Lead by Your Samples: DJ Shadow on Collecting Vinyl, Scratching, and His New Tour

From The Stranger

DIRK LINDNER

Say the name DJ Shadow to any hiphop head who came of age in the 1990s, and they’ll stop what they’re doing to recall a favorite track. For some, it’s “Organ Donor,” the methodical-yet-spastic gymnastic of an instrumental. For others, it’s “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” a misty, railroad-like tune featuring dialogue perhaps plucked from a psychedelic Hitchcock film. But whatever the song, DJ Shadow, with his mixing board and collection of 60,000 records, has been integral in the development of hiphop over the last two decades.

Shadow burst onto the national the scene some 21 years ago with his masterpiece Endtroducing…, which Time magazine has since dubbed a top-100 album of all time. Since then, Shadow has released four more studio full-lengths, including his latest, 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall, a classic-yet-surreal display of humor, musical acumen, and wisdom. Even more recently, Shadow released a song with the rapper Nas, 2017’s “Systematic,” for the Silicon Valley television series.

He took some time to talk about his latest tour (which hits Seattle on July 14 at the Neptune), his current-day scratching abilities, and how he composes new music.

There are a lot of eclectic sounds on your latest record, The Mountain Will Fall. It starts so playfully and ends so thoughtfully. What’s your process?

There’s kind of an emotional palette—a painter has a color wheel, a palette of colors, and I sometimes think in terms of a palette of emotions for a song or album. Oftentimes it can be difficult to connect to the emotion—it can be rage, happiness, joy, sadness. A lot of the time when people say “emotion,” they think of the darker stuff. But to me, Public Enemy made great expressions of rage and energy, which is very emotional—it drives. And I learned a lot from groups that made more somber stuff from different genres of music. For lack of a better example—or maybe it’s a great example—bands like Radiohead.

Do you have a favorite decade of music you like to sample from?

It totally varies. A lot of people still think about sampling as a guy with a backpack in a dusty record-store basement. To me, I sample from, and always have, even on Endtroducing, videotapes, cassettes—it’s not era- or format-specific for me anymore. The classic era that most people associate with sampling would be the 1970s, because that’s the era hiphop culture developed in, and because it’s a direct descendent of funk music. Hiphop was the first generation of music to embrace sampling and push the envelope in terms of technique. That will always be the case—open drum breaks that really came into vogue starting in the late 1960s.

What is your opinion about vinyl records in an increasingly digital world?

I’m not a vinyl-or-die kind of person. I need to start accepting the fact that some music will come out and exist only in digital form.

Where are the best places to buy records?

I have a giant mountain of stuff I purchased in the past and never had time to listen to. All formats—hundreds of cassettes and CDs, thousands and thousands of records I bought from trips 15 years ago in Hong Kong, Korea, the United States. When it comes time for me to make music, I just kind of grab stacks at random. It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life; I’ve always bought more than I can process. I saw the writing on the wall early when records were becoming fetishized things. I spent a lot of time in the 1990s and early 2000s buying records to protect myself from the eventual scarcity, which is where we’re at now.

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