WHP FEATURE 019
In the forty odd years since rap first exploded from the Bronx, it’s shed many of the features that came to define it as ‘hip hop’. Breaking, turntablism and graffiti have fallen away, all while rap itself has become a globe straddling brand, almost entirely disconnected from the ghetto sound of New York that birthed it. Disconnected, that is, bar one crucial detail; the continued importance of the sample.
Since day dot, sampling has gone with rap like cookies with cream. From the Sugar Hill Gang to Kanye West, the form has constantly defined itself by its ability to take previously recorded music and recontextualise it. And if there is one producer alive who can claim to be king of digging the deepest breaks, of flipping the obscurest melodies, and of going further and wider than any other to claim any sound as a new weapon in his hip hop arsenal, then it has to Josh Davis – aka DJ Shadow.
Back in 1997, DJ Shadow made history by releasing Endtroducing, the first album compromised entirely of samples. Twenty years on and The Mountain Will Fall, the record Shadow is currently touring around the globe, finds him in aesthetically similar territory. Whilst the technology may have developed, his modus operandi remains the same; find the weirdest shit out there, and turn it into gold.
That’s not to say that he’s made a purely retro record – there are elements of contemporary trap and electro running throughout the album. The production on the heavy cuts booms as loud as anything a trap kid such as Baauer might make. But there’s an otherly-ness to Shadow’s music that remains distinctly ‘Shadow’- and much of this stems from his determination to forge his music from histories offcuts. As it turns out, this isn’t accidental; it’s his entire creative process. The sampling is something he perceives to be an essential link to hip hop. As he insists over the phone, “to me, hip hop will always be the foundation or everything I’m doing…”
He speaks softly, but there’s determination and precision in his tone – you get the feeling that Shadow has spent so many years thinking about his art that he knows exactly what he’s about – even, as he quickly acknowledged, if he doesn’t always know immediately how to get there… WHP: The title for the new record is The Mountain Will Fall – that seems quite apocalyptic..! Does it have a definitive meaning or is it intended to be cryptic?
I always like titles that are open enough that other people can put their meaning on them. With The Mountain Will Fall, the fact is I just wrote it one day in my studio log as a way to help myself to cope with the process of making an album. After you’ve made 7 or 8 albums it can be hard to begin the process because you know what you’re in for; you’re in for months of really dragging yourself through the emotional sludge trying to get to the core of what you want to express as a human being. I think it should be difficult, and it often is difficult. The title came from me talking to friends and family about the process, where you’re looking up at this mountain and it seems unconquerable, but you just have to start, you have to put your head down and start. The idea is that you spend a couple of weeks, you stop, you set up base, you look down and you’ve made some progress, and then if you keep stepping and stepping, eventually the mountain would fall.You put a full on turntablist scratch track right in the middle of the record – that seemed a very deliberate nod to hip hop history.
Yeah, because to me it doesn’t matter how progressive or futuristic you get with it; I like the idea of not letting people off the hook. For people who want a kind of ‘future bass’ record, you’re going to have to sit through a couple of rap tracks, and for people who only want some kind of throwback thing, it’s like, nope, not doing that either. You have to continue to look forward. But the way that the beat of that track is put together, the break is very obscure – both breaks are very obscure, yet they’re obviously from vinyl and I left all the grit and the crud in the beat which is not something you usually do these days. But the sweetening underneath the beat is very up to date in filling the frequencies. I take a lot of pride in the beats I make, in making sure they sound contemporary and there’s a couple of subtle ways to do that even if it’s a throwback track. So do you still rip your samples from vinyl? There’s a lot of veteran producers who just dig digitally these days…
If I wanna sample a breakbeat I’ll find my own thing, ideally something that doesn’t exist online yet so no one else knows it. To my way of thinking, it’s a competition, and I don’t want to use anything that anyone else knows about. Sometimes the creative process interrupts that ideal for the purpose of making a better song. If music exists in a physical format, then I’d rather sample the original.With so many record shops having closed down over the last two decades, how easy it is to still find those strange old local shops with forgotten records in?
Part of sampling is limiting yourself to the resources you have. I know a lot of young beat makers have found inspiration in sampling some rock record that came out four years ago that no one really paid attention to. Twenty years ago sampling music from soul and funk like James Brown was intoxicating, but I don’t think it’s the game plan 20 years later. Just as music evolves your technique has to evolve, and I sample from so many different sources now – I’m sampling new age CDs or singer/songwriter cassette demos, or going further back, further beyond the ‘60s into the ‘50s, into different genres like country & western and classical, things you can still find readily. It’s all in how you use it. With new software, it literally no longer matters what the sound is. You can do things that were unimaginable in the MPC era. You can take an ‘Uh!’ sample and turn it into a fucking choir! And what about Youtube? Are you interested in the idea of using it as this huge, ever growing sample resource?
Not a whole lot, simply because if it’s online then it’s not bespoke. Even if there are only 5 views on a video and there are 5 billion videos out there, someone could still go online and find the video and use the same thing I had.Ha- Those odds are pretty long..
True… But lots of times if I’m gonna sample something I’ll just Google it, and if it exists in the digital space already then often I’ll just leave it. If it doesn’t exist then I’m achieving the level of obscurity that I desire with my work. Why is that obscurity so important to you?
It’s the hip hop tradition. It goes back to people covering up the label of the records they were playing, crossing out the song and the artist then going beyond that to cover up even the colour of the label, all so nobody can know what it is they’re playing. It’s part of what got me into sampling in the first place. The same with DJing – I knew how to scratch but I didn’t know what the sounds they were using were. You’re in quite a unique position in that you’ve got this deep appreciation and link to hip hop tradition, but you’ve also worked with relatively new school rap artists like David Banner. This is at odds with many veteran producers who seem to have this huge animosity towards the new generation of hip hop artists-
Well, you can’t use the term hip hop interchangeably with the term rap – it’s just one of those things because the terms are so completely different in 2016. But my feeling is that hip hop culture is very definable by the era and place where it developed, and that is New York in the 70s. And then it spread. I don’t think contemporary commercial rap has much to do with hip hop. It’s a very distant cousin of it, and I think it’s been the way for some time. Most contemporary rappers were born after 1990, when hip hop really crossed over into the mainstream. If you’re born after that point, you’re not really aware of the roots of the culture so you’re not really carrying on the culture in the same way. None of this is controversial, it’s just fact, in the same way that I can have a particular understanding of jazz music, but if I wasn’t in New Orleans in the ‘30s or Harlem in the ‘40s I can’t understand it in the same way as somebody who was there. At a certain point it’s irrelevant, because, yes, I think there are rappers who are good and bad, but I don’t judge those rappers with the same barometer that I used to judge them in the late 80s – back then it was like, ‘they’re real or they’re not real, they’re part of the culture or they’re not part of the culture’. Now it’s, ‘they have skill or they don’t have skill, they have a fresh perspective or they don’t’. They’re two completely different things. But there’s rap that I hear that I like, and rap that I hear that I don’t like. Fair enough – so what can we expect from the current live show? Are you planning on bringing in the turntablism?
It’s me, Ableton, a turntable, a CD turntable and digital drums - and visuals. I’ve done about 50 shows so far. I’ve just finished a 3 week North American run and I’m ready to head out to Europe now. Has the show developed as you’ve taken it around the States?
It’s developed in that I fill out the little holes as I go along. You can prepare a set at home but it’s only when you play it out that the flaws articulate themselves. But the show is the show – I’ve had enough feedback on it and performed it enough to know it’s one of the better shows I’ve ever done. It feels good, from any yardstick you care to compare it with, it’s up there. So you’re going to be outside American during the presidential elections – does travelling out of the country change your perspective of what’s going on inside it?
It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, you can’t fully understand your country until you leave it. Especially America as it looms so large internationally. It’s resource devouring and it affects every corner of the globe. Fortunately for me I’ve been travelling for 25 years – and travelling is the best education for sure. One of the things I’ve learnt is that it’s the same shit everywhere. I landed in the UK about 4 days before the Brexit vote… So it’s quite interesting to see that people are more alike than different. In some ways I find that comforting and some ways maybe not- people have the same prejudices, the same fears, the same desires, the same goals – there’s a lot of other rhetoric that just gets in the way.Finally, what are your plans when you get back home?
Is there new music on the pipeline? I’m kinda plotting some music at the moment. I’m always doing something, but it’s got to be something that holds my attention and feels different, so I’m learning or expanding my comfort zone either as a producer or as a music lover or whatever. If people only judge me by my album output they’d think I spend a lot of time sitting around, which couldn’t be further from the case..!