier work. How did this make you feel?

Bemused. If it’s been done before, what’s the point of doing it again? For music to progress it needs to keep renewing itself. If I do the same thing for too long I get bored and have to stop. I can’t understand how these people can be my fans if they expect me to repeat what I’ve already done.

You’re widely seen as the leading creator of trip hop. What are your thoughts on this?

Trip hop as a genre, does it even exist anymore? I’m not sure. It’s not something that I’ve thought about. I grew up listening to hip hop. It’s like asking Greenday whether they represent punk pop, I’m sure that’s not their intention, they just make the kind of music that they want to create based on their influences. If I was to cash in on “trip hop innovator” title than I’d probably be making music that sounds like it was produced in 1995.

How would you describe your own musical tastes?

I would describe my musical taste as eclectic, diverse. It’s changed a lot over the years as I’ve been exposed to more music, and I feel that there’s just as much good music out there today as there was in previous years, it’s just harder to find it, you have to search harder as what dominates is mass produced garbage.

You must get a lot of demos sent your way. Do you get the chance to listen to them all and have you ever worked with someone previously unknown to you on the basis of a demo they’ve sent you?

To be honest I don’t always get the chance to listen to them all and I do feel guilty sometimes, knowing that this person has worked so hard on their music and that it was important for them to give it to me. But it’s simply not possible for me to hear everything; I wish I could. When it comes to the people I’ve worked with before then at some stage or another I would have probably heard a demo, but if you’re talking about a hand written CD with a hand written sleeve, it’s very rare that that becomes a catalyst and we end up working together. I’m just being real about it.

You’ve worked with an impressive catalogue of artists. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to collaborate with?

I don’t have a wish list. If I’ve created a track, I pick someone based on what they would contribute to the song, rather than creating a song specifically for a certain person. Instead I think about who would do that song justice.

What have you been up to recently and what are you up to next?

I’ve just been on tour with Akala and Statelist, that’s been a great experience, and my new single ‘This Time’ is out now, along with the video. I’ve been touring for the last six months so now I’m about to head back to the States, and sort out my life back home. There are bills that have piled up and lots to sort out. But for the past 13 years I’ve been back and forth to the UK, so it shouldn’t be long until I’m back!

DJ Shadow’s new single ‘This Time’ is available now from all good stockists

By Anna Nathanson


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