The Laws of Entropy

Davis' DJ Shadow breaks it down

Fifteen years after rap's initial breakthrough, a second wave of international DJs has capsized the tired notion that samplers are not musicians. Tape-and-vinyl manipulators are now considered creators in their own right, and that sea change is borne out in the person of DJ Shadow, an aural-collage artist hailing from the unlikely hometown of Davis, Calif.

To this 23-year-old b-boy, sampling techniques are steeped in as much tradition as any other musical form. Adding live instrumentation to a sampler's craft, Shadow says, is “cheating.” Anything a soloist can do, someone's already done, and done it better. “If you can't find it on a record, keep looking,” he says. “Because it's out there somewhere.”

Often described as “deconstructionist hip hop,” Shadow's spoken-word assemblages, lush, jazzy interludes, and instrumental breakdowns have made regular splashes in the underground since he began releasing them in 1992, as a UC Davis undergrad. Three of his works — the singles “In Flux” and “Lost and Found (S.F.L.)” and the EP What Does Your Soul Look Like? (all on London's Mo' Wax label) — met with great fanfare in the U.K. Last April, Soul topped Melody Maker's singles chart, suggesting that Shadow's complex vision has a potentially broad appeal.

Here in America, Shadow is a founding partner in the East Bay's tiny SoleSides label, an artists' collective established at Davis. In addition to Shadow, SoleSides artists like Blackalicious and Lyrics Born have been recognized in the hip-hop press as promising newcomers.

Even in semirural Davis, KDVS college radio disc jockey Jeff Chang recognized a minuscule but devoted hip-hop community and proposed that its members pool their talents. SoleSides' first release was a 12-inch extended single pairing Shadow's 17-minute state-of-the-hip-hop address, “Entropy” (also featuring the noirish “DJ Shadow's Theme”), with two versions of “Send Them” by Asia (now Lyrics) Born. Shadow, aka Josh Davis, says that the crew's mixed-race makeup and its decidedly rural backdrop were never an issue.

“I've always acknowledged that hip hop didn't start in Davis, know what I mean?” he says quietly, nibbling on nachos in a Ninth Avenue taqueria, just down the block from his recording studio. “Hip hop started in New York. But it quickly spread to the rest of the world, and then by about 1987, '88, it no longer mattered where it came from.”

“There were real b-boys in Japan, real b-boys in Denmark, real b-boys in Australia,” he continues. “And there were very few people who were confused about where it started. … I know exactly where I fit in.”

Around the time of SoleSides' inception, Shadow was recording for Hollywood Basic, for whom he turned a remix of a song by Zimbabwe Legit into a musing on the appropriation of African music. “There was a track I did before that,” he explains, “on a demo for this rapper named T-Mor, out of Hunters Point. It was entirely spoken word, with little beat drop-ins. It was that track and Zimbabwe Legit [“Legitimate Mix”] where I felt I had a voice that was saying something different.”

Though Shadow's raw breakbeat collages and his obvious fascination with sonic textures share a certain sensibility with the currently voguish “trip hop” movement (Portishead, Tricky), he downplays any interest in the genre, likewise acid jazz. “I have no affinity for taking a break[beat] and having someone play sax over it,” he says. “I think my productions are a kind of reaction to the tepid sound that a lot of the acid-jazzy stuff is bringing to the table.”

In adherence to his self-imposed ground rules, Shadow divides his work roughly down the middle, offsetting the “hardcore” hip-hop grooves he's done for SoleSides with more experimental “non-rap” sides for Mo' Wax. He says that Mo' Wax President James Lavelle recognized the open-ended possibilities of Shadow's “left-field” material immediately upon hearing “Legitimate Mix.” “He definitely saw something heading away from the status quo of what hip hop was at the time,” Shadow says.

Recently, Shadow collaborated with his Japanese doppelgänger, DJ Krush, on the latter's Meiso; Shadow's forthcoming remix of the title track features vocals by the Roots. Later this spring, Mo' Wax will release Shadow's own full-length debut, Endtroducing. Though he says What Does Your Soul Look Like? could have been his debut album, it was released as a 32-minute single/EP. “I like buying long singles, too,” he says, “but I don't want people to get the impression that somehow I don't have an album in me.”

In publicity photos, Shadow invariably appears covering his face with his hands, or hiding beneath a baseball cap. He sees himself as a behind-the-scenes operator, one whose identity doesn't matter so much as the product he turns out. The name “Shadow” is meant as a tribute to the producers and engineers who remain his heroes. At the outset of his career, Shadow says he was “really irritated at the egos in hip hop. … I wanted a name that signified that it doesn't matter who's doing it.” Comparing music with filmmaking — an apt analogy, given the grainy cinematic quality of his compositions — Shadow says that he identifies more with directors than on-screen stars, “because it's their vision.”

As a child, Shadow was already preoccupied by pulling things out of context. “I used to cut out little heads from magazines and TV Guide and put them on other bodies,” he says. Given a turntable at age 3 and piano lessons at 8, he quickly saw the same could be done with sound and music. “I was always intrigued by sound effects. I used to walk around with a tape recorder, recording TV shows and making little edits. I have probably 200 tapes of, like, The Super Friends.”

Like many young hip-hoppers, Shadow points to songs like Blondie's “Rapture” (1980) and Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock” (1982) as early inspirations. “The first record I ever bought was by Devo,” he says. “Even then I liked synthesizers. … But what really hit me was when I heard [Grandmaster Flash's] 'The Message.' That's when I knew that there was a much more powerful form of communicating, which was rapping.”

Today, Shadow's vinyl collection includes everything from country to gospel, an eclecticism that snakes its way into his music. “I like to buy whatever's not in vogue,” he says. “If everybody's all of a sudden onto Brazilian records, I won't touch them. Or if everybody's onto exotica, or 'the weird shit,' then I'll start buying straight-up soul.”

All but anonymous in America, Shadow hasn't succumbed to the hype he's received overseas. “I've had a career full of [being called] 'the next big thing,' ” he laughs. “I've been called the next big thing for the last six years by different people, different communities. … If I can just keep being the next big thing for the next 15 years, I'll be fine.

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