How DJ Shadow went from brainiac misfit to champion of the underdog

How DJ Shadow went from brainiac misfit to champion of the underdog

A maverick in the margins — Since making a breakthrough as a beat-making pioneer, DJ Shadow has struggled to get his work heard. Now he's giving new artists a leg-up: shattering myths about label power and challenging ideas of success.

It didn’t take long for DJ Shadow to realise the music business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

His debut album, Endtroducing….. would redefine the possibilities of sampling and earn regular spots in ‘best of all-time’ lists. But that came later.

During its release in 1996, Shadow based himself in London – playing gigs, doing interviews, hearing the hype – before flying home to California in excitement. That’s when the first reality check set in.

“I was still living in the same shitty flat, working in a town where nobody knew anything about my music or who I was. It felt like nothing had changed. People ask me, ‘What was it like to put out this incredible record that people love?’

“Well, it was a cult phenomenon that happened under the radar for years, eventually arriving at something that was much bigger than what I ever experienced… I didn’t even perceive it as happening.”

Shadow, real name Josh Davis, is sitting on the 17th floor of a hotel overlooking central London. He’s wearing a dark checked-shirt, navy jeans, grey Converse and a black baseball cap that says RAP FAN – with a spare cap sitting in the yellow armchair beside him.

And although the 44-year-old is jet-lagged, taking his time to warm up, creative independence is something he’s eager to talk about.

Shadow grew up doings things his own way. He taught himself how to mould genre-bending beats while still in school and co-founded the underground label Solesides by the time he got to university.

As a rising star, however, he didn’t realise that the label he chose to launch his career with – UK indie imprint Mo’ Wax – was about to be taken over through a complex chain of consolidation.

“I was a total misfit on a major label because of the circumstances of how I ended up on one,” he says, taking off his sunglasses.

“Nobody had ownership of me and nobody felt they could control me either. I always recouped [any spending] and I never asked for anything, so they valued me being there and let me do whatever I wanted.”

But 15 years after his first and most famous album, Shadow realised that awareness of his output hadn’t changed that much.

For all the leverage that major-label backing promises, the reach of his last album, 2011’s The Less You Know, The Better, felt like that of someone operating in the margins.

“I would bump into people who work in the industry and they’d say, ‘What’ve you been up to?’ like a month after it came out,” Shadow says, shaking his head.

There’s no blame there, he adds, and he’ll take responsibility for any inherent musical failings.

“But I decided I’d rather have my music worked on by 10 people who are really invested and care rather than 50 who have no idea who I am or what I’m for.”

In 2014, Shadow switched to new independent label Mass Appeal (founded by Nas) and launched his own imprint, Liquid Amber, as a platform for new artists he believes in.

There’s no motivation other than giving talent a leg-up: every release is free to download and no money changes hands unless there’s a licensing deal. Even still, some artists’ idea of what a label is and what it’s not requires a wake-up call.

“I have to tell everyone, ‘Think of this as a power-up on your journey. We have some resources but at the end of the day, there’s got to be an element of luck and of people responding genuinely to the music. I can’t dictate or control those things.

“All I’m doing is giving a quantifiable number of people who might not otherwise cross your music a chance to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.’ That’s it. Ultimately that’s what every label does, to a certain extent, and there are always massive failures.”

People on the outside don’t often understand the twists and turns of being an artist, he goes on. But when you know your reasons are sound, it makes it easier not to be hurt by judgement or criticism.

Last year, for example, Shadow licensed his music to a car advertisement – something he would have turned down at various other times in the past.

But he accepted the opportunity knowing it would fund the making of his new album, The Mountain Will Fall.

It also meant Shadow didn’t have to tour for six months or hit up anyone for an advance. He could let the creative process flow without fear creeping in.

“I have bills. I have two children. I have a lawyer. I have a manager, a publicist. I have a business manager. I have digital management. There’s literally a machine that needs to be fed on a monthly basis.

“Somehow I’ve figured out a way to be creative and true and inherently sound and to be able to protect what it is that I do.” He pauses, thinking back over the words as jet lag catches up with him.

“I’m not saying I’m anything special or anything but when you do sit back once in awhile, you just have to exhale and feel good about the decisions you’ve made. And I do feel good about the decisions I’ve made.”

This article appears in Huck 56 – The Independence IssueBuy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

The Mountain Will Fall is out on Mass Appeal.

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