Q&A: DJ Shadow Talks Hip-Hop's Past, The Internet's Present and Music's Future

Long hailed as one of the untouchable patriarchs in the storied past of hip-hop royalty, producer, DJ, and vinyl archivist DJ Shadow has been responsible for some of the most innovative music that the genre has seen over the course of his nearly 20-year career.

These days, having not released a full-length album since 2006, DJ Shadow is in the midst of creating a new LP (due out in 2011) and is currently touring the United States for the first time in three years as part of the run-up to that release.

Shadow's place in hip-hop is as unique as it is important: While he is a staunch proponent of new sounds and artistic innovation, he is often cited as one of hip-hop's champions of "the way it was," creating much of his music from samples coming from his notoriously extensive record collection.

And, in this shaky day and age of music distribution and rapid technological change, it's torchbearers like Shadow whose opinion will matter most as we all search for a stable path to follow.

In anticipation of his show this Friday at the House of Blues, we caught up with DJ Shadow to pick his brain about these issues in modern music. We also had the chance to talk a bit about his new work, his influences, and his unique approach to releasing his latest two-track EP.

Read the full Q&A after the jump.

In this age of digital technology, you're considered one of hip-hop's most visible remaining purists. Can you talk a little bit about your what created your musical sensibilities?
What led me to the music I make now is just 38 years of listening to music, I suppose. Back when I was a kid, it was anything that was around at the time. I was five years old when disco broke in a big way. And you couldn't escape stuff like Saturday Night Fever and all that kinda stuff. But at the same time, it was a time when there was a lot of different types of music happening, and you could get a little bit of jazz fusion here, a little bit of interesting kind of mystic rock with groups like Fleetwood Mac, obviously, that was what was happening on a pop level. Around that time, that I got a little transistor radio and was able to make my own choices about what kind of music I liked. KFRC, which was an AM soul station -- well, it had gone through various format changes through the years and in the late '60s -- it was actually pretty important. They used to break records like Jefferson Airplane and stuff like that and, y'know, local records. By the late '70s, it had gone into kind of a soul format. It was one of the few stations I could receive that played that type of music in the Sacramento area. I listened to groups like Lakeside and Kool & The Gang and Gap Band, Evelyn Champagne King, and R&B acts like that. And, naturally, as hip-hop started to make waves in New York, it eventually crossed over even to pretty conservative AM format stations like KFRC where I heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and "Planet Rock" by Afrikaa Bambataa. The same summer, the summer of '82, I was 10 years old and just really passionate about music and new sounds. The first tape I ever bought was Devo's first album. And I was always interested in music that had a technological edge. I mean I liked Zap because he used a talkbox. I think a lot of kids were like that. I mean you grew up and you watched Star Wars and you became aware of sound and synthesis of sound and sound effects. You know, I always liked that song "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc. when it came out -- and anything that had kinda like a syncopation and a kind of a studio wizardry about it.

Considering the fact that music is so ubiquitous these days--anybody can seemingly find anything now as opposed to the one quality station that you could get growing up--how do you think that that figures into the future of hip-hop music?
It's a complicated question when we start talking about hip-hop because I do think hip-hop is at a bit of a crossroads right now. But pertaining directly to the access of music? Strangely, and it's sort of counter-intuituve, I think the overwhelming access that we have to music has actually slowed music completely to a dead crawl as far as music evolving and growing. The analogy I always like to use is the growth of music between 1960 and 1970. Massive. The growth of music between 1970 and 1980. Intense. Massive. All the way up to 1990 to 2000, again, quite a bit of changes. Between 2000 and 2010? Very little change. And that goes for any genre that you can think of. I mean, you can hear hip-hop records from 2000--they still sound contemporary. You can hear dance music from 2000, rock from 2000, it still sounds like music that could have been made today. So I think that it's a truism that--I don't know what it means--but I suspect that the Internet plays a role. And I'm not gonna demonize the Internet, but I think that there's this eruption of the way music is disseminated and the way it's taken in and the way it's acquired has led to kind of, on the artist level, less imperative desire to create because, I know speaking as an artist, it feels very much like it's near impossible to make any kind of impact if you're not about image and flash and status. It's almost like you're just sort of in a void. And it's very very difficult. I mean, you could give your music away for free on the Internet all day, but nobody's gonna care. It's a very challenging time. I think that there's a lot of dark side to the democratic glory of free music. And it's something that I think everybody must face at some point if you do care about music.

That kind of segues into something I've read about recently: You had a two-track EP that came out in September and I saw something very interesting about how you planned on the initial distribution of it. Can you talk about that for a second?
Again, sitting around thinking "What can I do?" I don't like the thought of just spunking your music into a void [the Internet], and for me, I just thought I'm gonna press my new stuff on vinyl only and just sort of place it places where it can be found organically, whether it be a thrift store or a record shop, and not even tell the staff that it's there. I had the sleeves be very anonymous and just let people organically discover it on their own because that's how I discover music. I like discovering music in my own way and on my own time without anything being shoved down my throat and I feel uncomfortable with the hard sell of shoving music down people's throat and jumping up and down going "Hey, look at me! My new record drops this week!" It just seems like, in 2010, it feels very futile. And that's why the label's called The New Futility because as an artist, especially in America, you have a real cultural stasis, and it just feels like a very unfriendly time to be creative.

Can you tell us a little bit of what to expect from your album coming out next year and will you be playing primarily new material on this tour?
It's a mix. On the tour, I play about four or five songs that I worked on this year that are new, some of which will be on the upcoming album. But as always there's a healthy blend of the old and the new. I certainly don't wanna leave out people who got to see me just so they can hear a few classics off of Endtroducing... I'm happy to provide that. I think this is the best show I've put together. It's the first tour I've done in the States in three years and it'll be changing the next time I go out next year so it would be good to catch it now.

DJ Shadow performs Friday, November 5, at the House of Blues

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