DJ Shadow: soundtrack of my life

The Californian hip-hop artist and record-digger extraordinaire on his love of James Brown, his thirst for new music, and why Dr Dre sounds like home

During his most intense period of collecting, Josh Davis, alias DJ Shadow, would spend several hours a day in the basement of Rare Records in his native Sacramento, California, only breaking from his hunt for unusual sounds when he was out of money or in need of sunlight.

The same shop was immortalised on the cover of his debut album, 1996's Endtroducing…, which put some of that secondhand vinyl to creative new use. An instrumental hip-hop record constructed entirely from samples but sounding unlike anything that had come before, Endtroducing... suggested that, with a little imagination, there were few limits to the music that could be made by one man and his record collection.

Although Davis never made quite the same impact again, he has continued to innovate, most recently by releasing tracks from his archive in partnership with filesharing service BitTorrent. It's his attempt to negotiate the brave new world of digital music and actually get paid. (A more conventional 16-track overview of his career, Reconstructed, is released 3 September).

"Some people say that if you're a true artist you shouldn't worry about money," says Davis. "But that's silly. Food isn't getting cheaper. It's good to get your music out there to an audience but no one can work for free. At some point you have to ask: 'Do I feel I'm being fairly compensated or not?''. That's the battle line for artists now."


Mother Popcorn, James Brown (1969)

Everything I love about music stems from James Brown. If you grow up on rock'n'roll you might idolise Chuck Berry, but for me it's James Brown because he laid the foundations not only for funk but for hip-hop as well.

I first heard this in the late 80s. There was a used record store in my home town and I can remember my first trip there, a "digging" trip, meaning I was now spending my paper-route money not on new hip-hop records but old soul records and rock records. I would buy James Brown records sight unseen.

By around 1987, I was starting to find old records around the same time that hip-hop artists I liked were using them for samples. I remember finding the 45 of I Know You Got Soul by Bobby Byrd concurrent to it being sampled by Eric B & Rakim. I started to think: if I'm finding Isaac Hayes's Hot Buttered Soul in my dad's collection, and Public Enemy are using it on Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, I'm kind of on the same wavelength. So maybe I should start making my own beats.


Al-Naafiysh (The Soul), Hashim (1983)

I first heard this on the radio in the mid-80s. Trying to find rap on the radio at that time was frustrating, especially outside of New York or LA. But there were a couple of clued-in DJs on a Bay Area soul station called KSOL and I learned their schedule – they were on during lunch hour and Friday and Saturday nights until midnight.

I was 12 or 13 at the time and in junior high school. I was a typical Californian kid who grew up collecting comics, but by 1985 I was hawking them so I had money to buy hip-hop records. That was the turning point. I became a collector and I wanted everything.

There are no embarrassing old photos of me trying to be a B-boy because I couldn't afford the clothes. I also needed to survive at school – I didn't want to get beaten up. The other kids were mostly into rock or metal, so there were lots of Metallica fans in jean jackets, as they were a big local band. But I did have my two or three friends who liked hip-hop and we stayed in touch for years.


Triad, Jefferson Airplane (1968)

This was written by David Crosby and first recorded by the Byrds but the Jefferson Airplane version is sublime.

Being a young hip-hop fan growing up in California, I initially rejected 60s rock as my parents' music. My mother was at the airport greeting the Beatles in 1964 [on their first US tour]. Like any kid, I couldn't stand the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any of their ilk because they were what had come before, so they were to be rejected.

My parents divorced when I was young and my dad ended up with the more adventurous parts of their record collection, everything from Lou Reed to Isaac Hayes to old jazz artists and a lot of blues. I really wanted nothing to do with any of that until about 1987 when I started hearing pieces of old music in hip-hop records at the time and began to decipher where it all came from. Now, subsequently, I've come to appreciate a lot of it in its own right, because it's great.


Let Me Ride, Dr Dre featuring Jewell and Snoop Doggy Dogg (1993)

This sounds like home to me, in a way that hip-hop from New York never did. The Dr Dre and Snoop records from this period are the sound of LA in the early 90s, when there was an earthquake and a riot every other week. It was a really strange time for California and their music was the soundtrack of that upheaval. Any time a piece of music is so pervasive and so emblematic of a region, it sinks in and becomes part of your DNA.

I was reminded of this when I saw them play at Coachella earlier this year. It was great hearing them play those songs in California, hit after hit, with all the security guards dancing – they were my age and I know what those records meant to them.


Work, Live & Sleep in Collapsing Space, Kuedo (2012)

It's important to pay attention to what's happening now. I remember reading an interview with John Peel in about 1987 when he said: "I don't understand why everybody's still listening to Led Zeppelin when we have good music coming out now. New groups won't make it if everyone is talking about the past." That stuck with me and I told him that when I met him.

I probably spend $50-100 a week downloading new music. There's a constant turnover of different names to keep up with and before long you have a full hard disk. I discovered Kuedo online and I've listened to this track constantly for the past month – it's a bit electro, a bit dubstep, a bit a lot of things, but I can relate to anything with an 808 drum machine on it.

As a DJ, I've struggled with the idea of being a vinyl purist when there's now great music out there that's never existed on vinyl. Some older DJs can be a bit "Music used to be so much better back then". But the one constant for me is the pursuit of new music, finding things to inspire me, to get me excited.

Listen to this playlist on Spotify


Interview by Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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