DJ Shadow: 'Music has never been worth less, and yet sampling has never been more risky'

In Australia for a ‘block party’ curated by the Avalanches at the Sydney Opera House, the pioneering DJ spoke about the evolving challenges of his craft

“Sampling isn’t just about dusty 45s anymore,” says Josh Davis, and he ought to know. As DJ Shadow, Davis has been responsible for some of the seminal, pioneering works in the genre, beginning with the critically acclaimed Endtroducing in 1996. His debut full-length album, it was composed entirely of samples, the first of its kind.

“My agenda back then was like, planting a flag in the soil and saying, ‘This is my art form, sampling is my art form, the sampler is my instrument,’” Davis tells Guardian Australia. “It’s real, it’s authentic, there’s art to it, there is a discipline, it’s a craft. And that’s what I wanted to represent. Now, obviously, 25 years later, we all know that ... The art of sampling in itself is no longer novel.”

Davis is about to embark on the Australian leg of his current world tour, kicking off his trip through the Antipodes with two nights at Sydney’s Vivid festival. His last appearance in this neck of the woods was in 2015, on the Renegades of Rhythm tour with Cut Chemist – a vinyl-only tribute to hip-hop in which the two DJs spun Afrika Bambaataa’s record collection, with the blessing from the “Godfather” of hip-hop himself.

This time around, Davis’s Vivid appearance sees him sharing a stage with Australian band the Avalanches – touring off the back of their long-awaited second album Wildflower (2016) – alongside Briggs, Sampa the Great, DJ JNETT and Jonti.

Once, Davis explains, all you needed to do to create a new sound was dig out some old vinyl. These days the scene has moved on, and an original aesthetic requires much more imagination. “Once you add something to the vocabulary, you don’t want to continue to go back to that same way of doing things, because that’s what everybody else is doing now,” he says.

While Davis insists that he tries to do something different with every record – sometimes to the chagrin of fans of his early work – the DJ Shadow sound still has a distinctive flavour: jazz and funk influences punctuating melodies that are often defiant, often deeply eerie, boosted by hip-hop beats and a heavy dose of the unexpected.

Narrative, too, plays a big role in that sound – consider the dramatic arcs of a track like Stem/Long Stem, or the melancholy shifts in Blood on the Motorway. It’s a conscious element of his live shows as well.

“I definitely have always tried to avoid anything smacking of some kind of retro party. That’s definitely not where my head is at in terms of how I like to represent my music,” he says.

Last year’s The Mountain Will Fall marked a creative shift for Davis. There was more of his own composition and a focus on direct collaboration with artists (hip-hop “supergroup” Run the Jewels and German composer Nils Frahm among them), rather than a reliance on repurposing the work of others. But how much of this shift into composition and collaboration is a natural artistic development, and how much is a result of the pressures of a highly litigious industry?

Davis is emphatic: “I’ve always believed in clearing samples, however I believe it needs to be done on a musicologist basis.” This would involve, he explains, breaking down a song in a forensic way, and working out compensation accordingly: “This bass line sample constitutes – based on the space that it occupies and the number of seconds that it plays over the course of the track, in relation to other elements that come and go ... this sample is worth 16.7% of the composition.”

“Now, if that could be done,” he says, “then I would clear everything. But the problem is, you go to the first person – they want 75% whether they deserve it or not. You go to the next person they want 70% – whoops – you can’t cut a pie that many times, there isn’t enough pie to go around.”

In some ways, Davis argues, this is just a product of the times, but it certainly makes sampling a lot less fun.

“In a strange sense I feel like music has never been worth less as a commodity, and yet sampling has never been more risky,” he says. “We work in a hyper-capitalist time, where you grab what you can, get everything you can, doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, it doesn’t matter whether it’s valid, it doesn’t matter whether it’s deserved.”

These days, Davis is more concerned with finding new sources of inspiration. He hosts a radio show, Find, Share, Rewind, on California’s KCRW, which gives him an opportunity to boost the work he enjoys – everything from Frank Ocean to Cyhi the Prynce to the new Kendrick Lamar.

“For me, what I’m always reaching for is just a pure form of expression,” he says. “That’s what I look for in music. I want to be taken on a ride, I want to be taken somewhere, and I want to be invested in the artist. And most of the music I identify strongest with is by artists that really live – they’re artists that make music for their entire life and music is their life.”

• DJ Shadow is playing the Avalanches: Since I Left You Block Party alongside Briggs, Sampa the Great, DJ JNETT and Jonti at Vivid on 27 and 28 May, with dates in Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland ahead of a European and US tour


Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Vivid Sydney: the Avalanches' block party with DJ Shadow shuts down just as it's revving up
It takes a couple of hours to get going and then shuts down abruptly, but at its best, the Since I Left You block party is infectiously energetic and upbeat

Stephanie Convery

28, May, 2017 @4:07 AM

Article image
Goldfrapp review – electrifying performance marks a return to 80s futurism
Carriageworks, Sydney
Electronic duo deliver a gloriously slick show that maintains the energy of the dancing crowd

Stephanie Convery

03, Jun, 2017 @3:09 AM

Article image
From Hottest 100 to Dami Im: Australian music’s 10 biggest talking points of 2016
There was no shortage of controversy – be it over national identity or Eurovision – but there were also plenty of plaudits for performers new and old

Jody Macgregor

23, Dec, 2016 @3:09 AM

Article image
DJ Shadow – review
DJ Shadow may be a bit grumpy about free music downloads but he certainly earns his money live, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

10, Sep, 2011 @11:26 PM

Article image
Mountain review: a sublime rush of adrenaline and orchestral beauty from the director of Sherpa
Scored by a live orchestra at the Sydney Opera House, and narrated by Willem Dafoe, the film is not for the faint-hearted

Janine Israel

13, Jun, 2017 @3:22 AM

Article image
DJ Shadow: soundtrack of my life

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

Interview by Gareth Grundy

01, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Dappled Cities and Red Riders join forces for a night of nostalgia
Local indie stalwarts team up with indie legends to deliver a show where art rock and cerebral drama meet youthful exuberance and jangly guitars

Steph Harmon

05, Jun, 2017 @5:42 AM

Article image
Triple J Hottest 100: Ocean Alley wins Australia's biggest song poll
The Sydney six-piece came in at No 1 and No 100, in a broadcast which featured a strong turnout for women in the top 10

Steph Harmon

27, Jan, 2019 @10:08 AM

Article image
The Avalanches release first new song in 16 years and reveal album details
The Australian electronic act’s Wildflower will be released on 8 July, their first album since their groundbreaking debut in 2000. But will it be worth the wait?

Steph Harmon

02, Jun, 2016 @6:14 AM

Article image
The Avalanches update social media accounts, sparking album rumours
After more than a decade of delays, fans speculate over the release of a highly anticipated follow-up to Since I Left You

Monica Tan

12, Apr, 2016 @5:34 AM