DJ Shadow’s Reconstructed: An Oral History

Ahead of his Rough Trade East in-store tonight and his slot at Relentless Freeze Festival on Friday, we asked DJ Shadow to give us a personal rundown of Reconstructed: The Best Of DJ Shadow

Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, has been casting a retrospective glance over his career as of late. This year he’s released Total Breakdown: Hidden Transmissions From MPC Era, 1992-1996, collecting early material from before 1996’s landmark Endtroducing….., as well as Reconstructed: The Best Of DJ Shadow, distilling Davis’ choice moments from his five albums and his collaborative LP with Mo’ Wax’s James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy as U.N.K.L.E, alongside a couple of new cuts, ‘Won’t You Be’ and ‘Listen’, the latter featuring 60s rock veteran Terry Reid. We thought we’d take the opportunity to ask Shadow to bring his sense of sonic analysis to bear on his own back catalogue, and ask him to give us an oral history of his best of before he plays a couple of London appearances this week. For a man whose personal record collection (and potential sample mine) extends to around 60,000 records, though, it turns out that recalling the origins, the what, where and when of the tracks, is no mean feat. "Oh man, that thing…" he says, when I remind him of the task at hand. Afraid so.

1. ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’, from Endtroducing…..

The main sample I remember finding around ’92, maybe a little earlier, but it was quite early on in the process of owning an MPC and I just thought it seemed like a really lovely little loop. Looping was a fairly common technique back then; at that time, there wasn’t a need to do a great deal beyond that, and then you just stack samples up over it and do the drum programming and what not. I had the beat, but I’d flipped it in a way such that I could never do it again, I can’t even remember how I did it. I was really happy with it, and at some point decided to apply that loop to that beat and that’s how ‘Midnight’ was born.

I’d say it’s one of the top three most recognisable songs that I’ve made, and I wanted to start the album off on a friendly note, if you will, a kind of a warm note. I wanted a song that most people would recognise right off the bat, but hopefully not a song that was completely rinsed.

2. ‘High Noon’, from Preemptive Strike

I suppose it was also kind of an angry song. When Endtroducing….. came out, it made a bit of a splash here in the UK, but then I found myself back in the States, the album wasn’t out yet and I felt as though I’d gone through this vortex and somehow ended up exactly right where I was – a crappy, cheap apartment in a community where no-one understood what I was doing or identified with my reference points and I felt a bit manipulated and used, and I found myself compelled to make ‘High Noon’ as a way to express some of that.

Mixing that song was a ‘mare though – it came together really quickly in terms of taking all the elements, doing all the programming and really pouring myself into it. I remember I mixed it feverishly, and Mo’ Wax requested that I take another crack at it and it was very difficult and actually I think the person who mastered it was Mark ‘Spike’ Stent’s personal mastering engineer or somebody like that. I remember Mo’ Wax or A&M pulling all these favours to get somebody really on their shit to master it because it was so muddy, and their notes said something like "obviously this was a challenge, but here’s what I’ve done"!

3. ‘I’ve Been Trying’, from The Less You Know, The Better

[The opening guitar riff] just comes from something I had thrifted – my process when working on The Less You Know, The Better was that I was in a small town about an hour from where I live with my family and I was forcing myself into semi-seclusion and forcing myself to be in an environment that I was unfamiliar with so that I would just stay and work and not distract myself with all this other stuff. But I would periodically, at least once every two days, go out to any one of a number of thrift stores in the area and I liked the karmic element of finding some record and taking it home immediately and seeing if it would apply itself to what I was working on. It’s sort of an unremarkable sample on its own, but I would take all these little elements that I like and put them on a timeline on ProTools and just start moving them around to see if they would fit together. Before you know it, you have a sort of 15-minute palette, and then you start seeing if there’s any sort of serendipitous connections between them in terms of things like the swing: the manner in which the guitar is played – are there other elements that retain that swing?

4. ‘This Time (I’m Going To Try It My Way)’, from The Outsider

I’ve gotten more and more into sampling from cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes and video tapes and things of that nature, simply because it’s no fun always having your samples blown on the internet by other diggers. I like to try and outfox them. I don’t let it prohibit me from using something common if it works, I don’t want to get in the way of things happening. It’s like, I really do feel that during the two years or so that it takes me to make a record, I’ll put all kinds of music on my turntable and not all of it’s going to be rare or one of a kind.

5. ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, from The Private Press

In general, I’ve always felt that The Private Press was leaps and bounds more sophisticated in every way from Endtroducing….., and that’s not to minimise – somehow people always seem to think I’m giving short shrift to Endtroducing….. – it’s merely that that was my first thing and you learn and you grow as an artist and your work should evolve and progress. I always felt that The Private Press was, track-for-track, maybe not as cohesive or as much of a calling card/statement record, far superior.

6. ‘Scale It Back’ (featuring Little Dragon), from The Less You Know, The Better

I first met Yukimi in 2006, when she was with another band. Then I met her in 2007/2008 in Japan, and she gave me Little Dragon’s first album, but what really did it for me is that I had about $1000 worth of credit at a big record store in San Francisco from doing in-stores there throughout the years. You would do an in-store and they would hand you a $250 credit slip, and I had three or four of these saved up. My whole goal was, I’m just going to go and buy a bunch of new music: everything from dance 12"s to some hip hop stuff to rock CDs to this vinyl, that vinyl, 7", 10", whatever. Anything that looked interesting – and I spent like six hours there, bought a lot of stuff. Their 45 ‘Fortune’ was my favourite single thing that I bought out of all that music.

Out of all the collaborations that I’ve done between U.N.K.L.E. and my own stuff, I’ve had the full gamut between getting stuff back or being in the moment with the person in the studio, thinking "is this even going to work?", all the way to "oh my god, this is fucking genius", and this was totally on that end of the spectrum. I knew it was going to be good, and I got it and it was this "oh yeah, this is brilliant".

7. ‘Listen’ (featuring Terry Reid), previously unreleased

I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, and his name [Terry Reid] came up, and my friend was saying he had come to Chicago and he was really excited to see him. I sort of thought "Jesus" – I didn’t realise he was still out there doing it. I was able to find him rather quickly, and it was just one of those lightbulb moments, like "why didn’t I think of this sooner?" I love that song, there’s not a single thing about it I would change, and that’s only happened a handful of times in my whole twenty years of putting out records, it’s not very often that I feel that satisfied with something that I do.

With people like him that had a measure of success but never became a household name, they usually fall into two camps: thankful for what they have or bitter for what they don’t have. He’s definitely the former. He has a great life and he’s proud of what he’s achieved and he still has that positivity and he’s just up for it. He doesn’t see an end to what he’s doing.

8. ‘Stem’, from Endtroducing…..

If I’m not mistaken, the drumming only took the better part of one evening. In fact, it was almost an afterthought. Most of the pre-production of Endtroducing….. was done at my house and then a lot of final touches were done at the studio that I was working out of. It wasn’t a proper studio in the way you’d think of it – it was one third the size of this room, just a little tiny place. It was that time when you had to start making the final decisions and I sort of went off on a tangent, decided that it needed it and did it. Driving home that night, I listened to it, decided what needed to be tweaked, and then finished it up the next day.

9. ‘Six Days’, from The Private Press

Usually my favourite things are things that I think couldn’t possibly work, and it may seem as though the drums on ‘Six Days’ are quite straightforward but, as you can imagine, those drums are slowed way way down and they’re playing at such a speed. It’s very much a live-spirited atmosphere in which bands like that are playing and they drift all over the tempo map. So getting those drums to actually work was extremely time-consuming, much more so than ‘Stem’. When you work with a longer sample, getting it to feel live and not be able to perceive the same bits coming around again… That was far more difficult. Again, I felt quite sure when I started it that I was in over my head and that it wouldn’t work, and throwing down the gauntlet and forcing myself to put in the sweat equity to make it work is one of the things that I value. I don’t think my grandmother has heard the track, I don’t think I ever mentioned it to her!

10. ‘Won’t You Be’, previously unreleased

I liked it on the album, because it doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve done. By adding all these soft porn samples near the end and scratches and stuff, it took it out of the context of being too straight. It felt like I was able to kind of get my own personality in there as a DJ and take it out of the realm of being something that was too straight and frivolous.

11. ‘Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)’, from Preemptive Strike

Again, a lot of the stuff on Endtroducing….. I felt was not club-playable. I wanted something that people could drop in clubs and I was happy to do it. In retrospect, it’s sort of unusual. I don’t often revisit my own stuff in that way. I’m glad I did it now, because I could easily see myself going I don’t want to do this, I’d rather do a new track. For whatever reason, I felt it was important enough to do at that time.

Once the song or the album is done, and it gets to its release date and disseminates around the world and gets into people’s hands, at that point I’m very much at peace and at ease with it. My real time of anxiety is when I’m creating the music and that’s when my quality control and my obsessive attention to detail is there and I feel really good about the fact that I’ve been able to hold on to that quality control. That’s not to say that they aren’t a couple of moments in my catalogue that I feel I could’ve done better, but I don’t regret anything and I don’t feel I’ve ever put any tripe out.

12. ‘Lonely Soul’ (featuring Richard Ashcroft)

James Lavelle and I were huge fans of the Verve album A Northern Soul, so James really wanted to have Richard Ashcroft come down and sing. He came down and did a guide vocal and we built a track around it. ‘Lonely Soul’ is definitely one of my finest achievements during this twenty-year period and in the process of going back through a lot of DAT tape during the course of putting together the greatest hits, I found this radio edit that I had forgotten about and was never released and I liked the way it felt. I remember when we did it in the studio thinking "wow, I wonder if this will be the version we end up with on the album?" I really liked the way it ended and felt like it was a complete vision without being a sort of butchered version of the album version.

13. ‘Blood On The Motorway’, from The Private Press

One sample, I think it came from a bell-ringing [compilation]… It’s sort of sad in a way, it speaks to what we’ve lost in the States: there used to be a real premium placed on the arts and colleges, high schools and junior high schools had a huge amount of resources dedicated to encouraging everybody to learn an instrument. So in the 50s, 60s, 70s, whatever, there’d be any number of – in this case it was a bell-ringing choir – 70 students all with bells learning how to ring bells together. That’s completely disappeared now because the only thing that matters in the States now is personal wealth, which is a farce, of course.

14. ‘You Made It’ (featuring Chris James), from The Outsider

15. ‘Redeemed’, from The Less You Know, The Better

16. ‘Dark Days Main Theme’, from Dark Days soundtrack

DJ Shadow is playing in-store at Rough Trade East tonight at 7pm and at the Relentless Freeze Festival on Friday, October 26, at Battersea Power Station.

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