DJ Shadow: Entering the Shadowsphere…

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In the 2001 documentary Scratch, Josh Davis is asked about his record collection, which at the time made getting around his then-home in the sleepy college town of Davis, Calif., somewhat difficult for the camera crew.

“It’s sort of like a big pile of broken dreams—almost none of these artists still have a career, really,” Davis responded. “So, you really have to respect that, in a way. If you’re making records, and if you’re DJing, putting out new releases, whether it’s a mixtape or whatever, you’re sort of adding to this pile, whether you wanna admit it or not. Keep that in mind when you start thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m invincible and I’m the world’s best’ or whatever, because that’s what all these cats thought… You don’t have to [collect]. It’s not gonna make a bad DJ good, but it will make a good DJ better.”

In the case of Davis’ DJ Shadow project, it’s assured him that his work will never get lost within this pop music purgatory.

The reasons for this, as most longtime DJ Times readers know, barely need to be reviewed, but for the sake of convention, one has to remark on Shadow’s early, impressionistic handling of samples as the origin of trip-hop. Matter of fact, the term itself was coined to describe one of Shadow’s first singles, “In-Flux.” Despite some initial production work for Lifer’s Group (a hip-hop project with the incarcerated MCs) and Paris (a politically charged Bay Area MC), Shadow’s work was largely ignored by U.S. hip-hop labels at the time.

However, a rabid cult of supporters, most notably future U.N.K.L.E. collaborator James Lavelle, developed around Davis’ work in the U.K., with the best of Shadow’s disciples centered around Lavelle’s Mo’Wax label. The promise of Shadow’s earliest work found its ultimate fulfillment in his 1996 debut, Endtroducing…, a stunningly diverse and otherworldly release constructed entirely out of samples. As one of pop music’s bonafide “often-imitated-never-equaled” sorts of LPs, Endtroducing… has both defined and haunted Davis’s career ever since.

In particular, Davis has been pegged as a once-great has-been by detractors, particularly after the release of his third full-length, The Outsider, a controversial 2006 departure from his trademark sound into pop-rock and hyphy. Yet even those people can’t fault Davis for his undimmed powers as a turntablist, demonstrated on the “Brainfreeze” and “Hard Sell” tours with Cut Chemist and his own solo Shadowsphere tour, where he performs solo in an oval bubble shot through with projections. And not two years after being included in the now-discontinued “DJ Hero” Activision game, he’s released his fourth LP, The Less You Know, The Better (Island/Verve). While there’s no hyphy, there’s still enough metal (“I Gotta Rokk,” “Border Crossing”), balladry (“Sad And Lonely”) and straightforward pop (“Warning Call” with Tom Vek, “Scale It Back” with Little Dragon) to remind hidebound listeners that there’s more to Shadow than the good old days.

We caught up with Shadow on the road with the IDentity Festival just before he launched off to dates in the U.K., Europe and Asia for the rest of the year. Ever the outspoken pundit, Shadow shared with us reflections on production techniques, the phasing out of vinyl, and why the online music industry sucks in 2011.

DJ Times: What have you taken on the road with you for IDentity Fest? How does it compare to the Shadowsphere tour?

Shadow: It is the same, although literally today is going to be the fourth sort of re-tweak. The tour launched, in late June of 2010, I believe. And after about three months, I usually know exactly what I want to fix and change, based on audience reactions. But when I change the music I have to change the visuals as well, because I don’t like showing visuals that are just wallpaper and are basically a bunch of lighting effects.

DJ Times: What do you prefer?

Shadow: I like to have visuals that speak to the music that I’m playing. So that’s obviously quite a production, because the visuals are of a certain quality that it’s not something that I can take lightly. So I did another revision at the end of summer last year, did another one later that same year for the U.S. run and got it pretty much where I liked it and did another one before the tour kicked off again this year. Then, literally tonight, we’re going to be testing the new version of the show. So I’d say there’s about 15 to 20 minutes of different content for tonight’s show.

DJ Times: Give me a little idea of the gear within the Shadowsphere.

Shadow: The tour that I did with Cut Chemist, which was the last big tour I did before this one, was eight turntables playing all vinyl, all seven-inches, four turntables each with looping pedals and all kinds of stuff going on. I’ve used Serato in the past. I’ve used CDJs in the past. And, really at this point, the only thing I look at when I’m getting ready to do a big tour is what’s gonna provide the best audience experiences, because generally speaking, when I’m doing these shows, most people can’t see what I’m doing or what I’m using. All they care about is does it sound good and it look good?

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