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A Rational Conversation: Nostalgia, DJ Shadow And Afrika Bambaataa

DJ Shadow spinning in Seattle during the Hard Sell tour.
Arian Stevens
Courtesy of Magnum PR
DJ Shadow spinning in Seattle during the Hard Sell tour.

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

Starting this week, DJ Shadow will team with Cut Chemist for the 28-date Renegades of Rhythm tour, where they'll perform a routine built exclusively off vinyl pulled from the 40,000 records deep collection of Afrika Bambaataa, one the transformative founders of hip-hop. The records are usually kept in the archives of the library at Cornell University, the school that named Bambaataa a visiting scholar in 2012. Shadow has teamed with Cut Chemist on other elaborate DJing projects in the past, like Brain Freeze and the Hard Sell, but the Renegades of Rhythm tour is firmly in line with his career mission of referencing the history of hip-hop without succumbing to pure nostalgia for its early days. Even the name of his recently announced new record label, Liquid Amber, attempts to evoke both fluidity and preservation.

There's so much stuff out there, there's so much that I missed, there's so much that I perceived on a certain level based on my age or where I was living or what I was into.

In 1996 Shadow released his complex and haunting debut album, Endtroducing. Though some tried to tie its largely instrumental songs to genres like trip-hop or acid jazz, he always maintained that they were hip-hop. But '96 was a weird time, when the sound of rap music was changing due to commercial, financial and technological reasons. Endtroducing became a landmark album to many because it represented a progressive vision of hip-hop that still used sampling in ways that recalled strains of music that were disappearing. In his sporadic releases over the next two decades, Shadow moved farther away from the sounds of '80s and '90s hip-hop, often incorporating the influence of contemporary music of the time, rap or otherwise. Some listeners became nostalgic not only for the music that originally inspired Shadow, but also for the sound of his own initial releases. For better or worse, he didn't seem to give much of a damn.

Ducker spoke on the phone with DJ Shadow about how musicians can balance the desire to make new work while still appreciating the music that got them where they are.

Do you consider samplers and samples themselves your primary tools for making music?

Like a lot of people who grew up listening to hip-hop, when I used to go into music shops in the '80s, I always gravitated towards the keyboards and the drum machines that the music I was listening to was being made on. Synthesizers were like $1000, and for a kid in the '80s, that's just not going to happen. You're never going to be able to afford anything like that. When samplers came out, it's not like they were cheap, but it suddenly opened up a whole world of sonic possibilities. You could get drums out of them, you could get melodies out of them, you could put anything you wanted into them and be able to make something.

The sampler — when one came along that was versatile enough and that I could beg, borrow and steal to be able to pay for it — that was my initial instrument of choice. If I was going through customs and they said, "Oh, you're a musician, what do you play?" I would usually say, "It's like I'm an engineer in a studio, I have all this equipment." But since then, as I've learned more and been around people who played different types of instruments, now I feel like if I can imagine it, then there's probably a way to do it, whether it's in the box, on a laptop or in a studio.

What would you say is your primary instrument now? Or do you see yourself as having more of a collective, a larger system?

Now I would consider myself more than anything a producer. I'm a DJ first, that'll always be the case, and a producer second. So whatever I can use to get from Point A to Point B, and get what I have in my head out for other people to hear, that's what I use.

There are all kinds of DJs out there, from the people who try to break the newest songs from the newest genres, to the ones who specialize in old songs from micro-genres of the past. If you consider yourself a DJ first, where do you fit on that spectrum in terms of what you DJ and what you want to play?

As many different types of people that there are in the world, that's how many different types of DJs there are. All of my favorite DJs, and the DJs that I looked up to over the years, weren't self-indulgent, but they also had very definite opinions about what was happening. They tried to steer the dialogue in their own way to the stuff that they thought was worthwhile. All the DJs that used to inspire me growing up had mix shows on the radio and my favorites always put their own stamp of their personalities on their DJ sets. For example, there was this one DJ in the Bay Area, Theo Mizuhara, who included messages left on his answering machine. We're talking about '89. Theo came up as this dude nobody had heard of, and he would play these really involved mixes that crossed a lot of genre lines. Within the narrow confines of '80s commercial radio he managed to be unique and put his personality his mixes.

Whether it's Chuck Chillout or Mr. Magic or the KDAY Mix Masters, they had their very own definite style. That's who I used to look up to. If a DJ came on the radio and was playing mixes that I really felt like were just catering to the charts, I didn't really pay them much mind. There's even some DJs I can think of, whose mixes I heard, and they weren't very good technically, but they dropped all these important records for the first time, way before I heard them anywhere else.

The DJs that I thought mattered, that I was able to hear, were pretty much limited to what I could hear on the radio, because I wasn't old enough to go to clubs and there were no park jams where I grew up. They were granted an hour to represent themselves as a DJ. A little bit of that always gets back to hip-hop; it's very competitive by nature. In every aspect of it — graffiti, the rapping, the dancing, the DJing itself — it's all based in competition and setting yourself apart from everybody else. DJs set themselves apart by the records they play. I'm standing here surrounded by Bambaataa's collection and one of his big gifts to the scene and hip-hop was to look outside of the traditional soul and funk. He represented that 100%, but he also looked in unusual places for beats and jams that would end up becoming part of the language of hip-hop. The DJs that mattered to me were the ones that seemed to have a sense of where they came from and where the music was from, but also had a strong foothold in what was happening now.

You've discussed what you're interested in from other DJs, but how do you apply that to your own DJing? How do you put yourself into it?

When I think back to all the early times that I DJed in front of people, the first time was on the campus at UC Davis. I was asked by a DJ who had a radio show at the college radio station to do a little scratch exposition. This was 1987, I think I was a sophomore in high school and I was kind of fully aware that a lot of people would find it somehow startling that all of a sudden this young kid is up there, scratching during the lunch hour on the quad. I liked using my unassuming appearance, I guess, and just getting up there and doing things that were unexpected.

I carried that out through all the early tours that I did. The first time I ever DJed in Europe was in Berlin, just a couple of years after the Wall had come down. The first record I played was totally undanceable. It was an obscure hip-hop instrumental from '87 by a group called the Kings of Pressure. I just wanted to play it to demonstrate that I wasn't like all these guys who came before me who were playing pretty much the same music to that audience, which was what was expected at that time. Then I came on and completely cleared the floor with whatever it was that I brought to the table, which must have seemed pretty odd. I was in a little bubble in Northern California, making my own definition of what I thought was dope within hip-hop, and then just taking a suitcase full of records off to Europe and totally out context playing a bunch of music that had probably never been played in a club out there ever.

But slowly over time a lot of people started going, "Hey, you should check for this guy, he's doing something different." And for most DJs, including DJs that are coming out now, that's a huge weapon to wield, when you are saying something different and you are doing something that is different. Some DJs are totally the other direction, and they want every single person in the club or at the festival site to be on their team, and they want the audience to know what they are going to be getting, and they want everybody to recognize all the big tunes and everything like that. Over time I've learned to appreciate that side of DJing as well. The best DJs in my opinion are the ones that can do a bit of both.

You've always considered and presented yourself as a hip-hop artist. When you started, that meant using samples, and you became noted for which samples you used and how you used them. As your career has progressed, you've incorporated more contemporary sounds of the time, whether that was hyphy or future bass, that are less reliant on samples. Why was it important for you to do that? Was it a reaction to what people were expecting from you?

I've always tried to incorporate what was going on at the time. It's a question and it's a debate within hip-hop and within DJ culture that comes up a lot: Is it OK to mix the old with the new? My feeling is that there is a lot of good music that needs support now. There's a time and a place to pay respect to the past and to learn from the past. I love reading about music. I love reading about music that I know nothing about or that I want to know more about to educate myself. There's so much stuff out there, there's so much that I missed, there's so much that I perceived on a certain level based on my age or where I was living or what I was into. In the '80s, I was hip-hop or die. I really didn't want to know about anything else. But at the time it was happening, I was in school and I was seeing kids with jean jackets with Metallica on the back, seeing whatever other cliques of kids were into. At that age, it's important to rally around one thing that you attach your identity to, but in doing so, I learned later that I also missed out on some stuff.

Ultimately I was always inspired by DJs like Bambaataa or producers like Prince Paul who tended to look a little bit further or dig a little bit deeper or expand the parameters of what hip-hop was allowed to be. Through the years I've learned that it's important to know the history of whatever your craft is, because that's just going to make you better — that's a foundation you can build on, but it's extremely important simultaneously to be aware of what's going on and to anticipate what's going on and also support what's going on.

That's also something that I got from John Peel, the legendary BBC DJ. I used to read his writings in NME in the '80s. I used to go to a little newsstand in Davis where I was growing up that was run by these two English girls, and they used to import all the British music magazines. I noticed way back then that [the magazines] were way more inclined to cover American hip-hop that SPIN or Rolling Stone ever were. It was the only place I could read about an emerging artist like Just-Ice, or Melody Maker famously once had Sweet Tee on the cover. You'd never get that in the States. I used to read those magazines and I became aware of the stature that John Peel had amongst the writers and amongst the artists. He said in an interview in one of the magazines, like, "I can't understand why a kid would be walking around in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt in 1986, there's so much good, important music that needs support now. It's the classics of today." That really resonated with me growing up in the Sacramento Valley, which was such a classic rock haven and where it seemed like so few of my peers were listening to anything new. It was all about the glories of their parents' generation, and I could never understand that.

How much do you have to deal with people who are nostalgic for your records? Your earliest stuff is getting close to being 20 years old. Do you still have people who are like, "Why doesn't he make music that sounds like his first album?"

Part of the reason that still happens from time to time is that [Endtroducing] is one of those records where it seems that a lot of people are discovering it years after the fact. Maybe their older siblings introduce it to them, or they see it on some list of records that mattered from that era, so they check it out. I feel very much at peace with it. Obviously I'm extremely grateful that I did something that impacted people in that way. I like to reference it when appropriate, and play songs from it when appropriate, but I'm inspired by others that came before me that continued to search and continued on the journey of whatever they were looking for and didn't dwell in the past or recycle their own past ad infinitum. To me, that's artistically corrupting in a way. Whatever I put out — if I did that, if I kept going around in circles and regurgitating my own stuff, it would feel more and more like fast food to people.

It's just one of those realizations that I had a while ago, which was that people liked what I was doing at that time [of Endtroducing] because it was different and because I was grasping for something as an artist. I would rather try to maintain that sensibility and continue to reach, rather than just relax into an easy chair and go, "OK, I'm going to give the people what they want and keep doing the same thing." When other artists do it, and I see it as a fan, it's the most depressing and disappointing thing. When I see someone actually lose the will to continue to push forward — even if it's uncomfortable, even if it's very often less rewarding in the short term — it's very disappointing. That disappointment that I felt so many times as a consumer and as a music lover is what compels me, succeed or fail, to keep searching and keep trying.

But you do engage in your own history, whether it's through reissues or putting out your very rare stuff. Why is it important for you to keep having that dialogue with your earliest days?

For me it's a calibration. For me an album generally takes a couple of years to make. That's a long time. It's a long time to be head down on one project. [The reissues and archival releases are] a way to break bread with my own past and be at peace with it, and also offer people something that's like another clue to a much broader narrative that I'm hopefully constructing over the course of this decades-long career. Everything that I've done makes sense to me and I want it to make sense to others.

At a certain point I was getting asked so often if Endtroducing was a burden or some kind of yolk around my shoulders. It was tempting to completely shut myself away from that timeframe or deny its existence, but then I realized that's actually just going to exacerbate the problem, or the perception that it is some kind of albatross. I just decided that it's not, that's a fact, so maybe by giving the people that want a little more information from that era — something I found, a little more music — hopefully they'll enjoy it. And I'm going to be over here, hopefully building something new that people will find interesting as well.

We've been talking about nostalgia and creating something new, and I'm curious how you're addressing this issue with this tour you're about to do, where you're literally playing the records that are at the foundation of hip-hop. How do you take that material and not make it sound like an oldies night or a breakbeat night?

That's the challenge. Our approach so far has been to try to address three different narratives. One is Bambaataa as an artist, with the seminal records that he made. Two is Bambaata as a DJ and as one of three people most responsible for what hip-hop sounds like, by virtue of their taste and the records that they broke in the '70s. Where would we be if [Kool] Herc, [Grandmaster] Flash and Bambaataa zeroed in on this record and not that record, this sample and not that sample, this jam and not that jam? Hip-hop wouldn't sound like what it sounds like if it wasn't for them. And narrative number three is Bambaataa as a social thinker, as a peacemaker, as a missionary for the culture of hip-hop, worldwide. His ideas.

What Bambaata is less acknowledged for, but for me was so influential, is that there were DJs before him and there were DJs after him, but he was one of the first DJs with a vision, a vision beyond just the jam and just the set and just the records. He wanted to communicate to people, he wanted to change the circumstances of his environment, he wanted to change and uplift his community through music. Without exception — and I've read many, many interviews with him from the early '80s while working on this project in trying to get in touch with a lot of the nuances of who he is as a person — all of the accolades he received and all the respect he received within the community, you never got the impression in any interview that any of it had ever gone to his head. He was always trying to push off the attention on to issues that he felt that were important or other artists that he felt deserved recognition. Again, that's inspiring and unusual.

Has this been a difficult project? You've taken on a lot of ambitious things over the years. Where does this rank among them?

It's high. It's definitely high because of the sense of responsibility that I have and that I know Cut Chemist also has. When you talk about Bambaataa, you're talking about someone who to some people is the Godfather of Hip-Hop. The only other person that I could think of that holds this kind of esteem within my own cumulative hip-hop brain is Flash. The first hip-hop record I heard, "The Message," was by Flash and the Furious Five. The second one was "Planet Rock" by Bam. From the very beginning of my hip-hop understanding, he was there, and he was the guy that Run-DMC was thanking and the guy that Red Alert was thanking and that Public Enemy brought out in their video. For Public Enemy to pay respect to you at the peak of their powers, that says a lot. I'm sitting there as a 14-year-old kid, 15-year-old kid seeing that on TV and going, "Wow, that's Bambaataa."

The reason I feel like this tour with the Bambaataa collection and referencing older music and the roots of the music I grew up on makes sense to me now is because I just finished DJing brand new stuff for the last two years. I went around the world a few times and was taking it really in-stride in terms of gigs. There wasn't a big long tour, it would just be spot dates—I'd go to Europe and do some dates and then come home, then we'd go to Australia and do some dates. It was very low stress and a lot of times I was playing in smaller venues than I would if I was doing my own big production tours. It gave me a chance to get back to that, and in a way that was a return to my roots as well, because I hadn't really done that style of DJing where the set is evolving every night and I'm playing new stuff. When I went to Australia back in February, I think everything I was playing was less than a month old. In that way it was a different type of challenge. I would listen to as much music as I could, formulate something that makes sense to me and reflects what I think has value in terms of new music, put it in a mix that works and will hopefully make people move around a little bit (because most of it is danceable). Constantly getting new music and working it in is a challenge, because you don't really have time off—you're traveling and you're DJing and you're reworking the set as you go every night. After doing that for a couple of years, the constant shifting of gears is a way to keep yourself nimble.

Also, I haven't played vinyl out in like five years, so that was another part of the appeal. A lot of times people do ask me on the road, When are you going to do a vinyl tour again? Or, When are you going to play with Cut again? The time was right, it felt right, and we didn't want to do something like this unless we felt like it was truly unique and truly had never been done before. I had never heard of a situation where a legendary collection has been furnished to other DJs to use as a mechanism to tell that person's story, and by default, the story of hip-hop, in a way.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Ducker

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