Emerging in the early 90s, DJ Shadow helped shape hip-hop and turntablism with the Solesides collective (also featuring Blackalicious, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker) and a production style that blends funk, rock, ambient, jazz and soul.
He turned the art of DJing and turntablism on its head early in his career with his sample-heavy debut LP, 1996’s Endtroducing, a crossover success and the entry point to a rabbit hole of audio innovation still deeply rooted in analog.
You started experimenting with music on a four-track recorder in high school. Who introduced you to that tool or was it self-discovered?
Well even before that, I had a little Sears turntable that I got in 1984 for Christmas. It was something I had been wanting for years because my older brother had an earlier version of it. It was a dual cassette deck, stereo receiver and turntable kind of cheaply bundled all into one unit.
I discovered that if I held the selector knob between tape and phono, I could overdub turntable as I dubbed the cassette, if that makes sense. It was like a glitch in the design that allowed me to scratch over my mixes. In a way, it was almost like having a four-track recorder right there.
A four-track recorder was something I wanted every since I did sound. My parents were trying to encourage my music tendencies and convinced one of my older brother’s friends to let me do sound for them while they jammed in their garage. They were a Doors cover band and I wasn’t really that enthralled with the music, but I was able to learn some of the basics about mix boards and sounds.
I think one of them had a four-track recorder. It was kind of within my reach as someone who worked at a pizza restaurant at minimum wage. I saved up four months to buy that thing.
You were born in San Jose and you grew up in Davis. Where do you live now?
I reside in Marin County in the North Bay. I lived in Davis between 1977-1997, moved to Marin in 1997, and I’ve lived there ever since.
I don’t get a chance to take advantage of the outdoors very often, but I really like to live in a beautiful place. It means a lot to me. I spend a lot of time in London, and my studio used to be in the Mission in San Francisco. I feel like I’m always in a city so it’s nice to live outside the noise.
Do ever check out live music in the Bay Area?
Oh man, over the years… I first started coming to see shows in the city in the late 80s. The first show I attended was at the Coliseum, the Def Jam ’88 tour. I was going to places like the DNA Lounge to see rap shows starting around 1989, 1990. As Soulsides came together with Lyrics Born, Blackalicious, etc., we used to play those same venues.
I would say at the age I was able to get into clubs, I played in those clubs. Its not like I went to clubs for years, and based on that wanted to make music. We were already making music.
How many total records do you own and how do you store your collection?
I don’t know how many records I own, but I just store them where and how I can. I’m always acquiring different things. Quantity to me isn’t really the factor that I focus on. I’m just trying to get good records.
It’s easy to go out and buy a million crappy records. You can do it at any time. I would like to think that my collection is somewhat curated.
Speaking of record collections, you and Cut Chemist were introduced to Afrika Bambaataa by the founder of Cornell University’s hip-hop archive and Zulu Nation member Johan Kugelberg. How were you able to get Bambaataa’s full blessing and support for your tour playing his original vinyl?
First of all, he had most of our records in his collection so I think he was at least somewhat aware of who were. It was obviously exciting to see those records in his collection. I definitely didn’t expect it, but it was cool to see. As a DJ, I think he gets that this would be exciting for us and why it’s good for him in a certain way. I think it reintroduces him to a lot of people that maybe they were a little too young to remember when he was making that initial big impact that affected me so much. In a way, it’s retelling the story to a new generation and reintroducing him to new people.
I spoke to him on the phone and tried to explain very thoroughly what we wanted to do what we wanted to achieve with the set—fact that it was meant as a homage to him. Over the course of the conversation, I think he came to realize we knew what we were doing, we knew his history and knew how to tell the story in a way that was going to be comfortable for him and make him look good. That’s definitely part of our goal.
We think he’s a genius and he’s one of the most influential people in my career. I just wanted to assure him that I felt his legacy was in good hands.
What’s been the strategy for the Renegades of Rhythm live shows with Cut Chemist?
We’re both playing at the same time. You can catch any number of YouTube clips people have already uploaded. Within two hours, we’re basically trying to tell a story that has multiple narratives. We feel like by telling Bambaataa’s story, by default we’re telling the story of hip hop.
It’s a journey from soul and funk in the disco era into the initial onslaught of Manhattan from the outer Burroughs as hip hop took over the art scene and the fashion scene in the early 80s. It’s the story of Bambaataa as a collector, social thinker and a peace maker. We use his records to thread the narrative together.
I think it works on a couple different levels. We definitely didn’t want it to be a dry history lesson. We wanted it to be fun and enjoyable if you know nothing about hip hop and Bambaattaa. Based on the shows we’ve done thus far, it seems to work whether or not you’re intimately familiar with the records we’re playing. It’s just a good night of music.
Having released The Outsider with rappers Keak Da Sneak and E-40 in 2006, do you have a take on what happened to the Bay Area Hyphy movement?
It depends on who you ask. No movement disappears, you know what I mean? If anything, I’ve heard more evidence of Hyphy existing in the last few years than really anytime since then. As with any kind of musical movement, there’s a natural beginning, middle, and end, but the reverberations from it are still being felt in the music that people are making today.
Especially with younger beat makers, they grew up on that stuff and remember it fondly. It’s just like the mob music that was coming out in the 90s, you still hear it now. It may not be the peak of that sound, but it’s definitely back. When people create art and they put it out there into the atmosphere, it gets soaked up and there’s all kinds of unintended consequences.
I don’t believe that anything truly dies. There are sounds that are popular for a time and then people move onto something else. It never truly goes away. Some of the best shows I ever saw were shows that DJ Amen put on up in Petaluma during the hyphy era. I have fond memories of that era and working with people like Mistah F.A.B., Droop-E, E-40, Turf Talk, Nump and all the different guys I worked with during that time. To me it was a good time, and I think a lot of people feel that way about the movement. It was good time.
When might we expect another studio release to follow your last studio album was 2011’s The Less You Know, The Better?
I like the idea at the moment of just putting out short bursts rather than waiting for two years for a big 16-song thing. I’m going to keep it moving the way it has been moving. I’m going to put out things fairly consistently and a little bit more immediately as opposed to waiting for quite so long.
This is the way we used to do things in the Mo’ Wax era. There would be a lot of singles and eventually an album would fall in place based on the songs that people liked and trying to craft something that showcases those songs well. I kind of feel like that’s the direction I’m heading. I’d be surprised if it came out next year, but maybe the year after that.