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DJ Shadow Is Navigating A Shifting Music Landscape On His Own Terms

Twenty years into his career, DJ Shadow—aka Josh Davis—gets reflective as he welcomes the release of his fifth album in two decades.

DJ Shadow Is Navigating A Shifting Music Landscape On His Own Terms

DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis

[Photo: Derick Daily]

If you just look at his official discography, you could get the feeling that DJ Shadow is a part-time musician. In the two decades since his hugely influential debut, Endtroducing . . ., he's released only three subsequent albums. That changed last week, when his latest, The Mountain Will Fall, was released on Mass Appeal Records. But for the producer (whose real name is Josh Davis), the fact that he's not prolific when it comes to releasing albums doesn't reflect anything more than how seriously he takes the form.

"It seems that I average about five years between albums, and that's because, when I started, I didn't set out to be an album-oriented artist. I just set out to make music," Davis explains. His goal was to work wherever his muse took him—albums, sure, but also singles, or production for other artists, or DJ mixes, or the occasional collaboration. "I just like to be engaged, and into doing something creative, as opposed to just being on a treadmill and trying to put out an album every year or year and a half."

So Davis has been busy, even if his discography doesn't reflect the breadth of what he gets up to. In addition to the five studio albums, he's also put out six live albums; six compilations of mixes and rarities; two remix albums; four EPs; and dozens of collaborations with everybody from Radiohead to David Banner to Depeche Mode to the Beastie Boys to Mos Def. In addition to the pace of that work, the DJ Shadow brand extends beyond just his own creative endeavors. His record label, Liquid Amber, launched in 2014, and his work is all over advertisements, movies, TV, and more. (The lead single from The Mountain Will Fall, "Nobody Speak," a collaboration with Run the Jewels, debuted on HBO's Silicon Valley this spring.) In 2016, being a leader in the music industry—which DJ Shadow has been since the days of his first album—means being very much in control of your identity across multiple platforms, and knowing exactly why you're making the decisions you're making.

Take A Cue From Beyoncé

In 1996, if you were going to have a career in music, you had to put out albums. That was the form from the late '60s through until music went digital, and so it makes sense that a young DJ Shadow trying to establish himself in the '90s would have dropped Endtroducing . . . as a way to introduce himself to the world—even if he didn't want to be on the treadmill of making albums, it was the way the industry worked. But in the time since he debuted, the industry has evolved dramatically. These days, albums are somewhere between a nod to convention and a throwback to an earlier era. Which makes the fact that, in 2016—when an artist doesn't have to make an album at all—DJ Shadow putting out his fifth studio album is somewhat surprising. If being an album-oriented artist wasn't the goal, what's the impetus to do it now that the industry has shifted to embrace the sort of artist that DJ Shadow has always been?

"The album is still the most formal declaration of creative thought that you can make as a music artist. Albums still carry a lot of weight in terms of, 'This is what I want to tell you, this is the statement I want to make,'" Davis explains. "Albums carry more weight than a string of singles. People drop singles almost on a weekly basis. Major artists, it's not unusual for them to release multiple singles in a week, or several in a month. The timeline has been really compressed, and I think for that reason, albums have regained a little bit of significance. It's much harder to assemble 50 or 60 minutes of cohesive creative thought. Singles have their place, but albums are still significant as the yardstick by which you measure an artist."

There's always been an iconoclastic spirit to DJ Shadow's music. It's what made him stand out as such an influential artist in the '90s, when assembling sonic collages made of bits and pieces of records found at thrift stores and turning them into something entirely new was a thrilling statement on the way culture worked. The fact that it took him six years to put out a follow-up—much of that during a time when album sales, especially for people who worked in hip-hop and had cults of personality behind them, were at an all-time high—reads a bit as a fuck-you to the conventional wisdom of how the industry worked. A follow-up to Endtroducing . . ., in 1999, might have been a commercial blockbuster. Instead, Davis joined obscure British trip-hop group UNKLE for a spell instead. In 2016, it'd be easy for him to build a career releasing singles and using his store of credibility to recruit hot rappers for tracks. Instead, he's spent the last three years working on an album during an era when almost nobody buys albums anymore.

"I think that the desire to push the envelope, and expand the boundaries of what an album can be, have been there, really, since the album was established as a format," he says—but it's exciting for him to be doing that now, in the era of Lemonade and A Moon-Shaped Pool and other high-profile, boundary-pushing albums from big-name artists. "I like when especially major artists put a lot of energy and a lot of effort and resources into making these statements that they want to make." When it comes to Lemonade specifically, Davis has really specific ideas about what it means for Beyoncé to be making the sort of album that she is—even if it's not the kind that he'd make himself. "Someone like Beyoncé, she should be in front of the camera," he says. "That doesn't work for every type of artist—I'd put myself in the category of somebody that would prefer to let the music speak for itself, as opposed to putting my own face in front."

Photo: Flickr user Digboston

Work With Intention

Some artists will tell you that they found themselves tinkering in the studio and realized that what they came up with was going to end up being their next album. Others explain that they're just always writing songs and when they've got 12 or so that they like, they put them out as the next record. That's not the process on a DJ Shadow album, though.

"Oh, no, I definitely need a start date," Davis laughs. "I need that kind of push, and that kind of pressure on myself. Like, 'Okay, today is the day.' I'm usually aware of the impending need to sit down and make a record for months ahead of time, and in this case, I knew that it was going to start in the summer, and then as summer came along, I was like, 'Okay, this is going to be the day,' and I feel like that's important because you need that kind of focus. You need to steel yourself for the process, because to me, sitting down and making it is a certain combination—it's almost like muscle memory."

Making an album is a taxing, emotionally exhausting process, and that might be even more true for a solo artist like DJ Shadow than for a band. But he's found that going through the emotional exhaustion that comes with making an album is actually a part of the creative process, too.

"You need to prepare yourself for the fact that there's going to be frustration. There are going to be wasted days," he says. "It can often feel immensely satisfying, and then there are days that feel totally ungratifying because you maybe went down the wrong path, or you didn't do your best work. I need to be aware that I'm going to experience all of those emotions, and I need time to prepare for that. But you have to sometimes go too far in the wrong direction to know what the right direction is."

The title of the album itself—The Mountain Will Fall—refers to the creative process it took to make it.

"When you start to work on an album, it seems almost impossible because you know how much time and how much work goes into a full album, let alone each song," he says. "It feels like you're like a mountain climber looking at a huge peak, and you think, 'How can I scale that?' But you put your head down and start stepping, and after a couple of weeks, we take a break and you look around you're like, 'Oh.' You've made quite a bit of progress. And then little by little, the mountain will fall. It's not a process I enter into lightly. The only way I know how to make music is to be very focused and quiet and isolated, and really . . . try to tap into certain types of creative frequencies. For my music to be what it should be, it involves tapping into emotional reservoirs, and maybe exposing material within the psyche that you normally try to suppress. It can be daunting, and that's what the album title refers to."

Steer The Ship

DJ Shadow launched his career at a time when licensing music to ads, or looking for other sync opportunities, was a taboo that artists were loathe to break if they wanted to hang on to their notions of artistic integrity. Obviously that taboo has changed dramatically as revenue streams within the industry have dried up, and the overall cultural attitude around brands and branding have evolved. But the process of making a DJ Shadow record hasn't changed much—it's still an intense, personal, emotional journey. So how does Davis feel about using DJ Shadow songs in advertising now?

"My attitude with syncs and licenses is that I can't depend on them. You can go for two years and not get a synch opportunity, and then you can have five in two weeks. I've literally had things like that happen," he says. "All I can do is be the best shepherd that I can for my music, whether it's old songs or newer songs. I've turned down tons of stuff in the past, and I've agreed to do a few things here and there. It's like river rafting—if you're not careful, you can get thrown overboard. You just have to try to navigate it as best you can, because the waters can definitely be choppy."

One of the more controversial tracks on Endtroducing . . . was the 45-second interlude, "Why Hip Hop Sucks In '96." Over sampled soul grooves, a voice sings out, "It's the money." The guy who made that track went on to work on a Chevy campaign—something that some fans saw as hypocritical—but Davis still has plenty to say about how money affects music, and makes it suck, in 2014. (Of the Chevy ad, incidentally, Davis says "Chevy was basically a patron of the arts—they were able to fund me to stay off the road to make my album. It's really hard for me to look at that and say that it wasn't a good thing to do.")

But as we move into a world where licensing and sync opportunities are the place where artists make their money, Davis sees an immediate downside to how that works: Namely, if everybody knows that the money in music comes from licensing, it can quickly become a race to the bottom. It's not exactly "Why Hip Hop Sucks In '16," but the challenges of making a career in music aren't solved simply by saying "license your songs to anybody who comes calling."

"Certainly the revenue has decreased and will only continue to decrease as long as the popular opinion is that it's the only way artists can make money," he says. "People start taking advantage of that. Video game companies are notoriously awful with this—they feel like, 'Well, hey, these musicians need the exposure—why should we have to pay for it?' On one hand, you can sit there as an artist and say, 'Well, that's pretty messed up.' And on another level you can say, 'Well, who can blame them?' Because artists have been placed in a position where everybody is trying to undercut the next guy. I'm not fooled by any of that. I see it—we all see it—and it's not very cool."

There are a lot of things that look like contradictions in the way that DJ Shadow structures his career. He's an artist who doesn't see himself as album-oriented, but he just spent the better part of three years putting together the fifth studio album of his 20-year career. He talks openly about how the process is emotionally exhausting, and how that emotional exhaustion fuels the creative process. He laments the state of a business that offers so few revenue streams that artists are undercutting each other for licensing opportunities, even as he embraces many of the opportunities that come his way. But there's a clear guiding principle at work in what he does—and, he says, when it comes to convincing the people you work with that you can follow your own instincts, the key to getting them on board is to articulate it.

That applies everywhere, but it's especially true when it comes to licensing opportunities, and turning them down. "If I just said yes to everything, I don't think that would send a great signal, even though in the short term, probably some people on the monetary side of the team would be happy," he admits. "The biggest risk in the industry is that you say no, and then the people who work in your publishing, or the people at your label, throw up their hands and say, 'Oh, well, this guy doesn't get it, he doesn't want to make money. Let's move on to the next guy.' That's why you have to articulately explain your decisions very clearly, and make them understand your long-term vision for your music and your catalog. I don't think anybody likes a sellout, or somebody that has no game plan for what it is they want to do. We know people who, their philosophy is 'I just say yes to everything,' but I think the industry gets a whiff of that, and the industry seems to want what they can't have. So it's a fine line that you have to walk, and one that you have to be able to delineate based on your own value system, and the way you want your music to be represented by the industry at large."

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