How much damage can one guy do with a sampler, a turntable, and a tape recorder? If heís DJ Shadow (a.k.a. Josh Davis), he can join the ranks of the hip-hop elite.
Which is just what this 24-year-old from Davis, California, did last year with an Akai MPC-60, a Technics 1200, and an Alesis ADAT. EndtroducingÖ, his full-length debut on Moí Wax Records, is a sampling landmark Ė a stunning collage comprised entirely of sliced samples and turntable overdubs. Lots of samples, actually; thousands, according to his bio.
"His groundbreaking compositions read like lessons of music history," said CMJ New Music Monthly about the record, "featuring soundbites from almost every era of hip-hop, jazz, and soul Ė cut and pasted together onto a futuristic sonic background. This is the real deal. Accept no imitations."
Half street-wise, half-scholarly, Shadow is deep beyond his years, as Keyboard learned recently when we sat down with the sampling wizard. What follows are a few historical tidbits about his entry into the hip-hop world, followed by his graduation into sampling, and then some mouth-watering details of the Endtroducing.Ö sessions.
What sparked your interest in making music?
Iíve been buying hip-hop since 1983. Initially, I was inspired by my dad, who had records like Isaac Hayesí Hot Buttered Soul, Three Dog Night, whatever. And then Iíll never forget when I went and saw Public Enemy in Oakland. Their ÖTakes A Nation of Millions album was coming out, and they sampled one of the songs on Hot Buttered Soul, for "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." So I was sort of up on it when it came out and I remember thinking, "God, I could do this."
What attracted you to hip-hop in the first place?
I was interested in the directness of lyrics and the starkness of the music and the beat, but it was the little record scratches and things, and trying to locate what those were and where they came from, that excited me. The first projects I was involved in were as a DJ, and by í89 I was totally immersed in it. I felt pretty informed about the whole genre. I was a scratch DJ, and it was all about battling and being the fastest and the quickest. Outside of school it was my life. There wasnít much else to do here. So I started making my own records in í91. The first one I made, "Lesson 4 [a 12" promo for Hollywood Basic Records]," was sort of a throwback to the breakbeat collages that were emerging from New York in the mid-Ď80s. I felt like I hadnít heard that done in a while, and I did that as my entry into hip-hop culture.
Was "Lesson 4" made on a sampler?
I did it all on a Yamaha 4-track, without a sampler and without Technics 1200 turntables, which is the standard, Ďcause I couldnít afford Ďem. What I did instead, in real old-school fashion, was, Iíd punch in on the 4-track and drop the break on the one. Then after four or eight bars, or even half a bar, or whatever, Iíd stop the tape, rewind it, and cue it up again. Then, as the tape was rolling, Iíd punch in again. Then Iíd overdub scratches on top of that. Thatís the way my first few records were done, as well as the mixes I did for KMEL, a station in San Francisco.
When did you transition into sampling?
I met a guy named Mr. Niceguy from New York, who was loosely associated with the Bomb Squad, and he came out from New York with an [E-mu] SP-1200 and a bunch of records [in 1991]. That was the first time I got to do hands-on work with a sampler. He was also the first to introduce me to the world of 45s Ė the vast world of 45s. Anyway, the first thing I did on the SP-1200 was, I looped up Pigmeat Markhamís "Here Comes Da Judge." I started out really simple, because I was trying to switch my whole format of thinking. When I finally scraped enough money together to buy a sampler, I talked to Stretch Armstrong, whoís a rap personality in New York, and he was saying there was a new piece of gear called the Akai MPC-60 that I should check out. I wrote it down on a piece of paper, and actually, I just recently came across that note in the glove box of my car. Kinda funny. I took it and set it aside, Ďcause itís sort of historical for me. Also, back then I was working with Paris, and he was the first to put me in the studio. I was about 18, and I was doing tracks for his records, but I got to see the whole process of how they worked. I mean, I had an ear for it Ďcause I was such a hip-hop fiend, and hip-hop was definitely on the cutting edge as far as sampling. But I was also listening to things like Depeche Mode, who were also on the cutting edge. So basically, I was fascinated with anything sample-based, from "Rock Me Amadeus" to Thomas Dolby to Afrika Bambaataa.
Were you ever tempted to check out synthesizers as well, or was it always strictly samplers?
I was interested in synths, but I never had a lot of money growing up. We werenít one of those families where, "Oh, you want a keyboard. Sure, weíll get you a keyboard." It was never like that. I used to go to Guitar Center in San Jose and Iíd play around with the keyboards. I was a big fan of electro Ė L.A techno-hop it was called in the early-to-mid-Ď80s. Groups like Egyptian Lover, and Uncle Jamís Army, Rodney-O, and all these L.A electro records had a lot of synthesizers. So my dad used to take me there [to Guitar Center] and Iíd go up into the demo room and play around. And I used to play around with 808s, or whatever drum machines they had lying around. I remember thinking, "Someday, someday."
When did you finally get your hands on the MPC-60?
In í92. Paris helped me buy it, and I had it expanded as far as it would go. I donít even remember, now, how much memory it had, but I think it was a maximum of five seconds on each pad. Actually, I did the album [EndtroducingÖ.] on the MPC-60 MKII, with nothing else, really. It was truly an exploration, as it was with the 4-track. By the time I got the MPC, I was so ready for something new. I mean, Iíd taken the 4-track to the limit, doing everything from putting the tape in on the other side for reverse loops, to everything I could possibly think of, and there was nothing more for me to do with it, and it was really depressing.
Did it take very long for you to acclimate to the MPC?
I was so ready. Iíd fantasized about it for so long that when I got it, I took it home and I was shaking and sweating. I stayed up all night reading the manual front to back. I had to use it immediately because I was bursting with all these ideas. The first record I actually made on the MPC was the very first SoleSides record. SoleSides is a label that I helped start with some like-minded friends from college.
What was your approach to using the MPC early on?
Originally it was just sort of, "I wanna loop this." And I guess like anybody, I knocked out track after track. But as hip-hop got moreÖwhen people like Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Premier started taking sampling to the next level, it wasnít too long before I thought, "Iíd better get my own style here. Iíd better change it up." So it then became more about chopping beats, and making samples work for me in a sort of 4-track mentality. Iíve tried to keep that mentality, even to this day. "Influx," my first record for Moí Wax was the real test, because on that track I spent all the sample time just on the beat, and then I put it on disk, and bounced, and kept building it up like that. I used, like, 20 disks on the song. In other words, there were more samples for the song than the two banks of 16 pads would hold at one time.
How did you synchronize the separate pad performances?
I got one ADAT machine, and what I would do is pour all 32 pads onto an ADAT stereo pair, and keep building from there. I had it synced with SMPTE. It was really a backward way to go about it, but like anything, I guess I like to learn the hardest way first, because it disciplines you. So when I finally did get an Akai MPC-3000 last year, I took it with a grain of salt. "Yeah, great, I have all this sample time. But now itís in stereo, so the samples take up twice as much time.
Were you ever interested in recording your own original parts, or having, say, a bass player come in and lay something down for you?
Cutting and pasting is the essence of what hip-hop culture is all about for me. Itís about drawing from whatís around you, and subverting it and decontextualizing it, and spitting it out into something that typically represents more of a street mentality or survival feel.
What are your criteria when scavenging for samples?
Iíve always pushed myself to use obscure things, and if I use something obvious, itís usually only to break my own rules. But I donít think Iíve ever used anything thatís so obvious, or devious in the sense that, "Iím going to sample the hook off this hit." If I do use somebody like BjŲrk, which I did use, it was only an album track, and it was only because I found the record in a used-record store, the same way I find all my records. I bought that record the same day I bought some pre-í85 hip-hop and some rock and some high school records, and they all end up in the same stack. Beat shopping is a culture. I never use reissues or bootlegs or compilations. I didnít use any CDs on the album. And I neverÖI donít just run out and buy Blue Note breaks, if you know what I mean. I spend a lot of time, almost all my time, trying to find the obscure thing. I figure the bigger my library is, the better Iím going to be able to tap into the exact sound that I want.
Rumor has it that you take a portable, battery-powered record player with you to the vinyl shops. True?
I do. I have a little Fisher-Price battery-operated turntable that I take with me everywhere. It saves a lot of money Ďcause lots of times Iíll see a record that might be ten bucks, and Iím on the fence about it. So Iíll play it right there.
And the store owners are cool with you dropping records on your own player?
Thereís a whole set of mind games that goes with record dealers, just like with anything. I try and get on their good side.
Are you a global vinyl shopper?
I still shop at the same places Iíve always shopped at, but Iíve been fortunate enough to augment that with travel. So yeah, if Iím in Japan, for example, Iím out there. But itís a different market in every place you go. In Japan, youíre not gonna stumble on anything Ďcause there are so many archivists of vinyl out there. England is fun too.
What about shopping on the internet?
Iíve been feeling really bad about that Ďcause I still to this day don't have a computer. I can't explain it, but really I feel that I don't have time. I know that seems silly. I mean, I'm still writing everything by hand, and all that kind of stuff, but right now I don't foresee having the time to learn about it.
Since your records are made almost entirely of samples from vinyl, do you fear lawsuits?
Iíve tried to be naÔve. I mean, Iíd rather be naÔve than jaded, I guess the expression goes. It does cross my mind in the sense that, "Well, Iím about to use this. Hmm. Maybe I should try and switch it up a little bit, or make it a little less obvious. Or maybe I should keep looking for something a little less obvious." I think thatís healthy. When I was in college, Iíd be sitting in class writing down ideas, and then when I finally was able to do it, two hours a night or whatever, I had to just shut the door, block everything else out, and let the ideas flow. And Iíve tried to keep thatÖI still have all my equipment in my house, and when I close the door, Iíve disciplined myself over the years to let all exterior pressures dissipate. Itís total concentration Ė concentration on making quality music. And by that nature, Iíve had to say, "So-and-so might get upset about me sampling this, or the label might not want me to use blah blah blah." But Iím still not used to being in that position. Iím used to making underground records.
Using the Dust Brothers as an example, they went through exhaustive sample clearance on the Beastie Boysí Paul Boutique. Conversely, you only credit one sample per song, on average, on EndtroducingÖ. when itís no secret that the entire album is made up of samples. An obvious difference in philosophy.
Iíve been keeping up with the whole sample legalities, and Iíve always been very pro-sampling. You know, back when it was really cool for all the rook fixtures and the pillars of the of the industry to diss itÖIíll never forget this MTV report on sampling in, like, í89, when all the things were going down with De La Soul and the Turtles. It was just so hip-hop. They were the underdogs going up against these bloated rock and roll mindstates. And as a result, I got really rebellious, and just sort of took the stance of, "Fuck it. Iím just gonna use it."
EndtroducingÖ What was your goal with this record?
I definitely set out to do an entirely 100% sample-based album. That was my mission.
And you did it entirely on, essentially, a turntable and an Akai MPC-60 MKII.
Yeah, and without much memory. It was all about chopping to me. I never had the luxury of taking extended samples. There are lots of overdubs on the album, as well. But all the record was 100% sample Ė or vinyl-based. All the sampling was done on the MPC. It all went straight from turntable to the MPC to tape. And any other things you hear were done straight off the turntable, pitched in. Like, if a song is in a certain key, and I overdub a string bit, I have to manipulate the pitch control on the turntable until it works.
How do you usually approach a track?
I try to build the track up homogeneously. I donít like to spend all my time working on just the beat. I like to get the beat rough, add some rough music, and then start to tighten it up from there. But generally with me, it always starts with a beat. Iíll find a break, loop it up, and Iíll try not to put too much pressure on myself, like "Okay, this will be an album cut," or not. I just do it, and let it take its own direction. I sort of give it a guiding hand, but I didnít ever want to choke-hold anything.
Tell us more about how you chop breakbeats.
For me, generally the breaks on the album would be about nine chops [sampled slices], sometimes more. So, in other words, if the break goes [sings Ďboom, boom, gatÖgat, da-boom, gatí] it would sound primitive and old-fashioned for me just to loop that. Iíd rather sample the bass hit [sings Ďboomí], and then the next bass hit [sings Ďboomí], then the snare, then the hi-hat, and then the other snare, et cetera. That way I can reconstruct the beat from the record for some bars, but then I can create new beats for others. The big tip I learned on the MPC is about the fade function. I never like my chops to sound really choppy, unless theyíre intentionally supposed to be choppy, if you get my drift, like in a jungly kind of way. If Iím doing a loop Ė and I learned this from people like Large Professor and Pete Rock, and Premier, Iíll always credit those people Ė itís much more difficult to make it sound like itís a loop from pieces or a non-existing loop. So letís say youíve sampled little pieces of a loop, and you donít want to make it sound choppy. You donít want to hear the decay cut off on the snare or whatever, or no ambience on the kick. So I like to give it that ambience if itís not already there. Sometimes Iíll just sample air off the record and lay that in. And thatís where the fade comes in. If I sample air, and itís like [sings Ďtshhhhhhhí], if you fade it in, itís like [sings Ďwwhhshhhhí], and then if you repeat it over and over, it creates a softness that blends in, and essentially there isnít ever any empty space. And only if itís necessary. Maybe you might have to put that sound in only one step on a two-bar loop. Or maybe the drummer does something you donít like or thereís a pop in the record, and that forces you to truncate before you really want, so you can just fly that air in there to fill that space. If it [the drum pattern] sounds complex, itís supposed to. I want people to get the impression that I spent a lot of time on every detail of the samples. I treat the sampler the way some people treat the electric guitar or a drum kit. I want to be the best at it.
Using a song from the album as an example, describe how many individual samples you might use.
[On] "The Number Song," the drumming is off a 45, and itís a breakbeat in which the vocalist is going [sings "huh, yeah, come on"]. So I basically went through and sampled every part of the break where he wasnít speaking. There were about 16 chops, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the reverb of the guy talking, but you canít hear what heís saying. So it gives the break a kind of eerie heaviness, a tone. And thatís what breakbeats are all about: studio fuck-ups, or the weird way it was miked. Every break has a personality all of its own.
Your drum programming is impressive. Were you once a drummer?
I really love the drums, but no. Every year itís my resolution to get a drum kit, and I play a little bit whenever I get a chance, but Iíve never been trained. I guess itís just growing up listening to hip-hop. Itís ingrained. I mean, Iím really a music fanatic, more than I am a musician. Iím just a fan of music, so I can say, "Gee, isnít it cool how Radiohead miked the drums on ĎClimbing Up the Wallsí?" Or, "Isnít that pattern cool, and how did they do that?" Things like that. So I guess I try to put my own little signature on the drums.
My new song is called "High Noon," a single for England, and itís the hardest song Iíve ever done, bar none. The drum chops on that song take up 64 pads on the MPC-3000, and then more on another disk. So almost 100 pads on the drums alone, and thatís why the song was so difficult. I think when you hear it, hopefully youíll like it. Itís a drum song.
Tell us about some of the other elements in "The Number Song."
Thereís the guitar part, which I sampled, and I had to do some things to extend that last note. (Up until the newest MPC-2000, none of the MPCs offered sample looping, which is why Shadow had to do the following procedure.) I ended up having to sample the middle of that one note, and repeat it, which I do a lot. I basically time-extended. Not to deviate too much, but maybe this will give you some insight into this. Thereís a song I did called "Swan Lake" by the group Blackalicious on SoleSides. What we did, and I thought it was a pretty good idea, was we had all these different cover versions of the song "People Make the World Go Round" by the Stylistics. So we made a song using all of the versions. But the difficult thing about that was some of the were at 90 bpm, some were at 110, and so on, but we had to get them all in tune. So thereís a part in that song where I wanted to use a trumpet solo from one of the versions, but it was wildly out of time, even though it was in tune. So I had to chop out the pieces of it, every third of a second or so, and put each piece on its own pad in the MPC. Then, using the fade in/fade out function at the beginning and end of the samples, I had to morph them all together. It was pretty tough, but basically it was time-stretching the hard way. And I still do stuff like that because I like doing it the hard way. It gives you a good feeling when youíre done. It feels like you didnít cut corners, and it teaches you other things that you wouldnít have learned if you just pressed a button.
Any other MPC tips youíd care to share?
What I do a lot of times on the 3000 is, if the break doesnít have enough bump in it, if itís not quite deep enough and doesnít have enough punch in the bass, Iíll copy the bass [drum] pad and run the filter down to, like, 10, so itís all bass. Then run it simultaneously with original. I might give it some reverb too, which gives it a kind of 808 feel.
With powerful computer-based editing tools on the market, like Steinberg ReCycle or Digidesign Pro Tools, what makes you want to work exclusively on a small-LCD system like the MPC?
I guess itís because when I find a piece of gear that I like, itís by circumstance. In other words, growing up I never had the wherewithal or the resources to be testing all this gear. Or I never had the industry buddies who are engineers, so Iíve been out on a limb on my own. And actually, my whole career has been like that. I learned how to DJ the opposite of the rest of the world. When youíre scratching, most people bring the crossfader one way. I bring it the opposite way. There was nobody to tell me it was wrong. And so with the stuff I do on the MPC, itís sort of the same way. I donít spend a lot of time trading music-making secrets with a lot of other people Ďcause Iím sort of a lone wolf. I guess thatís the way Iím most comfortable: being in my own little space, as far as music goes. Iíve also been paranoid about getting so far into gear that it becomes an excuse to never really make music. Iíve seen a lot of people fall into that.
How do you mix?
After itís all sequenced, I run everything to stereo pairs on the ADAT. Then I take the ADAT tapes toÖthereís a guy named the Automator [Dan Nakamura] who produces the Dr. Octagon records. Iíve known him since í92, and it was fortuitous that we met Ďcause heís got a really good home studio system. And itís good because the more records I do, the more equipment he gets, kind of. So he turns everything on, I say, "Okay, thanks," and he goes off and does what he does, and I just sit there in this little room and use the equipment. But itís pretty simple. From ADAT to DAT machine, it maybe gets compressed and limited a little bit. Endtroducing.Ö was the first to actually get done like that, though. Before, we were using one of those little $1000 Mackies, and I was just running everything through it and maybe one reverb. I like to keep things pretty simple, even now. I like being in full control, and I donít like knowing that I need all those lights bouncing around for it to sound right. I try to get it right, even going into the MPC with EQ and all that ahead of time.
And knowing what sounds right has come from years of being a serious listener of music.
Yeah, and also working with all that 4-track stuff. As murderous as it was at the time, it was great Ďcause it was all I knew. I didnít know there were easier ways. And having that disciplines helped me not take any piece of gear for granted.
Whatís up next for you?
Iím finishing up that single, "High Noon," for Moí Wax. Thatís a one-off. I do that every now and then in England just to keep my name out there, and I like to stir it up. I think this song is way different from anything Iíve ever done. Iím really confident in this song, and I hope everyone will hear it. I donít say that about every song. And also Iím doing an album called U.N.K.L.E., a group on Moí Wax. Iím doing the music for that, and it involves a lot of vocalists from other groups. So working with vocalists is a healthy thing for me to do. I work with rappers about half of the time, but instrumental music is the thing thatís closest to my heart, because itís all me.
With EndtroducingÖ., you really set a standard for sample-based records. Do you intend to try and outdo yourself with your next solo record?
With the "High Noon" single, I definitely set out to be better myself in a lot of different ways, and hopefully I did. Itís easily the most complex track Iíve ever done Ė sonically, structurally, everything about it. But now that Iíve done that, I may explore different things. Weíll see.