Too Past, Too Present, and Too Future: The Timeline Confusion of DJ Shadow
The legendary West Coast producer just made his best album since 2002. Will anyone be able to appreciate it in 2016?
If you’ve read anything about DJ Shadow’s activity in the half-decade between the release of his fourth album, 2011’s The Less You Know, the Better, and next week’s LP5, The Mountain Will Fall, it probably had to do with an incident at Miami’s Mansion Nightclub in 2012. The turntablist born Josh Davis was scheduled to perform at the venue as part of his underground-showcasing All Basses Covered DJ’ing tour, but it was a bad fit from the start.
“When I walked in there was, like, a 65-year-old dude freaking this 20-year-old girl on a stripper pole,” Shadow recalls to SPIN from the Manhattan offices of Mass Appeal, the 43-year-old Bay Area DJ’s current label. “I suddenly realized this is probably not where I need to be.” Unsurprisingly, the venue’s ownership — who mostly expected their headliner to pander to their crowd with the hits of the day — had issues with the producer’s forward-minded set. During a spin of Krampfhaft’s anti-gravitational jam “Spit Thunder,” a club promoter informed him that the music was not to their liking, and he’d have to change up his set if he wished to continue playing. Davis declined, and took the mic to offer the crowd an explanation before walking off:
“I’ve waited a long time to play here. But they said this s**t’s too future for all of y’all, so…”
The scene, captured on video by a fan and posted to YouTube, was picked up by most major music-news outlets, and Shadow’s “too future” descriptor took on a life of its own. “It became a meme,” the producer comments. “I was definitely playing challenging music [where] I felt like, ‘This is the underground s**t you need to be listening to.’ And it just came out, man.”
It was a particularly telling moment because for casual fans, the future had not been where DJ Shadow was thought to dwell. Signed to famed downtempo label Mo’ Wax in the mid-’90s, Shadow gained nationwide attention in 1996 with his quickly epochal debut album, Endtroducing….., the crowning achievement of cut-and-paste sonics, an LP constructed entirely out of pre-existing samples whose compositions were absolutely stunning in their own right. But rather than focus on his innovative record-stitching techniques and boundary-pushing fusion of artists from different eras and genres, fans and critics cast Davis as the consummate crate-digger, a music nerd beholden to the musical past of his record collection.
“I think people pick whatever version of me they want to idealize,” Davis explains. “I mean, to some people I’m the vinyl purist. To some people I’m the funk guy. To some people I’m the sample guy. To some people I’m the guy who lives 365 days in a dank record basement, because that’s what they’re interested in.”
But there aren’t many who see Shadow as the guy who looks forward, who’s on the front lines of dance and hip-hop culture trying to discover and understand what’s coming next — even though subsequent less-acclaimed albums of his (particularly The Less You Know and 2006’s The Outsider) have moved aggressively away from vinyl-fetishizing into more obviously contemporary hip-hop and electronic modes. “I would say of all the misperceptions about what I do, one of the most painful is that I somehow value the past more than the present,” he bemoans with disarming softness. “And that’s definitely something that I think at times I’ve gone out of my way to try to dissuade.”
In fact, despite now being well into the veteran stage of his career, Shadow is anything but jaded about modern-day music. “I feel more in touch with contemporary music now than I ever have,” he says, citing L.A.’s “druggy, trippy beat scene” and Chicago’s footwork movement as being of particular interest. “But even though I listen to more now than I ever have, I still don’t feel like an expert… There’s just a lot out there, man.”
The Mountain Will Fall plays like Shadow’s most comfortable melding of his past, present, and future influences to date, treading ground familiar and unfamiliar over his strongest set of songs since at least 2002’s exhilaratingly freewheeling The Private Press. The album definitely reflects the breadth of Davis’ current musical ingestion — the title track puts Moby’s Play in a Teklife time warp, “Three Ralphs” shoots off like Datsik but crawls to a close like Rabit, and “Depth Charge” deploys a growling guitar with more widescreen menace than any riff since Shlohmo’s “Buried” from last year. More importantly, the variety feels less self-conscious than it did on The Outsider or The Less You Know, organic rather than reactive.
But Shadow’s not running from retro, either. Lead single “Nobody Speak,” a straightforward hip-hop banger with a dusty Western twang, could’ve easily come out 15 years ago — down to its guest MCs, El-P and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, both of whom have been in the game nearly as long as Davis. “I didn’t want to suppress a slightly classic, not-necessarily-100-percent-forward-looking-type of aesthetic as well,” Shadow says of the collaboration. “I’m like, ‘Well, f**k it. I made it. There must be something within me that wants to hear that right now.’ And frankly there aren’t really a lot of groups or artists making classic beats that aren’t self-consciously ‘classic,’ if you know what I mean.”
And besides contributing guest verses to Mountain, Run the Jewels have also provided Shadow with a sort of blueprint for how artists once perceived to be on the downslope of their career can capture newfound, unprecedented relevance. “Inspiring, absolutely,” Shadow answers about the success of RTJ, before the question is even finished. “Because we’re of a similar age, and it’s not easy — you know, the music industry is ageist.”
He feels particular kinship with El-P, whose 1997 debut with the now-defunct Rawkus crew Company Flow, Funcrusher Plus, is of similarly iconic status to Endtroducing….., and whose career underwent lulls of its own before rebounding hard with Mike and Run the Jewels. “I think the only inspiration I needed to gain from [El-P’s] experience was the experience of seeing him win,” Davis says. “That gave me a lot of confidence, because I feel like he threw out the rulebook and wrote his own.”
For better or worse, the past still looms large for DJ Shadow, with the 20th anniversary of Endtroducing….. approaching this November. “There’s no resentment,” he relates of his relationship with his classic debut. “I get asked constantly if there’s any. I mean, it allowed me to raise a family and pay a mortgage. I’m eternally grateful for anything I’ve ever gotten out of the music that I’ve made.” He’s currently looking for a way to celebrate the upcoming anniversary properly: “My hope is that there will be a couple of opportunities to revisit the record in a really unique way,” he says. “It’s kind of in discussion right now.”
But it should go without saying that a full-album nostalgia tour isn’t happening. “I think about [doing one] when my agent says he’s finding it hard getting me a gig in this country or that country, but they’re biting his hand off about [me] doing an Endtroducing….. show,” he says. “But that’s easy. That’s the easy play. I’m not ready. I’m not ready to, like, retire, which is essentially what that means… I totally get [why others do it], and I totally get why I don’t want to do that.”