By Michael Roeder, August 2001
DJ Shadow is a multi-faceted artist that fits into a number of categories.
DJ Shadow is a musician. Twelve singles and three albums (including Psyence Fiction, recorded as UNKLE) display his unique style of sample-based music. One of his patent taglines is “Reconstruction from the Ground Up” which sums up his approach to composition. Largely considered one of the groundbreakers in sample-based musical composition, he continues to redefine his art with each release.
Josh Davis was born in San Jose and raised in Davis, California. As a child Josh would record songs with a portable tape player off his clock radio. One night he heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and it changed his life. He had never heard anything like it and this single event would pave the way for his future. Josh taught himself mixing and scratching on a Sears combination tapedeck and turntable. From there he bought a four-track and produced a demo, “Hip-Hop Reconstruction From the Ground Up” which won the June 1991 “Unsigned Hype” contest sponsored by Source magazine. Source recommended him for production or “if you seek new flavor for a remix.” This caught the attention of Dave “Funken” Klein who was hired to head up a division of Hollywood Records called HollywoodBASIC. He signed Shadow up to do some production work on some releases including “Legitimate Mix” for Zimbabwe Legit and “The Real Deal” by Rikers inmates-turned hip hop artists The Lifer’s Group.
It was the Zimbabwe Legit track that caught the attention of James Lavelle, who was working on starting a label in the UK called Mo’Wax. Josh’s sample-based work formed part of the very distinctive sound of Mo’Wax. The Jazzy, smooth and sometimes mellow sound of Shadow’s work branded Trip Hop tag which had the dual effect of helping build the furor but also pigeonholing the artist.
After a run of definitive singles on the Mo’Wax label including “In/Flux/Hindsight” (1993), “Lost and Found” (1994), and the epic, noirish “What Does Your Soul Look Like” (1995) Shadow released his first full-length album, Endtroducing in 1996. The title of the album is a play on the fact that this was Shadow’s introduction to a larger audience and also the end of that particular way of working. This widely acclaimed and highly anticipated release showcases the product of all the development work Shadow had done before.
1998 saw the much-hyped release from James Lavelle’s UNKLE project. The Psyence Fiction album was in the works for over four years when Lavelle brought Shadow on board. The few demos that had been recorded were scrapped and the project would start over with Shadow’s production and music. UNKLE became a “supergroup” of sorts that included Mike D, Thom Yorke, and Richard Ashcroft among others, but the record still showed a distinctive DJ Shadow sound. The album did very well in many territories, particularly the UK– where it quickly went gold– and Japan. Unfortunately a transition of the record label from A&M to Island caused the ambitious album to quickly drop from view in the States. In 1999 Shadow was involved with the soundtrack to an indie documentary called “Dark Days” by filmmaker Marc Singer. After screening the film Shadow was so moved by what he saw that he immediately signed up to work on the project. Shadow edited and scored the soundtrack which was largely made up of versions of songs from Endtroducing and Psyence Fiction, but also yielded a new track called “Dark Days Theme.” This single was released to hungry fans in 2000.
DJ Shadow is also a producer. Shadow was part of the original Solesides Crew springing from the college radio station KDVS at UC Davis. Shadow was responsible for the lion’s share of the production work on the releases from this label. Blackalicious’s 1995 release Melodica, Latyrx’s 1997 self-titled project and solo efforts from Lateef and Lyrics Born defined the consistent smooth flow of strong, smart hip-hop from this fledgling label. In 1999 Solesides rebirth as Quannum was christened with the release of Quannum Spectrum with input from the whole collective and produced largely by Shadow. 2001 is already shaping up with exciting new releases with Shadow’s imprint from the Poets of Rhythm and Lyrics Born, among others.
DJ Shadow is also, obviously, a DJ. Aside from Shadow’s accomplishments as a musician and producer, he continues to perform as a turntablist. This aspect of his art requires he feed his vinyl habit with extensive cratedigging. There is a phrase in his liner notes for Endtroducing that says “A lifetime of vinyl culture”— which accurately describes his perspective. Shadow’s 1999 very limited edition CD with Cut Chemist, Brainfreeze, was an exercise in mixing 7” records. Old, rare, soul and funk, Krautrock, and martial arts movie ads make up the pastiche. Critically acclaimed and sought after by the most rabid collectors, this is a fun, tongue-in-cheek work that shows a couple of fans giving tribute to the very culture that influenced them.
As of 2001 DJ Shadow has been a DJ for 17 years and recorded artist for ten. The musician/producer/DJ has created a significant body of work thus far and this year and the next we’ll see more of his diverse projects. The most significant of these is DJ Shadow’s next solo album. Extensive touring during 1999 and interim projects has given him the inspirational recharge he needed to start working on the album which began the Summer of 2000.