DJ Shadow: Stepping out of himself
“RELAX YOUR BACK, YOU’VE ONLY HEARD ONE SONG.” – Shadow’s Digest, May 2006
It’s not everyday an artist has to issue a call for calm, but two months ago DJ Shadow was a man under seige. A war of words was being waged as incensed fans raged across the blogosphere and pillaged messageboards, including Shadow’s own. The catalyst for the insurrection? Shadow’s first single in three years – ‘3 Freaks’. Anything but the cinematic hip hop opus his followers expected, the first taste from his forthcoming album, ‘The Outsider’, was a twisted party rap featuring Bay Area ‘hyphy’ MCs Keak da Sneak and Turf Talk. It’s his homage to the ‘hyphy’ movement – a style he describes as “slightly quirky, fast, club-playable rap with hardcore elements to it” – blowing up in his hometown of the San Francisco Bay Area.
If the shift in direction had some frothing at the mouth, they shat their pants when they saw the Cadillac Escalades and pneumatic booty girls – yes, booty girls! – in the music video. Surely, hyper-ventilating fans asked, this couldn’t be DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, the crate-digging maestro who’d made abstract hip hop a high art with releases like ‘Endtroducing’, ‘The Private Press’ and numerous mix tapes? But it was. This guy had the impeccable goatee, the trademark cap – it was undeniably Shadow. Davis maintains he threw ‘3 Freaks’ out there on a “strictly local level” to test the waters within his local club scene. Of course, when you’re streaming it on your MySpace page and selling it on iTunes, local doesn’t stay local for long, and Shadow’s context and history (he was into Bayside rap long before ‘Endtroducing’) got lost in the download. “I just thought this track was a winner and I wanted to see what the local DJs here would think,” Davis explains. “I was really pleasantly surprised with the result, because it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever got any type of radio play.”
As ‘3 Freaks’ portends, ‘The Outsider’ is the sound of Shadow switching off the safety. Tired of being in “a box with a nice neat bow”, he’s traded his sampler for Pro Tools and enlisted a quality crew of collaborators to join him on his new path that leads him all over the musical map. While advance copies of the record (rumoured to be a late August release) have yet to land in Australia, it’s well-known internet knowledge that Davis tag-teams with Q-Tip and Lateef the Truth Speaker, Chris James from Leeds group Stateless, UK rockers Kasabian, hyphy maestro E-40, and rappers Nump and the Federation. He also mixes it up with Mississippi rap artist David Banner, who hollers the previously-unimaginable lyric “DJ Shadow up in this motherfucker!” Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore. “It’s funny, because I think this record is much closer to the spirit of ‘Endtroducing’ than anything I’ve done since,” he says of the album’s no-holds-barred approach. “I just wanted to make a record that would challenge people’s perceptions about what hip hop can be.”
Despite the merciless crucifixion of ‘3 Freaks’ in cyber-space, his belief in ‘The Outsider’ remains unwavering. “I think this record is strong. Within the first three seconds, you’ll be able to tell it’s a DJ Shadow record,” he explains. “The left is farther to the left and the right is farther to the right. Removing myself from the equation, I think it’s one of the most diverse records ever made.” By Davis’ own admission, it’s also his riskiest, but it’s a gamble he’s willing to take. Given the seismic life-changing experiences he’s been through in the last few years, a few narky bloggers who like his old stuff better than his new stuff are the least of his concerns. In late 2004, Davis and his wife Lisa’s twin girls were diagnosed as monoamniotic (in most basic terms, two foetuses sharing one sac) in the womb, a complicated condition that could jeopardise both babies. “I was at the hospital four months straight,” says Davis, now the proud father of two healthy girls.
The following year, while driving through London after a playing show, his mini-cab driver fell asleep at the wheel and careened through a red light, broadsiding a speeding police cruiser. Davis escaped with just whiplash, but his views on life, family and music would never be the same. “I was working in the studio on the album and I think it really changed the direction of the album in a lot of ways. You just get to a point in your life where you go ‘what was I waiting for?’ If I have something to say that I want to get out there artistically, tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody. If this is something I want to do and say, you just have to shrug off all the other voices and just do it.”
With a bold new album (almost) ready to rumble, 2006 sees Davis taking inventory and taking charge. The first step has been reclaiming his relationship with his record label, Universal. While he’s been with Island in the UK since 1998, in the US he’s been forced to play musical chairs between Universal subsidiaries, starting with FFRR (US) to MCA to Geffen. Tired of the corporate machine, he cut out the middle-man and signed directly to Universal last May. “It was really good for me to do that because now for the first time in America I’m on a label that had to fight to get me rather than ‘oh, who’s this guy who’s been plonked on our doorstep.”
With a revolutionary new album and his freshly-inked record contract, now the only thing Davis needs to do is finetune his live show, which lands here for the Splendour in the Grass festival and a string of side shows. Back in 2002, he astounded with an audio-visual magical mystery tour through his back catalogue, and this time he’s eager to top it. Even if it means not sleeping until he jumps the plane. “Putting a show together is almost more stressful in certain ways than making an album. It takes me one and a half, maybe two years to make an album and then you come to the end of that process and you’ve got four weeks to get a show together.”
And what will he think if certain train-spotters don’t like what he pulls out on-stage? Again, the Shadow man is unrepentant: “After the events of the last couple of years, I feel like there’s nothing really that anybody could say. I feel fortunate just to be here making music – period.”
DJ Shadow tours Australia this July and August, proudly presented by inthemix. Get your tickets quick smart, it’s a show you won’t want to miss!
Sat Jul 22 – Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay (SOLD OUT) w/ Mos Def
Sun Jul 23 – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney w/ Mos Def [BUY TICKETS]
Tue Jul 25 – The Palace, Melbourne (SOLD OUT) w/ Mos Def
Wed Jul 26 – The Palace, Melbourne (SOLD OUT) w/ Mos Def
Thu Jul 27 – The Palace, Melbourne w/ Mos Def [BUY TICKETS]
Sat Jul 29 – The Tivoli, Brisbane w/ Mos Def [BUY TICKETS]
Mon Jul 31 – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide [BUY TICKETS]
Wed Aug 2 – Metro City, Perth [BUY TICKETS]
His eagerly anticipated new album ‘The Outsider’ is due in August.