Born in leafy Yolo County, California, American producer DJ Shadow embarked on his DJ career at KDVS campus radio while developing his own genre-defying take on alternative hip-hop, blending elements of rock, soul, funk, experimental, electronic and jazz – culled from his 60,000-strong record collection.
Citing Kurtis Mantronik, Steinski, Prince Paul and European new wave as his primary influences, early singles In/Flux and Lost And Found (S.F.L.) displayed Shadow's dextrous yet rudimentary sample-based style. Following the success of his acclaimed debut album Endtroducing..... created on nothing more than an Akai MPC60 and an ADAT digital recorder, he has continued to develop his inimitable sound over the past 20 years through a series of albums, DJ mixes and the documentary- based score Dark Days (2000).
The making of Shadow's new album The Mountain Will Fall saw the producer delve deeper into the process of engineering and mixing, working alongside renowned mastering engineer Bob Macc. The process also saw him bring Ableton out of the live space and into the studio while trialling Mill Valley neighbour Jack Dangers' (Meat Beat Manifesto) numbingly expensive modular set-up.
Can you enjoy listening to music as a consumer or does your sample obsession interfere with that process?
"No, I don't think so. hip-hop taught me to appreciate all forms of music. Ironically, in the Hip-Hop era I was kind of a snob – or a purist. As I grew older and hip-hop matured, I was discovering groups like Bad Brains via Public Enemy, and in the process of trying to figure out the samples, I was suddenly listening to country rock and spiritual jazz. I would never have got into jazz if it hadn't been for A Tribe Called Quest and groups like that.
"Now when I hear music, if there's something interesting about it I'm quite envious and also impressionable, so I like to try to find out who made it, how they made it and why didn't I know how to do whatever it was they did. I remember being fascinated by ELO when I was little. I'd hear records like Don't Bring Me Down and think, what did they do with the vocals?
"They're thin, but they're modulating, and how did they mix drums to sound that way, even though I didn't understand anything about engineering or the science of sound. Now when I hear music one of two things happens; either I can't stand it and it drives me to distraction or if it's interesting and I like it, I can only focus on it and can't carry out a normal conversation."
Does The Mountain Will Fall have a concept?
"I feel like there's common threads that run through all my music, whether it's an energetic rap track or a really melancholy track like the one I did with Matthew Halsall. I'm always trying to tap into emotion, but there are a lot of different emotions out there.
"With the Run the Jewels track, Nobody Speak, I added horns because I thought it would make it more cartoonish. That's what the song felt like to me – these big ridiculous characters saying ridiculous things on a pretty ridiculous track. I always look at every record as a snapshot of where I'm at and what I value in music at that time.
"Endtroducing..... was the same – I thought people would hate and slate Organ Donor, but I'm a terrible judge of what people are going to like. I think there's some innocence to that as well. When I'm making music, I might really like it and should never stop because x person is not going to like it."
I presume that being guided by your audience is always the wrong road to go down?
"It's one thing I'm fairly certain of, but have resisted the temptation to do. At a certain point, there was a loud chorus from my fan base wanting me to replicate what I'd achieved on Endtroducing..... To me, that was just an inherently corrupt concept. Aside from the fact that you can't go back in time, I have learned so much and experienced so many more musical ideas since I made that record.
"I like the record and know why people like it, but it's quite simple on a certain level, and that's because of the restrictions of the gear I was using. For example, I only had 12 seconds of stereo sampling. After Endtroducing..... I told myself no more loops as a way of making hip-hop beats. It had gone out of vogue and I didn't want to do that again. I guess the way I sold it in my own mind is that I tried to think of all the times my heroes tried to go back and appease people. It ends up being like fast food, you enjoy it for a moment and then you realise that, actually, it's not the same."
The new record still sounds quite sample-heavy but with a lot more musicality. Are you always striving for that seamless combination?
"I definitely felt as though this would be a record that I wanted to shine on a mix and engineering basis, because I've learned a lot and this is the first record I've made using Ableton. My lineage goes from the four-track cassette recorder and turntables to being quite an early adopter of the MPC, which I used throughout my first album to The Private Press, where I had two or three of them MIDI- linked to create almost infinite potential.
"After that, I went to Pro Tools. I always feel like it's important to break out of your comfort zone a little bit, but I'll say that Ableton Live is the most intuitive music-making program I've used since the MPC – much more so than Pro Tools or Maschine, but that might just be the way my brain works.
"To me, there's an elegance and ease to using Ableton, and it just so happens that a lot of the music I was playing in my DJ sets was being made on Ableton."
Was moving from hardware to a software- oriented set-up a difficult transition?
"Well Pro Tools was always in the background for me, because I used to work at Dan the Automater's studio, and he had Pro Tools in 1994 – maybe even earlier. But he only had four tracks, which is all I think anybody had back then, and I used it for editing. I would mix a song down to DAT and if I needed to do an edit or an overdub I'd do it in Pro Tools.
"Getting into Pro Tools, and eventually getting my own Pro Tools rig, was a five-year process, and it was another six years before I was using it exclusively to make music. I guess that's why it wasn't an abrupt change; it was more a case of not needing the MPC because I could do anything I wanted in Pro Tools. I remember making an album on Pro Tools and enjoying it, and using a lot of other Native Instruments stuff like Battery and Absynth to texturise; then at a certain point I decided I missed the MPC and would go back to using it, but that lasted about a day and a half. Once you learn, you can't unlearn."
Getting into Pro Tools, and eventually getting my own Pro Tools rig, was a five-year process, and it was another six years before I was using it exclusively to make music.
Has it become more difficult to align vinyl samples with the superior audio reproduction that digital software offers?
"It's a delicate thing merging samples and stock sounds. First, I think it's where the magic often happens. People who exclusively use stock sounds always want to talk to me about samples and where I find that stuff. Sampling is a whole vocabulary. One of the reasons I've been doing a lot of collabs with artists since 2013 and putting them out on SoundCloud is because I wanted to get over that initial hurdle of something sounding instantly cool.
"It's like when you first get a keyboard and think you don't need to change anything as it already sounds great, then you realise six months later it sounds like shit because it's so simple. When you work with stock sounds you go through the same thing; you have to dig in deeper and be more sophisticated."
Have you picked up studio techniques from your various collaborations over the years?
"G Jones, who I worked with on one song from the album, is the most gifted Ableton beat maker I've ever seen. We did Nice Nightmares together. I said, let's make something really dreamy and atmospheric, something that's not just fill-drop, fill- drop like a lot of stuff in that scene. So he dragged an acapella he'd dug up from somewhere on the internet and cut this one little intonation of one word, did all kinds of shit to it, put it in an arpeggiator and added a chord structure.
"It really freaked me out. Here's a young kid who has no allegiance to the history of sampling or who the masters used to be, showing me there's still so much more that can be done with sampling."
Would you agree that the album features a slight transgression from beats to bass?
"If I told you that I finally bought a subwoofer, would that answer your question [laughs]? One of my main frustrations on the last record was that I did a track called Death Surrounds Us, which I released before the album came out. It was a sort of proto-trap track. I left it off the album as I was already six songs deep and it had started to take a direction where I felt that the two couldn't co-exist. I knew that I didn't want to do that the next time around. One of my ambitions for the new album was that I would make no excuses for the sonics."
What did you feel was absent in your music?
"I hear tracks every single day, a lot of them from friends of mine, where I wondered how they made them so loud yet it didn't feel like anything had been sacrificed, or how did they make it breathe. To me, engineering and mixing is a lifelong riddle, but I have learned a lot from the people I have collaborated with over the last few years.
"At all points, I wanted to consider what the high-end or the low-end was going to be if I dropped down into a section. Maybe in the past I would have been more inclined to think, well they're samples, it's hard and that's part of it, but this time around I didn't want to use that excuse to myself.
"I talked about it with the guy who mastered the album, Bob Macc. I've always been fascinated by records like Ill Communication or Check Your Head where you've got a hip-hop track, then a noodly doodly acid jazz instrumental, then a pretty thrashy rock song – and that's a tall order mastering wise.
"Hip-hop tracks, especially if there's a lot of bass, seem less loud because you tend to have to provide less room for the bass, or they could be way too loud and the more subtle stuff becomes lost. As you say, I wanted there to be a heavy bass element, but it's still a pretty headsy record with a lot of quieter passages."
Bergschrund with Nils Frahm almost sounds like you were leading him in a new direction...
"Of all the tracks on the album that are collaborations, with that one I basically just said, what have you got for me? With album budgets as they are, neither of us was going to be able to fly to meet the other, so I told him I would prefer it if he'd just knock some stuff out and let me run rampant with it. He sent me a ton of stuff, but one of the things I gravitated towards was the sinewy, gated synth sound that runs throughout the track."
Is it a matter of leaving it up to the artist to do a bit of research on you and send over stems they think might spark your creativity?
"Well I would actually prefer that they not do any research. One of the core concepts of the records was that I didn't want it to be like so many are these days, and found myself wanting to collaborate with other instrumentalists for a change. I think what really sparked it was that I loved the music that Steven Price did in the movie Gravity. I remember when I saw that movie I thought, fuck, I want to work with this guy. I didn't just want to work with other beat makers; I wanted to work with people who were making instrumental music in a completely different genre, like Nils. I said the same thing to Matthew Halsall too; make something really gorgeous and then let me mangle it and render it unrecognisable. It's really fun; Ashes To Oceans sounds like nothing else I've ever done."
I remember when I saw that movie I thought, fuck, I want to work with this guy.
Does it inspire you to think further afield to all the other types of artists you could work with?
"I guess we'll have to see. I'm just looking at the cover of Future Music with Richie Hawtin and his Roland. The main thing is that I'm such a huge fan of so many of my peers that sometimes it's like, well they're so dope on their own I don't wanna make them less dope by toning down what they do."
So are you using Ableton from start to finish?
"Well no, not so much. I did what I think a lot of my favourite beat makers are doing. They'll take a vintage synth, or a replica of a vintage synth, and record a couple of hours of mucking around and then chop it up and use that as their sample source.
"There's a couple of photos on the inside of the album of me with the EMS Synthi 100; I think there's only about four in existence. Jack Dangers from Meat Beat Manifesto bought it from the University of Adelaide – it's one of these modular synths that takes up a whole wall and you look like you need to wear a lab coat just to operate it. So I had several sessions at his place. Much in the same way as sampling and synths have a vocabulary and a feel, Ableton and doing things in the box has a precision, and when you merge all of those that's when good things happen."
Does modular hold extra appeal for you now?
"Well, I've never been a gearhead. Going back over 20 years I was working with someone I respect. I saw that month after month they were getting pieces of gear, sitting down with the manual, reading it, taking the gear out, replacing it with something else, reading the manual, and I was like, when are you going to make some music? I've seen people who... I don't know if crutch is the right word... but they're using it as a placeholder to say that they're working but not actually being creative."
So the tactile element of using hardware has never been a primary motivation?
"I know what you mean, but I don't remember who said the quote – it might have been a special effects guy talking about CGI – that 'if you can imagine it, it can be done'. I like thinking that way about music, and it's why forward-thinking music appeals to me, whether it's Footwork or whatever.
"When I heard really intense dubstep for the first time, it just hit me because I didn't know how to do what they were doing, and it was the same with drum 'n' bass. The first time I heard it coming out of cars out here in London, it was like, how the fuck are they doing those tracks? It was because I didn't have Cubase. Then you inevitably start to learn about how people are doing things, using some of the same sonic tools but coming at it with a completely different mentality."
What software do you turn to most often?
"I bought the Korg suite of synths, used a lot of Ableton instruments and some Max for Live stuff. As you get new laptops, you have to migrate everything over, but I still use Native Instruments suites. Check out Nice Nightmares. There's a sound near the end of the track that sounds like this majestic Fairlight-style '80s sound, and I'm super proud of that because I built it from nothing out of this massive chain of plug-ins.
"I don't have the ability to do that a lot. I mean, I'll do whatever it takes to make something sound right, but if there's a synth sound in my music it's not something you can just go and find – it's either something unusual or there's something about it that's not quite what it used to be. But that sound is one of my proudest sound design moments."
Whether it comes from a vintage synth, records, the internet or holding a mic out and recording stuff, to me, no one method is more pure than another – it's all fair game.
For you, is it sound or ideas that inspire sound?
"In the DIY era it was popular to play around with tape machines and have them starting and stopping; there was just an odd texture about it. Now, whenever I find something I want to sample, I'll just record it into Pro Tools.
"If it needs cleaning I'll do that, bounce it down and then it becomes a sound with a name. So when I'm making music it's great because I can just take this, this and this and end up with things you never could have sat down and wrote out.
"That's the beauty of sampling and the beauty of having a catalogue of bespoke sounds, textures and noises. And whether it comes from a vintage synth, records, the internet or holding a mic out and recording stuff, to me, no one method is more pure than another – it's all fair game."
Your music is such an assemblage of sounds – does that make it easier to improvise live?
"Well, what I've learned from DJing and doing shows for as long as I have been now, is that I like to be well-rehearsed. I don't like to wing it when I'm standing on a stage in front of 10,000 people at a festival somewhere. I can't afford to have a bad show, or an off show, where the crowd was up for it but I fucked up. So I like to be really well-rehearsed and it takes me six weeks or more just to build the show that I want, establishing what songs I'm going to do, am I pleasing old-school fans and new, is the dynamic right and is there an ebb and flow.
"That in itself is really hard so, sonically, I'll crack open the stems from old songs and try to make the songs live next to the new stuff. Then the third layer is stripping it back, which parts am I going to perform, which parts are going to be baked, because I like to have visuals that are sync'd to the music, and is the blend right between all three. Often times, you don't even know until you've done the first couple of shows."