Urb November 1996

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Number 51. November 1996

DJ Shadow is featured on the cover and in a feature article from the Novemeber 1996 issue of the magazine URB.


DJ Shadow: Why Does Hip-Hop Suck In' 96? URB, November 1996[1]

DJ Shadow is frustrated. The California prodigy returns once again to verbalize his love and frustration with hip-hop. A fan and visionary, Shadow demonstrates a new sonic outlook with his full-length debut, Endtroducing....


"See, hip-hop to me, it sorta saved my life, because otherwise I'd just be another college kid with no direction and no insight into the world around me." - DJ Shadow URB Vol.2 NO.2 (FEB.1992)

It’s about time. With hands on the wax clock, the Ticktock Man presides over the wheels of steel. Though set at twelve hundred hours, each revolutionary turns takes a "midnight plight" into the past, present, and future. Past backspins and cuts presently create the music of the future. All the places and spaces that compose the timetables stem anachronistic from the record crates. Behind the needle - every sonic vibration going down at that nanosecond is compressed and mutated by the scratch. Once released, the drum beat and break is scrawled in the grooves as time's signature with a B.P.M. font. "In/Flux" is a sampler - and is this giving me a headache - so let's say DJ

Shadow is a hip-hop DJ who knows his records. Per Tricky Tee in '86: "Leave it To The Drums" and thus, drummer Bob Crowder's intro to Eddie Harris' "Carry On Brother" never sounded the same once left in Shadow's hands.

Play Shadow for Tortoise's John McEntire – former state snare champion - and his craft-worked countenance grunts, "How did he do that?" Play Shadow's remix of Krush's "Meiso" for the Roots drummer (who once literally played "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel") and the Beat Recycler of the Rhythm demands "Put that record back on!" Shadow's "Mutal Slump" incities Rammellzee and New Kingdom's Nosaj into simultaneous freestyle lucubration. Over on Rammel's couch bond from Terence (the Leary of DMT/mushrooms) McKenna's "True Hallucinations." Sound strange? Not Even.

Remember: It's about damn time - damn, reverse, and otherwise freak it's flow. So let's continue... Umm, Jurassic's Cut Chemist is furiously drumming up "Lesson 6" as he and Shadow once plotted "Lesson 5" - a logical attachment to the path of breakbeat action that is Shadow's "Lesson 4" ('91). Which is naturally preceded by Double Dee & Steinski's "Lesson 1-3." Had you read your Tommy Boy Future Beat Alliance "Switch The Licks Mastermix Contest" newsletter, all this wouldn't sound so painfully confusing. Mean-while, Cinncinnati's Supasta DJ Mr.Dibbs picks up "Entropy" and glows about "percussive orgasms." Then, for the mighty hard-rockers, Shadow will spin Fantasy Three's "It's Your Rock" and MOP's (clack!clack!) "Brownsville" within three songs of each other.

Meantime, in Brain's basement, Mike D clutches a copy of "What Does Your Soul Look Like?" while concentrating on the behemoth's third segment. Same place time, my metacarpals grasp Rap Pack 1, a Sleeping Bag/Fresh Records compilation which covets Mantronix "Hardcore Hip-Hop" remix. Not-so-coinkidinkily, Shadow later drops his own "Hardcore Instrumental Hip-Hop" - a tributary of he and Kurtis Mantronik's tantamount production mindstreams. Just listen to the bass, and get stupid fresh.

All of these reactions occurred at desultory points during the constructions of Josh Davis' debut album, Endtroducing.... It's about time. So, being right about this - as Raheim, the ladies dream, once implored in "Freelance" and Shadow's "Number Song" - Won't you please let me ra-hock your mind?!

(NOTE: Mr.Cross has come out of retirement to be chief interrogator of this operation. Accompanied by Merlo from the group Spain, this exchange took place in a '93 Mazda MPV between Los Banos and San Jose. It was painstakingly transcribed by that "Tai Guy" James.)

BRAIN: Talk about "Entropy"?

SHADOW: That was sort of my statement...

BRAIN: ...About what was wrong with hip-hop in 92'?

SHADOW: I was super mad militant about the fact that hip-hop was dying. I remember reading this Prince Paul interview in Spin. He was saying, "Yeah, it's kinda a shame that hip-hop has to die, but it's natural thing, when a movement goes underground to mainstream." I remember feeling really sad, because I was like "Fuck, it's not dead yet" you know? I still [think] that hip-hop as a culture and as an ideal is almost a religion in the sense that I think it sort's of timeless. I think it's still completely valid and completely legitimate, but I think rap music, as sort of an element of hip-hop, become too big for its britches, and started thinking it was hip-hop was all about.

BRAIN: But that record when you listen to it now, the big issue was the fakers, the big marketing. They were the main enemies that are called out on the record. What do you think the difference is between then and now?

SHADOW: Well, I know what it is for me personally. My theory on hip-hop is this way: hip-hop raised me, culturally, ideally and musically since I was ten, right? So half my life has been dedicated to looking at things through that framework, more than half my life, fourteen years. It's a painful subject to speak on for me. I liken it to if a mother turns alcoholic, you know what I mean? You still love your mother because she raised you, but you get angry, you know and you feel bad, you try and try and try, but then at a certain point you realize, if she's gonna kill herself, she's gonna kill herself. [But] I'm not gonna contribute to that, and that's sort of the line I feel I had to established for myself with that record ("Entropy"). All I can do is just make the kind of music that I think will contribute something positive and experimental to the genre that raised me. I have no interest in making a record that sounds like every other record because that's not helping anybody. It doesn't do the culture or the genre any good by being conservative - having a narrow framework about what hip-hop can be, be only hurts hip-hop.

The most ironic thing of all is now experimentation is frowned upon is hip-hop. That's the most retarded development that could happen because it has always been about experimentation. It was always about breaking down genres. People like Bambaata, his whole theme was unity through music. Unity within music and then through music. That's why they called him the peacemaker.

BRAIN: However much it may have tapered off, you know there are still the rule breakers.

SHADOW: Definitely, definitely. But again, to use the alcoholic scenario, I have to look at hip-hop as sort of tough love thing, because I know it could be better than it is. To me that's the whole point, there's some good record's, but do you like those records because they're truly outstanding or do you like them because it's pretty much the best you could hope for at the moment?

BRAIN: The new album is completely instrumental...

SHADOW: Hip-Hop is an instrumental art-form. People were rocking breaks before they were rapping. Rapping came in to celebrate the DJ, and nobody ever talks about that. Breaks were first, the DJ was first. From Kool Herc on down. So hip-hop has always existed as an instrumental art-form. It's just that a rapper is much more marketable, as a personality, as a controversial figure, as a face and a voice. I feel that instrumental music can be more of challenge, as a producer. With a vocalist or a rapper, the music has to provide a background and not much more than that. With instrumental hip-hop it has to be more than just a fat beat. That was never what Mantronix was about, for example. He used to arrange his rap shit one way, and his instrumentals a completely other way like "King of the Beats." I want there to be a story within each song, that means I have to arrange the song to make it a fruitful listen from beginning to end. With this album, each song reflects a different mood I had to be in to work on that song. Instrumental music can actually be more subversive. To suggest "Fuck You" musically is a lot more powerful that just saying fuck you on a track.

BRAIN: Do you think that maintaining a broader palette in your music has to do with creating it for the most part outside an urban environment?

SHADOW: I would say that growing up where I did (Davis,California), which I'm not gonna lie about, is a small town, but it's a fast moving stream right on the freeway between Sacramento and Oakland. It affected me in two ways. I think firstly, I had to seek hip-hop out as opposed to having it shoved down my throat, so I never resented hip-hop in any way. I affixed myself to it as a culture. It was a lot of trial and error - growing up on the West Coast (which I refer to as being hip-hop bastard) because when I would go to a record store I would hear everything from "Invasion" by Planet Detroit, early Detroit shit, I would hear "Throw The Dick," 2Live Crew. The same day I heard "South Bronx" and they were equally fresh to me. I knew New York was where it started, I knew that there was great hip-hop from NYC and I knew there was bad hip-hop from NYC. I knew there was good and bad hip-hop from L.A. I wasn't so concerned about emulating one sound. I was more concerned about representing what my influences were and I think that's why my album is so varied texturally, or hopefully it is!

BRAIN: Why is the term hip-hop is so important to hang on to for you?

SHADOW: I'm constantly confused by people who suggest that what I do is anything other than fourteen years of hip-hop culture. I've never shut my ears to other things but hip-hop was always ninety five percent of what would come into my brain. Hip-hop music. All sorts. That's why to me, my album represents what hip-hop is capable of being, I believe, not in the sort of 1996 way of looking at hip-hop is capable of being, I believe, not in the sort of 1996 way of looking at hip-hop music which is music marketability... I look at my career as one body of music. This album represents a summation of the work I had been developing for Mo’ Wax. In the same year that I did this record, I did "The Quickening" by Lateef, I did "The Wreckoning," I did Latyrx, I did that Roots remix, about an hours worth of instrumental music and forty-five minutes worth of rap music. There's no need for people to feel threatened by what I do. The stuff I do is not gonna threaten the moneymaking system.

BRAIN: If you think of music most hip-hop is generated from, soul and funk, they are popularly formatted music...

SHADOW: I would disagree about funk, I think soul became that way, well, anyways, sorry go ahead, make your point.

BRAIN: Are you still trying to make popular music?

SHADOW: I'm interested in making contemporary modern music that is forward thinking, and this doesn't have to mean forward thinking to anybody else but me. I don't have any interest in sounding retro. To me, there's nothing exciting about that at all. I've always been interested in cutting edge music, which hip-hop was, which is what attracted it to me in the first place.

BRAIN: When I was saying popular music, what I was trying to get at is that within hip-hop (the old blueprint) there's idea of transformation - that if everybody could understand what hip-hop was doing, then somehow the world of music would be transformed. Is that utopian aspect still a part of what you do?

SHADOW: Definitely. I'm very motivated by feeling I have a duty to reeducate the misguided masses that rely on MTV and Rolling Stone to tell them what hip-hop is. And history is being rewritten as we speak based on sales.

BRAIN: The way you approach your material, you have a very strict set of rules that you apply, that's personal to you... to find a drum break that's never been used before, meticulously...

SHADOW: I'd say that is true and I acquired that sort of rationale from people like Flash, DST, Tony Tone, that was the only way a DJ could set himself away from the pack, by finding the fresh shit and that's where I come from. That's a strict code, I've never sampled off of bootlegs, compilations, or reissues so that makes it harder for me now that all shit is constantly getting re-released and bootlegged. I gotta stay abreast of those things, so I don't accidentally get caught out there. I almost never sample funk for that reason.

BRAIN: You make music from records that were made for a different time, a different audience, by different people, with a different set of ideas. How do you make these samples into something that in your mind exists in the now? One thing you can say about this record more than almost any other almost any other hip-hop record, is that it sounds like a new record.

SHADOW: I know more than anything at the end of the day, more than I am a producer more than I am a scratch DJ, I'm a fan of music. And to me if there's no exciting music, it's really depressing. And that's why I started making music in the first place. It wasn't because I wanted to be famous or because I wanted money, it's because there was a hole I wanted to fill myself. I don't make records and I don't do interviews to try to convince the world that my way is right or wrong, I don't expect everybody to have the same influences that I did or hear the same things in music that I do.

MERLO: The lost art of drum programming. That true art of being able to really move a crowd just by your fills and your breakdowns and there's a whole tradition to that going back to New Orleans marching bands. I'm real excited about the shit you're doing right now - you're bringing back a lot of what I [have] been missing. There hasn't been a lot of people who really care about the drum routine, who really want to excite you with the twists and turns of the music. Also the concept of time, I feel that the way I grew up, my concept of time is very different, because of hip-hop. Hip-hop, takes things and frames them into a new concept of time by flipping them. You're pleasing something, like your scratching an itch we all have.

SHADOW: Before people were doing drum loops, it was drum programming, but the drum programming was so much more innovative than it is now.

MERLO: What's interesting is that even though you flip live sounds, not using canned sounds the way the 80's fellas did, you're using that same aesthetic, really taking the time to flip that shit.

SHADOW: It's gotten to the point now that underground heads look at the sampler as something that's been stolen. All the skills people developed, then get played out by people like Sinead O'Connor, George Michael, Alanis Morissette using "Funky Drummer" or "Catch A Groove." That makes people go, "Well, fuck that, that's not even ours anymore." But at point it goes too far. It's almost no black guitarists now. It's a shame because it's not like the instrument is completely dead.

MERLO: Talk about drums - this is a drum record, it's like an opus on drums with no live drums.

SHADOW: I think that if you love hip-hop, you have to love drums. I mean if there was one key element around which all modern music is based and whole is based, it's around the drum.

MERLO: Like what?

SHADOW: Like, on a song like "Stem," I don't think anybody's ever programmed sampled drums to sound like that sort of hardcore beat, you know? A hardcore rock beat. On a song like "Napalm Brain," I don't think anybody's ever taken drums and made them go from 4/4 to 7/8, to 3/4 to 5/4 and back to 4/4 in the span of like a minute. In a song like "Changeling" I don't think anybody's ever taken 4/4 break and be able to chop it up so it play's like a 7/8 break. On "Midnight..." I don't think anybody's ever taken a nonexistent drum break, and intentionally made it sound like a two bar drum loop. I can tell you my whole concept of progression is based on a Fixx record. This one song called "Deeper" on The Streets of Fire soundtrack. I put it on a tape eleven years ago. I remember buggin' out because it sounded like Uncle Jam's Army done by a rock band. I remember thinking, "Damn, this shit has a perfect logical progression, every single next bar is exactly what I want to hear after the last one." What I would like people to feel, for example, is that their horizons were broadened as far as what they felt hip-hop was about, and I hope that they would feel that they had gone on an emotional journey, and feel wiser. You know even watching a sad movie can be really therapeutic because they really clench your emotions and ring'em out, you feel relieved.

MERLO: The Human League made this song ("The Black Hit of Space") about a future idea of where there'd only be one record. It'd be a big fucking record, but you could only hear one. I always thought it was dope but I didn't understand it. In retrospect, Phil Oakey was right. That's ultimately what they want, where the possibility of freedom is destroyed... music's freedom is a real possibility. There's no "have to's" in music. John Cage has taught us that. The problem is, they're trying to eliminate that possibility. Hip-hop's a real easy target for these people, because the community that makes hip-hop is a community which is economically deprived. So for chicken feed money you can buy away hip-hop's power. The purpose that is served by eliminating it is huge, and that's ultimately the social aspect of making "free" hip-hop, freedom.

SHADOW: To me the whole concept of being independent means nothing if all you're doing is imitating the big boys. That's what unfortunately, I think independent has come to represent. When I think about rap music I'm frustrated because it has the potential to be so much more. It was once on that road, and then it got shaken down. And I don't pretend it's a big shocker, because everybody in hip-hop knew it was gonna happen. What frustrates me is that everybody went out and all the heroes went out one by one. It can be so much more, and the retarded thing is that most b-boys will be offended by that statement. I have no control over who is going to misinterpret my shit, but I invite anybody to just listen and then have a conversation with me.


External Links

Transcript on Solesides