In the eyes of many electronic artists today, DJing with your own productions marks your arrival as a legitimate talent.
For a long time DJ Shadow embodied this ideal. In his 1996 landmark record 'Endtroducing' his strategy of lacing funky beats with dark introspection formed an irresistible force timed perfectly to coincide with a sea change in tastes towards instrumental hip hop beats and the so-called trip hop movement. For many it remains one of the greatest beats albums of all time, and is perhaps chief among his accomplishments.
But his success also brought restrictions. When invited to DJ at LA club night Low End Theory in 2012, it was his first set playing new music since the 1990s. Previously crowds had always expected a 'DJ Shadow set' - consisting of his own tracks and perhaps some material from his popular mixtapes such as 'Product Placement' - and promoters would book him on this basis.
Now Shadow was applying his keen ear to the new and undiscovered. Trawling the internet he decided some of the exceptional artists he found needed a platform. Thus the label Liquid Amber was born, partly to mark a change in his style and partly as a way of providing support for these artists - all the tracks are available to download from Soundcloud for free.
Kicking things off with his own Liquid Amber E.P. which includes a tasty remix by Machinedrum, more signings were unveiled in the form of Bleep Bloop and self-professed 'Scratchgod' Ruckazoid and most recently Nite School Klik - unveiled just last week as a collaboration between Shadow and fledgling producer G Jones. With elements of hip hop, trap, and even acid house, tracks like Nite School Klik's 'Posse' and Ruckazoid's 'Money' appear to revel in their sumptuously schizophrenic melodies. But what all the releases have in common is the Shadow ethos - that beats are a serious business. They should not only make you dance, they should hint at something profound.
R$N caught up with Shadow fresh off the back of the massively popular Renegades of Rhythm tour, where he and Cut Chemist DJ'd using the records of one of the godfathers of hip hop Afrika Bambaataa. It is yet another innovation from a beat-making genius...
Congrats on the Renegades Tour, it seems to have gone down really well. Are you pleased?
Yeah I would have liked to have taken it more places – we didn’t get to go to Asia at all and there’s a lot of places in Europe we didn’t get to go. We were up against a conflict with J5 touring as Cut [Chemist] had already committed to that so we had to just squeeze in as much as we could before then. But yeah it felt really good to do. I haven’t done an all-vinyl set since probably the 90s – in 2002 I was already using CDJs for part of the set and then Serato later on – but yeah it just felt really satisfying to be able to switch it up.
I don’t know if I would be able to reference a lot of that music in any other context because frankly if I was out at a club and I heard someone drop any of the tracks we were playing, it would be “Yeah well I’ve heard it all before” but in the context of it being Bambaataa’s copy and to be able to work with those materials felt as though we were continuing the lineage of hip hop itself and that’s the music and culture that Cut and I fell in love with and steered our whole careers.
It’s quite a novel concept really playing someone else’s records. Did you have any doubts about how well it would go down?
Well that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do it in the first place because it’s not been done before. We wanted to make sure it was everything we hoped it was going to be because there’s been so many cases of the godfathers…either the collection is lost or separated or somebody sold all the best stuff on EBay, there’s been a lot of tragedies like that. So to go and see the collection completely intact like that…we felt it would be an incredible challenge just to go through a collection of that size and try to distil all of that information into one hour 45 minute set. But we felt like we were up to the challenge and we were as qualified as anybody to be able to translate hip hop, the abridged version, you know, through that collection.
Any other collection short of maybe Flash, it wouldn’t have meant as much. But Bambaataa is one of the three people I think most responsible for steering the way I think about music on the whole. So it was just something we were really honoured to be able to do.
I’m really enjoying the Liquid Amber releases so far. It feels slightly experimental in a good way. Was it intentional to try to push things in a new direction with this project?
Well I think the main thing is that I wanted to put out music by artists that I was already playing and that are making music that is of the nature that I like to put into my own contemporary sets. I don’t feel like me playing festival trap is a really comfortable fit. Since I started doing these more contemporary sets around 2012…it was sort of the last gasp of brostep and I respect a lot of that music…I definitely thing there’s an art and a craftsmanship that goes into it but playing this kind of big stage type of records doesn’t really work with me, in the same way that me DJing a hip hop show in the 90s and playing something like Hip Hop Hooray, that wasn’t really me either. So I always feel like I steered more towards the obscure and experimental and slightly progressive side of things even in the 80s I respect the big records but I was usually trying to figure out who the Geto Boys were or something a little more obscure. So it made sense to be putting this type of music out because this is the music that I play.
It struck me that no matter how off-kilter some of the tracks get, they are always brought back to earth by a fat beat and like a strong punctuation by the kick and snare. Is that something you and the artists were conscious of maintaining?
I don’t think on the whole it’s something that’s required of every track but I definitely tend to gravitate towards music that’s made by someone who understands how to put a beat together. The technology is always evolving. With Nite School Klick, G [G Jones] and myself..G Jones is just an incredible engineer above and beyond everything else and he’s one of those type of beatmakers that came up on Ableton. And he watched all the YouTube videos and knows the program in and out in a way that I can only hope to. It kind of reminds me a little bit of how I got to a point on the MPC in the 90s where I felt like there wasn’t a single corner of the manual that I didn’t know inside and out and I felt like anything I put my mind to I could achieve on the MPC and he’s that way on Ableton.
I discovered his music in the same way as everyone else on the label listening to a ton of music online and downloading a ton of stuff from everyone’s Soundcloud pages and so we collab’d on Nite School Klick.
Do you feel like, with all these subgenres like footwork, trap, juke, dubstep, that things have opened up creatively in the last five years?
I definitely think five years in the contemporary setting whole genres can come and go. Stuff changes every three or four months on a certain level. There’s people doing things at tempo’s now that people weren’t doing a year ago and the footwork thing coming back as strong as it did there’s so many things constantly happening and the U.S. is in love with grime right now.
So yeah things are constantly moving and I think the key for me was starting to play contemporary music again in my DJ sets I was asked in 2012 to do a set for Low End Theory and I made it clear I didn’t want it to be a Shadow show. If I was going to DJ there I wanted to play contemporary stuff just like other people do. It was really the first opportunity for me to put a set like that together since the late 90s because from 99 onward I was playing festivals as DJ Shadow and people knew the stuff I was putting out on records and that’s what they wanted to hear me play. And I felt an obligation to give people what they wanted and that makes sense.
But just the process of putting DJ sets together over the last few years, that’s been the best A&R source and the best way for me to figure out that, for the first time, there’s really a lot of music I like that I’m playing that nobody else seems to be doing anything with and maybe if I start a label and just make it free and kind of open source in that way, maybe it will give these artists that I like another look. So that’s really the whole hook behind the label.
So you’re not charging for the music?
No everything on the label is free digitally . If you want it available on iTunes, they will charge. But everything’s free on Soundcloud if you go to the Liquid Amber page. With vinyl we have to charge because it’s so expensive these days. But we print such low quantities of vinyl that it’s just a break-even thing, it’s just really to have a permanent record of the music out there. I feel like it distinguishes us a little bit from a lot of other digital labels because anyone can have a digital label – it’s not hard – but for me and the other artists involved we wanted to be distinctive and distinguishable from what else is going on and doing a physical product of the releases is one way of doing that
Do you feel like there’s no point in charging for digital releases these days?
I don’t think there is much point. I think that by now people know that it’s nice if they are a patron of the arts and they support artists in a monetary way and I think the way most people do that is by coming out to see them play or maybe by picking up some merch, like if we were to get to that stage. But we’re not even at that stage, for now it’s just getting the word out that the label is there and it’s a resource for DJs and people who want to be led to something they haven’t experienced yet.
What qualities do you look when you are searching for artists and tracks to sign to your label?
Well I wouldn’t close my ears off to anything in particular, but I definitely feel like Liquid Amber is a beats oriented label. I was thinking one day about how, as much as I love everything about hip hop culture and rap music I have to say that if I were to choose between the rap side of things and the beat side of things, I have always gravitated towards the beats and scratching and the breaks and some of the more kind of musical and engineering side of things – not that I consider myself a great engineer by any stretch - but the beats, breaks and scratching are what attracted me to it in the first place. The starkness of it and the funkiness of it, whatever you want to say. And there’s aspects of that that I found in drum n bass later on when it was first emerging and dubstep and grime and aspects of a lot of different subgenres – trap, footwork...
Not every style of electronic music or dance music appeals to me, there is some really popular dance music that I can feel no affinity with whatsoever and I think that when it came to me putting sets together I was always kind of like – you know what this track is really cool but it’s just not me, I wouldn’t feel right playing it. It doesn’t speak to me and my personality and I’ve always tended to gravitate more towards pretty aggressive beats but without it being macho. Just a wall of noise. I feel like there has to be some cleverness to it. It has to be rooted in something real and it’s just one of those things that you can’t really put your finger on Then I might listen to other tracks by those artists and be like – I cannot stand those tracks. So it’s not anything can put my finger on, but I guess progressive beats are really the rawest essence of what I’m looking for when it comes to putting a DJ set together or curating a label.
I read a comment you made recently [referring to the Renegades of rhythm tour with Cut Chemist] where you said you wished you were half the scratch soloist Cut Chemist is. I wondered what makes a great scratch soloist and what the difference is between you in that regard?
I was definitely speaking of it in a live context. I think that some people are just more natural performances than others. I’ve played with Cut enough times now to know that we both might be really really tired or jetlagged or whatever it is, but when it comes time for him to be like - OK you’re on…do something… f**k it up…freak it…,or whatever, he’ll rise to the occasion.
I feel like with me it’s very hit or miss. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have maybe the muscular discipline somehow. I can’t necessarily convey what is going on in my head. Sometimes my skills just fail me in that respect. Like I say, I’ve played with him enough times to be like – you know you killed that solo. And that’s definitely something he has always practised. He has woodshedded the ability to do that, way more than I have.
Looking back over your career so far are you ever surprised at what you’ve achieved in music?
The older I get, the more I have a long range perspective on it. I read books about other artists all the time of all types of music through the years. I think one thing I can point to more than anything is a work ethic. I feel like if you put 16 hours a day for 20 years into something hopefully you’re going to get somewhere. So on that level maybe it isn’t a surprise but maybe on another level, obviously there’s no planning the kind of love Endtroducing has found from so many people literally worldwide. That’s not something you can ever plan or take for granted – it’s something I’m grateful for every day.
I think the trick is, though, to constantly stay hungry and keep your ear open for the next thing that will make you go – oh wow this is why I love music , this is why I make music, this is why I listen to music. And it always seems to come from unusual places and at unusual times – I think that’s what keeps me going. It’s less about pruning any kind of personal musical legacy as much as it is, at this stage, about giving back and keeping the line moving and putting your hand up to support something when it seems like a lot of times artists are reluctant to do that – [for them] it’s really just about selling their brand and you know it’s not worth doing if they’re not going to get the glory from it in some way.
But I feel like, whether it’s in doing DJ sets or maintaining a digital label in the way that I am, hopefully at some point those things connect. And whether it’s me who benefits or any of the artists on the label or somebody that I play on a radio show that gets streamed a bunch of times maybe that encourages them to continue. Any of those things that you have no control over those are the things that you hope happen when you co-sign on any kind of music you know.
What’s in the future for DJ Shadow?
I’m definitely going to working on an album or a batch of music - whatever you want to say. I don’t know if it will be released as a bunch of singles or wait and release it as an album but I’ll be working on music exclusively over the second half of this year. Probably in about six weeks’ time or so I’ll be fully immersed in that until the end of the year.