Refusing to live in his own shadow, DJ Shadow has consistently strived to create music that is inventive, unique and true to hip hop. Continuing this trajectory through his latest album, The Mountain Will Fall, DJ Shadow is touring Australia to demonstrate the past, present and future of beats.
It’s been just over 20 years since trip hop/hip hop legend Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, released Endtroducing… upon the world. It became an instant classic among hip hop albums and helped legitimise sampling as a unique and provocative way of creating music and, since that point, Davis has only dared to get bolder.
The Bay Area DJ and producer is equally renowned for his use of sampling as he is for challenging the boundaries of instrumental hip hop. From the groundbreaking debut Entroducing…, to 2006’s visionary and divisive The Outsider and his 2016 release The Mountain Will Fall, Davis embraces the fluidity of his style as a part of both his creative and learning process.
“I think it’s natural for each album to be different, as long as the curiosity is still there; being a music fan, a music lover and a music listener,” he says. “So I’m always listening to new music, and as a result you can have your core ideas about music, and every year, as you listen to music those ideas evolve and I think the music I make should evolve as well.”
This constant evolution may be rooted in the cerebral method in which Davis creates his albums. There is an intention behind each studio endeavour, evident by an average of five years between each of his studio albums.
The time taken between his larger projects has also allowed him to explore different ways of sampling and crafting beats, progressing from primarily using four-track cassette recorders, to MPC drum machines, Ableton Live, and likely the next newest standard in production.
“It completely depends on the technology I’m using to get my ideas from point A to point B,” says Davis, “It’s trial and error, and while I think good music can come from technology that isn’t as user-friendly I think it’s just more difficult, and I’m just really glad I rediscovered a more intuitive way of making beats again.
“After my second album, The Private Press (2002), I decided I wanted to try to make music in a different way. A lot of producers were using more sophisticated technology and I wanted to try to be more computer-based in my beatmaking, but I found it not be very intuitive up until until 2011 or 2012. It really depends on the technology and the ergonomics of it, like, ‘does this work for me?’”
His latest album, The Mountain Will Fall, sees Davis continuing to defy the status quo of the instrumental hip hop old guard with his trademark sampling, scratching and eclectic arrangement; complete with the addition of live strings, horns and guests such as Run The Jewels and Nils Frahm.
Although he only released his latest album last year and is still touring, Davis is already in the mindset to start working again. “It usually starts happening right around now,” he says. “My last album has been out for nearly a year, I have an EP coming out in the next six weeks, and I’m touring until mid-October, but the more time that passes from my last main album and where I’m at now, I start thinking more and more.”
As well as performing and recording as DJ Shadow, Davis has his own label, Liquid Amber, a venture which combines his passion for innovative music with his ravenous appetite to be constantly finding new music. “I don’t put out tonnes of releases every month or anything like that but when something comes along that I feel that I want to co-sign and give the artist a leg-up, I release it any way I can.”
Davis couldn’t help contain his enthusiasm for the next release from the Liquid Amber label, an album from Wisconsin’s Noer the Boy. “He’s really progressive in the way he thinks about his beats and the way he puts them together. He’s just one those artists that I play 20 minutes of his music when he sends it to me and I just start laughing, like, ‘how is he even doing this?’”
Davis’ excitement about new music is clearly a driving force behind his own, finding equal importance in keeping up to date with the musical climate as well as appreciating its origins. “There’s a lot of music that I didn’t hear and didn’t fully understand when I made Entroducing… and from those earlier eras as well. So I’m constantly discovering stuff that I missed, and new stuff as well. I think it’s important to stay current and keep your ear open and your mind open.”
“I’m looking for these rhythmic languages that challenge my own ideas about what music can be and what beats can be. It’s these rhythmic ideas, languages and energies that keep me interested and excited about beats”.
The dedication that Davis still applies to not only creating music, but appreciating music, is something that a lot of artists might not have after 20 years. However, most artists don’t have a record collection of over 60,000 albums to remind them why they love to do what they do, with Davis’ embodiment of hip hop, creativity and individualism summed up by his own admission – “I’m just just a music fan, and I wanted to be able to contribute and give back to the culture and the music that I identified so strongly with”
DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall tour hits Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Perth on May 23; The Triffid in Brisbane on May 25; Vivid Sydney on May 27-28 and 170 Russell, Melbourne on May 31. More details at www.djshadow.com.