DJ Shadow - Biography

Producer, DJ and preeminent crate-digger Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis stands among the most successful and well-known musicians to emerge from the 1990s explosion in electronic music, thanks to the bold sonic collages on his classic records Endtroducing … (1996 Mo' Wax), and The Private Press (2002 MCA Records). Schooled in the semi-rural Northern California town of Davis, Shadow self-debuted his seventeen-minute mash-up “Entropy” in 1993 on personal label SoleSides, garnering the attention of UK electronica and trip hop kingpin James Lavelle and his Mo' Wax label. Mo' Wax released Davis' debut LP Endtroducing … The record united critics worldwide in acclaim for its bold sound pastiche, later crowned by the Guinness World Records Book as the “First Completely Sampled Album.” However, the distinctive style of Endtroducing …seared a brand onto Davis that has marked him for the rest of his career. The Private Press was significantly darker, if stylistically coherent. However, a dramatic left turn occurred with his third LP The Outsider (2006 Universal/Motown), which humorously went to #2 on the Billboard Top Electronic Albums chart despite being ostensibly a rap album. Noted for its aggressive inclusion of the San Francisco Bay Area rap style known as hyphy, and full of deceptively simple party raps, The Outsider alienated some fans of Davis’ heady, brooding, intellectual soundscapes. It was a strategic move by Davis to restore a personal sense of artistic freedom and it appears to have worked.


Not to be considered a lightweight, Davis' discography stretches for nineteen pages online, thanks to his inability to decline side projects and remix opportunities, notably work with Thom Yorke on UNKLE and Kool Keith on Dr. Octagonecologist. Intensely private, shy and soft-spoken as well as opinionated, analytical, and intelligent, Davis resides with his wife and two children in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco. Lately he has been touring with longtime friend and collaborator DJ Cut Chemist on “The Hard Sell” -- noted for its daring, improvised mixes of hundreds of vinyl records on a custom multi-turntable rig that includes portable turntables the two wear during the set.


Born in 1972 in San Jose, California, the young Davis’ affinity for all things rap and hip-hop made him an outsider very early on, while growing up in the lower-middle-class, highly Caucasian cow town of Davis, CA. But Davis Senior High School was also neighbor to the University of California Davis, which had the natural effect of drawing international culture into the provincial town. Davis was first and foremost a huge music fan and vinyl record collector before he was ever a producer, starting with his father’s immense record collection, which was quickly augmented by ritual excursions to the verdant record stores of Northern California. The shops held a veritable museum’s worth of material that would serve not only as Davis’ inspiration, but also as the raw ore of his greatest works. Davis began hanging out at UC Davis college radio station KDVS as early as age twelve, and was making beats on a four track by high school. He'd bring homemade mixes into KDVS, where UC Davis student, radio DJ, and author Jeff Chang encouraged the precocious high schooler, who could also scratch and handle advanced production techniques like beat by beat remixes of entire songs — the forerunner to the modern mashup.


Davis enrolled at UC Davis in 1990 and founded his own label, SoleSides, through which he met several of his lifetime collaborators such as Chief Xcel, Lyrics Born and Oscar Jackson of political hip-hop group Paris. Davis began releasing mixtapes in 1991 like Reconstructed from the Ground Up, as well as his first singles “Burn Hollywood Burn” and “Real Deal” on Hollywood Records. Amid a university education and blossoming friendship with like-minded hip-hoppers of cow country, Shadow created a seventeen-minute hip-hop symphony “Entropy” in 1993, released on his own label SoleSides. That year, relentless UK music experimenter James Lavelle reached out to Davis and the result was “In/Flux” for Lavelle’s legendary Mo' Wax label, associated with Massive Attack, Daft Punk and Radiohead. In 1994, Mo' Wax released Davis’ single “Lost & Found” and the definitive, 40-minute single in four movements “What Does Your Soul Look Like” twelve-inch, which synthesized his funk, ambient, sampled esoterica, soul, rock and hip-hop influences into something totally new that caught the eye of the critical British press. Mo' Wax released the Davis single “A Whim” in 1995, as the relative unknown put the finishing touches on what would be his defining work to date.


Using just a Akai MPC60 12-bit sampling drum machine and copy of ProTools borrowed from upcoming producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, Davis exploded brains across the world with 1996 debut LP Endtroducing ... With it, Davis effectively made a doctoral candidate’s case for sampling as a High Art. Composed entirely of reworked bits of music and esoterica from across genre and generation lines, Davis asserted his role as more than a beat-juggler or scratcher — but as a composer. The album cover depicts two men (later determined to be SoleSides members Chief Xcel and Lyrics Born) digging through vinyl in a shop called Records at 710 K St. Sacramento, CA. Davis deliberately ventured far and wide for his ingredients and refused anything from reissued albums or greatest hits anthologies and especially eschewed the shopworn breakbeat collections, whose use by other DJs Davis regarded as simply lazy. Endtroducing … included thrift store vinyl, TV broadcasts, and demo tapes in an almost preternaturally assembled collage that was humorous at points, but deadly serious in intent. It was a statement heard around the world, and critics responded in kind. Robert Christgau gave it an A-plus. NPR would list it in its top 300 songs and albums of the 20th Century, while Time Magazine chose it as one of the top 100 best albums of all time. Standout tracks like “Mutual Slump” combined Bjork with Pugh Rogefeldt and Roger Waters. “Organ Donor”’s mix of Giorgio Moroder with “There’s a DJ in Your Town” by Samson and Delilah would stalk Davis for years.


“Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2,” Davis’ favorite work from the album, contrasts evocative-yet-conventional instrumentals with heavy industrial percussion interludes and stabs of vocal sampling. Bizarrely, the spoken word piece “Freedom” details a traumatizing brush with the law, resolved with bits from “Variazione III (Tredicimo Cortile)” by Osanna.


As the fire from his atom bomb of a record smoldered across the world, Davis did not rest. He cut several singles and remixes with Lavelle and Mo' Wax, including the Kool Keith vehicle Dr. Octagonecologist (1996 Mo' Wax), a repackage of earlier material as Preemptive Strike (1997 FFRR), as well as some duties with the Lavelle's UNKLE project, which brought Davis in on a dream team including Thom Yorke, the Beastie Boys' Mike D and Massive Attack's Robert “3D” del Naja. Shadow also reorganized his label SoleSides into Quannum Projects in 1999, laying the groundwork for projects from Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and Lateef the Truth Speaker.


The years leading up to the 2002 release of The Private Press (2002 MCA) were dark and laborious, Davis has stated in interviews. A supremely intellectual and analytical musician with an ADD-like desire to pursue new tangents, Davis felt himself increasingly burdened with the mantle foisted upon him by the popular press. He went underground to make The Private Press and what emerged was as insular as Davis' experience making it. Released to positive reviews, the record exhibits a Davis extremely comfortable with his exquisitely handcrafted artistry, yet beginning to press against the constraints of the rules he invented. “(Letter From Home)” opens with a piece of a recorded letter from Richmond, California over jazz music, while “Fixed Income” introduces the treated drums and instrumentals for which Davis was now famous. The pensiveness of the record then evaporates in mixing skit “Un Autre Introduction” and the banging percussion and aggressive rapping of “Walkie Talkie.” The album pivots again back to the pensiveness of previous albums with “Giving Up the Ghost”'s moaning cellos followed by the breakout single “Six Days.”


“Six Days’” lyrics brood over atomic annihilation while a gorgeous pop melody washes over the listeners; the track is a fractal representation of the album as whole. Instrumentals from “I Cry in the Morning” by Dennis Olivieri and vocals from “Six Day War” by Colonel Bagshot provide the source material, but it's Shadow as producer that turns the two into more than the sum of their parts. Also notable is the track “Monosylabik” for its discordant postmodern treatment of “Plenty Action” by Soft Touch, which is chopped up into infinitesimally tiny parts and reassembled entirely. The single “Monosylabik” represents the end of any type of cohesion for the record, or future records by Shadow. “Mashin' on the Motorway” rests upon a fast-moving, almost accelerating bass riff to support a rap polemic that humorously endorses reckless automotive speeding. “Blood on the Motorway” and “You Can't Go Home Again” return to the early instrumentals of the record.


Davis has stated that the darkness and constant worry that followed him like a shadow lifted after the release of The Private Press not from any esoteric sense of artistic accomplishment, but with the conventional act of entering fatherhood. In 2003, Davis' wife gave birth to twins, after a death-defying pregnancy. In a case more rare than getting struck by lightning four times, Davis' twin children developed in the same amniotic sac, instead of individual ones. Despite the odds, which predicted the death of both monoamniotic children and possibly their mother, the Davis’ became a family. Daddy downtime for two years preceded the “3 Freaks” single of 2005, indicating a wholesale departure for trip hop's masked hero.


Along with a London car accident that nearly killed him, Davis states that fatherhood made him grow up, and exonerated him from any worry over the direction of his career. The two experiences made him realize life is short, and he needed to move boldly through it. It enabled him to trust his instincts and do what came naturally to him. After moving his studio to the Mission District of San Francisco and tuning into urban radio stations like KMEL, the longtime Bay Area rap fan got hooked on the region's latest craze -- hyphy music. A combination of the words “hyper” and “fly,” hyphy's rise is attributed to East Bay rap legend Mac Dre and is largely party music to accompany a young, urban, predominantly black lifestyle that celebrates fast driving, heavy drug and alcohol abuse, and the pleasures of multiple sexual partners. In 2004, with the Bay in the throes of this West Coast corollary to crunk, Shadow gravitated to some of its artists such as E-40, Turf Talk, and Keak da Sneak.


“3 Freaks” came out as a single in 2006, and catalyzed tens of thousands of words by bloggers and critics who had an opinion on Shadow's new sound and what it meant to the album. “Enuff”'s equally up-tempo party anthem with Lateef and Q-Tip affirmed what fans began to suspect — Shadow was a different man. The Outsider (2006 Universal/Motown) leads off with the single “This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way),” another definitive track asserting Davis' goal in the title and backed by bucolic strings, funk guitar and a smooth R&B vocal. What follows runs the spectrum of styles, from heavy hyphy to folk, alterna-rock and even some atmospheric instrumentals. It evokes an ebullience as original to Davis' style as Endtroducing ... was to everything that came before it. It celebrated life instead of suspecting it, and while not as commercially successful as prior outings, it made it to #77 on the Billboard 200 and seems to have energized Davis and his mission.


As late as 2008, Davis has been touring with longtime collaborator DJ Cut Chemist, spinning hundreds of vinyl records per set in what could be called extreme, improvisational mash-up sound art. The reviews have been mixed, but Davis has stated in the press that he has been enjoying the tour immensely.


Northern California's Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis will forever be known for his debut 1996 LP Entroducing ... and its assertion that arranged samples could be art in and of itself. It exemplifies some of the best electronic music of the era on one of the most influential labels of the time -- Mo' Wax. The world's love for Endtroducing ... validated Davis' intense, lifelong crate-digging and an innate, near-superhuman ability for categorization, recall, arrangement and production. Its shear breadth of raw material and the originality of its synthesis ensures its stone-legend status for years to come. However, Endtroducing ... also weighed down the young, cerebral Davis and his subsequent works can be read as the story of at first succumbing to that weight (with The Private Press) before brazenly discarding it with the multi-faceted, almost ADD-driven eclecticism of The Outsider. Shadow stands among the best sonic curators of his generation, but his rarity stems from his ability to convert his shadowy wax stacks into radiant new gems for his millions of fans worldwide. in 2011 DJ Shadow released his most recent effort, The Less You Know, The Better.

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