Californian DJ Shadow made his name as the sample-auteur of the trendy Mo' Wax in London with his debut album Endtroducing in 1996. Since then, he’s forged a reputation as both a collector and DJ who stays one step ahead of the pack in his constant quest for new and interesting records. We asked him about his career as a digger.
When did you start collecting?
I had always been a collector. I collected baseball cards as a little kid and then when I was about 8 I started collecting comic books. Then I started getting into hip hop in about 82, you know, on the radio, listening to The Message and going to the store with my allowance and buying 12-inches and the few albums that existed then. From the moment I started buying vinyl, I was a collector. I mean the first 70 records I owned, I’d put a little sticker on them denoting the chronology of when I bought them. The first album I bought was Street Beats vol. 2 which was a Sugarhill Records compilation and I bought it because it was good value.
Anyone who was into that culture kinda gravitated towards one another and in my school there was perhaps only a dozen or so that were really into it. I remember this one kid who used to go to Sacramento quite a lot, which was the nearest major city to where I lived. He had access to some records that we weren’t able to find locally and when he decided to sell his collection I bought all his stuff, so I was always out there fiending. Then I started buying older stuff around ’87, because I started being obsessed about sampling and the samples that people were using and what they were; from my dad’s record collection I was able to start spotting certain samples. He had some Isaac Hayes records and some other jazz stuff like Clifford Coulter, jazz artists with semi-funky cuts on them. I remember the first time I went to a store with the intent of looking for breaks and samples, which was about 1987 and I bought The Payback by James Brown, the second Soul Searchers album and Dance To The Drummer’s Beat by Herman Kelly. At that time that stuff was plentiful and cheap and nobody cared. At least not where I was and that really was the case for another eight or nine years.
I didn’t get into 45s until about late 1989, it was my senior year in high school which was 89-90. The impetus for that was this cat was staying in town, which was a college town, and he was the first guy I knew who had an SP1200. He was from New York and he claimed to have some sort of ties to the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production company. He had a big stack of 45s and I was looking through going, ‘What’s the point of these?’ I always thought 45s were just shorter versions of things you could find on albums or 12-inches. He said, ‘No no man, 45s are where it’s at.’ He proceeded to play me some and I remember General Crook’s ‘Gimme Some’ was one of them. I remember staring at the label.
Yellow and red label?
That’s right. So I thought, ‘Whoah, better start paying attention to 45s.’
What was it about vinyl collecting that got you?
I think initially it was this: I have a collector gene in my blood. Aside from the fact the music was everything to me. It satisfied multiple dimensions. It was tactile in the way that comic books are tactile. And yet, they spoke to you sonically as well. I was a collector, but I was never a collector that wanted to find everything in pristine condition or trying to find the rare versions of things until probably the mid ’90s.
But I guess if you’re into scratching you have to have a slightly throwaway attitude towards the records…
Yeah. Also I never thought of rap as being worth anything to anybody other than me. I was fiending for it on an educational basis more than anything. Also rap didn’t circulate back into the used market until the early 90s anyway, so you couldn’t really go to shops, nobody knew where to put this stuff and nobody was buying it anyway. It was marginal music. So just to clarify it for you, it wasn’t about that sort of collecting it was simply that I had to get my hands on as much stuff like this as possible.
Now you’ve accumulated this music what do you see your role as, curator, archaeologist, or just a DJ?
I have a close circle of friends who, when they come over, we geek out for a few hours on the stuff I don’t let out of my sight, the one of a kinds or whatever. But for the most part my records are stacked and they’re not in any order. I need a lot of stuff coming through the door, one for inspiration, two for DJ use, three for sample searching… there’s so many reasons I buy this stuff. I suppose in some way, I suppose in some ways, it’s obsessive compulsive, but I have this fear that one day I won’t be able to bring records in to the door any more. You know used record stores are closing down. So I want to make sure I’m not caught playing the last record, you know, I don’t have any more new records to play. There are obviously things I bought ten years ago that I never thought I’d listen to them again and now they’re quite interesting. As far as what I consider my role to be, I don’t have any grand illusions about what I’m doing, even though I know on a personally collection basis, it’s pretty large. But I don’t have a precious attitude about it.
Yes, but at the same time you did help exhume the career of people like David Axelrod, so even though it might not be the motivating force it is a by-product of it.
I overheard a phrase about eight or nine years ago: urban archaeology. And sometimes when it’s all clicking, in a unique environment, looking through records you’ve never looked through before, in a unique place in the country or in the world, there is an electrical charge that I get and I’m sure other people who dig get, when they feel like they are doing something noble, in a way. Even though they’re probably not.
It’s almost like digging for bones in Egypt. There is that parallel.
Yeah. I mean there’ve been basements where there are rats running around, water seeping in from the Michigan River and you’re knee deep in it and you’re just sitting there thinking, ‘Shit, this is my one shot to get in here and rescue some stuff’. Possibly for the purpose of putting them on to a compilation reissuing things, or putting them on a mix so people appreciate and look for them. In its most noble form, and there are a lot of aspects of record collecting in which there is nothing noble, a lot of scummy people that engage in it.
Does your constant digging spoil your enjoyment of music itself?
I don’t think so. No. What hip hop taught me really early on and I always have to go back to hip hop because hip hop is what got me digging and hip hop is what got me appreciating other types of music. I didn’t have any respect for conventional rock’n’roll until I listened to what was being sampled in hip hop records. People sampling Black Sabbath breaks, Led Zeppelin. I hated the Beatles because I thought that was my parents’ trip. Growing up I loved music but I had a real resentment for anything that I felt was being shoved down my throat. I remember in about 1986 all those baby boomer acts like Stevie Winwood, George Harrison, Travelling Wilburys, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship were making really atrocious pop music and it was all really successful because my parents were buying it [laughs]. I just despised all that stuff. Ok, so you can’t hear any rap, but all you hear is this rehashed tripe. So it was only slowly that I began to appreciate and allow myself to appreciate other types of music and it was all through looking for samples and sort of adopting the hip hop aesthetic that anything can be applied. Kraftwerk are a text book example.
Is that a liberating way to approach music, because the rock critic mode of musical appreciation is all about the ‘rock canon’ or the ‘soul canon’ and there is no room for those accidents of genius that occur all the time?
It’s definitely liberating. I was reflecting this morning on how, I always have a problem in interviews when they ask me, ‘So what are the ten records people should check out right now?’ because I’ve never been trendy as a music consumer. Hip hop was never trendy when I was buying every single thing that came out. I have a real resistance to anything being pushed on me. As a result what I was listening to lately was a group from the Bay Area called The Phantom Limbs, kind of forgotten hip hop album by Black Male from 1990, Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain for no apparent reason. None of these records are what you consider of the moment, when I should, I suppose, be listening to TV on the Radio or…
Exactly. Although maybe in two years’ time I might be interested in checking out the entire catalogue. So it’s ironic that I was once on Mo’ Wax which was a very tastemaker or of the moment thing. To us it wasn’t though, it was just us rehashing our influences.
Does looking for samples or breaks change your aesthetic approach to digging?
In 1992 I met Automator. And as someone who was about 5 years’ older than me had already been going to New York a lot and was going to legendary places like Lenny’s Record Shop and Downstairs Records where people like Large Professor were buying their breaks from. So he had a knowledge that I was impressed with when I first met him and also there were very few people in California who understood the New York breaking culture as well as he did. We were able to speak the same language and there weren’t too many people like that out of my immediate clique or whatever. He was the first person I knew who had a portable turntable. Also Danny B who runs ADD Records in Berkeley also had one. I looked up to these guys because they were out doing it and if they had a portable hey, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’
So I got myself one and you’re right, it was all about finding breaks, though if I found myself a killer loop or a track that was just undeniable I’d pick that up too. But over the years I’d carry the portable with me, then suddenly it stopped being about the portable and I’d leave the portable at home. And that’s when I started just going off instinct. When you’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of records in your lifetime you start to get a feel of what you haven’t seen before and you start to realise that that’s the stuff you should be picking up. I still hear people say they just don’t look at 45s because they’re intimidated by that world. 45s, to me, were the crack cocaine of record collecting. It was the final frontier of collecting. Talk about your out-there labels and out-there records! That was really the 12-inch before the 12-inch. For hip hop if you don’t collect 12-inches you’re nowhere. And I quickly learned that was true with soul and funk and for that matter garage and punk or any other music that existed during the 45 era. There are about 300 Must-Have funk albums, and that’s tops. And when I say 300 I’m including the James Brown family. But for 45s it’s endless. The genre is not represented on album. Hip hop is five or ten times more prolific than that era.
Do you think sampling had become a little complacent before you arrived?
Well, it’s funny because a lot of people are sampling again. When I listen to KMEL a lot of records by people like Kanye West are sampling soul again. There’s obviously the Neptunes type stuff but even on labels like Cash Money you certainly hear samples. It’s a weird and interesting moment right now, because sampling itself is almost nostalgic. Like you hear people sampling classic breaks because it takes you back, you know? You had the New York hegemony. You know if you read Source magazine it was generally accepted that anything outside New York just wasn’t good. Being in California I knew that wasn’t the case, so I think I had a broader view than even people living in New York, as would’ve someone in London or Tokyo for that matter. But obviously the big shift was when the Chronic came out and then Snoop Dogg’s album came out. Even though there were some samples, it was an interesting combination of them with synthesisers and a broader palette. That was what really set it off. And concurrently what was happening in the south was really bedroom and people didn’t really have a lot of cultural attachment there was just the music. So they didn’t think, ‘We need to further the tradition’. There was a sense that this was a way to be heard. People buying their own regional sounds. I’m battling to say that I think all of this contributed to non sampling. I don’t think it has honestly anything to with people getting tired of giving away publishing, which I’m always reading about. Kanye West is still sampling.
Well, Dre had voiced this before.
Well for some people, they don’t know anything else at this point. I wouldn’t put Dre in that category, obviously. Someone like Manny Fresh. But then he’s old school. David Banner is old school. I guess what they’re doing is just trying to make something that is hot. And what’s hot are the 36 Mafia Beats, Scarface beats, that’s the blueprint for a lot of these dudes.
Do you think your level of digging has forced other people to dig harder? Like I got the impression that Kenny Dope was pretty impressed by Keb’s extremes of digging.
That may apply to Kenny Dope but that man has been digging since before it was cool to do it, and he’s been producing hip hop records since 1988 and house records since about that time so far be it from me to say anything on his behalf. I can tell you what happened to me when I first came to England. I didn’t barely know what northern soul was. A guy named John Hillyard, who lived in… he actually died in his storage locker. I started coming to DJ here with James Lavelle. I’d been collecting funk. The only person I knew who did it was my good partner 8th Wonder, that was his graffiti name, we got into funk in a big way, but we start to do these big road trips. There was no reference point. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was no website that told us what to look for. There was nothing. So we listened to everything.
So you just turned up and looked in the Yellow Pages?
Yeah, old school, nothing scientific. We would only go 200 miles or so. We were not driving cross country. My first cross country trip was 1993. So 1991 and ’92 we were getting into all kinds of records some of which are still considered rare today, some of which we liked but aren’t considered rare at all. Then I came to England and I was at Mr Bongo and there was guy in there saying, ‘Do you have any of these funk 45s?’ And I remember Hugh saying, ‘No, but you might wanna try Soul Jazz’ So I said can I see that list? Anyway, to make a long story short, it was Malcolm Catto. He’d be saying, ‘You’ve got Spitting Image? Who are you?’ Post rare groove there wasn’t a funk scene. So I was intrigued by this person with this list, because I had some but there were others I didn’t. Our first trade was for Spitting Image I think because that was a Californian record and I had a few of them. Then I met Keb down at Camden Lock market when he had a stall there.
Did you go and visit guys like John Anderson at Soul Bowl?
No I didn’t get connected with him till a few years later. He’s obviously someone who’s one of the prime reasons there’s a soul scene in England.
Do you regard your music as hip hop?
It’s the type of question that’s almost unanswerable. Hip hop is what got me interested in music as a career, hip hop is the paradigm through which I view everything. It was like my religion for lack of a better word (and I really don’t like the word at all). It was the screen through which I saw everything, be it politics, history or anything, it’s where I learned a lot, it’s what taught me most things about my life. So when I make music there’s a lot of good listening coming out through me, and I’ve spent over 20 years listening to this stuff so it’s hard for me to imagine that what I make isn’t hip hop, but at the same time I’m at the age where I don’t have the interest in restricting myself to one style or one scene or genre. I feel like I’ve learned more than that would allow me to do. I’ve moved beyond being just a purist.
How do you feel about the price inflation when you’ve sampled a tune or used it on a mix?
Well, when I do see it, it’s usually the same three or four records that were always easy to find. It’s not like anybody’s pulling out this incredible break on this record that still nobody knows about. It’s the same three or four and trying to squeeze every last penny out of their lame record. It was sort of amusing at first, but now it doesn’t even register any more.
When you started making records only using other people’s records was that an aesthetic decision?
Yeah. What first got me into rap was the music. I heard the Message and Planet Rock almost at the same time and Planet Rock was being played as an instrumental on the radio for some reason. The Message was all about the lyrics. My favourite era in hip hop coincides with a very fertile moment in anybody’s musical listening, which is the 13-16 year bracket when your brain is like a sponge. I tried to dress like my idols, I put their records on my wall, started trying to go to concerts. During that era it was all about sampling. To me sampling was the Secret Knowledge that only a select few DJs in New York had. I was really intrigued and tantalised by that. On the rare occasion that a nugget of wisdom was divulged like in Rap Attack or in in Breakin’ where’s there’s a scene where you can see two of the records spinning. Any little moment where you can somehow grab some article. I used to buy the NME, Melody Maker and Soul Underground, because there was a newsstand that specialised in European magazines so I’d buy Melody Maker and there’d be Sweet Tee on the cover or NME with a five page feature on Just Ice. That just did not exist in the States. You could not get that here, not in Rolling Stone or Spin. Spin started changing in around 1987 with an article on Boogie Down Productions. You couldn’t read about hip hop. There was no Source magazine. There was no internet. None of the black magazines supported rap.
Did that make you feel part of a secret society?
I’m sure I would’ve been thrilled if it had been easier to assimilate for me and easier to learn about, but all I had to go on were the few odd moments were hip hop was able to poke through into the mainstream. I didn’t live in New York, so maybe in Village Voice they had stuff. I also remember reading a big thing about sampling in the NME or Melody Maker with a big interview with Mantronix, who was one of my heroes, talking about different beats. I remember it saying Blag Blag Blag on the cover. Norman Cook’s Top ten breaks, with Elvis Costello. All of that stuff I was writing down in a ring binder and going down to my local record store and looking for them. Incredible Bongo Band? Ok, check. Ashley’s Roachclip? Check. That’s when I was stymied by things I could never find either because they were on 45s or like Synthetic Substitution. It was all very gradual. My parents had gotten divorced when I was young so when I visited my dad in San Jose, he’d take me round the record store or I’d be listening to the mixes on Friday and Saturday night and then the next day in the store begging and pleading for a couple of the 12-inches that they would play.
So when you’re in a studio, is it just a bag of samples, a sampler and you?
Well, yeah, but nowadays it’s mostly Pro-Tools based because it’s so much more flexible. I got tired of the rigidity of the way you have to use an MPC. I was in London last month working, but I didn’t have any records with me, I’d gotten the tracks to a certain place and I wanted some percussion on one track… The first two albums were all about me wanting to make a statement about sampling. I’m not really fussed now about whether I’m allowed to put a bass guitar on it. It’s not an aesthetic decision anymore. It used to be, because it was valuable to make those points and it may be again at some time but right now I feel really liberated being able to do whatever suits the track.
Are you still discovering funk 45s?
What was the last one?
Creative Movement ‘Junky Man’ on Asphma Records.
Where and when did you find that?
I found that in the north of England about four weeks ago.
Really? On a British label?
No. A guy that used to come to the States buying records and is not really a funk guy per se.
How about digging for indigenous music?
The best way to answer to that is the breakbeat at the end of the Number Song. That comes from a South Korean record that somehow made its way to California. If you’re attentive when you’re looking for records and a lot of records made it to the States, Israeli, Turkish etc. Not in abundance, but you do see them. I bought Demon Fuzz from the UK in 1990 not because I knew what it was but I stumbled across it. So I mean I don’t think it’s ever entered my mind that this is what I’m going to swing into. I’m aware that worldwide there have all been bands who said ‘ooh now we must do the funky thing!’ and do a funky track. I don’t have a terrible affinity for a lot of European funk, jazz or anything because it doesn’t resonate with me. I’m much more likely to sample a traditional Turkish record than a wacky record that record dealers try and hype up as Turkish funk.
Where did you find the Reginald Milton?
At the Austin Record Fair in 1995.
Was it just a case of random box searching?
Back then literally nobody was looking for funk. To me and Malcolm and Keb and a few others it was something, but not to anybody else. It was just sitting there in the middle of the afternoon, in a local box, it’s one of those places, like Louisiana that everybody’s really proud of their musical heritage. So in those boxes you often find oddball things. It said Reginald Milton and the Soul Jets and I knew at that time that that was a pretty good indication that it was some obscure soul or funk record. I listened to it – I was still carrying my portable round with me, and they do come in handy if you’re shopping where there are expensive 45s – lots of times country records and funk records have similar titles.
Who’s the most obsessed digger you’ve ever met?
I generally tend to wear people out who I’m with. Not trying to say I’m like some crazy digger or cool in any way. But usually I tend to be the one that goes the extra length. Or wake up extra early or stay extra late, or venture somewhere where I shouldn’t be venturing. But, really, I don’t think I’m as obsessive as a lot of northern guys. In different stages of my life, I’ve had different people I’ve done trips with. I don’t have the overriding compelling need to do trips anymore. I like having the company, but I used do trips by myself quite a lot. I find when I’m with somebody I quickly learnt that you spur each other on. Saying all that, what I was gonna say there are people I met when funk became a big thing in the States, a lot of really greedy unscrupulous guys came into it in about 1999. Those people were obsessive, but not about digging or music, they had a love for cash.
What’s the most trouble or danger you’ve gone through to get a record?
In the gatefold of Endtroducing you’ll see a picture of a gatefold cover and it says Blackout. It’s got these guys in costumes with a blue sky behind them. That’s a high school record from Oklahoma. Lyrics Born, who’s also been known to dig, but goes off on his own tangents, he was the first guy I ever talked about high school records with. He had this thing and I didn’t have it. He got it at a swap/meet in Oakland. So when I was in Oklahoma, right after Endtroducing came out, I went to Oklahoma to find this thing. I went with B+ who did the album cover; Chief Excel from Blackalicious. It snowed one night. I was going through the phone book calling people trying to crack this thing. Went to a music store and guy says, ‘yeah, I went to Douglas High, I might be able to get my hands on some of those in the morning.’ B+ was driving and the streets were icy when we woke up in the morning he was really unhappy about the situation. ‘Dude, I don’t know, this is messy’. So we get in the car and cars are sliding all over the road. Eventually we slid hard into the kerb. He said, ‘Look this is madness’. I was in the backseat, ‘OK well I’m going’ and started walking… it was one of the moments when I wasn’t going to be deterred. You do end up in funny parts of town or in an uncomfortable situations. A lot of these people are pack rat and anti social so you don’t know what they’ve got up their sleeve… sometimes you take these big leaps of faith. We went to look at this guy’s records with a buddy of mine. This guy was really big, he always had this weird expression on his face, and he was socially strange. He said, ‘I’ve got a bunch of records’. We met him at his place and of course it’s out in the woods in Pennsylvania. Before we went in, we agreed: OK, if either of us gets uneasy about the situation, the code is ‘I have to go and pick my sister up at the airport’ and then we hightail it out of there. He let’s us in and it’s in the cellar. So…
Did you find anything?
Yeah, a few things, it was worth the trip.
What makes a great DJ?
Someone who can read the crowd. It has nothing to do with the skills. The skills are a plus. The ability to read a crowd and keep the crowd moving is what matters. And I don’t think by any means I’m the best in that category. I didn’t grow up DJing for people. First time I ever DJed in a club was 1993 in Germany.
So you became a DJ through your records?
Yeah. I was a mix DJ. I did all that at home. I always thought, growing up in the late 80s I didn’t know what future rap had for itself then, not that I thought it was gonna end, but it wasn’t a money thing. I knew at some point I’d have to earn a living. I always thought I might be a club DJ playing Expose and Tone Loc or Miami Bass.
Was it a steep learning curve coming from that angle?
I remember playing You Know How To Reach Us by Kings of Pressure, which is like a downtempo, intense hip hop record and I thought, ‘mm, maybe I should keep it a bit more uptempo and moving’. It didn’t take long to figure out. After five or six dates on that tour, I thought I was starting to hit. Also, I’d never been to Europe before so I didn’t know what people knew. I got around it by playing a convincing set of what I liked and what was hot back home. My big problem today is that my tastes tend to be very male and aggressive. I can listen to hard funk all night long but most of the people that come to those nights they fall in there and wanna have a good time. They don’t care whether the record is unknown or not. I’ll always play a few James Brown records that cost five quid, just for the sake of it.
How does it feel to help someone like David Axelrod get his career started again?
It’s really very little to do with me. I remember somebody was interviewing him and he applied this term to me. Forgetting the term was about me, I just thought it was a great phrase: he called me a Gateway for people to listen to music. I love exposing music I like whether it’s a dirty south group from Tennessee or a garage rock band from 66, I love telling people what I’m into, in the hope they will be into it and something will happen with those people. It’s really satisfying. I know David Axelrod pretty well and it’s not like I say, ‘hey man, you owe me a huge debt here!’
Interviewed by Bill Brewster, Jul 7, 2005
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