We’ve Got A File On You: DJ Shadow
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
It’s close to the end of our hour-long chat when DJ Shadow reveals something that left me wondering why I never noticed it before. “Some of my stuff was used on The Wire for, I think, an entire season or multiple seasons to preview the next episode,” says the genre-blending sample sensei born Josh Davis. “When the narrator would say, “next week on The Wire…”, that was my music playing over them.”
Given his indelible sonic imprint across a variety of films and series throughout a career nearly spanning four decades, it shouldn’t be surprising that Shadow, whose fascination with dystopia has been a recurring theme throughout his career, would lend some of his work to a show known for its Dickensian portrayal of the downtrodden. It’s also a pretty cool tidbit about an elusive yet ubiquitous pioneer who continues to elevate and evolve his craft — even as he enters his fourth decade behind the boards.
Since he “accidentally invented trip-hop” with Mo’ Wax Records and UNKLE founder James Lavelle in the early ’90s and redefined what was possible to make with a sampler on his seminal 1996 debut Endtroducing…, Shadow has maintained a towering presence over hip-hop and music as a whole. He playfully experimented with ’80s synth-pop on 2002’s The Private Press, cooked up a restless tornado of rock, electronica, and psychedelia in follow-ups The Outsider (2006) and The Less You Know, The Better (2011), and struck a fine balance between ambience and abrasiveness on 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall.
Shadow then closed out the 2010s with the sprawling 91-minute epic Our Pathetic Age — one disc of chaotic to chilly instrumentals, another of boldly shifting rap collaborations with Nas, Run The Jewels, Pharaohe Monch, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Amidst all of those efforts, Shadow would also immerse himself with various projects, ranging from documentaries and video games to rubbing shoulders with ’90s Britrock royalty and starting his own label (more on those later), that would ultimately establish the renowned crate-digger as a versatile tour de force.
Next up for the Bay Area turntablist & producer is Action Adventure — his first album in nearly five years. Billed as a more “personal” record than its predecessors, Action Adventure was inspired by a number of obscure sources, ranging from ’50s horror comics to multi-genre mix shows taped from an ’80s Baltimore/D.C. radio station. Those building blocks were essential to Action Adventure’s creation, especially for someone who rediscovered his love of making music following a pandemic which threatened to destabilise his artistry.
Ahead of Action Adventure’s release this Friday, Shadow hopped on a video call to discuss his much-anticipated seventh album, as well as to reflect on his pre-Mo’ Wax years, working with the likes of Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, and Wong Kar-wai, his DJ Hero mixes, and much more.
Action Adventure (2023)
You’re someone who’s long been renowned for his noticeable artistic pivots and tonal shifts throughout his career, but Action Adventure feels more like a throwback to your first two albums (Endtroducing… and The Private Press). Would you agree?
DJ SHADOW: It’s something I alluded to when I announced the album to my fans in an email. And I think it’s obvious that people are going to come to that conclusion because Action Adventure is instrumental-only. But I believe that’s where it ends, as I don’t think there’s any more latent connection than that. I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot more over the years. With every record I put out and every year that goes by, I’m listening to more music, and that includes newer material. So I’m just trying to get better at my craft, which includes songwriting and engineering.
I guess the other thing that makes people think it’s a throwback to my first two albums is that there are no guests, which makes Action Adventure that much more personal and cohesive. Because the minute you start collaborating, you start making concessions and compromises that hopefully don’t expand the record to the point where it doesn’t feel cohesive. However, I understand that there are probably going to be fans who are more appreciative of the instrumental aesthetic.
One of my highlights off the new record was “Craig, Ingels, & Wrightson,” which is a nod to three major horror comic book illustrators in the ’50s. Given the song’s distorted eeriness, the title befits the track! How much of a comic book fan are you?
DJ SHADOW: I used to be a total comic book head growing up. Back then, you could pick up comics from that era (the ’50s and early ’60s) for five bucks, which you can’t really do nowadays. But going into high school, I didn’t want to be a comic book collector because I was getting more into hip-hop, and I couldn’t spread my allowance and paper route money that thinly. So, I had to pick my battle. However, I rediscovered my love of comics during COVID, when I got this huge collection dumped on me right in the middle of 2020. I had nothing but time to take care of them. And in the process of doing that, it sparked this long-dormant passion for the medium in art form. For the first time, I kinda wanted to reference it directly in one of my songs.
When you mentioned the new music you were exposed to, I can’t help but think of the eBay auction where you copped 200 tapes recorded from a radio station in the Baltimore/D.C. area. That must’ve played a key role in crafting songs like the kaleidoscopic “You Played Me.”
DJ SHADOW: Yeah, I think “You Played Me” was the most directly influenced by those tapes. I hate to go back to the COVID years, but the record really is inherently intertwined with that era because before then, I made Our Pathetic Age (released at the end of 2019) and had high hopes for it. We achieved some success, especially with the De La Soul collaboration “Rocket Fuel,” and everything was going along until COVID snuffed my ability to tour behind the album. I was just at home, felt like I had been through a tornado, and plopped back down in my studio questioning what the hell was happening. Frankly, I didn’t want to listen to too much music at all at the time because I didn’t want to imprint the awfulness of peak COVID onto any kind of music as I felt it would forever taint it. So, for a long time, I wasn’t really listening to anything.
During the process of making Action Adventure, those tapes I ended up acquiring represented a bridge back to something good. I started listening to them while I was driving around, and there was so much passion and energy and youthful enthusiasm in those mixes. It was just infectious. I was hearing all this music that I was familiar with, as well as 12”s that didn’t get distributed out here on the West Coast, so I was also listening to stuff I never really heard at the time. A lot of what’s on those mixes were mid-’80s R&B and dance. I allowed myself to be immersed in this pure, unadulterated nostalgia, which I don’t often do because I think nostalgia can be seductive and corrupting. But for the purposes of just rediscovering the joy of music for music’s sake, I can’t say enough about what those tapes represented.
My favorite sequence on Action Adventure is the album’s last quarter, from the haunting keys on “Fleeting Youth” right down to the triumphant “She’s Evolving.” Given what you’ve said about rediscovering the joy of making music despite feeling creatively stifled during the pandemic, was it a conscious choice to end such an atmospheric album with a pensive celebration-of-sorts?
DJ SHADOW: I originally had “Fleeting Youth” at the end, but I felt it was too much of a downer to end the album that way. For whatever reason, I really wanted Action Adventure to end on a more victorious note. For me, “She’s Evolving” represents a lot of things. It’s the oldest track on the album, and one of the hardest to finish. It existed in various forms for a couple of years. Up until the very end of making the album, I didn’t think it was going to make the cut. It wasn’t until I forced myself to sit down with it one last time, and really try to see it through by adding more. [Laughs] It didn’t even have that main synth line that played in-chorus until the very last time I worked on the song. That synth line was like a personal victory that unlocked the song, and allowed me to finish it properly.
One thing I’ve really tried to work on, especially with this album, is just writing music. Once I put “She’s Evolving” at the end of the record, and shifted a few other things around, I was ultimately satisfied with it. To me, the record was good but not great until I tweaked it and put the track at the end. Afterwards, I truly felt that the record now says everything I wanted to say.
Being Mentored By DJ Oras Washington (Mid-To-Late ’80s)
I wanna wheel it back to the beginning, well before Endtroducing… dropped. Your time at Mo’ Wax has been well-documented, but I’d love to go further back and have you talk about Oras Washington, someone you’ve credited as a mentor and a massive influence up to now.
DJ SHADOW: You gotta go back to a time when there was no internet, and hip-hop wasn’t a commercial behemoth the way it became shortly after. Growing up where I was in the mid-’80s, you didn’t hear any type of hip-hop on the radio other than the odd track that might get some airplay on an R&B station. I first heard “The Message” and the instrumental to “Planet Rock” on a commercial radio station. Obviously, if you lived in New York or Philly, you’d be exposed to tons more hip-hop. The Bay Area even had a station called KSOL which would play mixes every Friday and Saturday night. But unless I visited my dad in the Bay, I couldn’t get access to any of those stations. I’d spend every Friday and Saturday there recording mixes.
Oras had the first hip-hop radio show on KDVS, which is the college radio station at UC Davis. I would be constantly combing the airwaves, looking for something that spoke to me. One day, I just happened to chance upon somebody playing “The Roof Is On Fire” by Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three, and the part where they’re saying “We don’t need no water/ Let the motherfucker burn” was quickly pulled off air by the DJ [laughs]. It wasn’t actually Oras’ show back then, as they would be playing stuff like They Might Be Giants to Siouxie And The Banshees, then into some hardcore punk cassette into some kinda dubby, dancy, hip-hoppy thing. And it was totally freeform, which was the great thing about college radio back then.
And then, by virtue of leaving the dial on KDVS, I eventually discovered Oras and started calling into his show and making requests. I tried to make them as deep and knowledgeable as I could. I’d be requesting “Johnny The Fox” by Tricky Tee and he’d be like, “Whoa, who is this? Nobody ever calls and asks for this!” Then, around 1987 when I would’ve been 14 at the time, I reached out and told him that I make my own little mixes and asked if I could come by the station and watch him do a show. He was totally open to the idea, never once said that he was too busy or anything like that. Honestly, he was kinda happy to have somebody express interest in the show because it can feel kinda lonely, especially in college radio where you don’t know who’s listening and whether people are sharing what you’re playing.
Fast-forward a little bit, and I’m this pimply 14-year-old riding my bike to the station and he’s in college DJing events and stuff. He could’ve totally blown me off, but I think what he saw in me was just pure passion for the music. And in a way, he also saw somebody that was so street level in terms of what I was listening to that we started to trade opinions about new records. I’d recommend joints that he should play more of, and he took some of that advice. He ended up being the first person to let me use his techniques. I’d go to his apartment and he’d let me loose on his equipment, which my parents and I couldn’t afford, so it was an opportunity to go all in and have so much fun trying to recreate his mixes or DJs that I admired on KSOL. He was also the first to put me on to turntables in front of a live audience. He had me do a little scratch solo during lunchtime out in the Quad, which is the main picnic area of the UC Davis campus. There’s so many other stories I could tell you, but Oras was so generous with his time. He was one of those key mentors that never saw me as anything other than just an enthusiastic music lover.
Crate-Digging In The Basement Of Sacramento’s Rare Records (Late ’80s-Early ’90s)
One of my preps for this interview was rewatching Scratch, and your passion was clearly evident when you spoke about Rare Records in Sacramento whilst sitting down amongst stacks of records in the basement. How pivotal was that store for you?
DJ SHADOW: To this day, I actually think about being in that basement at least once a week. Over time, the memories get murkier, but I’m always trying to remember what I saw down there because I’m always looking at eBay auctions and thinking, “Damn, I used to see that record down there!” It even happened this morning!
I started going to Rare Records in the late ’80s with my buddy Stan [Green], aka the 8th Wonder, who did a lot of the graffiti on my stuff early on, and we got into digging around the same time. We both grew up loving hip-hop. And then, when the sample era really got into full swing in ’88 or ’89, we’d both be like, “What’s that James Brown record that’s looped on that track? What is that P-Funk sample? What is this other weird drum break we couldn’t find?” So we would go to Records to hunt for those vinyls, and the store’s owner Ed [Hartman] would see us coming in every week and asking these questions and seeing what we’re buying.
At some point, I just kept seeing Ed go downstairs. Mind you, the store’s floor was very large, and I kept imagining what was actually down there and wondered if it was as big as the ground floor. I just started asking him, and he would say that we didn’t wanna know what was down there because the whole basement’s filled and it’s even bigger than the floor above it. Part of me thought he was kinda pulling my leg. Two years into our relationship, I remember asking him if I could go downstairs, and he would tell me that he never lets anybody down there, just the one guy who collected all these rare ’50s Blue Note jazz records.
Another year went by, and I asked him again. His son, who was also a huge music head, caught wind of the fact that I already had a couple of singles out on Mo’ Wax. I think he might have gotten into Ed’s ear a little bit, and told him that I was legitimately putting out music. All of a sudden, Ed’s demeanor with me shifted a little. This was well before Endtroducing…, by the way. I then asked to go down into the basement, and he said he’d take us down there, but we’d be on our own and he’d tell me to bring water and stuff.
What was so mind-boggling is that the basement actually went the depth of the entire city block, so it was twice the size of the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and Stan and I both looked at each other in amazement. From that point on, we’d ask how often we could come around and how much we can get through and whether we can be organized about this. And the answer was no [laughs]. It was impossible to be organized down there because it felt like it was constantly amorphous down there. We also didn’t have the means to be as thorough as we’d have liked. We were both still in college. I wasn’t really making a living off of music just yet, and I was doing a small pizza job and trying to make ends meet, so there was only so much we could do.
What do you remember unearthing down there?
DJ SHADOW: You’d hit little pockets, and there were definitely things I’m 1000% sure I overlooked because I didn’t have the knowledge at the time, or my mind hadn’t been exposed to it yet. But there were these really rare records by a Sacramento psych band called Azitis. Even then, Ed kinda knew what it was. I’d bring a copy up and he’d be like, “Oh, he found one of these, that’ll be $100.” Back then, I wouldn’t pay anything above $15 for a record. Even when a sealed Maceo & All The King’s Men record would be $20, I wouldn’t be paying that much, although nowadays, that’s a great deal. But in that era, I couldn’t justify paying big money for any records. So I kept leaving it, and then I’d bring up another copy like a year later, hoping Ed would give me a different price, but the cost of the record would only keep increasing. So I never did end up copping the Azitis record, even though it’s a record I still would really like to own.
In terms of samples for Endtroducing… though, there were a lot. And the sampled vocals on “Six Days,” which is from a record called “Six Day War” by the British band Colonel Bagshot, came out of that basement. I also found an original UK pressing of the Demon Fuzz album Afreaka! on Dawn in there, and there were tons of sealed records from Mainstream, which are a jazz label but did a lot of psychedelic rock in the late ’60s. A lot of those records are collectibles as well. There was tons of stuff down there.
In Scratch, I loved the description of you by Cut Chemist when he said you had a “Spidey sense” when it came to digging. I like to think that the disorganized chaos down at Records’ basement shaped the rest of your career going forward.
DJ SHADOW: Yeah, because nothing was separated by genre, and you inevitably end up taking a chance on things that you love. So if you can imagine literally a million records being accumulated as they’re being walked in the door, or after Ed has returned from a Tower Records blowout sale in 1980, he’s walking down the basement and a new stack is born. Then another stack, and then another one. And those stacks were like, nine feet tall. So you’re literally pulling down records above your head level and trying to go through them. In the process, you’re looking at free jazz, soundtracks, comedy, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking at. Especially when you’re at the beginning of your learning curve.
UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction (1998)
Psyence Fiction had some of your zaniest work, given that you were working with such a diverse range of musicians on the album: Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Mike D, Kool G Rap, Alice Temple, and so on. What was it like working with artists who are so different from each other? And can you recall any favorite memories or collaborations from that album?
DJ SHADOW: Every one was different. One of the first collabs on Psyence Fiction was Richard Ashcroft. The genesis of that partnership began in 1995, when we spent about three weeks in LA. James [Lavelle] really wanted to work at the Beastie Boys’ studio [G-Son Studios] in Atwater Village. I was already working on Endtroducing… at the time, but I agreed nonetheless.
Tim Goldsworthy, James, and myself would be driving around, and James had a cassette of the Verve’s A Northern Soul with him. I didn’t know who the band were, but we really fell in love with a couple of tracks on the album. As an A&R person, James started to lay the groundwork where we’d have conversations about how amazing it would be to make a record with all of our favorites, regardless of genre. And because collaborative projects are such a well-trodden path nowadays, it’s hard for people to imagine that it was sort of a revolutionary concept to do that back in 1995. The Gorillaz didn’t exist back then, there was no template, no roadmap for what it would look like and sound like. Another thing to note was that rock ‘n’ roll was still king back in the mid-’90s.
As far as the mainstream and the general music industry was concerned, the idea that scrappy lil’ hip-hop kids like myself would have anything to offer was looked down upon by your average rock musician. But there was a new generation of rock artists like Richard Ashcroft, who were partially inspired by hip-hop, soul, and R&B, so there was common ground. When we first met with Richard, I couldn’t believe he knew who David Axelrod was, and knew about records like “Holy Are You” by the Electric Prunes, which was a real touchstone record for James and I in our relationship. Immediately, I felt like this isn’t going to be me working with Sammy Hagar or someone from the old guard [laughs], where there would be zero common ground. Ashcroft was just as big a music fan as I am. The collab with Richard was the first demo, and we ended up using most of the vocals on the final record.
Thom Yorke was a completely different example, in the sense that James had reached out to him in between The Bends and OK Computer. So they weren’t the biggest group around yet up until the aftermath of OK Computer’s release. So I felt fortunate that we had made that connection prior to OK Computer, because if we held off contacting Thom for a little while, it would’ve been too difficult to get a hold of him. But I clearly remember being in the lobby of the Paramount Hotel in Times Square, when that was still a big hub for the music industry. I had the demo of that track with me, which would end up being “Rabbit In Your Headlights”, and introduced myself to him being like, “Here’s what I’ve come up with, let me know what you think.” I watched him listen to it, and at a certain point, he took his headphones and went, “That overdub is out of tune, right?” and I told him it didn’t matter or something like that. He sort of smiled and put the headphones back on. And when it was over, he was like, “Yeah, this is interesting, this is different, I can try to write to this.”
I also remember Alice Temple being very nervous. She didn’t want anybody in the room when she would do her vocal takes. Every time she did a vocal take, the lyrics would change. At some point, she came in to do her vocals and I told James that I didn’t think we could really use these. So she came back in when I wasn’t around and redid them. There were a few different instances like that. But yeah, the record was really challenging, and definitely one of those projects that I felt like I was learning from every session. I was around a real engineer, Jim Abbiss, for the first time in my life. Jim knew how to do things like mic a piano, and we were recording the two inch tape and using a big mix desk for the first time. To go from Endtroducing…, where I was mixing everything on the fly on a 16-track Mackie analog board and doing the pans and punching in the effects in real time, to working on a record where James would literally recommend whichever artist and I’d simply listen and give an opinion on was amazing. We were just trying out anything and everything. The growth is what I associate most with Psyence Fiction, including my own personal musical growth and all the ways I had benefited from being around people who made music in a different way to myself.
Getting Wong Kar-wai To Direct The “Six Days” Video (2002)
I actually watched 2046 for the first time the other day, and I couldn’t help but notice so many visual similarities between the film and the “Six Days” video, which were both directed by Wong Kar-wai. How did you two get the ball rolling? And why did you go towards that creative direction for the video?
DJ SHADOW: Firstly, the music video space has always been challenging for me. I’m a fan of the medium, and I’m definitely of the “MTV generation”. My dad’s girlfriend in the early ’80s was one of the first I can remember to have cable and MTV in California. I used to sit there and watch videos like “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads and Devo’s “Whip It” and I’d be like, “Wow, this is some wild stuff!” [laughs] It was all mind-blowingly creative to me. Then, as music videos entered the “Thriller” era all the way through to Nirvana, and I distinctly remember seeing the video to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time in college and realizing that this was going to be massive. So yeah, I fully recognize the importance of a music video and that sometimes, your perception of a song is forever attached to the video that you’re watching. Bad music videos don’t do the song any good, y’know?
By the time I was getting ready to make videos for songs off The Private Press, music videos were in decline and MTV were showing less of them. VH1 was barely showing them as well. The only people really operating in that space were these super expensive directors that were making these high-budget hip-hop and R&B videos. It didn’t seem like there was a pipeline of up-and-comers at the time. This was before directors had their own websites to showcase their reels, so I was at a total loss for who to reach out to. At the time, I was talking to my manager about how, in the early ’90s, you’d see established guys like David Lynch making a video or, Jonathan Glazer, who directed the video to “Rabbit In Your Headlights” and would then go on to make Sexy Beast. It kinda got me thinking about legitimately reaching out to a potential or actual film director. And my thought process was like, “Surely, there’s gotta be a director out there who’s just come off a huge project, but doesn’t wanna sink their teeth into a long commitment?” It was probably naive for me to think that way, but there’s somebody out there who just wants to work for a week to 10 days, instead of a weighty project.
So, my manager and I were kicking around ideas, until he suggested someone that his company just had a meeting with: Wong Kar-wai. “What if we were to reach out to him?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it,” thinking it wasn’t gonna go anywhere. And then, to my total amazement, we were basically rolling with it. Unfortunately, there was minimal back-and-forth. There may have been an email or a phone call or two, but I wasn’t able to check out the filming or anything like that. I don’t really have any amazing anecdotes about picking Wong Kar-wai’s brain or anything like that, but I was aware at the time that this was a magic moment [laughs].
You’ve also provided the soundtrack to the 2000 documentary Dark Days. Given that so many of your songs have ended up on TV and film, have you ever considered veering towards scoring movies or similar visual mediums?
DJ SHADOW: Throughout my career, the single most used word to describe my music has been “cinematic.” I’ve taken tons of meetings through the years, met a lot of studio heads and music department heads, and have made myself as accessible as I could. But for whatever reason, the opportunities haven’t really been there. I actually find it quite surprising, to be honest.
I also think that the film scoring space is a very small and insular one with its own set of rules and politicking, just like anything else. Nobody who occupies that space wants to give up their slot. And by the same token, I think studios are very reluctant to hand the reins to somebody untested, regardless of what your music sounds like. They want to hand it over to somebody who doesn’t need resources, who doesn’t need to be told what a good copyist is or where to find great Taiko drummers. You gotta go out and find them, and they don’t want to be involved. They wanna hand over the reins to someone who does this everyday. I was talking with somebody recently about this.
Occasionally, someone from the corporate world will reach out about some project they’re working on, and they’ll always say the same thing: “We want something multi-layered and complex and textural, and you’re really good at that stuff. Why don’t you try to put something together for us?” At some point in the corporate process, it reverts to the mean literally 99 times out of a 100. They end up going with something that’s against everything they asked for. It usually ends up being something very mainstream, very pop oriented, very easy to digest. It’s what’s comfortable to them.
Working On DJ Hero (2009-2010)
You also made a huge mark on the video game space with DJ Hero, and I love that you made your mixes available on SoundCloud. What was it like working with and being at the forefront of such a huge gaming franchise at the time? And have you got any more DJ Hero gems hidden in a vault somewhere?
DJ SHADOW: Did I post the one mix that didn’t get used in the game? The Rick James/Nirvana mash?
Not sure, I’ve got the SoundCloud page in front of me…
DJ SHADOW: It’s a mashup of “All Apologies” by Nirvana and “Give It To Me Baby” by Rick…
Ah, yes, it’s here!
DJ SHADOW: [Laughs] Cool! Yeah, I think that one didn’t get used because Courtney Love turned it down. I was approached by Activision at around 2007, 2008, and my thought process at the time was, “This is the type of thing that heretofore I’d have turned down, but I’m not going to do that this time.” I felt like I could do this and do it well, so I decided to embrace it. I had tons of meetings and took it really seriously, and the mixes hinged on what was a really popular concept at the time, which was the whole mashup phenomenon. I got the instructions, chose the tracks, and built the first two mixes. When I turned them in, I didn’t know what they were going to come back with, but I was really pleased when the guy in charge of all the mixes was like, “It’s really good! How do you get them to sound so clean and authentic?” That type of feedback meant a lot to me, because to me, it’s sorta like special effects. You see really phony special effects all the time, and you can pinpoint where they look janky and really obvious, whereas you’ll very occasionally be wowed by great special effects. I wanted those DJ Hero mixes to sound top notch to the point where no one would hear the songs being “stitched” together.
Working on DJ Hero was a really fun way to utilize my brain. After The Outsider came out, I felt a bit adrift. I didn’t know what to do afterwards. I toured for a long time, including doing one with Cut Chemist. So I spent two years on the road, and when I came back home, I didn’t really feel like working on a new record. DJ Hero fell into my lap at just the right moment.
Launching His Own Record Label (2014)
You also started up your own record label called Liquid Amber after being at majors for a pretty long time, releasing a commemorative EP at the same time. What was the reasoning behind starting up Liquid Amber, and what do you see for it going forward?
DJ SHADOW: The inception of Liquid Amber is directly related to my first appearances at the LA club Low End Theory and being exposed to a lot of contemporary beat. I wanted to contribute something to that space at the time. Even though I was still at Island Records, I told them that I wanted to make music that wasn’t necessarily going to be judged in the same way as me putting out a DJ Shadow album. I just wanted to release music when and where I want, for fun. And to Island’s credit, they were cool with it. So when I put out the first single “Ghost Town”, I just wanted to make music that I could DJ when I was doing a lot of it at that point. And the artists I brought on to Liquid Amber were ones I had discovered along the way whilst putting those sets together. It was definitely a labor of love. But like most things, it gets a little too energetically expensive at a certain point, and you kinda have to put it aside. However, I’ve kept the Liquid Amber entity going. Despite being a Mass Appeal artist, I own the music even though the records are licensed to Mass Appeal. So technically, it’ll revert back to me someday and it’ll still be on Liquid Amber.
Do you foresee releasing a full-length project under the Liquid Amber imprint after Action Adventure, or sometime after it?
DJ SHADOW: Maybe. I definitely know how difficult it is to release music on your own label, and it’s incredibly tough to summon up the resources it takes for acts to make a mark. I have a healthy respect for majors like Mass Appeal, and for indies like Fool’s Gold who can operate outside of that system and still win. I also think what Run The Jewels have managed to do on their own is inspiring to see, and I always tell El-P this. So I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s just exerting a little bit of autonomy. I should also shout out this label based in Germany called Saturate, and I look at them as a great example of what I’d like to be doing with Liquid Amber. I like the rate that they put out music, and it’s always by some new artists you’ve never heard of.
His Mammoth Collection Of Rap Demo Tapes
On top of your 60,000-strong record collection, I believe you have around 400 to 500 rap demo tapes as well. How did you get a hold of them?
DJ SHADOW: A lot of those demo tapes came from a friend of mine, which goes back about 10 to 12 years. Long story short, he went out to what was basically a junk store, and they had boxes of tapes out. I don’t know how that junk store acquired them, but most of those tapes were from an A&R guy who worked in the industry. While he pieced together their importance, he wasn’t into hip-hop. So he approached a couple of different people, including a buddy of mine, who kindly suggested to him that he should call me up because that’s totally my wheelhouse and I could trade him the stuff he would want. Prior to that, I had also been collecting demo tapes myself. When I did an Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1 in 2016, the second hour consisted of some of my favorite demos.
Out of those demo tapes, which one would you put up in a mantelpiece to show off to friends and family?
DJ SHADOW: If I had to pick one, it would be A Tribe Called Quest’s first demo because it’s got two tracks that aren’t on the first album [People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm], including one that’s on that Essential Mix. I could hold up something by a more obscure band whose really rare 12”s I love a lot, but that wouldn’t translate as much to family and friends. So the Tribe demo’s really cool, because everybody gets it and they can look at it and go, “Wow!”
Action Adventure is out 10/27 on Mass Appeal.