One of the last of the great vinyl-sampler-spinners, a pioneer in both textural atmospherics and technical esthetics, DJ Shadow (aka Josh Davis) casts a shiny vinyl shadow. His 1996 debut, Endtroducing, is part of the fabric of modern production and DJ culture, in the same stroke as masterworks by Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Portishead. Davis continues to evolve, yet his sonic stamp is clear—from ethereal moods and pulsing beats to full-on raw send-ups to classic hip-hop missives. Two current releases reveal Davis'' churning mind: I''m Excited, an EP, and The Less You Know The Better, only his fourth album in 15 years and his most forward-looking (if familiar) offering yet.
“My process is much the same as it''s been since I first became a DJ 27 years ago,” Davis says from Mill Valley, California. “You''re playing records and trying to hear a couple things in a row that might work as a mix. At that time, I was inspired by the DJs on the radio who were starting to mix records together. Then once I got into learning the secret art of the breakbeat and the secret knowledge that you really had to work to discover—what these beats were, and what these samples were that I was hearing on hip-hop records—I''d listen looking for something similar to what DJs have always looked for: something unusual, something that sparks the imagination, and something the establishes the basic backing track that could carry a song.”
Until very recently, Davis still worked a trusty Akai MPC as his main locomotion at his home studio. But for The Less You Know… he ran Pro Tools on an Apple PowerBook G4, aided by Native Instruments Maschine.
“It''s like a virtual MPC,” Davis explains. “Native Instruments sensed an opportunity to convert MPC users who were frustrated with the ability to go in and out of the box fluidly. They''re not trying to make it feel like an MPC, but it does have a lot of the same functionality, with all the conveniences of having your sounds live in the box rather than having to import files from the MPC to your computer.” He adds that Maschine introduces a tactile environment back into the beat-making process: “You can play beats with your hands-on buttons. just like the MPC''s pads. But instead of triggering sounds that live inside of its hard drive, it''s triggering the samples within your laptop. You can play beats out to a click the same way you would on an MPC. I did that on some of that on the album.
“On other songs, I bypass Maschine,” Davis continues. “Some of the songs I made on the new record I didn''t want them to feel programmed in the same way. I''ve gotten good at treating Pro Tools as a tracking device and chopping things up within Pro Tools and moving them around in more of a collage esthetic than a drum machine esthetic. And I still sample from vinyl.”
Davis sampled vocals from vinyl, but also worked with Little Dragon''s Yukimi Nagano, De La Soul''s Posdnuos, and Talib Kweli. And though he likes to keep digital artifacts to a minimum, if necessary, he treats vocal samples with a Fairchild 660 plug-in, Waves effects, and basic EQ and compression (especially to the extreme top and low end).
“Josh loves the processing of sounds so that they evolve during the course of a song,” explains mixing engineer and producer Jim Abbiss (Adele, Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys). “To his samples I try to match interesting equipment processes that you can''t do with plug-ins. Plug-in effects are limited by what the designers or programs allow them to do. With plug-ins, you won''t ever push the inputs to distort or make it feedback in a way it wasn''t designed for, like the Roland TB 303, which was meant to accompany organ players on pub gigs. We use harmonic generators, harmonizers, reverb units, tape delays; generally run the samples through them to process the sound. I also used a DeltaLab Harmonic Computer, a crap old piece that did auto-harmony parts; we feed it back on itself to create new frequencies.”
“Unless I want to make a track to sound really f**ked up,” Davis adds, “I try to avoid people detecting any kind of digital artifact. I don''t like hearing squishy hi-hats, for example, that sound like they''ve been messed with digitally. I don''t want people to detect manipulation.''
As well as processing sounds though hardware effects, Abbiss focuses on the low end of Davis'' productions. Sampling ancient, obscure LPs presents many problems, not the least being thin bass samples.
“We filter and EQ the bass samples,” Abbiss explains, “but that can bring up negative aspects. There may be phase or rumble, so you have to be careful to reinstate good-quality bottom end. We use subharmonic synths, re-amping certain sounds, all manner of things to compensate for what we may have to remove in the lower frequencies. I like the dbx 120A Subharmonic Bass Synthesizer; it puts in subharmonic versions or multiples of the frequency going through it. It adds lower octave harmonics to the sound. If you can filter the original sound so it''s pure and there isn''t any lumpy bottom end, you can extend that cleaned-up bottom end two octaves below it using the dbx 120.”
But at the end of the recoding day, sometimes Davis simply rips it old-school—effects, Pro Tools, and computers be damned. The track “Stay the Course” is classic hip-hop filtered though the DJ Shadow mindmeld.
“I stitched that together in my classic MPC sensibility,” Davis says. “There is no break that sounds like that. It''s a short drum fill that I turned into a break, which I like doing. I like having moments on a record where I can imagine in the future a few of my peers might figure out what I used on that beat, and think, ‘How did he turn this into a beat? There''s nothing there!''”