“I’m sure you’re probably thinking ,’Yeah, something’s changed with him’,” says Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis as he tries to explain a little of the life-changing journey he’s been on since his last LP, The Private Press, was released in 2002. That the change has been dramatic is evident on even the briefest of exposures to The Outsider, his fabulous, fascinating, fire-breathing third album: but it’s also there in the way he speaks, the way he looks, and the iron-clad confidence he now brings to his work.
The Outsider is a record that will confound those who believed they had Shadow pigeonholed. Working with several different vocalists, and in styles spanning everything from hyphy, the Bay Area’s newest hip hop hybrid, to folk; from aggressive hardcore rock to left-field alternative dance music, the album is an almost schizophrenic collection from an artist to whom loving music and making music are just two sides of the same coin. Long-term fans need have nothing to fear – his power to conjure and affect an emotion by collaging samples, voices and fragments of long-forgotten recorded dialogue remains undimmed – but the sense here is that, at last, this is the real Shadow, in the raw. It sounds and feels, simply, like the record he’s been yearning to make.
“There are songs with rappers, songs with vocalists,” he explains. “There are songs that are all live instruments; songs that are all me and keyboards; songs that are all samples. But here’s the thing: while I was making it, people would hear a track and like it, then they’d say, ‘Why don’t you do a whole album like this? This could be your rap album’, if it was a rap track, ‘then you can go back to doing what you normally do’. But I can’t do that, because that’s not who I am.”
The record was put together from disparate elements over nearly three years. Artifact (Instrumental) is a relic of Shadow’s work on an abandoned solo LP by former Rage Against The Machine front man Zack De La Rocha. 3 Freaks, which features the hyphy emcees Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk, was the impetuous, inspired result of Shadow’s love-at-first-listen affair with the Bay’s answer to crunk. Seein’ Thangs, featuring Mississippi’s finest, David Banner, was supposed to include a rap by Mystikal, but he was in prison: so was Shadow’s second choice, Pastor Troy. By the time Davis went back to Banner to ask him to add a second verse, Katrina had devastated America’s southern shores, a disaster that couldn’t help but colour Banner’s rap. Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno and Christopher Karloff were introduced to Shadow by his engineer, and The Tiger was the standout result. And even Bay Area icon E-40 is in there, rapping about “the legendary DJ Shadow”, suggesting that this Outsider really is anything but.
The key to understanding how all these different voices and inspirations are able to coexist on the same record is to remember that Shadow is as much a fan as a musician. Outside the records he has contributed to as a recording artist, he has built an enviable rep as a mixtape DJ and curator of an idiosyncratic musical archive. The all-45 mixes Brainfreeze and Product Placement, with his friend and fellow producer-DJ Cut Chemist, revolutionised the art of funk DJ-ing and had a massive impact on the obsessive world of funk collecting, while his Schoolhouse Funk compilations have rescued some amazing slices of that most elusive of musical genres – high school marching band funk – from history’s trash can (or, at least, America’s thrift stores). But in the studio he has often felt constrained by the massive expectations that came after the release of his first album, and the incredibly devoted cult fandom that was attracted to it.
Since he took his enviable talent and magpie ear for musical jewels overground with the release of the acclaimed debut album Endtroducing… in 1996, Shadow has probably spent more time than he cares to admit being what other people want him to be. In cahoots with his first patron and early mentor, Mo’ Wax label boss and fellow DJ James Lavelle, he made the lion’s share of the music on the 1998 U.N.K.L.E. album, Psyence Fiction. By the time he released The Private Press, he had taken his chosen musical metier – emotive instrumental music, created entirely from samples – as far as it could go. From the haunting Giving Up The Ghost to Monosyllabik’s obsessive methodology (the entire track was created by stretching, treating and manipulating samples from one funk single, in a process akin to aural stop-frame animation), it was the ultimate Shadow LP.
Though all these endeavours, though, Shadow remained the starry-eyed rap fan who’d been introduced to hip hop as a teen by the college radio station in the Californian town he grew up in and with which he shares a surname. On the sleeve of Endtroducing…, he explained the record as being the product of “a lifetime of vinyl culture”, and The Private Press might as well have carried the same epithet. Yet they have only been able to tell half of the story: and The Outsider – a record titled because that’s how Davis sees himself, in relation to the music business, to the hardcore rap he has always loved but which his fans erroneously presume he sets himself above – is about filling in some blanks.
Two things happened to change Shadow and his music. The first was the discovery that, when his wife found she was expecting twins in 2003, her pregnancy turned out to be monoamniotic. This rare condition – “you’re four times more likely to be struck by lightning,” he says – means that twins develop in the same sac in the womb. The couple now have two healthy daughters, but only after months of torment during which most medical wisdom suggested that not only the children, but the mother, were unlikely to survive.
Then, while in London working on The Outsider, Shadow was being driven to his hotel after a late night recording session when his cab driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran a red light.
The minicab hit a people-carrier broadside: no-one was seriously injured, but had they arrived at the junction a split second earlier, Davis would almost certainly have been killed. “Those two things blew my mind,” he says, “and I can’t go back. It was like a light switch being flicked. I guess I was an eternal 23-year-old for seven years, and when it all went down I became a man. Sometimes I think it would have made me take less risks, and be more demure and thankful and calm, but it actually made me wanna take a stand on everything. After all that, I realised, not only is life too short, but it could end at any time, so I really can only do what I really want to do. That’s when I went home and made Three Freaks. And I suddenly felt very confident in the direction I wanted to go.”
It’s a confidence that certainly hasn’t been misplaced, and those life-changing lessons have been most assuredly learned. By abandoning himself once and for all to the instincts of his inner fan, Shadow has made the record that best represents who he is and what he wants to be, and that shows, to borrow a phrase from another hip hop pioneer, both where he’s from, and where he’s at.
DJ Shadow, The Outsider, out September 19, 2006 on Universal.
Track listing is as follows:
1. Outsider Intro
2. This Time
3. 3 Freaks (featuring Keak Da Sneak & Turf Talk)
4. Droop-E Drop
5. Turf Dancin’ (featuring The Federation & Animaniaks)
6. Keep ‘Em Close (featuring Nump)
7. Seein’ Thangs (featuring David Banner)
8. Broken Levee Blues
10. Backstage Girl (featuring Phonte Coleman)
12. The Tiger (featuring Sergio Pizzorno & Christopher Karloff)
13. Erase You (featuring Chris James)
14. What Have I Done (featuring Christina Carter)
15. You Made It (featuring Chris James)
16. Enuff (featuring Q-Tip & Lateef the Truth Speaker)
17. Dats My Part (featuring E-40)
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