DJ Shadow Talks Universal Music Fire and Why It's a 'Pathetic Age'

DJ Shadow
Derick Daily

DJ Shadow

DJ Shadow certainly chose his moniker well so many decades ago. From his start as a crate-digging obsessive with an ear for strange samples to his trailblazing instrumental hip-hop work in the '90s to his stint on a major label in the 21st century to his current home on Nas' Mass Appeal Records, the sponge-like production pioneer has remained a consistent, quiet presence on the fringes of rap and turntablism. Even as DJs and producers, many of them influenced by him, have ascended to headline-grabbing star status in the last 10 years, Shadow remains dedicated to the sounds of the sidelines.

And on his new album, Our Pathetic Age, that's every bit as true of the topical concerns as the sonics. While it might be more lyrical pointed than you'd expect, Shadow and his coterie of collaborators are hardly putting household names in the crosshairs. "I don't want to name names, I don't want to get dragged down in certain people that we're all sick of hearing about," explained DJ Shadow of his new album during a recent visit to the Billboard office. "To me the album isn't political -- it's humanistic."

While the first half of Our Pathetic Age is made up of mesmerizing instrumentals that run the gamut from sparkling jazz fusion ("Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law") to minimalist, staccato sonic collages ("Rosie"), the haunting, propulsive second portion of the LP features alt-leaning hip-hop heroes such as De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, Run the Jewels, Pusha T, Pharoahe Monch and the almighty Nas ("It helps that you have Nas co-owning the label I'm on," Shadow wryly comments of scoring that feature). Heck, indie mainstays like Interpol's Paul Banks and Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring even make appearances.

From the 2008 Universal Studios fire which he recently learned claimed some of his history to what he thinks about DJing in the streaming era, here's what is on DJ Shadow's mind as we stare down 2020 in the midst of what he hails Our Pathetic Age.

The album opens with a track called "Nature Always Wins." Even though it's instrumental, I'm guessing it's meant to speak to the climate crisis?

There's a lot of different themes that run through the album, one of them being our occupation of this real estate that we all live on and share. And it's almost a direct connection between my last album, The Mountain Will Fall, and this one. As you go along through life looking for truth and things that are 100 percent certain, the only thing that is 100 percent certain is that everything around us will eventually be dust. That's just the rule. Even mountains eventually flatten and become sand. It may take a few million years or a few well-placed detonations, but eventually everything will become dust.

There's a direct mention of climate change on the first song on the second half of the album, "Drone Warfare," a very political track which brings together Nas and Pharoahe Monch. Did they come on and go that direction, or did you say, "I'm thinking let's do this…"

My M.O. with everybody I invited to be part of the record was, first of all, not everybody was given the same set of instructions or themes. But for me, I had the name "Drone Warfare" from the beginning; sometimes titles help me finish songs. But I never like to give people finished beats. I have a stripped-down version of the demo I want people to write to it, and then based on the performance I finish the track. I said, "I want to encourage you to talk about things you see around you. I don't want to name names, I don't want to get dragged down in certain people that we're all sick of hearing about." But I said, "Maybe the things nobody is taking about. What are the mathematics you're peeping at the moment?" And they totally got it. Pharoahe Monch went first. Nas went "Okay, dope, Imma get on." Then Pharoahe Monch has to hear what Nas did and said, "Okay let me rewrite it." And not as a competitive thing, but to make it fit better. I was like, "I appreciate you're really invested, because usually people do the verse and it's out of their mind." He was like, "no, I don't fuck around, I'll keep attacking it until it's right."

The song talks about big pharma, the environment and drones, which are more evergreen than, say, name-checking Robert Mueller.

Yeah and then it becomes too easy. Not only too easy artistically but for people to come at it with some kind of agenda. To me the album isn't political -- it's humanistic. You talked about climate change, and to me, in a sane world, that would apply to every single being on the planet. Your wealth will not save you when you can't draw breath or drink clean water. The fact that it is so politicized, to me, is why it's kind of a pathetic age. It's sad, it's dangerous. When ideology becomes more important than the wellbeing of your fellow man, there's something wrong with that.

When The New York Times reported on the 2008 Universal vault fire, you were one of the artists mentioned as potentially losing masters. Did you know anything about that – had they reached out to you, or after the report, did you check in?

No, they didn't reach out to me. A friend of mine sent me the article. It was so, sort of shocking. This particular friend is probably my best friend and also the smartest person I know when it comes to talking about music. One of the things we talk about all the time is the horrific waste and lack of accountability when it comes to master archiving. We talk all the time about the infinite number of hours of interviews that MTV collected, and the fire that happened there and how much was lost. And just like, where is that stuff? Why can't we watch it? To me, it's so irresponsible. We talk all the time, you'll see an eBay listing pop up like "all the VJ masters" and you're like, "what is happening?" It's crazy. On that level, he said something like, "And it continues to this day." Supposedly, the only thing that was lost was a safety of a video. I was initially concerned because I recorded my 2002 [The Private Press] album mostly in L.A. and we recorded to 2-inch reels. And I know I don't have those. I could have easily imagined them going from Larrabee West Studio right to the -- because I was on MCA at the time, Universal, so I was a little bit concerned, because I didn't know where those were housed. And that would have been a blow, because it would have meant I would never be able to remix that album. But I've seen all kinds of stuff. Without going into detail, I've seen entire DAT closets just… someone gets fired, and they're loading up their duffel bag like "fuck you guys." And it's like… well, that sucks. That's really shitty. Why is there no lock on that door? But, that's the biz.

Or someone dies and their kid discovers previously lost masters in the attic.

It's such a tricky thing… it's so hard to know what the right thing is. There's really important collections I know about now where people are getting up in years, and I get asked all the time by older friends of mine, "do you know, is there a university that would take this stuff?" And my response is always, "Do you want this entombed, or do you want this to live on?" My general feeling is "recirculate it." Keep it in circulation. Figure out what you want to do with it, but you know you can't take it with you. In other cases, the materials were such where I say, "yes, in an ideal world, an institution would pay you for this collection, but in reality in 2019, no institution has the money to pay you for this collection."

So you have your system, but obviously a lot of up and coming DJs aren't finding music the same way you did back in the '90s. Do you think there's something lost with people finding music over streaming versus crate digging?

I don't really… I'm very careful to say things along the lines of, "oh it's stupid now, it was so much better in my day." The best thing I can say is I had a path dictated by the circumstances of the time I was living in. My path was that I had to search for little scraps of hip-hop culture growing up in a small town in California thousands of miles from where the culture was originating. As a result, it made me a fanatic. Every record, any scrap of information, it was almost like trying to put together aspects of a religion. Now, with everything accessible, it's not going to feel that way to people. But I can't speak to how authentic (that is) because I can't unlearn what I've learned and I'll never have the experience they're having. I grew up at a unique moment in time. I was born in 1972, so by the time I was able to be cognizant of what was on the radio, it was the disco era, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. I missed the funk era. So when hip-hop came along and was using James Brown records, it was 100 percent new to me. Now if I had been five years older, the age that many of the hip-hop artists at the time were, I would have remembered the James Brown music and probably wouldn't have been quite as enthusiastic. Like when people would sample the Rick James stuff, which I remember, or later Kool & the Gang stuff or Gap Band stuff, none of that ever hit me as being that dope because I remember that stuff being on the radio. As a result, I was uniquely positioned to be as enthusiastic as I could ever be about anything.

On the other side, as available as streaming makes everything, there are weird holes. Your album Pre-Emptive Strike on Spotify, for instance – a track is listed but not available. Is there a sampling issue preventing that?

That is weird. I have no idea. But I see weird stuff like that all the time when I'm on DSP. I see songs on my artist page that aren't me. I used to get hung up about it, but it's like, you know, if I go to Wikipedia, it says I'm born in the wrong year, in the wrong town, and at a certain point, you just shrug and go, "whatever." It's endless.

I'm not a vinyl-or-die guy. There's amazing music that only exists on cassette; there's amazing music that literally only exists on 8-track; there's amazing music that only exists on CDs; and MP3, or streaming format. Whatever format the music was originally released on, that's the valid format as far as I'm concerned.