DJ Shadow’s influence looms large
The sample artist known to his family as Josh Davis has never been hungry for the spotlight. Two decades ago he chose a stage name for himself that still reflects how he feels about attracting attention: He’s DJ Shadow.
Cryptic messages abound in the Bay Area DJ’s widely influential catalog, which set a template for instrumental hip-hop with the meditative 1996 debut “Endtroducing. . .’’ The DJ’s fourth full-length album, in support of which he headlines the House of Blues Friday, is called “The Less You Know, the Better.’’
“Endtroducing. . . ,’’ cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first album to be recorded using only sampled music, helped establish the underground phenomenon of the hip-hop beat record as a platform for sustained artistic expression, combining an omnivorous appetite for recorded sound with classical structure and a jazz-like feel for innovation. Shadow has spent his career since answering to, and attempting to distance himself from, the enduring reverence for his epic debut.
“I can’t even imagine how that must have affected him,’’ says Will C., a 25-year-old hip-hop beatmaker in Somerville who is part of a generation of sample artists who have grown up in the long shadow of “Endtroducing. . .’’ Will C.’s latest project, “Adieu or Die,’’ is an ambitious, almost unrecognizable reworking of the Beach Boys’ catalog that owes an immeasurable debt (as do virtually all instrumental hip-hop records of the past decade and a half) to DJ Shadow.
Shadow’s subsequent recordings, including the 2002 album “The Private Press’’ and 2006’s “The Outsider,’’ have alternated soul, jazz, and classic rock samples like the ones that defined his debut with excursions into punk, electronic music, and hard-edged vocal hip-hop. In infrequent interviews he emphasizes that he never intended to rehash his earliest work over and over.
If that’s been a sore spot for some fans, fellow DJs tend to have a deep appreciation for his commitment to challenging himself. “Endtroducing. . .’’ is considered a classic by many music fans beyond hip-hop, notes Will C., who first heard the album through an older brother. “To be able to grow and develop from there - it just goes to show he’s a true artist.’’
While DJ Shadow would prefer to let his production speak for itself (“I wanted a name that signified that it doesn’t matter who’s doing it,’’ he once said), the DJs he has inspired continue to acknowledge his influence.
“Shadow and [Japan’s] DJ Krush - those two are what made me put the ‘DJ’ in my name,’’ says Antony Flackett, who answers to DJ Flack when he’s on the turntables. With Wayne & Wax, Flack presides over the Beat Research nights each Tuesday at Good Life in Downtown Crossing.
“ ‘Endtroducing. . .’ is the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ of my time,’’ he says. “It’s a masterful record. What he did was made it a whole new game. It will tug at your heartstrings but still have that driving beat. It’s the perfect balance.’’
A multimedia artist as well as a DJ, Flackett has been teaching classes (like “Music, Art and Culture in the Age of Hip-Hop’’) at Massachusetts College of Art and Design for several years. His students who dabble in turntablism might cite more recent examples of instrumental hip-hop artists whose work is similarly expansive - Flying Lotus (the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane), or the late J Dilla, for example. But as Flackett says, they all trace back to Shadow.
When DJ Spooky visited the college and noticed that Flackett had included a Shadow concert film in the syllabus, he made a point of knocking the DJ for getting “theoretical credit’’ he felt was unearned. Not that Shadow would claim such a thing for himself.
“That’s what’s so great about Shadow,’’ says Flackett. “He just does his thing. He’s not pretentious. He wants none of the cult of personality, and I respect that.’’
Yet that hasn’t stopped Shadow’s admirers from canonizing him. “He’s the greatest pioneer in the game,’’ says Dan Doppstadt, a Northeastern undergrad who grew up in New York City studying jazz guitar before discovering a new outlet creating hip-hop instrumentals. He posts new beats regularly at HLRBoston.com.
Shadow’s reluctance to be pinned down is in itself a kind of archetype, says Doppstadt. As hip-hop production evolves, the diggers who find source material in the most obscure places are the ones seen as innovators.
“He’s somebody who rejects being put in one category,’’ says Doppstadt. “The guy’s gotta do his own thing. I’m absolutely a huge fan.’’
More than a decade after first hearing DJ Shadow, Will C. says the DJ’s comprehensive skills arranging and manipulating samples still “blows my mind.’’
“He has so many techniques,’’ he says. “It’s not like he invented them all, but he uses them all so well. The drums will drop out, and he’ll let the song breathe. Suddenly, the whole landscape changes.’’