15 Apr 2017

DJ Shadow - student, teacher, beat maker

From RNZ Music, 1:15 pm on 15 April 2017
DJ Shadow

DJ Shadow Photo: Courtesy of DJ Shadow

Endtroducing –  the 1996 debut album from DJ shadow is sometimes compared to the Velvet Underground/Nico album from 50 years ago. It didn’t sell huge numbers, but the 100,000 people that did buy were captivated and inspired to go on to make music.

It actually received a Guinness World Record for being the first album ever made entirely of samples. Made entirely with two turntables and an MPC drum machine, the album did more than merely show off DJ Shadow's ability to scratch and match records, it created an atmospheric universe which expanded our imaginations about what was musically possible.

On the song 'Building steam with a grain of sand' there is a sample of drummer George Marsh, which Shadow uses as a statement of both prowess and humility, and those words ring true to this day regarding DJ Shadow's work ethic. 

"Certainly a student, and the teacher part of it is a hip hop competitive stance, putting down a marker in the ground stating that I know what I’m doing. I know how to make beats, especially on an MPC (drum machine). This is twenty-one years ago and it was very much at the forefront of my mind, putting my stamp down about who I am as an artist.

"But I definitely feel like the student part of it is something that resonates a lot more with me now, I think you always have to be listening and you always have to be in school."

Since Endtroducing, Shadow has expanded his repertoire and arsenal of musical skill. His latest album The Mountain will Fall is less samples more synths, but to DJ Shadow it's all the same.

"I don’t really think of samples in the classic way, digging in a record shop and searching for breaks. That whole culture is something I still contribute to, but let’s face it anything can be a sample you can go on YouTube, you can go anywhere and pull sound from anywhere.

"You don’t need to have an incredible record collection anymore in order to be a great producer. It’s still something that I value but it’s not like I insist that everyone follow my playbook.

"The very first session that I did for the album I was working with some really rare vintage synths and I let pro-tools run for four hours recording me as I searched for these interesting combinations of sounds, but then when I got the session back to my house, I was still just sampling it.

"Finding the interesting bits. Sampling is nothing more in my mind than editing. Being a good arranger, being a good beat maker is editing."

As influential as DJ Shadow has become and as pure as his hip hop heritage is the list of his influences is revealing.

Check his Twitter account for the long list, but one name on the list stands out and speaks volumes about the man behind the beats.  

"It’s always refreshing to me, all my heroes in hip hop are not those people who are championing the old school. To me that mentality is a closed loop, a dead end. John Peel from the BBC was one of the first music journalists to properly cover hip hop, it wasn’t even being covered properly in the USA. I remember a quote from him saying "I don’t understand teenagers walking around in Led Zeppelin t-shirts. The past is the past." 

After producing top-shelf tunes for more than 20 years, DJ Shadow still retains his humility.

"I realise that I’m very lucky to still be able to do it. I have an appreciation and a gratitude more than anything".

DJ Shadow will perform live at Auckland's Powerstation on 2 June.