Nothing makes you feel older than realizing that you’ve been a DJ Shadow fan for going on two decades. I remember getting his debut album, Endtroducing…, for Christmas in 1996. That album made him a critically-acclaimed producer and one of the first American artists to be thrust into the “trip-hop” lane for the way he could throw turn samples into cinematic, instrumental hip-hop. Before that, I’d been peeping his movements via import EPs and compilations from the legendary UK imprint Mo’Wax; there was something about his sample manipulation that spoke to me.
In the past 20 years, Shadow’s marched to the beat of his own drum, unafraid to do a 180 and give release a hyphy album (see his polarizing 2006 release, The Outsider) or take listeners on journeys through his record collection (supposedly he’s surpassed the 60,000 record mark) on projects like Brainfreeze and The Hard Sell with fellow vinyl aficionado Cut Chemist. He’s collaborated with everyone from Queens’ Kool G Rap to DJ Krush from Japan, and his new album, The Mountain Will Fall (which is out now on Nas’ Mass Appeal Records) finds him still exploring new territory.
Complex connected with DJ Shadow at Mass Appeal’s office in New York to discuss his work with Run the Jewels on “Nobody Speak,” the right time to start working on a project, and what fans can expect from his Beats 1 radio series, #radioface.
When you first started, did you think you career would span this long?
There’s two ways to answer that question. I was aware, from an early age, that I knew this is what I wanted to do for my life. I couldn’t envision doing anything else. But I’m also a pragmatist and I know that sometimes you don’t get what you want, and there’s definitely been times where I’m like, “Shit, is this it? Is this the last one? Is it all going to come crashing down?” But I think I mitigate that in certain ways by not letting myself make moves that reach too high, if you know what I mean. I always wanted to have a life outside of music. I made a very conscious decision to take a step back from the industry to raise my children—that’s a one-time thing.
You can’t get that time back.
You mentioned times where you might’ve thought, “Is this it?” What made you question yourself like that?
If you’re a student of music and the music industry, [you know that] you can be on top one day and on the bottom the next. The industry doesn’t wait. When your number is called, that’s it. You can’t take anything for granted, and you don’t know what the future holds. You have to, on one level, enjoy it now and be grateful for it, which I feel like I always am. But definitely with The Outsider and definitely with the last record [2011’s The Less You Know, the Better], I remember when they came out, feeling like, “Thank God. I’m lucky.” I’m blessed to even be able to have this floor to put my music out, because I’ve seen a lot of peers fall by the wayside.
After you take a three- or five-year break, what sparks you to start work on a new album?
To last, you have to be able to embrace both the business side and the artistic side. I hate to sit here and say, “Well, I’m running a business,” but when you consider the machine and all the different people working with and for you, that machine has to be fed, those people have expectations. And then you have actual real-world costs associated with the work you do. But to be clear, these breaks between albums, it’s not like I’m sitting around or kicking it at the beach. There basically is no such thing as down time.
On a creative level, I know I’m ready when I feel like there are things that I want to sit down and try to say that I didn’t know I could say five years ago. That’s entirely a product of all the new music I’ve taken in and all of the old new music I’ve taken in.
I read that you had taken a break from touring until the guys from L.A.’s Low End Theory called you up. Now your fans are hearing you experimenting with more electronic sounds, like the sort of stuff you might hear at Low End Theory. Were you getting into that sound before they called you up?
Yeah, definitely. Because I’d be doing these festival shows and when you walk from the tour bus to your tent or whatever, you’re inundated with ideas and different sounds. I remember hearing what I would consider to be trap for the first time when I was in Japan and I thought, “Fuck. Whatever that is, that shit’s incredible.” I came up listening to Miami bass and West Coast electro like Uncle Jamm’s Army and Egyptian Lover, stuff like that.
I think one of the perceptions of me that I’m least fond of, or most defensive about, is that I only listen to old music—that’s just never been the case. I ran a reissue label where I was putting out soul and funk stuff and I do mixes like Brainfreeze and to some people, that’s the identity of mine that they want to amplify. Then, when I do something else, they’re like, “Wait a minute, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to do this.” And I’m like, “Yo, I’m just being me.”
Would it be fair to say that this particular gig at Low End Theory put you down a more electronic path, including the creation of your electronic-centric Liquid Amber imprint?
There’s no doubt that as a result of getting asked to do that gig, I had the opportunity to dig deeper. If I have to go in on a mix, then all of a sudden it’s like, OK, this promoter was at that show, now they want me to do this festival, and then suddenly I’m opening for people like Diplo and shit like that. So then I’ve got to do my homework and go deep. And then that totally serendipitous thing will happen where somebody was at my show, they want me to do their thing. I do their thing, three other promoters come to that show, now they want me to do these gigs. So I’m constantly on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, DatPiff—you name it.
Then I do a show and I’m playing this kid and he comes up like, “Yo, you just played my music!” Had no idea. Thought he was German, maybe, because the label was from Germany. Turns out, a lot of the music that I was gravitating towards was being made by people from the Bay Area and I didn’t even realize it. I heard something in the music that spoke to me. It wasn’t hella glammed out. It wasn’t on some big EDM shit. It was weird, fucked up, trippy. And that’s when I thought, OK,, that’s interesting to me. There’s something happening here that’s completely homogenous and natural. I started reaching out to a lot of the dudes whose music I was playing and one after another it’s California, San Diego, fifteen minutes from my house, Santa Cruz—all in a certain region. And then it made sense to me. For the next year or so, doing shows, I zeroed in on that—like, how can I support this? How can I help it germinate? How can I work with these labels? Start my own label? Make it free? Make it about being a co-sign for a lot of these younger dudes? Because I was already playing their music and it just seemed like the thing to do.
When did you start working on the new album?
I started in early July [of 2015] and it was a six-month process. The rest has been trying to clear samples and move tracks around for various reasons. But the last track I finished was in March, “Ashes to Oceans”—and that’s one of my three favorite songs on the record.
What is it about that track specifically?
I had really ambitious hopes for the song. I knew what I wanted to try to do and, ultimately, with any collab, I want to do something that the other artist or artists couldn’t do on their own and that I could never do on my own. I put horns on the Run the Jewels track and I was worried that maybe I wouldn’t fuck with it. Because it’s a different texture. You don’t hear horns on Run the Jewels records. But, in the end, he [Matthew Halsall] didn’t disappoint me in that he didn’t fight it, because I think he also realized that’s the point of a collab.
With “Ashes to Oceans,” I told Matthew, “You come up with something beautiful and I’m going to take it as a sample source and rip it apart. Don’t be offended, don’t be surprised, but it’s going to sound like nothing that you left the studio with.” And he was like, “Perfect.” So I just went in and tore it up. If you heard the original stems, it’s pretty much unrecognizable. That’s what I wanted to achieve. I also wanted a lot of the songs to feel like songs within songs. That whole middle part where the beats are speeding up and slowing down and doing all that weird shit. Like “Three Ralphs” is basically two completely different tracks. “California” goes off into that weird footwork direction at the end.
If you think about Paul’s Boutique or Nation of Millions, that’s how those records were. Like “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” is six songs in one. That’s what informed me.
You’ve worked with El-P before, but what was is like working with Run the Jewels on “Nobody Speak?”
I did the demo and usually I get tracks to a place where I feel like, OK, this is a keeper. Whatever stage that is. And I felt that way about that track, but only if Run the Jewels appeared on it. Sometimes I’ll write notes about tracks, like technical details or concepts, and there I just wrote “Run the Jewels.” If they weren’t going to be on the track, the track wasn’t on the album. There are like five finished songs that aren’t on the album for reasons like that–either I couldn’t get the feature I wanted or, in one case, couldn’t clear a tiny sample; it was ridiculous.
It was hard but managed to get RTJ in the studio in L.A. I think we were at the studio the day after they did “Crown” on Kimmel and at that time Mike was on CNN every other minute. And, you know, they’re still having that moment, but that was like the moment within the moment. I was grateful to get them.
Did you give them any direction in terms of theme, or were you just like, “Here’s the track”?
I think they read it right. They went in at their most comedic and cartoonish. Ridiculous characters, bigger than life personalities and metaphors. And to me that was perfect because when they wrote it I didn’t have the horns in. And I knew I wanted to do it, I knew I had to do it for the track to feel complete. The little keyboard part was in there as a middle 8 so that they knew, “OK, that’s going to be a part where we’re not rapping.” And El was digging that, like, “How’d you do that?” But, I wanted the horns in there, didn’t want to bring it up, and I didn’t want them to be in there when they were writing to it. I hadn’t even written it yet. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I needed to write the horn part until they were on it because I was like, well if shit goes down and they’re not going to be on it, then the track will never be complete and I don’t need to fuck with it.
I wrote the horn part on a keyboard on MIDI and then exported the MIDI notes to some guys in London that were going to do the horns and [when] they [heard] that really fast one part that’s like [makes horn noises], they were like, “We can’t do that. There’s no way to work our fingers that fast.” And so in the end they ended up doing it as two. They basically cut it in half and did five passes of just the first part and I was able to cheat a note or two because they lose ground. And the last one might be a little lazy or whatever. But in the end it’s seamless. You can’t tell.
I wouldn’t have even guessed.
From doing a couple of tracks with El in the past, you can’t slip anything by him. If there’s something he doesn’t like, he’s just going to be like, “Nah, B, I’m not feeling that shit.” And so I was holding my breath when I sent him the final mix. But it was like the biggest exhale when he said, “Sounds dope.”
Do you have any personal favorites in your catalog?
Definitely, and for different reasons at different times. In terms of the feeling of accomplishment or getting as close as I could, “Six Days.” When I left the studio I felt like, “Holy shit, I almost did it. I almost cracked the code.”
In terms of achieving what was in my head, I feel that way about “Ashes to Oceans” on the new album. There are songs that I hear and I’m like, “Yeah. Sign off. Perfect. Wouldn’t change a thing.” Like “Nobody Speak,” I feel that way. But in terms of what you’re asking, it’s usually the more ambitious songs, where I went in with high ambition and I feel like I achieved almost all of it. “Lonely Soul” off the UNKLE record (1998’s Psyence Fiction). Just songs that I know how much I grappled with it and how much it could’ve gone this way or that way. Those are the songs I’m proudest of.
You’ve got a show on Beats 1, #radioface, as well as a new Essential Mix for the BBC. Can you shed some light on what fans can expect?
With the BBC mix, I have something for the second hour that I’ve been holding back, toyed with doing on and off for about six, seven, eight years now. So it’s going to be dope.
As far as the Beats 1 shows, it was an honor to be asked. It’s not just a show where I’ll play new hot shit or whatever; they want the shows to be themed. So the first show is kind of an explanation of how I got to where I am now in terms of my own exploration of beats. For instance, the first time I ever heard “Cbat” by Hudson Mohawke and how I was in a club just going like, “Fuck. What?” All of these things that have informed [me].
With the different sounds on The Mountain Will Fall, and your moving from bigger electronic records to more live instrumentation, an underlying theme of your entire career might be the idea of worlds colliding. Would that be fair to say?
When you’re first making music, it’s easy to create a new impression because there’s no basis to go on. But to me, every record I make is a reaction to the reaction of the last one. And I don’t want to be categorized. I don’t want to be figured out. I don’t want to be constricted and the harder someone tries to put me in a box, the more I’m going to be like, “All right, I’m going to have to go even further that way.” I don’t think that’s unique to me, I think it’s something that most of the people I respect most in music—regardless of the genre—have done their whole career.