Perpetual Progression: DJ Shadow Interviewed
“It’s the eternal human struggle, it’s light versus darkness. People wanting more than their share of whatever it is – power, money, land. There always seems to be people on the other end of that who don’t have enough. And it’s certainly not endemic to the US, it’s a human being issue. Something thats been going on for thousands of years.”
DJ Shadow is unpicking the driving force behind ‘Our Pathetic Age’, his wide-ranging, ambitious sixth studio album. Inspired by the dark and disconnected times we live in, the producer’s latest full length project is a towering double album, its first half made up of wholly instrumental tracks - on which Shadow explores a cinematic soundscapes, orchestral pieces, and more boisterous, beat-driven tracks - while the second half sees him collaborating with an impressive line up of guests.
Enlisting the skills of serious heavyweights like Nas, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Pharaohe Monch, Pusha T and De La Soul, to up-and-comers like Wiki, Stro and Loyle Carner, Shadow uses both lyrical and instrumental tools to get across a point of view that at times is political and angry, mournful at others. Sonically it marks a progression too, folding in everything from hip-hop and R&B, to orchestral arrangements, but it’s an originality that should no surprise, coming from the same creative mind that gave us 1996’s turntablist masterpiece ‘Entroducing…..’.
“For me to put out a record that didn’t acknowledge what’s been going on the last couple of years, devoid of any awareness, for me that would be false,” explains Shadow, of this thread running through the project. “Because I am tremendously effected by things that happen, as someone who’s empathetic to the plight of others. That just wouldn’t be cool.”
He emphasises that not all work has to concern itself with the weight of humanity, but that he felt the need to create something reflecting what was going on around him and how he felt about it. When it came to putting that into practice by writing songs, in some cases he knew what it was he wanted a track to be saying - “The music speaks to a narrative in my mind” - and others he let grow of their own accord.
With the chaotic yet driving and funky ‘Drone Warfare’ for example, the original concept helped him steer the track into a particular sonic palette. And when it came to lyrics, he tasked Pharoahe Monch and Nas with exploring the idea of technology being used against us, to withhold people’s rights. “I don’t like to tell them exactly what to say or be too heavy handed,” Shadow says. “But I knew they would both be receptive to that concept. In other places I leave it it more open ended – it depends on the instrumentals and on the artists I’m working with.”
And on this project he’s working with some serious artists. But this hasn’t come about by design – it simply speaks to how long Shadow’s been in the game. “It’s funny because what people first notice is there are a lot of classic names, like Pharoahe Monch and Ghostface, but it was always my intention to have a good balance - of artists I grew up listening to and wanting to work with, and then younger guys. But sometimes you don’t get the people you want! In lots of cases, believe me - as an A&R guy - I’m sitting there going, ‘Yeah it’d be amazing to work with this artist,’ but some just aren’t that easy to work with. They’re happening right now and there’s a team around them and it’s really hard to penetrate.”
“I never walk into any collaboration assuming anyone really knows who I am or anything about me, so I’m always prepared to show them who I am and what I’m about, and tell them why I think it’d be really dope to work together...but if they’re just not into it then fair enough. But it just so happens that people like Ghostface, he knew who I was, Pharaohe Monch knows who I am, but as far as Wiki and Infamous TAZ- who’s a newcomer on the scene - I like having that exchange. I didn’t want it to be just people of a certain age and a certain mindset. I like contemporary hip-hop and rap, and I like to reflect it where ever possible.”
Shadow says it was “disappointing” that none of the female MCs he approached were interested in featuring (having a female presence on the record was important to him, but it did’t materialise), but that over the years he’s learned “if you get knocked back five times - just move on”.
That doesn’t mean ‘Our Pathetic Age’ isn’t rich with different sounds and moods, even on the project’s instrumental side. And this approach leaves tracks open to a potentially greater breadth of interpretation than songs with lyrics. “I think with instrumental music the whole beauty of it is that there doesn’t have to be a specific narrative,” Shadow says. “It can mean something specific to me, as the person making the music - there are songs I made on ‘Entroducing.....” for example, that were heavy for me, and difficult and emotional to make, and then I’ll have somebody tell me their second child was conceived listening to that song.
“I need specific inspiration and a specific internal dialogue to steer the instrumental music that I’m making, but once it’s out it’s up to everybody and their own ears to make sense of what it means to them. Obviously certain tracks can convey a certain mood, but everyone’s different in the way they perceive things . I never see it as my role to tell people what they should be thinking about when listening to my music, to me it’s for everybody to decide.”
When it comes to album highlights, Shadow cites performing ‘Rocketfuel’with De La Soul on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show - "That song put me in a context I don’t get to be in very often, you don’t normally see turntablists on a nationwide TV show” - and writing ‘Firestorm’ as stand-outs. The orchestral instrumentation of the latter marked something of a personal musical milestone for the artist. “I decided for the first time in my career to sit down and actually write some music without samples. So all the melodies and parts and counter melodies were written by me, and now that it’s finished and I listen to it, it’s really satisfying. I achieved what I set out to do.”
This constant forward motion is indicative of Shadow’s progressive mind-set. An early fan of genres most Americans haven’t heard of – say dubstep, or DnB – he’s never happy to stay in the familiar, always with one eye on the horizon, the watching where beats are going next. “I feel like a lot of the new innovations these days are occurring in electronic music. And obviously in rap, the grime stuff coming out of the UK,” he reflects. “At the beginning one of my goals was to expand people’s perception of what hip-hop is, and what rap is and what it can be, what kind of beats it can be over, and that’s literally from the beginning of me sending my tapes around - that’s one of the things I wanted to correct. I’ve never been a fan of any kind of conservatism around what hip-hop can be, what it should be, or what it is. Over the years, philosophically I feel the same about rock, about jazz, about music in general – it can be so much broader than it is. So when I put out records, I like my music to reflect that.
“Where I think I’m a bit different to other producers who make music for MCs is that I do try to keep up on other types of music, especially new innovations that are happening in rap but also in electronic music. The beat scene stuff you hear on Brainfeeder, or going to a club like Low End Theory [a weekly experimental hip-hop and electronic club night in LA, which ended in 2018], where you’re hearing these really progressive beats that aren’t house, aren’t techno, they’re not straight up dubstep....they’re in between, they’re reaching for something, trying to create something new. To me that’s always important.”
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Catch DJ Shadow on tour, from February. UK dates below:
27 - Glasgow - SWG3 Galvanizers
28 - Manchester - Albert Hall
29 - London - 02 Academy Brixton
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Words: Emma Finamore
Photo: Derick Daily
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