What does DJ Shadow’s soul look like?
[FREE-RANGE TURNTABLISM] Funny. I've always thought of Josh Davis, better known as DJ Shadow, as a composer whose music comes not from him, but through him—whose otherworldly tracks could somehow exist without the person. "I've always felt that the mix is strongest when you put yourself into the blend," Davis tells me to the contrary. "I find that the best DJs inject themselves into the music."
You've got to give to receive—so it is precisely because Shadow is so deft at giving it up that he is made a conduit for something beyond himself. It is because he puts himself, his soul, out there that he captures the magic. "I'm always trying to capture a mood or a sentiment or an energy that is missing from most of the music I hear today," Davis explains. "I want to provide an alternative, to put something out there that, if nothing else, is a unique listening experience of honest moments."
And that's exactly what he does—profoundly well. Davis' deeply moving compositions—not songs; they're too fluid for structure—are overlapping, looping sonic collages of past and present. They're made of old soul 45s and contemporary beats, of ancient chanting and hip-hop scratching, of funk syncopation and tribal union, and of meditative redundancy and modern complexity. His sample-heavy mixes build and anticipate and pulse and break and release, encapsulating the listener in the surreal feeling that life is much deeper than this. "It's never been about crossover or fame," Davis says. "I want to make something that stands the test of time. I'm not hurtling toward some end goal, but making a lot of stops on a really long road."
DJ Shadow has released countless records—I counted five albums, 36 singles and 23 mixes, though there are certainly more—and while they are not all genius, many of them are. His 1996 debut album, Endtroducing…, and Preemptive Strike, which followed in '98, are particularly inspired. The best tracks from these—namely "In/Flux" and "Midnight in a Perfect World"—were first released as singles on SoleSides. He started the label and collaborative project with Lyrics Born and Blackalicious in 1990, when he was a DJ for the campus radio at University of California at Davis. "What attracted me to being a DJ was the idea that I could expose people to music that they've never heard before," says Davis, who keeps about 60,000 records in various storage units around the Bay Area.
One need only listen to his two latest singles to hear that Shadow's best work didn't end with the '90s. "Def Surrounds Us" is an excellent, Def Jam-influenced, bass-heavy, stripped-down track contemplating mortality, while the bittersweet "I've Been Trying" found Davis recording in a small cottage, surrounded by the influence of old country records, piecing together a melancholic ode to love. Both are available for purchase on his website, and the tracks will also appear on an album slated for release sometime next year. After more than two decades of experimenting with thousands of records, samples, beats and energies, Davis—forever in flux—continues to dig deep and evolve.
SEE IT: DJ Shadow plays the Roseland on Wednesday, Oct. 27. 9 pm. $25. All ages.