Reconstructed: DJ Shadow

"I was about as involved as you could possibly be..."
Dj Shadow - Deconstructed
He’s your favourite DJ saviour...

DJ Shadow’s career – if you can use such a prosaic term to cover his work – epitomises a unique state of flux within the music industry. Taking cut ‘n’ paste art form to its furthest possible reaches, the West Coast producer was able to chop his enormous record collection into tiny fragments and re-build into something beautiful.

Almost two decades after his first entrance into a professional recording studio, DJ Shadow is sitting down with Clash to chat about his new compilation 'Reconstructed'. A career-spanning ‘Best Of’ it veers from his early instrumental work to his later rap collaborations, taking in some unusual diversions along the way.

A rare chance to witness an artist assessing his own work, the ‘Best Of’ will be available on three gradations: single disc, double disc and box set. Leafing through his own output, DJ Shadow was left free to join the dots of his own discography, unhindered by expectations or label interference. Thoughtful, quietly assertive, we’ve opted to post his answers in full.

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Where did the impetus for this project come from?
It was something which had been brought up at various times over the past six years and it’s funny – it’s just one of those things that I just didn’t feel it was warranted. I resisted the idea until the last album came out. Then I sort of started thinking to myself, well if they bring this up again I’d kind of be OK with it now because I feel like between the five albums and all the B-sides and everything else.. maybe that makes sense now. I think I said to somebody, it’s sort of like a marriage and having kids you don’t really.. you’re not OK with it and then you are. That’s how I feel about the Greatest Hits thing. When it was first brought up I was like ‘oh no, I don’t want any part of that’ and then after a while it hit a certain point where I was like ‘I can see that, it makes sense’.

It’s sort of a strange thing in the sense that it’s not something that you really naturally.. you wouldn’t be as invested in wanting to raise a flag about a Greatest Hits as you would an actual album but on the other hand there have been some Greatest Hits – I say Greatest Hits, they’re not hits, it’s a Best Of. There’s been some compilations in the past by other artists that I quite enjoyed so you take that on board. There are two new tracks as well which I finished in March this year and it’s really just about.. OK, here’s an era, these are my favourites, these are the songs I am most proud of. For a lot of people who only know 'Endtroducing' hopefully they listen to it and are like ‘oh I had no idea’.

Was this quite a hands on process?
Yeah. Actually more hands on than I think almost any other.. put it this way: I was writing the label copy. Literally obtaining the legal lines because it just sort of got to a point where I was like: who else is going to do this stuff? There really isn’t anyone here who knows my career to the extent that I do. Also, with things like samples the law has changed over the years so you can’t just look at the original label copy. There are things where we had to clear things after the fact. Really, only me and my lawyer and my team knows that information so I literally was spending hours and hours typing out all the label copy. I’m getting my friend Dave Tompkins to do the essay and obviously getting Trevor Jackson to do the design, these are all really personal decisions. It was based on people I admire and people I have known for a long time. I’ve known Trevor since at least ’94 and Dave Tompkins since ’91 so these are people who knew me back before ‘Endtroducing’ and have done things since then that I’ve admired. The whole project – I chose all the tracks, there was no influence form anybody here other than people saying: why isn’t Building Steam on there? Then I’d have to explain why on the one CD version it’s not there but it is going to be on the two CD version. That was pretty complicated as well and I also had to source all the masters and speak directly to the mastering engineer to make sure the vinyl, the masters were correct and as close to the original source as possible. In answer to your original question: yeah I was about as involved as you could possibly be.

Did something specific inspire you to look back on your career to date?
No, I just think that on a certain level this is the last time I’ll be able to do something like this. We’re living in a very litigious society and it’s choking art right now. Really, hats off to Island for even doing this, frankly, because.. I don’t know, you have an entire generation of artists who took this new technology and created a collage art form out of what this technology provided and now 20 years on the law is trying to tell us that we were all wrong and all infringing and all should be thrown in the clink and it’s a bit sort of.. I don’t know the word but it’s sort of frightening actually and I definitely disagree vehemently with that... the way things are headed. It’s just so bizarre to me that you can download any track you want, you can take a second and a half of something combine it with fifty other elements and somehow that makes you a criminal. It’s just very strange for me.

DJ Shadow - Organ Donor Live @ Brixton Academy


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Do you think your early work could be commercially released in the current climate?
Well, I mean obviously people sample all the time I just think that it’s a tricky one because if you have any measure of success.. if you’re a young artist and you make a beat and throw it up on SoundCloud and get the attention of a label and they decide they want to put it out and they only want to sell it on Beatport or whatever, it catches on and starts making actual money then you’re in a tricky spot. So a lot of bedroom artists sample and it’s very much the mentality I had back in the day which is: nobody’s ever gonna here this stuff anyway, no one’s gonna care it’s just a drop in an ocean. As soon as people do start caring then there’s sort of a reckoning that has to happen but I’ve always maintained that you have to take the context of the usage. You can’t just say, oh I want $50 million because you sold 500 downloads. It doesn’t make any sense, that’s just what I call a gotcha claim. You have to look at it and say: it generated this much, it was composed of this percentage of the overall work here’s your $75 or whatever. Anything beyond that to me is just a bunch of BS.

How do you go about assessing your own work?
Well, I really had two criteria. One is the songs that people most, that resonate most with the general public. Songs like 'Organ Doner', 'Six Days'. And also songs that personally I felt regardless on what impact they may have had on everyone else, songs that I felt most proud of, that I felt I had achieved the highest level that I felt achieving when I left the studio. In other words, a song like 'Six Days' to me meets both of those, where when the song was mixed and I left the studio and I listened to it the next day at home I was able to sit back and say: OK, that’s as good as I can ever do. I only feel that way about one in every ten songs that I make. Throughout the entire process of starting to make a beat, creating an arrangement, then putting all the elements together in the studio then you’re mixing it. All of those thousands of decisions which can be made, it’s very difficult to reach the end of it and think: I couldn’t have done better, or I reached what I could hear in my head. The Best Of represents all of those put together. They are basically all of the songs where I felt I had achieved as close to my best as possible. That’s not to say that I put out a bunch of music I’m not happy with, it’s just that if I’m really honest with myself there’s usually about three or four songs on each of my albums where I consider them to be centrepieces. I think with any album no matter who you are there’s going to be songs that are meant to achieve certain objectives and songs which are meant to be centrepieces. Then there are songs which are meant to be a slight departure, or interlude or breather and then a couple of challenging moments. If I look at 'Entroducing', for me when I was making 'Stem' it was a centrepiece, on 'the Private Press' 'Six Days' is a centrepiece.. You Made It represented certain things to me and before you know it you’re at 70 minutes so I should probably leave it at that.

These days you can compile a ‘Best Of’ on iTunes, was this always meant to be a physical product?
Well I definitely think that some people are interested in an artist’s own vision of what their best work is. I don’t know if too many people would select a song like ‘Dark Days’ to be in the very short list but to me it’s the perfect closer for the album. Also I think there are fans of mine who frankly heard mixed reviews of ‘The Outsider’ and weren’t sure about the rap stuff on it and that made them not explore the rest of it. This is a chance for people who again only know me from 'Entroducing' to get a chance to explore everything else I’ve been up to for the past 15 years. I mean, I think it has a purpose but Trevor and I from the beginning it was all about trying to curate a box set, something to be proud of which we could look back on forever. No matter how many we made – whether it was a hundred, fifty or 5000. I do think that’s important at a certain point because I’m really not convinced about the importance of the digital world, I don’t control that – you know what I mean? When something’s physical you control where it stays or gets thrown in the trash. I don’t feel the same way about digital – obviously you can burn off a CD but even now we’re learning that CDs only have a half life of ten to fifteen years. And I definitely discovered that about DAT Tapes, in the process of all this archive work I’ve undertaken over the past eight years or so. I mean, they don’t last. So having permanent record that is dessiminated throughout the globe it does make you feel comforted. One, maybe in a hundred years or now my work will exist in some way. Again, for me this is a marker of a time and I do feel that what I do going forward will be different and I think for that reason I feel that this Best Of has a certain important within my body of work. It’s meant to encapsulate an era and put a marker down that everything after will be different.

Is there a sense of closure here?
I do think there is, yeah. I think that when I started.. I mean, things have changed so dramatically I don’t know if I can carry on in the same way for the reasons that we discussed earlier, with sampling. I’ve been part of the traditional record company model for this whole time, I don’t know if that’s going to be the case going forward. I think this is a good time and possibly the final time that I could do something like this. Having a concept, getting people to invest in a box and doing it, having it be a permanent record - I do think there’s an element of closure.

There are two unreleased tracks on here..
Yeah. I mean, inevitably there are unreleased tracks from this album, that album but these two tracks were tracks that I had assembled during the process of working on ‘The Less You Know The Better’ but not finished. There were others as well, from ‘The Less You Know The Better’ but I wanted to finish the songs that I thought would sit best with the other material. In other words I always think it’s strange when a long time act tags a new song on that’s intended to be very emblematic of the times – like it I had a dubstep track, or a trap track on the Best Of I just think that would be odd five years from now. It would be immediately dated and I wanted to put songs on there that I felt.. ‘Listen’ in particular. ‘Listen’ was one of my favourite demos during the whole last three years I was working on ‘The Less You Know The Better’ but I just didn’t want to blow it and have it as an instrumental and I didn’t want the wrong vocal. It just so happened that time ran out on the album and it wasn’t included. Somehow, through talking to a friend, the idea of Terry Reid came up and it was just immediately like a lightbulb going off – why hadn’t I thought of that sooner!

DJ Shadow, Terry Reid - Listen


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I’m really, really happy with that song. I mean, I love it as much as I love any song on the 'Best Of'. I think it’s a nice final note as well, although it’s a new track it’s not meant to sound emblematic of 2012 I think the way my best stuff does. Let me re-phrase that a little more clearly: to say, I think the songs that people generally like from me are the songs which almost could have been made at any point in time over the last 30 years. They don’t sound super sample-y they don’t sound like they’re trying to fit into now and I think that’s kind of rare in a way. When I listen to music over the years everyone follows certain trends and I feel like possibly what sets me apart, sometimes, from other artists is that I don’t really think that way about music. I try to be inspired not only by the present but by select moments from the past to create something which hopefully is a little bit timeless. I don’t always succeed but I tried to put together the songs which I feel best represent that.

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Reconstructed: The Best Of DJ Shadow' is out now.

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