Two years ago, Josh Davis realized he had accumulated a whopping $800 of store credit for Amoeba Music. Davis had built up the bounty after managers at the chain of independent record stores insisted on giving him credit as a gesture of thanks each time he performed in-store as DJ Shadow. A confessed record-hoarder, Davis decided to cash in his stash on the type of records that, as he puts it, "I wouldn't normally spend my own money on." So instead of scanning the racks for the funk, soul, and hip-hop oddities he's renowned for collecting, he scooped up indie rock, pop, and "things that I'd read had a good review on Pitchfork."
One of those picks was an advance 7-inch vinyl version of Swedish electronic quartet Little Dragon's "Fortune." The song, with its pensive synth and wistful lyrics, acted as an early inspiration for The Less You Know, the Better, Davis' fourth solo album, which came out earlier this month. (Little Dragon also appears on the album in "Scale It Back.") Davis' eclectic shopping spree in Amoeba is a key to understanding the music he's made on his new album. But however far left-field his image and music may be seem — and getting tagged as part of the trip-hop scene following his 1996 debut Endtroducing..... has constantly tugged at his career — hip-hop is the heart of his sound. And it was one of the Bay Area's most fiery and controversial hip-hop figures that gave Shadow his industry break.
The year was 1987, and Davis, a self-described "14-year-old white kid who knew about things like breakbeats and could scratch pretty well," first met the rapper Paris while he was playing his mixes on the local community college station KDVS in Davis, Calif. Shadow remembers that Paris — who was known for penning vitriolic, race-conscious, political rap songs and titled his debut album The Devil Made Me Do It — seemed "amused" at his hip-hop knowledge. A couple of years later, an invitation was proffered for Davis to produce and perform on Paris' upcoming album, Sleeping with the Enemy. Davis ended up scoring official input on four songs on the album, which became one of hip-hop's most antagonistic projects: The Tommy Boy label refused to release the record due to the song "Bush Killa," which imagined an assassination of then-President George H.W. Bush. (At one point, Davis recalls, famed producer Rick Rubin expressed an interest in releasing the record on a pseudonym label called Sex.)
Controversy engulfed Paris' album; this was during the time of Ice-T's "Cop Killer" outrage. Paris told Davis, "It doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from — if you love this music, you should pursue it." The mantra has defined Davis' career more than allegiance to any one scene.
Tracing Davis' recorded output, right up to The Less You Know, the Better, this freedom of expression is apparent. After his stint with Paris, he started to piece together an idea he had to homage Double Dee & Steinski's definitive series of early-'80s cut-and-paste records. He borrowed a batch of breaks from a DJ friend in Sacramento, and holed up in his room for two days over Christmas in 1991 to stitch together snatches of music into one intricately layered collage. Titled "The Lesson 4," the result was a creative move as brilliantly nerdy as Paris' statement was pugnaciously political. Stranger still, the vinyl release, limited to 800 copies on the Hollywood Basic label, came backed with a remix of "Real Deal" by The Lifer's Group, a band of real-deal rapping convicts.
The unexpected moves continued: Shadow's breakthrough, Endtroducing....., was released on the U.K.-based trip-hop bastion Mo' Wax, and saw Davis reaping acclaim from indie rock press and hip-hop scholars alike for its "intellectual approach." Only a decade later, he radically shifted gears again, aligning himself with the buzzing "go dumb" Bay Area hyphy scene for The Outsider, an album that co-starred E-40, Turf Talk, and Keak Da Sneak. Fans still expecting Endtroducing...... Part Two were confused. ("That's never going to happen," he insists today.)
Yet Davis says that despite the varied list of artists he's worked with, there's never really been much of a creative departure during the making of each album. The Less You Know, the Better nods more heavily than usual towards the indie rock world, with mixed results — it features a raucous vocal contribution from Tom Vek ("Warning Call"), the abrasive rock-based "Border Crossing," and the guitar-led "I've Been Trying." But it still fits into the wide scope of DJ Shadow's discography.
Davis says that each time he begins a record he starts with "a belief in the aesthetics of hip-hop" and then learns from "what others are doing in the music world." This time around, those others just happened to be Pitchfork-endorsed releases in the racks of Amoeba.