DJ Shadow’s debut album, Endtroducing, cement ed his standing as one of the foremost instrumental hip-hop, trip-hop, and “techno” artists of the 1990s. Spin magazine included Endtroducing in its 20 Best Albums of 1996 list, and the release is serving as an example of what the future of pop music may sound like within the realm of mainstream music. Shadow is considered an innovator, along with DJ Krush, the Aphex Twin, Dr. Octagon, Tranquility Bass, and DJ Spooky, for creating personal compositions that use the entire history of music as material.
Since DJ Shadow’s music is instrumental and comprised solely of hundreds of obscure, unrecognizable musical samples, it poses a dilemma for those who want to label it. Shadow is adamant about the fact that his music is hip-hop music. He told Vibe’s Andrea Duncan, “Hip-hop is about eliminating genre barriers in music,” and told Detail. magazine, “Hip-hop used to represent everything from Kraftwerk to the Rolling Stones to James Brown. It was about innovation at any cost. It’s ironic that people now think… we don’t need any more innovation. Of course we do.”
DJ Shadow, born Josh Davis in 1972, was raised in a middle-class family in the rural suburb of Davis, CA, where he took piano lessons and wanted to study drums. He heard his first hip-hop album, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, at the age of ten when it played over his little clock-radio cube. He immediately rolled over and pressed “record” on his tape recorder just as his parents were entering his room to say goodnight. He told Spin’s Stephen Stickler, “You can hear me on the tape going, ‘Shh, Shh’ (to his parents). That song was the most direct form of communication I’d ever heard and it may sound corny, but it changed my life.” He began mixing by the age of 12.
Although Shadow was living in the proximity of the college town where independent guitar bands like True West and Thin White Rope had created a legacy, he remained devoted to hip-hop through a steady stream of new record releases. His earliest influences were Afrika Bambaata, Flash, Steinski, Latin Rascals, Mantronik, and Prince Paul. In addition to the beat and sound of hip-hop, Shadow liked the social and philosophical tenants of the music. He told Mills, “Hip-hop used to represent unity through music. When Bambaata played, he was called ‘the peacemaker’.”
Shadow was already scratching and mixing by the time he enrolled at University of California-Davis, and in 1989—following the success of the Beastie boys and Public Enemy—at the age of 17, Shadow chose his moniker and began pursuing his own vision of hip-hop. His first record, “Lesson 4,” appeared in 1991 on the
Born Josh Davis in 1972; raised in middle-class suburb of Davis, CA; studied piano as a child, began mixing at age 12; enrolled at University of California-Davis in 1989 and adopted the name DJ Shadow; first record, “Lesson 4,” appeared in 1991 on Hollywood Basic label; produced mixes for San Francisco’s KMEL between 1987 and 1991; in 1992 scratched on rapper Paris’s “Sleeping with the Enemy” track; released “Zimbabwe Legit” in 1991; released “In/Fux” in 1993 on England’s Mo’ Wax label, inspiring the term “trip-hop”; founded the label Solesides with Jeff “Zen” Chang in 1993 and released “Entropy”; released “What Does Your Soul Look Like” in 1995; remixed/produced for DJ Krush, Lateef the Truth Seeker, Blackalicious, and the Roots; performed live for the first time in 1993; released Endtroducing in 1996.
Addresses: Record company —c/o Mo’ Wax/ffrr at London Records, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019; (212) 333-8000, fax: (212) 333-8030.
Hollywood Basic label, which was a subsidiary of Disney. Shadow’s work for Hollywood Basic entailed “promo only” records or “vinyl only” and “compilation only,” which rendered it obscure.
Shadow was part of a generation of people who fell in love with hip-hop’s “let’s change the world” philosophy, and when it spiralled down into boastful gangsta rap, he and others began to forge new inroads by founding their own small labels, playing underground hip-hop on college stations and pirate radio, starting ‘zines and internet connections, creating websites, and releasing 12” singles. Shadow produced mixes for the San Francisco radio station KMEL between 1987 and 1991, and in 1992 he scratched on Oakland-based rapper Paris’s “Sleeping with the Enemy” track.
In 1991 the English DJ James Lavelle, known as U.N.K.L.E., discovered Shadow’s vinyl EP “Zimbabwe Legit.” Lavelle founded the Mo’ Wax label with the intention of specializing in acid jazz, hip-hop avant garde, and abstract techno music. Lavelle and Shadow met and agreed that modern music needed more breathing room to grow and expand. In 1993 when Mo’ Wax released Shadow’s “In/Flux,” both Shadow and Mo’ Wax were given rave reviews.
Shadow then founded his own rap-oriented label, Sole-sides, with Jeff “Zen” Chang, which issued his “Entropy” release. In 1995 Mo’ Wax released several more Shadow EPs, most notably “What Does Your Soul Look Like,” as Shadow was remixing and producing for DJ Krush, Lateef the Truth Seeker, Blackalicious, and the Roots. Other Soleside artists include The Invisible Scratch Pickles, Mixmaster Mike, Apollo, ShortKut, Q-Bert, Peanut Butter Wolf, Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, and Dr. Octagon.
In spite of his early foray into scratching and mixing, the low-key Shadow didn’t perform before a live audience until 1993. James Lavelle taught him how to “read a crowd,” and Shadow discovered that he enjoyed surprising his audience. He told Mills, “My favorite thing is doing the opposite of what I think the crowd is expecting…. If I look out and see a bunch of hip-hop headz… I’ll play, oh, Black Sabbath’s “Wall of Sleep”.
Shadow spent six months in preproduction for Endtroducing, which represents the culmination of his knowledge of records, hip-hop culture, and technical artistic ability. The songs reflect his mood at the time they were conceived and created, and no one song was completed before he started the next, a process akin to a writer working on many chapters of a book at once instead of following a progression.
Unlike most hard-core rappers or hip-hop artists, Shadow is white, from the suburbs, and he’s popular in England. The term “trip-hop” was first applied to Shadow’s “In/Flux” single by English fans. Endtroducing includes choruses of angels, cello solos, pipe organs, haunted, moaning voices, pipe organs, and live drummers. With the exception of rap-inspired “TheNumber Song,” Shadow once again surprised his audience by delivering organic, urban classical music culled from thousands of dime-store and used record store finds. He told Rolling Stone’s Josh Kun, “You’re not contributing anything to the genre by putting out a record that sounds just like somebody else. All you’re doing is weighing it down.”
Shadow keeps his musical sources a mystery and never lifts samples from bootlegs, compilations, or reissues. He sculpts songs out of layers and layers of sampled instruments as well as other interesting sound fragments, most of which he processes, loops, and rearranges beyond recognition. He is content to remain in his hometown and isn’t hungry for fame. As he said to Cheo Hodari Color of the Los Angeles Times, “I just want to be remembered as someone who make a difference, even if my name isn’t on everybody’s lips.”
Endtroducing, Mo’Wax/ffrr, 1996.
“Lesson 4,” Hollywood Basic, 1991.
“Zimbabwe Legit: Legitimate Mix,” Hollywood Basic, 1991.
“Entropy,” Solesides, 1993.
“In/Flux & Hindsight,” Mo’ Wax/Solesides, 1993.
“What Does Your Soul Look Like,” Mo’ Wax, 1995.
“Hardcore Instrumental Hip-Hop” (as the Grooverobbers), Mo’ Wax Excursions/Solesides, 1995.
“Midnight In A Perfect world,” Mo’ Wax, 1996.
“Stem,” Mo’Wax, 1996.
Royalties Overdue, Mo’ Wax, 1994.
Headz, Mo’ Wax, 1994.
The Groove Action Collection, OM, 1995.
Headz 2-B, Mo’ Wax, 1996.
Excursions, Mo’ Wax, 1997.
DJ Shadow has also appeared on records by Blackalicious, Dr. Octagon, Lateef the Truth Seeker, the Roots, and DJ Krush.
Billboard, November 23, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1997.
Details, December 1996; January 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, November 1996.
High Times, March 1997.
Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1996; December 29, 1996; February 2, 1997.
Magnet, February/March 1997.
Musician, February 1997.
New York Post, November 20, 1996.
Option, January 1997.
Paper, December 1996.
Philadelphia Weekly, December 18, 1996.
Playboy, February 1997.
Rap Pages, October 1996.
Raygun, November 1996.
Request, December 1996.
Rolling Stone, January 21, 1997; March 6, 1997.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 4, 1996.
Spin, December 1996; January 1997; March 1997; April 1997.
Stranger, November 7, 1996.
Time Out, November 21-28, 1996.
Urb, November 1996.
Vibe, February 1997.
Village Voice, November 19, 1996; February 25, 1997.
Wired, March 1997.
—B. Kim Taylor
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