He’s back! The elusive Hip-Hop historian known simply as DJ Shadow is back with his new album Our Pathetic Age, and he’s got a massive set of homies along for the ride that include heavyweights like Nas, Wu-Tang Clan squadron Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, Dave East, Pusha T and a standout record with De La Soul that just got blessed with an official music video recently.
On the eve of the album’s release, The Source was honored to have a meeting of minds with one of the most forward-thinking ones in the music biz for the past two decades and counting — on the low though, as he prefers it of course. For the sake of this extensive exclusive, we ventured into DJ Shadow‘s recluse underground musical chamber — OK, more like the in-office studio over at Mass Appeal Records! — for a conversation that delved into making crazy beats for a handful of rap all-stars, always maintaining a level of uniqueness and even standing by for seven months to get a fire Pusha T feature that was very much worth the wait. You’ll see what we mean.
Keep scrolling for our exclusive sit-down with the mixmaster DJ Shadow as he takes us into the creation of his latest studio LP, Our Pathetic Age, one of the most eclectic and rapper-filled albums you’ll hear in 2019:
“I want to make something with you that nobody is gonna ask you to do and 50 years from now will stand out as being unique when you look back on your career. That’s the goal I try to set. There’s no Nas song that’s been made that sounds like “Drone Warfare.” To some people that’s a liability or a problem, but to me it’s amazing.”
The Source: When looking at your career overall, would you define yourself more as a DJ or a producer?
DJ Shadow: To me, being a DJ; that’s where it all started. Not only for myself but [DJing comes first for] Hip-Hop in general. Before there were emcees, there were DJs. That’s all I wanted to be — I identified with the “men in the back.” There’s that iconic King Of Rock album cover [by Run DMC] where Jam Master Jay is in the shadows; I identify with that. It’s actually part of why my name is what it is.
I didn’t know in 1982, or ‘83, 84 or ‘85 [Laughs], whether I’d be a wedding DJ or freestyling in the clubs. I didn’t t know what my path was gonna be; I just knew that I wanted to be a DJ. It felt powerful to be able to expose people to the music I thought was valid.
That path led to your debut album, Endtroducing…, which is still regarded as a masterpiece amongst audiophiles and “beat freaks” everywhere — no one was thinking so left-field with the beat selections in 1996 aside from Timbaland and Aaliyah on her ‘One In a Million’ album. Where was your mind at to come up with such an eclectic body of work?
Well, of course it wasn’t like I rolled out of bed and just did that album. I had like 15 or 20 other projects prior to that. One of the very first things I did actually was send a tape into The Source Magazine and ended up in the Unsigned Hype section during 1991. I felt like I was on a wavelength with all the samples I was finding, and was heavily inspired by Prince Paul, [DJ] Premier and guys like that; they were looking outside of ultimate breaks and beats. They were talking risks with the stuff they were using, and that to me was the future.
At the same time, I was inspired going all the way back to “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” — that was the template. That song is the template for everything that I’ve ever done. It gives you a little bit of disco, a little bit of funk, a little bit of rock and even a little bit of weird children’s records. Mantronix’s stuff with “King of the Beats,” which showed that the producer could be the star, was one of many moments that helped to inform me in my productions for MCs and for myself which ultimately led me to Endtroducing… overall. [That album] was really an opportunity for me to go as far out as I wanted to. That wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for people like Dave “Funken-Klein,” who A&R’ed at Hollywood BASIC, and James Lavelle who A&R’ed at Mo’ Wax, the label I was on. They were always telling me, ‘Do your weird shit! I like the weird shit that you do!’ On the other side, all the quote-on-quote vanguard rap labels like Profile, Wild Pitch and Tommy Boy we’re always telling me it was a “little too wild” and “too crazy.” [Lavelle and Funken-Klein] were the ones saying, ‘No, do the crazy/weird stuff.’ You need that as an artist; you need someone to say ‘It’s OK to be who you are.’
This new album almost sounds like a tribute to all those ideologies that you just attributed to the artist you are today — the weird shit is still mixing into something new to create fresh beats and interesting samples yet again. Where did the production phase start for Our Pathetic Age?
I’ve always tried to add new tools to the tool belt. I obviously became known as “the sample guy,” and that was the conversation I both wanted to contribute to and elevate. In 1995, your average production on the West Coast might not even have a sample in it because that G-Funk sound was so prominent. I loved records like The Chronic [by Dr. Dre], Snoop Dogg’s first album, Warren G and all those guys — I’m from California, born and raised — but I didn’t want to imitate that sound in the same sense that I didn’t want to imitate guys like Premier, Prince Paul or Large Professor.
The whole time around those early years I was hearing drum and bass and listening to stuff by Juvenile and Three 6 Mafia. Even in ‘88, I was just as likely to be playing [The Geto Boys’] Making Trouble cassette as I was Ultramagnetic MC’s. That was the unique thing about growing up where I did; I’d be listening to Too $hort, then next up would be Jungle Brothers [Laughs]. That in itself was unique. I remember buying the seminal first 2 Live Crew 12-inch when they got to Miami, which is called Throw The ‘D’ — that’s a classic and a template for Miami bass music. It came out the same weekend as “South Bronx” by Boogie Down Productions. Those were my two musical purchase that weekend in 1986.
Those throwback “Tuesday pickups”!
Yeah! I say all of that to hopefully open a new window into why I’m so open-minded when it comes to music. The production for that 2 Live Crew stuff is completely advanced and state-of-the-art. My point is, through the years I’ve always tried to look for places where music innovation was occurring even outside of Hip-Hop. In the ‘90s that was drum and bass for me, especially because I was living in the UK at the time and that was the emerging art form — think Portishead. Then later it was the Mob sound in the Bay Area, then the beginning of the Crunk sound. I was on a trip buying records in the South in 2003, and that’s when I fell in love with the “Lil Jon sound.” At the time it was way more regional, but you’d be driving by clubs in Georgia and you’d feel it in the air or hear it coming out of cars. That style mixed with the hyphy sound of the Bay Area, the UK dubstep stuff, the more aggressive Americanized version of dubstep, trap, “post-trap” — wherever the innovations are going is where my ear is at. I want to understand these rhythms and how people are making this music. Why can’t I make this? How is this ultimately being made?
That even comes into play with remixes — it becomes a question of what can you do with this original beat to make it just as fresh, yet unique at the same time? One thing that does strike us as unique though is the album title for this new LP. What exactly were you trying to convey with such a solemn title as Our Pathetic Age?
The analogy I use is from Sly and the Family Stone — I don’t even think of them as a political group — when they put out There’s a Riot Going On. Prince, another artist who I don’t consider to be political necessarily, put out Sign of the Times. I just feel like there are times as an artist where it would be insincere for me to put out a record that doesn’t address the times that we’re living in right now. In my 47 years on earth, these are exceptional times. I would hate to think that nobody is putting any kind of flag in the ground and saying this is what it was like — this is how it felt. When you look at James Brown’s Hell album cover, to me all of that madness in the art signifies his era. It’s him trying to make sense of the era that he was living in. That’s what the album title [Our Pathetic Age] means to me on this record. It’s just a way of me saying, ‘Man, I hope you enjoy this record, but if you look back on it in 20 years you need to know that this was some fucked up shit.’
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DJ Shadow's ‘Our Pathetic Age' is out now. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ “Despite the title, this is art borne of, and inspired by, love for my fellow human being and this fragile spaceship we all inhabit. Although we’ve been systematically separated by arbitrary borders, both geographic and psychological, analog and digital, at our core, we’re more alike than different. Everyone has their own way of dealing with, reacting to, embracing or rejecting the external stimuli that complicate our lives. As an artist, this album is my coping mechanism, and I hope it will become yours." -DJ Shadow
Creatively speaking, what made you choose to split it straight down the middle in terms of the first half being instrumental and the second half being loaded with big-name features?
At a certain point it was suggested to me like, ‘Wouldn’t it be dope if you did a double album?’ Somebody on my team just happened to mention it in a phone call, and I like when people throw down the gauntlet like that. I need people to be invested in what I’m doing, because it makes me want to please them and rise to the occasion. I heard that in probably October of last year, and I thought that would be kind of a cool statement at this point in my career. I started thinking about it more and more, and I realized I had maybe 20 minutes of semi-finished instrumental tracks and 20 minutes of beats with vocalists. I thought it was pretty interesting and wondered if it would continue to develop like that. I always wanted people to have to check in on both, in the sense that some of my fans are into Hip-Hop but really not into rap. So, my response has always been like, ‘If you want to get to this [sample], you’ve got to go through this David Banner track’ — I’m gonna make you earn it [Laughs]! On the flip side, those fans that call themselves Hip-Hop heads will have to make your way through this really fragile female folk song. To me, I liked playing with that energy.
On this record I thought purely as a DJ and as someone who programs blocks of music. I thought it’d be the right thing to do and the best way to represent the music.
Staying on the topic of bringing artists on your beats, let’s go back to the Timbaland reference: he found success with artists like Aaliyah, Missy Elliott and at times Jay-Z making huge hits for him. Was there ever a musician, now or back in the beginning, that you can or could’ve seen yourself solely producing for and achieving Billboard success?
I don’t know, man…I mean, first of all, Timbaland is an incredible genius. His path is his own, and as a fan, I mean, what can you say [with hits like] “Pony”? That’s an untouchable legacy. I just feel like my path has always taken me away from anything mainstream or too commercial. The most successful song I’ve ever had is “Nobody Speak” [with Run The Jewels]. I wouldn’t think that you would play it for any radio programmer and they’d go, ‘Yeah! That song is good for radio!’ I’d think it’d be more like, ‘That’s gonna be a tough road to try and work that record!’ I’m just at peace with whatever comes. As far as picking a vocalist, put it this way: there have been situations in the past where I’ve been asked to produce big-time records, and then had the whole thing just go kerflooey and it have nothing to do with me. Living through that and going, ‘I wonder how my life would’ve been different if ‘x, y and z’ had happened?’ — you just can’t live life that way. I can only control my beats, my music and my path; I can’t control anyone else’s. That’s the best way I can answer that.
Speaking of your path, what are some of the themes that you specifically wanted to touch on for Our Pathetic Age?
The answer to that is always layered for me: I always have certain goals that are technical and ambitions that are artistic like, ‘I’d love to get this artist.’ When you listen to records like “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” “Urgent, Important, Please Read,” or “Drone Warfare,” I was inviting artists to look at the world around them and put something down. I didn’t want it to be like “naming names” — it’s so boring! We’re sick of hearing about these people [Laughs] — but I wanted to [differentiate] between the narrative and the real narrative. With Pharoahe Monch and Nas, it was always this conversation of like, ‘I don’t want to tell you how to write, but just look around you.’ That’s as usually as much as I’d tell people: don’t be too heavy-handed with it or too manifesto with it, but just speak on it because nobody else is. Even that, talking about some 2019 stuff, is a victory to me. When I’m working with a vocalist, I want to give them that platform to do something different. David Banner is the same thing — anybody that I’ve ever worked with through the years, it’s always been [a situation where] I want to make something with you that nobody is gonna ask you to do and 50 years from now will stand out as being unique when you look back on your career. That’s the goal I try to set. There’s no Nas song that’s been made that sounds like “Drone Warfare.” To some people that’s a liability or a problem, but to me it’s amazing.
There’s two mentalities when it comes to music, Hip-Hop and the business of it all: you either try to sound like everybody else to make it sound like everything else that’s on the big playlist right now, or you go the completely opposite direction. I’m not trying to make throwback music, but I want to play a little bit with learning lessons from different eras and applying them with all my new tools and weapons as a producer now. That’s the unique position that I’m in; I can hear a trap beat and go ‘I understand the preset, sample pack and where this snare came from,’ but I just don’t want to do things like everybody else.
Which studio sessions for this project stood out the most for you during the development process?
I mean, for example, I had heard back in October  that Pusha T was down to do something, It wasn’t until late May  that it was all of a sudden in my inbox [Laughs]. It was just one of those things where you play it and go, ‘…Yup! I don’t need to touch anything.’ He rapped to the same demo beat that ended up being “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.” That was a finished song and I didn’t want to touch it, so when I got Pusha’s verses I treated it like a “version” in the classic dancehall sense and wrapped it around what he wrote.
What’s the biggest thing that you want new fans and loyal fans that’ve been rocking with you even before Endtroducing… to take from Our Pathetic Age?
That’s a good question. It’s interesting, because I don’t think, for me at least, you can’t still be doing what you’ve been doing and still have an ego. On a certain level, I hope [fans] see that I’m growing and learning as an artist, but really it’s more about me helping people understand that this album is unique by design; it’s not unique by an accident. I wasn’t someone who grew up on club music or rock and [now is] trying to work with rappers. I grew up on Hip-Hop and discovered every other type of music through Hip-Hop. I don’t think we have too many producers who can honestly make songs like “Firestorm,” “My Lonely Room” and “Rocket Fuel” — I just don’t think too many could do it. I’m genuinely invested in all of these worlds, and genuinely want to understand how to write to a certain string instrument that works best to convey a certain emotion. I want to write harmonies that aren’t necessarily correct, but conveys the proper emotion — should it be a french horn or a trumpet? I’d like to know; I’m thirsty to understand that. At the same time, whatever producer — some 21-year-old still living with their folks still [Laughs] — how do I make my kick or my subtones work together in a way that doesn’t freak out my levels? Let’s work on that science. We’re playing with a little bit of energy that you don’t hear too often these days. Put your trust in me though, because I’m gonna hook it up. Even though it’s not about an ego thing for me, at this point in my career I hope it’s something that comes through when people listen.
You can stream Our Pathetic Age, the new album by the legend himself DJ Shadow, right now on all streaming platforms courtesy of Mass Appeal Records.
Images: Derrick Daily