Escaping his own Shadow

By Rebecca Barry Hill

At 34, DJ Shadow doesn't hang out in clubs any more. "That era is long gone," laughs Josh Davis, the San Francisco DJ and producer, whose debut album, Endtroducing, redefined the art of turntablism 11 years ago.

"I go to some shows just to check out what is new on the scene. But I'm married with kids. And I play in clubs all the time so there's never a reason to spend yet another night in another one."

That's not to say he doesn't get a kick out of playing live. Davis can't wait to play here again next week after blowing Auckland audiences away in 2003. Prepare to be blown away again but not for the reasons you'd expect.

Four years after his second album The Private Press, Davis has broken form and produced what he will happily admit is a "risky" new record.

Instead of the crackling vinyl, chaotic breaks and noodly, esoteric stuff that made a classic out of Endtroducing, it comes with a surprising number of hardcore rap and crunk numbers with guest microphone turns from the ferocious David Banner, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and Lateef, as well as lesser known members of San Francisco's Bay Area "hyphy" scene (a jittery, synthy, Californian version of crunk).

British rockers Kasabian turn up on the introspective The Tiger and there's even a melodic pop song in the vein of Coldplay.

It's an album rooted in the here and now, rather than the eerie, timelessness of its predecessors. It's also, says Davis, "the best album I've ever made". He doesn't expect everyone to like it, least of all people his age who don't listen to rap. "But I'm not making it for them. I'm making music specifically for the scene here, locally [the Bay Area of San Francisco]."

Finally, Davis says he's escaping the misconceptions that he listens to only old music. Besides, he says, if he made another sample-heavy instrumental album, it would end up being compared to Endtroducing, an album so revered his record label re-released an anniversary edition last year. "If I were to have attempted an instrumental album at this point in my career, it wouldn't have got me anywhere," he says. "Everything I ever do is going to be, in some people's eyes, comparable to Endtroducing unless it's just in a completely different category."

He got sick of walking into hair salons and clothing stores and hearing what he thought sounded like an imitation of his sound. Or he'd read a review comparing an album to his earlier material.

"I'd think, well I know this record, I've heard this record and it's nowhere near as good as what they're comparing it to. You reach a point in life where you're able to be honest," he says, before adding that he would hate people to think of him as cocky. "I just got tired of being people's whipping boy."

For years he whipped himself, too, rejecting offers from ad agencies because he thought it would endear himself more to his fans. "But spending some time reading what [his fans] think about me on the internet and stuff, it seems like that was never a factor."

Here's the contradiction about Davis: part of him is saying, "Screw you, I'll make the music I want to make." On the other, he obviously cares what people think.

It was his twin girls, born after a difficult pregnancy, who changed everything. "It's hard to care about what someone thinks about your music when a doctor looks you in the eye and says, 'You're going to have to terminate one to save the other.' To make a long story short, they made it and they're both fine and healthy but when you go through a situation like that, where you're literally fighting for their life for four months, it makes you grow up.

"I think I was 23 for about eight years. And then you quickly become a man and you look at life differently. That's made me look at a lot of things differently, including how I make music."

Who: DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis
Releases: Endtroducing (1995), The Private Press (2002), The Outsider (August, 2006). Davis has also worked with Unkle, Cut Chemist and Dan the Automator, and wrote the soundtrack to the documentary, Dark Days.
Song you need to hear: Midnight in a Perfect World (from Endtroducing)
Playing: Wednesday, July 19, at the St James, Auckland, with Mos Def.

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