Me and the muse: DJ Shadow on his sources of inspiration

The California hip-hop innovator on the records at the root of two decades of beat-making, sampling and scratching

Born in 1972, Joshua Paul Davis grew up in California and started collecting records and experimenting with music production aged 12, laying the foundations for an influential career as a DJ and producer. In the early 90s, as DJ Shadow, he built a reputation for atmospheric, sample-driven instrumental hip-hop with tracks such as Lost and Found and In/Flux. His classic 1996 debut Endtroducing… is considered by many to be the highlight of his career, although he has continued to push his sound in new directions over four subsequent albums. His latest record, The Mountain Will Fall, is out now on Mass Appeal.

My earliest memories of music are connected with hearing songs on the car radio. My mother had moved to quite a remote part of California to get away from my biological father and we were driving a lot and breaking down a lot. So I spent a lot of time listening to the radio, but it wasn’t really until the disco era, when music started to sound more synthetic and futuristic, that I got really interested.

My first music-making experiment was with a $99 Sears home entertainment system. It had a turntable, radio receiver and a dual cassette deck all in one little box. I stumbled across a glitch in the system where, if I held the selector knob between phono and cassette, I was able to record from one cassette deck to the other. One of the very first things I did was experiment with a Charlie Brown children’s record to see how many times I could echo out Lucy’s voice.

When I was three, my brother lent me his collection of Archie comics. I let an older kid take them. My brother was furious – I had to spend a year’s pocket money buying them back. That’s how I became a collector. Then, around 1984, I started selling my comic books to buy records, starting with a Sugar Hill Records compilation called Street Beat Vol 2.

I’m not a gearhead. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting an opportunity to channel your creativity and having it ruined by some technical impasse where you need to stop and read through the manual or find a YouTube tutorial. The equipment I use tends to be very easy to set up and runs with minimal effort.

To make music, I need isolation, focus and quiet. I’m not the kind of person who can make beats on the back of the bus. It’s difficult for me to do collaborations because I don’t like there to be anyone else in the room. I need to be in my own space and to organise things in a way that makes sense to me.

My studio set-up is simple. It’s in the bottom level of a three-level house in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate bridge, where I live with my wife and children. There’s no soundproofing, no shiny new mixboards. It’s pretty much my laptop, a turntable, a sub-woofer and some decent studio monitors. My more important records I keep in the studio, but maybe 95% of the collection is located in various places around town. I have no idea how many records I own.

My work days usually start in the same way: I play other people’s music. I will just grab some records at random and put them on. I’m not familiar with the music I’m playing 99% of the time. Occasionally I’ll find something in that process that I might want to sample or include in a DJ set. Or it could be something as simple as, “Wow, I never thought to pattern a drum fill in that way.”

It takes me about two hours to get into the creative zone. A spiritual jazz musician, I can’t remember who, described it as a “god frequency”. It isn’t accessible when there’s a lot of noise and chaos or when your mind is cluttered. It doesn’t work if your day is broken up by meetings and appointments. I have to strip away all the social media, all the distractions, in order to tap into that frequency.

Emotions – joy, rage, sorrow – are what I’m interested in tapping into in music. I have to be present and engaged and positive. Even if the music I’m making is quite dark or angry, I try to allow the emotions to be genuine and true.

Nine times out of 10 – or 19 times out of 20 – musical ideas come and go. The only time I can really seize on them is if I’m in the studio when the idea hits. Occasionally I make a note on my iPhone, but it seems that every time I look back at those notes, they aren’t very good ideas. I feel like the ones that stick are the ones that should stick and the rest are decoys.

It takes me about three weeks to do a track, all said and done. Some songs take years in the sense that they’re kicking around and I resuscitate them, put a different coat of paint on and suddenly they’re ready. I’ve seen cases where people are working on a record and I’m like, “It’s perfect, release it now.” But they work on it for years and it ends up coming out worse. I feel quite good about my ability to know when something is done.

One of the reasons I only do an album every five years or so is because I like there to be a lot of inspiration between records, new ideas I can learn from. Every five years there are new genres that didn’t exist five years prior. That’s why I’m always a bit bemused when people ask me why I don’t make music that sounds like Endtroducing any more. My response is usually: ‘You can’t unring a bell.’ Once you learn a new lesson, for me it’s creatively bankrupt to try to unlearn it.DJ Shadow’s new album, The Mountain Will Fall, featuring Run The Jewels, Nils Frahm and Matthew Halsall, is out now on Mass Appeal

DJ Shadow’s top inspirations

The Royal Guardsmen
Snoopy vs the Red Baron (1966)

This was the first record I owned that I liked a lot. It was a garage-y, novelty thing with odd sound effects, a little Beatlesque. It was a hit in the 60s, and throughout my childhood they’d repackage it on thematic albums for kids.

Lipps Inc
Funkytown (1980)

This was a big record for me. It was the first time I remember my mother asking, “Why do you like this song?” and I had to explain why. It wasn’t that she didn’t like it, but she felt that I had an ear for music and wanted to encourage my thinking about it. I said it sounded futuristic to me. There were laser sounds and I was a big Star Wars kid, as everybody was. I don’t think I said this at the time, but it seemed progressive.

Last Train to London (1979)

After Funkytown, this was another song that seemed really progressive and futuristic to me when I was a kid.

Public Enemy
Rebel Without a Pause (1988)

Growing up in the 80s, a friend and I used to pool our meagre financial resources to buy a couple of 12-inches every week and then we’d tape each other’s records. When he got Rebel Without a Pause, he called me up and said, “You’re just not going to believe it.” I went over and he played it to me and we were just smiling and laughing and jumping up and down. It was the best thing ever.

Grandmaster Flash
The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1981)

I consider this track to be the template of everything I do. It’s essentially a DJ megamix of the highest order. It mixes Good Times by Chic and Another One Bites the Dust by Queen and throws in all these scratches and other rap records over the top of it. After 30 years of thinking about music, for me it always goes right back to this. It’s got to have a strong rhythmic base, it’s got to have its roots in hip-hop, be progressive and have some elements of the unknown and it’s got to have a lot of personality and be technically excellent. All the things that I value, basically.

Public Enemy
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (1989)

I think a pivotal moment for me was hearing Public Enemy sampling the Isaac Hayes song Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic on their second album. Being familiar with that record and then hearing my idols use it made me think: I’m on the right track here with my own music, I know how this works.

De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)

A friend in high school bought this album on cassette the day it came out. I remember listening to it on my Walkman during class and being blown away. The first song, The Magic Number, was exactly what I was hoping it was going to be: beyond ambitious, with all these disparate elements in the mix. Again it was that Grandmaster Flash aesthetic working its way to the top.

Art of Noise
Beat Box (1983)

I became a huge fan of Trevor Horn as a producer and I love the ambition in his music from that era. Most of my musical heroes have that quality: ambition. I like there to be a strong work ethic in music, I don’t like when it feels like it was pure chance or luck that it came together. Some great music can be made that way, but I generally find it doesn’t yield much staying power.

Mega Mix (1986)

It’s hard to say who my number one influence is, but definitely in my top three would be Kurtis Mantronik. The stuff he did in the late 80s has an energy and a creativity and a life to it that I admire a lot. It’s good recalibration music. My favourite thing is to play the Mega Mix from the second album to younger producers who weren’t even born then and watch them flip out. The UK version is so aggressive and in-your-face, it’s incredible.

Noer the Boy
Spillednoise EP (2016)

This was the last record that made me laugh out loud and shake my head at the creativity of it. I ended up releasing it on my label, Liquid Amber. I listened to it while driving. There’s so much personality and thought in it. It represents everything I value and everything I’m looking for in contemporary music. It’s heavy but it has moments of creativity, of sadness. But more than anything it’s a cacophony of new ideas.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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