Josh Davis was 24 years old and living in London in 1996 when, under the name DJ Shadow, he released “Endtroducing,” his debut full-length on the Mo’ Wax label. The album was instantly heralded as a classic, a masterpiece and a game changer from critics in all corners of the music world.
The 45-year-old California native has since released four more DJ Shadow full-lengths, including his latest, “The Mountain Will Fall,” plus a slew of singles, EPs and other recordings, and established himself as an eminent DJ and producer.
Monday night, DJ Shadow will perform at the Madrid Theatre. He recently answered questions from The Star about “Endtroducing,” contemporary rap and hip-hop and his tireless search for new inspirations.
Q: What are your recollections about the release of “Endtroducing,” and what’s your perspective on that album 21 years later?
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A: I think sometimes people imagine it was more of a big boom of a moment than it was. I was living in London when the record came out. It was my first album, and I’d never gone through an album campaign. I kept thinking, “OK. I’ll do a few interviews and a few other things,” but it kept going and going.
At the time, I remember just wanting to get back to making music. As it turned out, that’s exactly what I was doing when I wasn’t doing set-up stuff for the album or going to the pressing plant and approving the vinyl cut and all those things I didn’t know I’d have to do.
I was working on the Unkle album, which came out a couple years later, but I was working on it in the flat I was staying in while the wheels were in motion getting “Endtroducing” out.
So from my perspective, it was very much head down, in work mode. There wasn’t a lot of glitz or glamour or anything like that. At the end of that summer, I went home and the album wasn’t out in the States yet. I was still living in the same kind of crappy apartment I lived in throughout my college days, and I still felt like no one really knew who I was back home.
So it was very much a slow burn, not an overnight thing. I’m glad about that because I’m not sure I’d have been able to handle it as easily had it been any other way.
My perspective on it musically: I’m still proud of the record. But, as I’ve said many times, I feel like my best work came later. When I think of the technology I was using and how I made “Endtroducing,” it was very much a learning process and a shoestring budget. I mixed it entirely analog on a bunch of different outdated formats.
I understand there’s something nice about that, but I’m somebody who likes to think that my best work is right around the corner. I’ve learned so much since then. I’ve never had a desire to go back in and fix mistakes or any of that kind of stuff.
Q: What was the inspiration for “The Mountain Will Fall”?
A: I knew I wanted to start on it right away. But any time you convert from one way of thinking about putting music together to a brand-new way, it’s like learning a new language. It can be daunting. What I wanted to do to speed up the process is work with other beatmakers.
I’d been doing DJ sets starting in 2012 of contemporary stuff I was into, which is something I hadn’t done for years and years because by the time “Endtroducing” came out, if I went out to do a DJ set people expected me to play my own music and the music they know from my albums and singles. I felt like I couldn’t play music I liked or regular DJ sets. So I stopped doing that.
In 2012, I started doing it again, playing new stuff I was into. In the process of curating those shows, I started zeroing in on a certain type of music I was playing that wasn’t dub step. It was maybe a little proto-trappy but wasn’t anything like festival trap or anything really EDM style. I never felt comfortable playing these really big-room bangers.
I was zeroing in on a headsy kind of off-kilter bass sound that no one knew what to call at the time. I was finding this music on labels from all over the world and on Soundcloud and Bandcamp and wherever. There was a label called Saturate in Germany. I started playing music by a couple of those artists, and I just assumed they were German.
Then I found out one after another that these artists were from Northern California. And it seemed way too much of a coincidence that my ear naturally gravitated to these artists and I started playing them and then realized, “Wait, these guys are all local. They’re all from around my area where I was born and raised.”
I reached out to some of them and started working with some of them. I did a track called “Blast Off” with a producer called Bleep Bloop and a single under an alias as Nite School Klik with a producer from Santa Cruz, which came out about three years ago. I was so happy with the way those two songs turned out, I felt like I knew what I was doing and I could run in that direction.
But I didn’t want the record to be all that sound because I’m a restless listener … so there’s a weird instrumental jazzy song, there’s some footwork moves on the record, there’s some very classic hip-hop and, of course, “Nobody Speak” with Run the Jewels.
In some ways it’s a typical DJ Shadow album in that it’s wide-reaching. But to me, “Endtroducing” was exactly the same way.
Q: Of the records you have released since “Endtroducing,” do you have a favorite or one you’re proudest of? If so, which and why?
A: I can’t really think of the music I make in those kinds of binary or black-and-white terms, like “This one’s bad, this one’s good.” I feel like all of them have their own personalities, their own shades of color and times and places that I associate with them.
Going in order, the “Psyence Fiction” Unkle album was a learning experience. It was a chance to completely switch work modes and collaborate with a bunch of other people and collaborate with vocalists, work with people I never imagined I’d work with. That posed its challenges and had its rewards.
“The Private Press,” which was the next solo follow-up, I definitely felt like I’d grown so much from the Unkle experience and learned so much more about how to make my way around the studio, so I tried to apply all that. And in the background, the technology for the MPC, which was the instrument I was using at the time, had also really come on in leaps and bounds … so the compositions were a lot more complex.
“The Outsider”: When I think of that record I think of it being a fun record to make. I kind of disassociated myself from all expectations and made a record that reflected where my head was at during that time. I didn’t hold back from making hardcore rap songs and also, on the other end of the spectrum, a really soft, female folk track. I liked the idea of there being a record out there that didn’t hold back on the light or the dark or the hard or the soft. I embraced it all equally.
“The Less You Know, the Better”: When I think of it I think of it in almost opposite terms of “The Outsider.” It’s very insular, very closed-off, a little bit sad, for some reason. It was a difficult time and kind of a hard record to make.
“The Mountain Will Fall” couldn’t be any more different from the others, but I definitely felt very comfortable with the new technology I was using. It was the first time I used Ableton Live to make an album.
Just talking about the albums is one thing. I’ve done so many singles and side projects and mixed tapes and radio shows. All of those little things contributed to what I want to say or do next.
The albums are what a lot of people pay attention to, but in my mind every little project contributes to and leads to the next step, whatever that might be.
Q: Are you still exploring vintage music or are you more focused on contemporary music these days?
A: I do both. As someone who considers himself something of a musicologist, I’m always exploring and discovering old music. But I also feel like it’s very important to keep your ears open and support new artists and learn from the 20-year-old producers who are doing things in ways you could never envision. All of that is as important today as it was 25 years ago.
Back in those days I was discovering Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin at the same time I was listening to records by these incredible groups like Gang Starr. And discovering groups like P-Funk and James Brown in the mid-’80s when I was 12, 13. Those are artists I think most people would say by the mid-’80s had kind of passed their prime. But I didn’t hear James Brown on the radio growing up. Oldies stations were playing doo-wop and early ’60s R&B, not funk.
So when I was discovering funk music and soul music through hip-hop and the samples people were using, it was a whole new world.
Fast forward 30 years to the present, I find myself listening to ’70s major label country singers, things I never expected to listen to, and dropping the needle on things that make me think, “I’m surprised I like this” but also really banging contemporary bass stuff and grime stuff and footwork stuff or whatever else I’m listening to.
Q: What’s your perspective on contemporary hip-hop and rap?
A: Off the top, it’s the age-old rap vs. hip-hop. When I think of the term hip-hop in 2017, I think of a form of music that’s more or less frozen in time. When I think of rap, I think of music that’s definitely pushing boundaries, continuing to evolve.
I very often don’t really hear too much hip-hop in the classic sense of the cultural movement in contemporary rap. I think Kendrick Lamar is amazing. I think Vince Staples is really dope. There are a lot of people I listen to and play. I have a radio show on KCRW, which is a college radio station in Southern California. It’s a monthly show; I just finished the fourth show. It’s a good opportunity for me to direct people to the shows when they ask, “What do you listen to?”
Q: What can your fans expect at the show here at the Madrid Theatre?
A: Having done the show a lot now, hardcore fans and new fans are into it. Everything I play is my own. I touch on a lot of classics, but I keep it feeling very contemporary. That’s very important to me. I never want it to feel like an oldies revue or a throwback show. There’s a strong contemporary visual level that I’m very proud of and a strong performance element to it.
DJ Shadow performs Monday night at the Madrid Theatre. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and $50 through MadridTheatre.com.