Changeling

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

For one moment, DJ Shadow is little more than that. Our first interview clashes with a work trip to Rome, so I find myself dead-bolted into a dusty hotel room five minutes before the appointed hour, questions scattered over an unmade bed, a San Francisco phone number in one hand and a bottle of nondescript brown ale in the other, for nerves.

In the end, he phones me – or rather, his PR lady does. “Shadow’s running a little late tonight,” she says, “so we’ll have to reschedule. I just wanted to give you the heads up.”

I look at the clock – two minutes to ten – and thank her for the advance warning with as much sarcasm as I can muster before hanging up and flipping on the telly. Unbelievably, they’re showing the Italian-dubbed version of Prince Of Darkness, an other-worldly sample from which closes Shadow’s genre-defining 96 breakthrough LP, Endtroducing…. I won’t add to the corpus of gushing crap already written about this album, but I will say that my long-standing affection for it was one reason that I stopped off in an Italian off-licence before the interview – I couldn’t have been more nervous if I was interviewing the pope himself.

Back in London, and another interview is scheduled – this one during Shadow’s tour of Australia – but by now first impressions of his new LP, The Outsider, are finding their way onto blogs and message-boards across the web, and some of them are vehement win to say the least.

“It’s like the music has been cranked up to a primary colour and has a spray-painted sheen,” says someone calling himself BigBee. “The depth of Shadow’s previous stuff is lost. There’s nothing intriguing or cryptic about this sound. The Outsider is just that: it’s all on the outside, nothing is kept back.” Elsewhere, someone named GP notes, rather depressingly, that “every artist is allowed one horribly embarrassing album. Hopefully this one will not serve as a transition or new direction. Hopefully it will just be forgotten.” And these are among his more affectionate critics.

The reason for this no-holds-barred sacking of previously sacred ground can be summed up in one word: hyphy. This may mean nothing to you – it meant nothing to most people until the release of The Outsider, although plenty like to pretend otherwise – but hyphy (pronounced ‘high-fee’) is an underground rap movement springing from Shadow’s own San Francisco Bay Area stomping ground and characterised by uptempo beats, gruff rhymes and acts of seemingly pointless flamboyance – like getting out of cars and to walking alongside them as they roll driverless down the street, or ‘thizzing’ (engaging in a formless epileptic dance after consuming all the booze, bud and ecstasy on the premises).

Like its southern counterpart, crunk, there’s something self-consciously faddish about thewhole hyphy movement – with its almost wholesale jerseys theatrical dress code and litany of incomprehensible lingo – so with Shadow using a huge wedge of The Outsider to showcase its rising stars (including Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk, who mutter and mumble their way through the first single, 3 Freaks), the hip hop community has understandably been divided. Some go so far as to claim that Shadow, undoubtedly a wealthy man, is somehow ‘cashing in’ on someone else’s cultural treasure trove. One astute blogger even subverts Shadow’s own decade-old manifesto against mainstream hip hop, noting: “Why DJ Shadow sucks in 06? It’s the money.”

Among the tidal wave of emotions set loose by The Outsider, it seems that ambivalence is in short supply.

***

Shadow in full Outsider mode

Our next interview is slated to take place at 9am UK time, so instead of working through the insulating fuzz of a pre-emptive pint, I end up drinking heavily the night before and then waking up with a soul-sapping hangover. Sitting there in my dressing gown, my tea going cold as the receptionist in Sydney repeatedly tries and fails to put me through to Shadow’s room, my well-rehearsed questions concerning negative reactions to The Outsider begin to congeal in my throat. When Josh Davis finally answers the phone, however, all fears are quickly dispelled: he’s as intelligent, articulate and affable an interviewee as anyone could hope for, and in the event he’s only too happy to discuss his new-found army of naysayers.

“There seems to be this strange disconnect,” he says, “where people – some people, I think it’s a vocal majority – want me to be my same old genre-busting self, and yet when I continue to try and ‘bust genres’, they get up in arms and start throwing around wild accusations about me straying from the path. I sort of feel like saying: ‘You claim to know who the real DJ Shadow is, but if you did then you would understand why I can never repeat myself.’ It’s hard for me to see exactly what the issue is.”

The issue, I suggest, may be his apparent abandoning of the very same brand of highly cerebral, cheap MLB jerseys largely instrumental hip hop that he himself defined. Those for whom Endtroducing… served as a gateway into a new world of spine-melting cinematic landscapes may be disillusioned by his sudden association with a scene that proudly refers to itself as ‘dumb’ and ‘retarded’.

“When I initially started out as a producer,” he says, “it was like setting off on a journey to explore various influences that intrigued me as I digested music, and that’s exactly the same philosophy I have today. It’s just that I don’t listen to the same stuff that I was listening to when I made Endtroducing…, because there’s a whole world of music out there that interests and amazes me. I like to find small pockets of uncelebrated genius and just revel in them for a time, and then ultimately add them to my own pastiche of influences. In doing so, I like to think that I’m turning them into something more accessible for an audience that might never have been exposed to them otherwise.”

So is that what hyphy is – a pocket of uncelebrated genius?

“Ultimately, I think one of the problems is that many people like to wait 15 or 20 years to let history dictate what they’re supposed to think is cool, rather than just embracing what’s happening right now. I’m simply following the things that I’m into at any given moment, and ninety percent of the time that’s contemporary black music. As for what people will think of it in 15 or 20 years – well, we’ll have to wait and see.”

It’s an interesting theory, and one that recalls a famous soundbite in which Shadow described record shops as ‘graveyards of broken dreams’; in essence, the bargain basement mausoleums where everyone’s musical aspirations gather to die quietly. And while Shadow’s own success may have guaranteed him immunity against so graceless an end – Mojo recently voted Endtroducing… the 19th most influential album of all time, while URB and Muzik both placed it right on the top spot – his lasting reverence for other people’s recordings remains something to behold. Not for him the cheap-shot tactics of Puffy’s pilfering of The Police; for DJ Shadow, sampling is both an art form and the most sincere form of Rap musical appreciation.

“I definitely consider sampling to be the ultimate compliment to the artist that’s being sampled, and as time has passed I believe that’s become the prevailing sentiment across the industry. Even now, with those mashup records – that new one that mixes Blondie with The Doors, for example – even I hear that stuff and sometimes think it’s a little blasphemous, but I think most people would argue that it’s a sign of respect, and a means of keeping original music alive in clever new ways.”

The crate-digging, Endtroducing… era DJ Shadow that many choose to remember

For all this, the ‘Jimmy Page of the sampler’ – as he was once proclaimed by the NME – seems finally to have stepped away from his erstwhile weapon of choice on The Outsider, an album featuring more live instruments than loops. The title of the LP hints at the implications of this paradigm shift. Albert Camus’ novel of the same name was a study of what it is to be stateless, and Shadow seems now to occupy a similarly unquantifiable role: too ghetto for the Mo’Wax nostalgia massive; too musical for out-and-out hardcore hip hop freaks.

The man himself has put forward two specific life-changing experiences that he says helped cement his determination to change gears and produce the record he’d always wanted to make: one was an almost fatal car crash in a London cab; the other, complications with his wife’s pregnancy. Ultimately, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Josh Davis was simply ready to move on musically. His second LP, The Private Press, followed naturally enough from its predecessor cheap MLB jerseys in that it was composed entirely of manipulated samples (a feat that earned Endtroducing… a place in the Guinness Book Of Records), but was, according to Shadow, “not a fun record to make: in fact, a laborious and utterly punishing record to make”.

“Sampling had become so out of vogue by the time Влияние I started making The Private Press that I figured people weren’t expecting anything of the kind, so sl?ppt I basically decided to double the ante by not only producing another all sample-based album, but one that was clearly superior to Endtroducing… – which I feel it is, in almost every way: technically, in terms of arrangement, in the sophistication of its themes and ideas. However, what I failed wholesale jerseys to take into account was that I could have made any kind of instrumental record with samples in it and it would ultimately have been compared to Endtroducing…. I think I was overestimating people’s insight into the actual mechanics of the recording process, and I was determined not to make that same mistake this time round.”

As a result, Shadow seems to have made a concerted effort to avoid the atmospheric skits and segues that lent such thematic gravity to his first two albums – Endtroducing…, which worked as a kind of fragmented transmission from another universe, and The Private Press, which echoed like an old house haunted by the cracked recordings of so many fleeting visitors.

“To be honest,” he says, “I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time lamenting some of the interludes I’ve included on previous records. The UNKLE album, Psyence Fiction, simply didn’t need all that extra stuff in there weighing it down, and I really tried to avoid loading The Outsider with what I saw as unnecessary baggage. As the songs started coming together, I got the sense that they were dense enough and strong enough to stand on their own, and I felt that trying to saddle them with a bunch of other contexts was only going to do them harm in the long run.”

The resulting album was, in his own words, “a lot of fun to make”. At the very least, it must have been a more sociable recording process than previous efforts, with the number of collaborating vocalists – including artists as far removed as Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest to Sergio Pizzorno and Christopher Karloff from Kasabian – ensuring that there was no solitude-induced psychosis akin to the one that famously accompanied the recording of Psyence Fiction, and which led to Shadow refusing to cut his hair until the album was completed (by which time he was sporting the sort of wild fro that has been known to interfere with low frequency radio waves).

Modern rap masterpiece or monumental sellout?

As the first DJ Shadow album to be rooted firmly in reality (Phonte Coleman even manages to name-check Myspace on Backstage Girl), The Outsider is also the one in which he’s best able to convey his well-known political anger, which until now has manifested itself largely in sleeve notes and sly quips with the audience at shows. Here, however, we get David Banner launching into a visceral assault on American race relations in the blistering Seein’ Thangs (‘The hood is like a modern slave ship / We’re packed like sardines and shackled to the streets / And crack is cotton that grows up from the concrete’), which in turns leads into Broken Levee Blues, a sombre dig at the Bush Administration’s impossibly inept response to Hurricane Katrina.

Not that Shadow sees himself as a full-time political activist. “I’m only really political about five percent of every day, and I don’t ever want to produce a record that reflects anything more or anything less than who I really am. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of The Outsider: about half of that record is hip hop and hardcore contemporary rap, and that’s pretty much about half of what I listen to on any given day. Then there’s about twenty percent of a more underground style of rap, plus the appropriate elements of funk and rock, some no wave and folk elements. All told, I feel like I struck a pretty accurate balance, and that was really important to me on this record.”

To which extent, The Outsider may in fact be a final destination of sorts: an ultimate expression of Shadow the man – as much yin as there is yang, as much bling as bang. Some may be balk at the fact that a man capable of producing an esoteric epic like Stem/Long Stem could put his cap on sideways and shake his rear end with the best of them, but deal with it, people: Shadow IS hip hop. He was putting out mixtapes and producing tracks for rappers like Paris long before his seminal work for Mo’Wax, and this latest endeavour isn’t so much a change in direction as a return to the source.

“It’s satisfying to have found a modicum of continuity and success in what I do, and I’m happy for people from all walks of life to join in with me along the way, but only so long as they don’t ask me to stay in one place. That’s why I’m always mystified when I hear people referring to me ‘betraying’ this or that. I find myself saying: ‘I’m glad you like my records, but don’t ask me to keep doing the same thing over and over, because that’s the one thing I refuse to do.’ I think that ninety percent of my audience gets that, and I’m certainly happy to shed a disgruntled few if it means welcoming in a whole new generation of more open-minded fans.”