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DJ Shadow On Sampling As A 'Collage Of Mistakes'

DJ Shadow's latest release is the career-spanning, limited-edition box set <em>Reconstructed</em>.
Courtesy of the artist
DJ Shadow's latest release is the career-spanning, limited-edition box set Reconstructed.

In 1996, a 24-year-old from the suburbs of San Francisco released a hip-hop record that changed perceptions not only of hip-hop, but also recorded music at large. Endtroducing....., the full-length debut of the producer DJ Shadow, was constructed almost entirely from samples of pre-existing recordings and was perhaps the first such album to reach a wide audience.

More than 15 years later, DJ Shadow, whose real name is Josh Davis, is enjoying the sort of milestone usually afforded to artists like John Coltrane or The Beatles: His collected works are being released in a limited-edition box set called Reconstructed. Davis spoke with NPR's Guy Raz about where he finds his source material, how sampling can spark interest in forgotten artists and why he does his best work when he's alone. Hear the radio version at the audio link on this page and read more of their conversation below.

GUY RAZ: You were 24 when Endtroducing..... was released. What did you set out to do with that album?

DJ SHADOW: It's interesting: Sometimes people forget that although Endtroducing..... is my first album, it's actually five years into my career of putting out records. I had put out a lot of singles on various labels, had done a lot of remixes, had done a lot of production for other artists, primarily MCs. The reason it's spelled E-N-D at the beginning was because I saw it as the final chapter in a number of singles that I had done already.

This was the end of the introduction?

Exactly. It was the final statement at that time.

The cover of that record is two young men flipping through crates of records at a record shop. I imagine that's what you were doing when you made this album: flipping through records and listening to things, figuring out how to piece them together.

I call it a collage. For people unfamiliar to sampling and its history and how it evolved, I think that's the best way to explain it. It's taking little pieces from here, adding it to little pieces from there — as many different disparate elements as you can find — and making something totally new out of it. Literally down to, not just the drums from one record, but the snare from one record, the kick from another record, the bass line or part of a bass line from another record, putting it all together. That's one hurdle. But then, actually having it articulate something and channel my inspiration through it — to be able to tell a story in that way is the second hurdle. Just throwing a bunch of things together may not be very interesting.

The instrument that I grew up wanting to play [is] the sampler. And it's the instrument I took seriously in terms of becoming the best at it, or one of the best. I think, initially in the late '80s when the technology was made available, the instant reaction to it by the old guard at that time was, 'Well, [sampling] is just out-and-out theft. It's stealing.' And I think I've learned to recognize all sides of that discussion. But I think what Endtroducing..... did for a lot of people was kind of close the book on that discussion and say, OK, this is legitimate. This is a legitimate new way of making music.

How were you choosing your material? Would you just pick up random records on a whim and see if they worked?

Sure, in some cases. But in other cases, you start to develop a sense of [which ones will have] something fruitful within the grooves. You start looking for certain labels; you start looking for certain producers. One of the first things I realized is that anything prior to 1966 probably wasn't going to have what I was looking for. Once James Brown invented funk and rock 'n' roll began to combine certain jazz aesthetics, then music began to take form and began to settle into a 4-4 groove, which is what hip hop is based on. ... You were going for something that you could nod your head to. Anything before 1966 is going to have just a completely different approach.

Back when hip-hop started out, there were people playing turntables and sampling the beats off other records, and they didn't pay artists that they sampled. A lot of that had changed by 1996. How were you able to make this record of virtually all samples? Did you have to pay everyone involved?

I was asked by the parent record company, "Give us your first 10 [samples] that you think are the most obvious or the biggest usages, and we'll work on those first.' I said, 'Fair enough, here they are.' ... Clearing samples is not a cut-and-dried process. Some people have reasonable expectations of what they think the usage is worth and some people don't. Some people have artistic scruples about it, some people don't. And then the third most common thing is, you can't find the people: The labels don't exist or they've been absorbed into a massive conglomeration who doesn't even know what they have or where the tapes are. These are really common scenarios, and you just have to do your best to navigate them.

Endtroducing..... pulls from jazz and funk and psychedelia records, but also has clips from interviews and television shows. Are you always listening for sounds that would make good samples?

Yes and no. I'm not connected to some otherworldly current of sound. Part of what I was trying to do on Endtroducing..... was really tip the cap to all the different people that came before me that inspired me. ... A lot of the early sampling that was done, there's these moments where they almost sound like mistakes — sort of a weird blast of a horn that kind of goes out of tune for a moment. When Public Enemy and others were taking these moments and amplifying the noise component rather than the musical component, you were getting just a completely different way of looking at music, almost this collage of mistakes that in itself makes something so right. I thought that was a brilliant moment in music.

It occurred to me when I was preparing for this interview that I'd never seen a photograph of you. You're kind of an Oz figure — a shadow hidden behind a turntable. Are you reluctant to be a star?

Growing up, I always identified with the director, not the movie star. I identified with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the people who pulled the strings behind the camera. ... Yeah, that's really what the name [DJ Shadow] comes from. There was a moment when famous hip-hop producers in the '80s ... were doing their own albums, where the MCs were kind of the featured artist. And they were on the front covers. I remember thinking, "Hmm, I'm not so sure if I agree with the way this is progressing." Later, you had Puff Daddy being in the videos with Biggie. I always just kind of felt, "Well, I'm comfortable in the studio environment. I don't want to be out there having to worry about fashion and stuff like that.

What you do seems like a pretty solitary endeavor. Are you alone most of the time when you're making music?

I think there's different doors and different planes of aloneness. You're only able to get to a certain depth of creativity if you're being constantly distracted. And I think you can cross further if you're alone for, say, eight hours with no distraction. You can cross even deeper if you're alone for a week. I found that it really wasn't until about two days into any given stretch that I was able to get to a place of inspiration — that I had anything valid to say. That's just the way I work. And I've come to recognize that through the years, that I'm really not digging deep enough until I've been alone for a certain amount of time.

Reconstructed, the box set you're releasing, comes in this beautiful black reflective case, and inside there are seven CDs and a card signed by you. It seems to suggest that this art form — hip-hop and sampling — has finally caught up with jazz. You could imagine a jazz artist putting out something like this and no one would say anything.

The concept is [one] that I resisted for a long time. It really wasn't until my last album came out. At that point, I had five albums to kind of go through and choose my favorite parts. ... I also think there's something kind of satisfying about periodically going back through your work and breaking bread with your old music and your old self. It can serve, for me anyway, to kind of calibrate me and get me ready for what's next. So I felt like the time was right. Obviously we limited the box to only be available to the 500 people around the globe, who really are such big fans of what I've done that something like this would make sense to them. It's an interesting time. In a weird kind of way, I think as a reaction to the whole concept of putting out a best-of and walking through the past so to speak, my current DJ set is extremely contemporary — kind of as a counterweight.

Have you ever been approached by any of the artists that you've sampled? Has anyone thanked you for shining a light on their obscure or even ignored records?

Yeah, it has happened a couple of times. There's a guy named Jules Blattner who I sampled on the U.N.K.L.E album that I produced. He's a St. Louis stalwart who made music in the '50s, '60s, '70s. He has a very healthy attitude toward it. You can kind of go two ways. You can look at it as tip of the cap and a way to reintroduce that person's music to people in a completely different context than the way they originally intended. I find that a lot of the more down-to-earth working musicians really get that.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have sometimes people that have gotten to a place where they're very protective of their legacy, and they can't really see the positive benefit. ... Sometimes you have to just work with those people. There's been times when we've encountered resistance and broken through that resistance. And then there's times where we're not able to make it happen. And the unfortunate thing about that is, not only does my music not get out there, but nobody will ever have a chance, through my music, to rediscover the original artist.

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