1:51pm

Sat November 17, 2012
Music Interviews

DJ Shadow On Sampling As A 'Collage Of Mistakes'

Originally published on Sat November 17, 2012 6:04 pm

In 1996, a 24-year-old from the suburbs of San Francisco released a hip-hop record that changed perceptions not only of hip-hop, but also recorded music at large. Endtroducing....., the full-length debut of the producer DJ Shadow, was constructed almost entirely from samples of pre-existing recordings and was perhaps the first such album to reach a wide audience.

More than 15 years later, DJ Shadow, whose real name is Josh Davis, is enjoying the sort of milestone usually afforded to artists like John Coltrane or The Beatles: His collected works are being released in a limited-edition box set called Reconstructed. Davis spoke with NPR's Guy Raz about where he finds his source material, how sampling can spark interest in forgotten artists and why he does his best work when he's alone. Hear the radio version at the audio link on this page and read more of their conversation below.

GUY RAZ: You were 24 when Endtroducing..... was released. What did you set out to do with that album?

DJ SHADOW: It's interesting: Sometimes people forget that although Endtroducing..... is my first album, it's actually five years into my career of putting out records. I had put out a lot of singles on various labels, had done a lot of remixes, had done a lot of production for other artists, primarily MCs. The reason it's spelled E-N-D at the beginning was because I saw it as the final chapter in a number of singles that I had done already.

This was the end of the introduction?

Exactly. It was the final statement at that time.

The cover of that record is two young men flipping through crates of records at a record shop. I imagine that's what you were doing when you made this album: flipping through records and listening to things, figuring out how to piece them together.

I call it a collage. For people unfamiliar to sampling and its history and how it evolved, I think that's the best way to explain it. It's taking little pieces from here, adding it to little pieces from there — as many different disparate elements as you can find — and making something totally new out of it. Literally down to, not just the drums from one record, but the snare from one record, the kick from another record, the bass line or part of a bass line from another record, putting it all together. That's one hurdle. But then, actually having it articulate something and channel my inspiration through it — to be able to tell a story in that way is the second hurdle. Just throwing a bunch of things together may not be very interesting.

The instrument that I grew up wanting to play [is] the sampler. And it's the instrument I took seriously in terms of becoming the best at it, or one of the best. I think, initially in the late '80s when the technology was made available, the instant reaction to it by the old guard at that time was, 'Well, [sampling] is just out-and-out theft. It's stealing.' And I think I've learned to recognize all sides of that discussion. But I think what Endtroducing..... did for a lot of people was kind of close the book on that discussion and say, OK, this is legitimate. This is a legitimate new way of making music.

How were you choosing your material? Would you just pick up random records on a whim and see if they worked?

Sure, in some cases. But in other cases, you start to develop a sense of [which ones will have] something fruitful within the grooves. You start looking for certain labels; you start looking for certain producers. One of the first things I realized is that anything prior to 1966 probably wasn't going to have what I was looking for. Once James Brown invented funk and rock 'n' roll began to combine certain jazz aesthetics, then music began to take form and began to settle into a 4-4 groove, which is what hip hop is based on. ... You were going for something that you could nod your head to. Anything before 1966 is going to have just a completely different approach.

Back when hip-hop started out, there were people playing turntables and sampling the beats off other records, and they didn't pay artists that they sampled. A lot of that had changed by 1996. How were you able to make this record of virtually all samples? Did you have to pay everyone involved?

I was asked by the parent record company, "Give us your first 10 [samples] that you think are the most obvious or the biggest usages, and we'll work on those first.' I said, 'Fair enough, here they are.' ... Clearing samples is not a cut-and-dried process. Some people have reasonable expectations of what they think the usage is worth and some people don't. Some people have artistic scruples about it, some people don't. And then the third most common thing is, you can't find the people: The labels don't exist or they've been absorbed into a massive conglomeration who doesn't even know what they have or where the tapes are. These are really common scenarios, and you just have to do your best to navigate them.

Endtroducing..... pulls from jazz and funk and psychedelia records, but also has clips from interviews and television shows. Are you always listening for sounds that would make good samples?

Yes and no. I'm not connected to some otherworldly current of sound. Part of what I was trying to do on Endtroducing..... was really tip the cap to all the different people that came before me that inspired me. ... A lot of the early sampling that was done, there's these moments where they almost sound like mistakes — sort of a weird blast of a horn that kind of goes out of tune for a moment. When Public Enemy and others were taking these moments and amplifying the noise component rather than the musical component, you were getting just a completely different way of looking at music, almost this collage of mistakes that in itself makes something so right. I thought that was a brilliant moment in music.

It occurred to me when I was preparing for this interview that I'd never seen a photograph of you. You're kind of an Oz figure — a shadow hidden behind a turntable. Are you reluctant to be a star?

Growing up, I always identified with the director, not the movie star. I identified with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the people who pulled the strings behind the camera. ... Yeah, that's really what the name [DJ Shadow] comes from. There was a moment when famous hip-hop producers in the '80s ... were doing their own albums, where the MCs were kind of the featured artist. And they were on the front covers. I remember thinking, "Hmm, I'm not so sure if I agree with the way this is progressing." Later, you had Puff Daddy being in the videos with Biggie. I always just kind of felt, "Well, I'm comfortable in the studio environment. I don't want to be out there having to worry about fashion and stuff like that.

What you do seems like a pretty solitary endeavor. Are you alone most of the time when you're making music?

I think there's different doors and different planes of aloneness. You're only able to get to a certain depth of creativity if you're being constantly distracted. And I think you can cross further if you're alone for, say, eight hours with no distraction. You can cross even deeper if you're alone for a week. I found that it really wasn't until about two days into any given stretch that I was able to get to a place of inspiration — that I had anything valid to say. That's just the way I work. And I've come to recognize that through the years, that I'm really not digging deep enough until I've been alone for a certain amount of time.

Reconstructed, the box set you're releasing, comes in this beautiful black reflective case, and inside there are seven CDs and a card signed by you. It seems to suggest that this art form — hip-hop and sampling — has finally caught up with jazz. You could imagine a jazz artist putting out something like this and no one would say anything.

The concept is [one] that I resisted for a long time. It really wasn't until my last album came out. At that point, I had five albums to kind of go through and choose my favorite parts. ... I also think there's something kind of satisfying about periodically going back through your work and breaking bread with your old music and your old self. It can serve, for me anyway, to kind of calibrate me and get me ready for what's next. So I felt like the time was right. Obviously we limited the box to only be available to the 500 people around the globe, who really are such big fans of what I've done that something like this would make sense to them. It's an interesting time. In a weird kind of way, I think as a reaction to the whole concept of putting out a best-of and walking through the past so to speak, my current DJ set is extremely contemporary — kind of as a counterweight.

Have you ever been approached by any of the artists that you've sampled? Has anyone thanked you for shining a light on their obscure or even ignored records?

Yeah, it has happened a couple of times. There's a guy named Jules Blattner who I sampled on the U.N.K.L.E album that I produced. He's a St. Louis stalwart who made music in the '50s, '60s, '70s. He has a very healthy attitude toward it. You can kind of go two ways. You can look at it as tip of the cap and a way to reintroduce that person's music to people in a completely different context than the way they originally intended. I find that a lot of the more down-to-earth working musicians really get that.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have sometimes people that have gotten to a place where they're very protective of their legacy, and they can't really see the positive benefit. ... Sometimes you have to just work with those people. There's been times when we've encountered resistance and broken through that resistance. And then there's times where we're not able to make it happen. And the unfortunate thing about that is, not only does my music not get out there, but nobody will ever have a chance, through my music, to rediscover the original artist.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: In 1996, this album revolutionized hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hold up, before we get started...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Guess who's coming? Guess who's coming?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Guess who's coming?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...it's...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Guess who's coming?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: DJ Shadow.

RAZ: All of the sounds you're hearing right now - all of them - are samples. The sounds were cobbled together mainly from old vinyl records. As a matter of fact, almost every note on the entire album was produced that way. The man behind it is Josh Davis, better known as DJ Shadow.

DJ SHADOW: I call it a collage. I think that's the best way to explain it to people. It's taking little pieces from here, adding it to little pieces from there. You know, literally down to not just the drums from one record but the snare from one record, the kick from another record and making something totally new out of it.

RAZ: The result of his work was the groundbreaking album "Endtroducing."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's been more than 15 years since "Endtroducing" was released, and DJ Shadow is enjoying this sort of milestone usually reserved for artists like John Coltrane or The Beatles. His combined work is being released as a box set. It's called "Reconstructing." Josh Davis grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento and San Francisco where he idolized the early heroes of hip-hop. And when he began as a DJ, he wanted to bring the art of sampling out from under the shadows.

SHADOW: I think initially in the late '80s when the technology was made available, the instant reaction to it by the old guard at that time was, well, this is just out and out fast. But I think what "Endtroducing" did for a lot of people was kind of close the book on that discussion and say, OK, this is legitimate. This is a legitimate new way of making music.

RAZ: The second track on the record, it was called "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt." Can we sort of listen through that and can you tell us what all those bits are? So, it begins like this:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUILDING STEAM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT")

GEORGE MARSH: Producing...

SHADOW: OK. Well, it's a piano from a record by a guy named Jeremy Storch. And, again, one of the knocks on sampling is that, well, you just take famous songs that everybody knows and replay, you know, the chorus over and over. Well, obviously, in this case, I was taking a rather obscure artist. Part of the aesthetic is taking great moments from basically forgotten music history and reapplying it with a new context.

RAZ: Then you've got the spoken word over that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUILDING STEAM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT")

MARSH: I'd like to just continue to be able to express myself as best as I can...

SHADOW: That's the gentleman named George Marsh, a drummer from the Bay Area. And there was an instructional record about music, and he was interviewing some of his favorite drummers from, I think, about '74.

RAZ: And then you've got that...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: ...that sound. This sound: (hums).

SHADOW: Yeah. I'm struggling at the moment off the top of my head to remember where that came from. It might actually come from the Jeremy Storch record, but I'm not 100 percent sure.

RAZ: And then that percussion.

SHADOW: The percussion is from a high school record. In the '60s and '70s primarily, you know, any local high school or college would, in addition to having a yearbook, the school would pay to press 500 copies of the school band and what they were up to. That's where the drums come from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUILDING STEAM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT")

RAZ: Where would you find these records? You just picked them up at a record store. They were, you know, maybe 50 cents or 75 cents and just buy them and just on a whim and see if they work?

SHADOW: Sure. Sure, in some cases. But in other cases, I mean, you start to develop kind of a sense of things that are going to make it, you know, increase the odds of having something fruitful within the grooves. You start looking for certain labels. You start looking for certain producers. I mean, one of the first things that I realized is that anything prior to 1966 probably wasn't going to have what I was looking for because once James Brown invented funk, then music began to settle into kind of a four-four groove, which is what hip-hop is based on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUILDING STEAM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT")

RAZ: I'm speaking with Josh Davis. He's better known as DJ Shadow. The new retrospective of his career is called "Reconstructed." Tell me about how you got into this. I mean, you grew up in California, relatively small town. You are white, and this has been predominantly an African-American musical genre. Presumably, hip-hop was what you listened to as a kid growing up.

SHADOW: I grew up in a household that tended to reject the mainstream. And my listening habits were primarily R&B. I mean, I was able to tune into an R&B station from San Francisco on my AM little portable radio. So I was listening to, you know, Lakeside and the Gap Band and Kool & the Gang and Evelyn Champagne King. I mean, a lot of post-disco, so basically '80 to '82 or so. And then they played "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And it was just one of those moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Singing) It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under...

SHADOW: You know, if you're a punk kid and the first time you heard Minor Threat or Bad Brains, I mean, you know, through any kind of underground musical genre, everybody has these moments. It was just one of those moments in my life where I felt as though at 10 years old, I was hearing music for the first time. And I was hearing something that wasn't my parents' and it wasn't anybody's, it didn't feel like, because nobody had really--it was undefined at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

FIVE: (Singing) Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge...

SHADOW: This was an East Coast phenomenon, primarily a New York City phenomenon. Growing up in a small town, you had to just grab these little glimpses where you could. And what it did for me was it became kind of an obsession about, you know, this culture that wasn't all around me. It was something that was, you know, seemed so distant, and it seemed so obviously vital yet so out of reach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: "Endtroducing" - and I know people have said this to you many times - you know, it was such an important record for me when I first heard it 16 years ago. I never heard anything like it. And it occurred to me when I was preparing for this interview that I had never seen a photograph of you. I mean, you're--there are not many glamour shots, just photo after photo of you. And it occurred to me that you're kind of an Oz figure. I mean, you are really your name, like a shadow hidden behind a turntable. Are you reluctant to be the star?

SHADOW: I just think it interferes a lot of times with just being able to communicate the music. For me, the music is the message. And also growing up, the DJ tended to be relegated to the background, and I was kind of OK with that. Famously, you know, Run DMC, Jam Master Jay was always in shadow.

RAZ: Is that why you became Shadow?

SHADOW: Yeah. That's really what the name comes from, actually. I mean, it was--there was a moment where famous hip-hop producers in the '80s such as Marley Marl and another guy named Herbie Luv Bug were getting deals where they were doing their own albums, and they were on the front covers. And I remember thinking, hmm, I'm not so sure I agree with the way this is progressing. I'm comfortable in a studio environment. I don't want to be out there having to worry about fashion and stuff like that. You know, that sounds really kind of ridiculous even as I'm saying it. I mean, that's just not what I'm into. It's not where my head's at.

RAZ: Josh, recently, somebody wrote that your first record, "Endtroducing" - this is a quote - "altered the landscape of hip-hop forever." I mean, you know this that critics have called you one of the most influential figures in hip-hop. Is that strange when you hear that?

SHADOW: I mean, I'm not so sure I agree 100 percent with that sentiment anyway. I mean, I'm not so sure it changed hip-hop so much as it did introduce a lot of previously hip-hop-wary listeners to a new universe. You know, some people called it trip-hop, some people just sort of fit it into electronica. I mean, I definitely, you know, growing up on hip-hop, I've always tried to do work that would provide an alternative because I think that's how things change and evolve. Yeah, I am trying to change music. I don't know that I'm trying to change hip-hop necessarily though.

RAZ: Josh Davis is the music producer better known as DJ Shadow. He has released a retrospective of his career in two different forms. One is a single album and two as a massive box set. Both are called "Reconstructed." Josh Davis, DJ Shadow, thank you so much.

SHADOW: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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