DJ White Shadow: Lady Gaga's Go-To Guy
As a Writer/Producer for Lady Gaga Since 2011, DJ White Shadow Has Been Living the Dream. Just Call Him Music’s Latest 20-Year Overnight Success.
You may not realize it, but DJ White Shadow has been all over the airwaves since 2011.
After a chance encounter with Lady Gaga in an L.A. club he was playing, White Shadow (aka Paul Blair) ended up helping write and produce nine songs from her multi-platinum album Born This Way—including the Grammy-nominated, chart-topping title track. Since then, Blair has spent the past two years in a whirlwind of traveling the globe on Gaga’s tours and working a multitude of different projects.
You might not catch him on the festival circuit or at a superclub residency, but DJ White Shadow has been working tirelessly for over 20 years. After getting his start DJing in college while studying abroad in Tokyo, the Detroit-raised producer spent years working up through the techno scene before ultimately calling Chicago his home base.
Over the years, he’s managed to avoid being pigeonholed into any one sound, with a set of influences that range from Detroit techno and Chicago house to old-school hip hop and an output that touches on nearly every genre.
We caught up with DJ White Shadow after he finished putting the final touches on Lady Gaga’s new album ARTPOP and its lead single “Applause”—which he helped write and produce—to talk about his beginnings, the EP trilogy he’s releasing this year, and what it’s like to work with the world’s biggest pop-star.
DJ Times: When did you start DJing?
White Shadow: I started collecting records in second grade. They’re what I would ask my mom for whenever I would get presents. I bought my first turntables when I was 15 or 16—whenever I got my first job—and I started getting paid for it when I was 17. I guess, collectively, it’s been about 20 years.
DJ Times: The story I’ve heard is that you got started DJing at 17 when you were abroad in Japan. How did that happen?
White Shadow: I went to school for international business. I took Japanese for, like, nine years, so my freshman year of college at Michigan State, I went to a Japanese exchange program. I met this guy who owned a bar and he had all these records with a two-Technics set-up. I already had turntables at home, so I walked up to the guy and was like “Yo! Can I play records here?”
DJ Times: Sounds easy enough.
White Shadow: I played records one night, and he asked if I could come back and play them again. I’m like 6-foot-4 and tall and goofy as hell, so there must’ve been something weird about seeing me up there. I played a bunch of hip hop and weird shit. After that, I started buying records in Japan. I ended up playing at that bar every Thursday night.
DJ Times: You went to school in Michigan, and spent some time working up through the Detroit techno scene.
White Shadow: When I was kid, that’s what always stuck out to me. You either went to the hip-hop shit or the techno shit, and at the time—when I was 15—early ’90s, ’92, there was a lot of techno shit going on in Detroit. So you when you would sneak out of your parents’ house and go to Detroit, you would go to punk-rock and heavy-metal shows or hip-hop shows or techno shows. The techno shows were the least of your worries—nobody was ever getting stabbed at them [laughs].
DJ Times: How did that influence your sound and DJ sets?
White Shadow: A lot of, you know, local celebrities and people from Detroit would be throwing parties. So we’d always go to the techno parties—at first just because it was just to go to a party. But once you start going to them—and they weren’t like what it is now where it’s whole different kind of music. The music then was real soulful. So yeah, when I first started producing stuff, after a couple years of going to these parties, they all came out techno-y.
DJ Times: You eventually ended up settling in Chicago, correct?
White Shadow: I wouldn’t say “settled,” but I did move out of Detroit to go to Chicago because, you know, things got a little too hectic out there, towards the end. I went to New York first, but I wanted to see what Chicago had to offer. I’ve been sticking around there as a home base for the last 12 years or so.
DJ Times: You’re releasing an EP trilogy. What’s the idea behind it and how did the plan come about?
White Shadow: I looked into these songs I had. To be honest, I’m not 100-percent sure what I’m going to put on the third one yet. I put out those trap ones [on Pussy Drugs Fear] because they showed the most range. You have part-techno in there and a progressive house part in a trap song with the hardest fucking beat somebody can rap over.
DJ Times: What’s the attraction to the trap sound?
White Shadow: I really like the trap stuff because I find myself thinking quite a bit about how you can make anything out of trap music. What defines trap music is a set of drops. It’s not written into a specific BPM. It’s not like progressive house where you have to do this breakdown and then have these chords. There are very little rules in that trap shit. That’s why I love making it. It’s just permission to go out and get weird as shit.
DJ Times: And you’ve found ways to do it.
White Shadow: The one trap song that’s on the second EP [The Clock Is Ticking] is like a ten-minute, horror-movie suite thing. It literally sounds like a horror movie for the first five minutes before dropping into this giant, epic, fucking disaster gangster shit. I don’t even know how to explain it.
DJ Times: Tell me about the next two EPs.
White Shadow: The next one, The Clock Is Ticking, should be out before the end of the year. Also, when all three come out, there also will be a full album with physical copies. I don’t really play by the rules. We were supposed to release the set as three songs, three songs, three songs, and then a full album with all of them on a physical record, but I don’t know. I might put five tracks on the next one and then release the one after that as a single. It just depends on what I feel like doing.
DJ Times: And the material?
White Shadow: I made this rap song—legit trap, not electro trap—with Telli from NinjaSonik—and it’s fucking phenomenal. I listen to it all the time. I may put that on there, I don’t know. I just love to put out music, you know.
DJ Times: It’s hard to pin you into one genre or sound. Your I’m Killing Me EP had elements of techno, your production work on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way had some rock leanings, and your recent work is trap. Is it a conscious decision to avoid sticking to one style?
White Shadow: I don’t know, man. It depends on how much you care about it, I guess. I’m a DJ—I like to play music. I like to make what I like to make. I suppose you could stick to one style, but what happens when that style is over? [Laughs] I’ve watched that happen once already! You know, I made techno on vinyl records in the ’90s. We sold them in France and I’d DJ in France and Germany and Switzerland. I’ve played the Ministry of Sound back in the day. We started doing this shit when I was 17, 18 years old. I’ve watched techno take a big fucking nosedive once—so much so that I ended up playing hip hop again. I just love to DJ and watch people dance.
DJ Times: It’s just a reflection of your various tastes.
White Shadow: The next EP I’m putting out has one trap song, and the rest is French electro-house shit. I just make what I like to make, when I like to make it and put it out. I don’t put a lot of thought into becoming an artist myself because I don’t have to be. I’m a DJ, but I’m not interested in being a marquee guy that everybody comes to see on a tour, because it’s really a lot of work, dude. And I’m not shitting on people who do that, I’m just saying… to develop a tour and to develop a persona and to be that guy is a lot of work.
DJ Times: So you’re focused on production right now?
White Shadow: Right now, I’ve found a lot of joy doing stuff behind the scenes, like I’m scoring films and doing whatever. If I’m just feeling something, I do it. I had just executive produced a record for somebody on Recon after I had played them some of the trap mixes in the studio and they were like, “This is crazy—let’s put it out.”
DJ Times: Definitely a very fluid approach to releasing material.
White Shadow: Yeah, I like to try and make as much different shit as I possibly can. If I was relegated to doing one thing, I don’t know if I’d want to do that. I’m done doing that.
DJ Times: When you DJ, what equipment and software are you using? Are you still using vinyl?
White Shadow: I use Serato. I still have a ton of vinyl, but it’s all in boxes, which is a goddamn shame. I’ve got to figure something about dealing with that in my house. Most of my stuff is in Serato.
DJ Times: How did you and Lady Gaga find each other?
White Shadow: It’s a crazy story. I was DJing in Hollywood—I’ve got a house in L.A.—at this little club called Hyde, right off of Sunset. I used to play this Sunday night where I would only play classic hip hop like Run-D.M.C., and old-school techno and house. So I would just go up there and get mega-weird on Sundays. It was originally a dead night, and they asked me if I wanted to do it. Over time, though, it turned into this social event and I ended up playing for a bunch of famous people who thought the whole thing was mad kooky. I guess Gaga had a show out there, and her music director came in with a bunch of her dancers from the show. He hit me up, and told me, “This was fucking crazy—what is this shit?”
DJ Times: What are the chances?
White Shadow: Later that night, when they were hanging out and dancing and getting weird, she asked me if I could make a mixtape of it. I made a tape and emailed it. They told me it was nuts and said they had a tour coming that they wanted to use me for. Long story short, the electro-hip-hop-trance-whatever beats I was making were for a tour she was planning with Kanye West, which ended up getting cancelled.
DJ Times: How did you end up working on Born This Way?
White Shadow: The music director told me, “The next time I have something, I’ll hit you up.” Right after, he told me she was making a new album and asked if I had any beats. I sent over some, and two days later, Gaga called me and asked if I wanted to work with her with some of those, and I said “Sure.”
DJ Times: Did any of those initial productions make it onto Born This Way?
White Shadow: In one way or another, yes, on “Bloody Mary, “Black Jesus,” and “Electric Chapel.”
DJ Times: You also produced for her new album, ARTPOP. How did that you get aboard that project?
White Shadow: Born This Way came out, and about a week later, she called me and was like, “Next album is called ARTPOP. Let’s start working on it.” [Laughs] So we literally worked on this album since the week after the last one came out.
DJ Times: Wow.
White Shadow: I’m not joking when I tell you that we’ve literally made 75 to 100 songs for this—just a shit-ton of music. When she was on tour, we were cranking out tracks and writing music by phone. We picked out the tracks we thought were the best and played them for the label, and they picked which ones they thought were the best, and from there we decided what we were going to do with it and finished those songs.
DJ Times: Who else was involved in the album?
White Shadow: She’s got Zedd, who’s on Interscope with her. The label had been trying to put them together for a while. We had two songs on the record, and then she said she wanted to meet that Zedd kid, who I thought was dope. They ended up hooking up for a couple songs together over a few weeks. When we were traveling through France, Madeon came through, and they ended up doing a song or two together. So really, the entire record is just us three.
DJ Times: You helped write and produce the “Applause” single. Can you say anything about it?
White Shadow: I’m not nervous about it in the slightest. I could say more about it, but the reason I’m not going to is because I don’t want people to have preconceived notions about it. It’s just better to hear it. I’ve been subjected to people’s opinions when I go see a movie or something. People will tell you, “Man, you’ve gotta see this movie—it’s the funniest fucking movie of all time!” And then you go and see it, and it’s kind of funny. If they hadn’t have told you that it was the funniest fucking movie all time before you got there, you probably would’ve thought it was funnier.
DJ Times: How does it feel to be involved with one of the biggest releases of the year?
White Shadow: I was talking to a good friend the other day who’s a songwriter. He was like, “Dude, this is a big deal.” I didn’t really think about it. Honestly, we just made a bunch of good songs. They’re going to come out and we’re going to get drunk and that’s it! I’m excited for it to come out, though. I saw the video for the first time yesterday, and it’s really cool.
DJ Times: It sounds like that you and Lady Gaga have special connection. What’s a studio session with the two of you like?
White Shadow: Honestly, she’s like my sister. We fucking fight tooth-and-nail sometimes, but we love each other very much. She’s literally like a sister. She’s hilarious. I like being around her because she’s fucking smarter than I am in a lot of regards. I don’t know why she likes being around me, but we have a good time when we’re hanging out. Since meeting her, I’ve probably got 500 tracks on my computer. I meet with people who want to work with me, usually other producers, but it’s hard for me to work with other artists besides her.
DJ Times: You uploaded a rap track to your Soundcloud last year called “Trap (AKA Cake)” that featured a pitched-adjusted voice which was discovered to be Lady Gaga’s. How exactly did this come about? I don’t think I would have initially pegged her to be the pop star that’s rapping about snatching weaves on a trap track.
White Shadow: I was in Chicago last year right when [Chief] Keef’s album had just come out and we were listening to it. We had been on tour and in a bus every day, so we were going around playing records, and whenever it was my turn, I’d play some real hard, gangster-trap shit. She was jamming out to it, and I told her I would make her one for her birthday. I made the beat and then recorded the rap into my computer. That night, I played it for her as birthday present, kind of as a joke. The next week we were in Amsterdam, cooped up and whatever, and she goes to me, “I want to rap this and put it out.” So we rewrote a couple of things so that it fit her steez better. She rapped it and we cut it probably within a half-hour—no joke.
DJ Times: Crazy.
White Shadow: I thought I was going to get in huge amounts of trouble for putting it out, so I pitched her voice down when I uploaded it. However, within 20 minutes someone online had figured it out, since every person on the planet has Garage Band at this point and could pitch it up.
DJ Times: Are there any other projects you’re working on?
White Shadow: I just produced the NinjaSonik record. I’ve also made some beats with Lex Luger, as well as Boys Noize, so I’m a little all over the board. I spent the week with Lex Luger in Virginia making a bunch of ghetto, awesome shit, and I was with Boys Noize for a few days making raging techno music. Not sure where any of it’s going to land, but I’ll end up putting it out sometime. I also signed and finished an album for Diana Ross’s son, Evan Ross.
DJ Times: What’s Evan’s material sound like?
White Shadow: For lack of a better description, it’s going to sound like what I feel Michael Jackson should have been doing if he was still alive—really edgy, but still R&B. Imagine if the Daft Punk Tron soundtrack was an R&B record. He’s got a great voice, and obviously very solid DNA.
DJ Times: Favorite producers at the moment?
White Shadow: As far as electronic producers go, I like Wolfgang Gartner a lot. I think the guy’s a genius. I sit around sometimes just trying to think about how I’d get those sounds. I haven’t always been a huge progressive-house fan, but over the past two years, I’ve come toward it. People really want to hear it, so I’ve been trying to find what I like most from it. I also really like that pretty fucking crazy shit like Knife Party—stuff that’s really deliberately angry.
DJ Times: Favorite track this year?
White Shadow: I like that “Animals” track by Martin Garrix. I really like the minimalist drops that are happening in a lot of songs now. In my phone, I’ve got every track Chief Keefs ever done. I think the guy’s a genius, just like I think R. Kelly is genius. I like emotional shit, so it tends to happen at 70 BPM or like 140 BPM. “All Day” by SCNTST is my shit. It’s weird—for being a music guy, I’ve only got, like, 25 songs in my phone. When making music, I tend to listen to other people’s music less; but when I’m not making music and just DJing, I listen to loads of music.