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 isnt 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. Its real, its authentic, theres art to it, there is a discipline, its a craft. And thats 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 Sydneys 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 Bambaataas record collection, with the blessing from the Godfather of hip-hop himself.

This time around, Daviss 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 dont want to continue to go back to that same way of doing things, because thats 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. Its a conscious element of his live shows as well.

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

You dont want to continue to go back to that same way of doing things. Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns
Last years
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: Ive 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 cant cut a pie that many times, there isnt 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, doesnt matter whether its right or wrong, it doesnt matter whether its valid, it doesnt matter whether its deserved.

These days, Davis is more concerned with finding new sources of inspiration. He hosts a radio show, Find, Share, Rewind, on Californias 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 Im always reaching for is just a pure form of expression, he says. Thats 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 theyre 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

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