In 1996, Josh Davis, better known as DJ Shadow, released Endtroducing, a masterful combination of soul classics and modern sounds that was named the “First Completely Sampled Album” by the Guinness Book Of World Records. Since then, he produced UNKLE’s acclaimed record Psyence Fiction, scored a movie (Dark Days) about people who live in subway tunnels, and released three insanely popular mix-tapes with Cut Chemist. He’s only released a few records of his original material in that time, though. The latest, The Less You Know, The Better, was recently released by Verve. The A.V. Club talked to Shadow about that space between records and how he handles criticism in the age of the Internet troll.
The A.V. Club: You’ve worked with so many different people. How do you decide who you want to work with?
DJ Shadow: I try to only work with people that I feel like are going to contribute something meaningful. I worked with a guy named Tom Vek, who people know in the U.K. They don’t really know who he is here, yet. That was a certain context, and I felt like he would work on the track that I was working on. And Little Dragon, even though I had met the lead singer numerous times prior and had not made the connection. I went out to a large record store in the Bay Area called Amoeba and spent all of these coupons from doing in-stores there. So I had, like, $800 worth of free music that I could buy, and of all the music I bought that day, theirs was my favorite. So that was a case of me being a fan and just going like, “Hey, I would love to do something.”
In the case of Afrikan Boy, he was a friend of a friend in the U.K., and I knew the type of energy I wanted over the track. I also knew that it was really challenging, and it’s not the type of thing that your average established rapper or grime dude’s going to be like, “Oh, yeah!” They’re going to be like, “What? What’s happening? Where am I supposed to come in? Where am I supposed to go out?” So I’m totally used to that from all the years working with MCs. Unfortunately, in the last 10 years or so, MCs have gotten very conservative about what a track should sound like.
AVC: Why is that?
DS: That’s a much broader conversation. But I would argue that music, generally, has slowed down to stasis. I don’t think music’s evolving at all.
AVC: So you’ve been pushing your sound and pushing forward to counteract that? Is that something you consciously try to do every time you record?
DS: Yes, because I rely on my fellow artists to continue to evolve and continue to try new things. Other music is what inspires me. I can’t continue to move forward if I’m not inspired. That’s probably why I don’t put out a record very often. I don’t want to put out a record that feels to close in time to where I was at mentally from the last one. I need to grow, I need to evolve as a person and mature and take in a lot of influence and that, I feel, will then speak to me in the music-making process. It’s a way to ensure that the music sounds nothing like the last one.
I mean, I’m definitely mindful of the fact that you want to have some sort of thread that runs through your work. I don’t like, actually, when people are like, “Oh, drum and bass! I’m that guy now!” and “I’m the dubstep guy now!” and “Oh, I’m done with that now! Now I’m all about this.” I don’t like that kind of hipsterism of the dance du jour.
AVC: Where did the title The Less You Know, The Better come from?
DS: I think that as somebody who has only made four or five records, the album title has to say a lot. And it has to really resonate with me in various ways, not just the intrinsic way or the extrinsic way, but always. The title is something I feel I can exhale numerous times in any given day, whether it’s being at the airport and being stuck watching Fox News because it’s blaring at you from all corners, you know what I mean? It’s like, who asked to put this shit here? Why do I have to be subjected to this? And again, as an artist, and somebody who is unfortunately a sensitive artist, it’s like a moth to a flame sometimes when reading things that are written about you, and definitely that’s a case where it’s just, “close the laptop, back away.”
As far as the imagery for the record, it’s really just kind of a satire on what it’s like to be a recording artist in 2011. There’s a strange duality with the Internet, where it’s supposed to offer all these freedoms, but at the same time every artist is expected to participate in the Internet in the same manner. What’s right for this artist isn’t going to be right necessarily for me.
To me it’s a little undignified to constantly be re-tweeting people’s compliments about me, or acting like a used car salesman, “Get one free! Buy this and I’ll give you a free…” That may work for a certain type of artist, but it doesn’t work for me. I think there is a little bit of misunderstanding about… it seems like people don’t quite comprehend that yet. It’s okay to be a recording artist, to be a contemporary and not necessarily want to tweet 50 times a day. That doesn’t mean that you’re a Luddite. I’m on my laptop 10 hours a day as it is.
AVC: How do you consume music at this point? Are you, as a famous record digger, listening to a lot of things on laptop?
DS: I like to say the best description of how music comes to me and how I seek it out is to just check my tour bunk at the end of any tour, because it’ll be a bunch of stuff I bought at a second-hand shop in Milan; it’ll be demos people have thrown onto the stage; it’ll be links somebody wrote down on a business card. And I get it home and it all ends up in a big pile, and oftentimes I forget the context of what came where. “Is this new? Am I supposed to be listening to this because it’s the next single?” It doesn’t matter. It just all ends up in a big pile. Sometimes I’m sort of the first to the party, but very often I’m the last to the party. I’m like, “Wait, wow, did you hear?” whatever group people have been raving about for the last five years, and I’m just now discovering them. But I like to discover stuff naturally and homogeneously, rather than because it’s the time of month that I’m supposed to be.
AVC: Do you read the stuff about you? Do you get your press clippings and go through them all?
DS: I look for guidance from other artists on that stuff. And I remember recently, I was sitting at a barbershop or something, and I was reading some magazine. This playwright was sitting there going, “No, it’s very unhealthy for me to read.” People always tell me, “You should just shrug it off, fuck them. They love you than they hate you. They want this, then they want that.” And I get all that, but at the same time, sometimes you just read stuff and you get incensed. And it’s really hard to just shove that somewhere.
AVC: And you can’t do anything about it. You can’t be the artist that starts calling journalists saying, “I Googled my name, and I saw you wrote this about me.”
DS: And amazingly, prior to the Internet, what’s so funny is that in hip-hop, around ’93-’94, there were all sorts of cases where writers would dis somebody’s record in a thousand-circulation zine somewhere, and they’d get a death threat from the artist. It’s so funny where we’re at now, where now it’s almost the other way around, where you’re just expected to be a punching bag and just take it and not put it anywhere. So I think the best thing for me is just not getting involved.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of stuff recently—an updated website, for one—where you have more direct contact with your fans. Why is that important to you?
DS: I think it’s important to articulate at a certain point that you are a human being. I like to have contact with my fans. I signed stuff last night in Milwaukee after the show for as long as people were there. Sometimes you get awkward questions, or sometimes the interactions are really genuine and inspiring, and sometimes they’re strange or perplexing. I’m not in an ivory tower.
Obviously the messaging we get from corporate media is that the Internet is law and that it’s your salvation and your soul is not complete unless you have this new app. I’m just one person sitting here, going, “Hey, just so everybody knows, I’m not going to tweet 50 times a day. I hope that’s cool. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m a lesser artist. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you.” So I think you have to strike a good balance.