If Josh Davis had things his way, no one would ever recognize his name or face. He wants the world to know only the name that goes on the recordings that have suddenly made him the toast of critics and pop taste-makers both here and in Europe: DJ Shadow.
“People don’t want to believe it, but I prefer anonymity,” says this shy samurai of the digital sampler as he enters Rasputin’s, a popular record store adjacent to the University of California campus. “If you complain about the press, you sound like you’re trying to be coy or unappreciative. But if I never had to do another photo shoot or interview, I wouldn’t do it.”
Dressed in high Timberland boots, a wool cap that hides a disheveled mop of reddish brown hair and an oversized gray parka, Davis blends in easily with the other young customers as he heads upstairs and begins thumbing through racks of dusty vinyl albums.
Who would have dreamed that this boyish kid from the suburbs would produce recordings hailed as both authentic and trailblazing in underground hip-hop--a world that has been dominated by blacks and a few Latinos since its birth in the late ‘70s?
Shadow--as his friends call him--has just caught the attention of the mainstream media with a debut album, “Endtroducing . . . ,” that was cited as one of last year’s best works by numerous critics. But Shadow, 24, has been a hot item on the underground hip-hop circuit since 1990, when his first homemade tapes began circulating among hip-hop connoisseurs--including the Source magazine, which wrote about the tapes as if they were a major-label release.
The breakthrough to a national audience came after he signed with Mo Wax/ffrr Records, which is distributed through PolyGram, and released his debut album late last year. While U.S. sales are only around 20,000, the album is among the five most played on college and alternative radio stations.
Unlike most hip-hop artists, Shadow relies exclusively on the samples he takes from existing recordings, mixing them in wondrous ways to create new and exciting sounds and images. He’s not alone in this approach--RZA, Pete Rock and DJ Muggs are some of the others--but he is the first to release an entire album of the sounds, devoid of vocals. In reviewing the album, Spin magazine said, "[DJ Shadow] insists he’s making ‘hard-core abstract hip-hop’ when he’s really innovating a new genre: urban classical music.”
But he isn’t thinking about the sudden burst of celebrity as he moves about the record store, even though promotional stickers bearing his name are pasted on the walls.
“If I walk into a record store and everybody knows who I am, then it’s no fun,” Shadow says with a secretive smile as he searches for fresh sampling fodder among the old albums. He didn’t find anything this day, but the shelves at home show the fruits of past forays in record shops around the globe, everything from jazz guitarist Grant Green to such obscurities as the Invaders, which is so rare that it took him three years to find a copy--in Tokyo.
“It isn’t like I want to walk in and announce myself--if you do, they raise the prices on you. I would always rather be the movie director than the star: He can walk down the street and nobody will recognize him.
“When I first started making my tapes, that was the whole point behind my name in the first place,” Shadow continues, turning over a dusty soca record with a cover design he finds interesting. “If rap was all about putting your name in the forefront at that time, I felt that the result was that the music was deteriorating. I wanted to change the tide, put music at the focus, and just see what I could come up with.”
‘Excuse the mess,” Shadow says, opening the door to his year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee, the only outward demonstration of his escalating success, which is measured so far in critical rather than financial terms. As he sits down, he clears the passenger seat of tapes, potato chip bags and other debris.
“You can always tell how busy I am by looking at the condition of the inside of my car,” he says with a laugh. “If it’s a mess, then I’ve been living in the studio.”
He’s just left the office of Sole-Sides Records, the rap label that he co-owns with four other producers and fellow UC Davis graduates.
Shadow still lives in Davis, about 45 minutes away, but he works out of SoleSides because it’s closer to the heart of the Bay Area rap scene that has produced such hit acts as Tupac Shakur and Souls of Mischief. Despite its success, the scene remains so grass-roots that it’s common to see rappers peddling their own tapes along Telegraph Avenue.
When he’s not holed up in the studio or in the music room in his Davis apartment, he may be anywhere from London to Tokyo, searching for that rare soul break to feed into his sampler.
“Endtroducing . . . " represents the full range of his eclectic ear. Though critics have frequently mislabeled Shadow’s approach with such terms as “techno” and “trip-hop,” it is not a hybrid. It’s hip-hop in its purest form.
Through instrumental samples that shift tones and tempos faster than the ear can sometimes follow, Shadow creates a modern equivalent of the South Bronx park jams that seminal deejays such as Afrika Bambaataa used to throw before hip-hop was put down on record.
During that ‘70s era, deejays, not rappers, were at the center of the art form. Kids of all races would descend on the New York parks in search of sounds. They’d find deejays such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Bam using twin turntables to isolate and extenda dynamic, usually percussion-driven segment of one song, and boosting its allure by contrasting it with the sounds from a second song.
To find breaks initially, deejays turned to such works as James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” as well as the music of such diverse artists as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob James and the Steve Miller Band. With so much competition for new sounds, deejays have now extended their search for ‘breaks” to hundreds of obscure artists. Shadow’s own vinyl collection numbers in the thousands.
“I could search record stores for hours,” he says. “Last month I drove to Oklahoma with a few friends, and we didn’t eat or sleep comfortably for a week. All we did was slide around in icy weather, traveling from record shop to record shop, in search of beats.”
Before the photo shoots, before the underground respect, before being labeled the music’s “great white hope” by members of the press, DJ Shadow was just a shy kid from Davis who loved hip-hop.
Born in San Jose, Josh Davis was 5 when he, his mother and his older brother moved to Davis. He doesn’t recall the first rap song he heard, but it was a bug that he couldn’t shake.
“Being isolated [in Davis] was the best thing that could have happened, in terms of formulating an opinion about the music,” Shadow says, sitting in the office of SoleSides Records.
“There was no one to tell me I was right and what was wrong. I remember buying Boogie Down Productions’ ‘South Bronx’ and 2 Live Crew’s ‘Throw the D’ and liking ‘D’ better because the scratching was so fresh, and there was so much energy on the record.”
When he got a cheap turntable for Christmas in 1984, Shadow spent hours trying to duplicate scratches he heard on Run-DMC records, until you couldn’t tell where the group’s sounds stopped and the ones Shadow was making on another turntable began.
As a freshman at UC Davis, Shadow gained a reputation locally as an expert on hip-hop culture, trading records with people from around the country as he built an amazing collection.
Employing just one overused JVC turntable, he began remixing rap songs on a cheap four-track recorder. In 1990, he felt confident enough to send a tape to various hip-hop record companies, hoping for work. The first, titled “Hip-hop Reconstruction From the Ground Up,” caused a buzz among the labels.
“The mixes were incredible,” says Jeff Chang, a former Bay Area radio deejay and now a partner in SoleSides. “It amazed me that all he had was a beat-up turntable and a four-track mixer and was able to do things by hand that kids with top-flight equipment couldn’t even touch. Josh was always so quiet and humble, but to do the kind of scratches he was capable of, and those loops, would be like trying to hammer in a nail with a butter knife.”
Shadow got his first remix assignment in 1990 after an artists and repertoire executive from Hollywood Basic Records read about him in the Source.
“Dave Klein called me and said, ‘I have $3,000 and I need you to do this,’ ” Shadow says wistfully of his friend, who died in 1995 of spinal cancer. “At the time I was working for minimum wage at a pizza parlor. So that kind of money was a year’s salary for a weekend of doing something I loved to do.”
That remix, called “Lesson 4,” is now a vinyl rarity that sells for close to $1,000.
Shadow used some of his money from remix assignments to buy a professional sampling drum machine in 1992, and released his first formal single the following year on SoleSides.
“The sampler is my generation’s electric guitar,” he says. “Everyone from Dr. Dre to Alanis Morissette is using it. It’s not something that’s going to go away. It’s technology that’s going to be used, and it’s where my interests lie. It’s like filling in DNA code and creating dinosaurs. It’s the future.”
Shadow is pleased when people tell him they like his music, but he isn’t hungry for fame. Though he’s done some remixes, he doesn’t seem inclined to want to produce other artists outside of the SoleSides team.
Even if Shadow only sells enough records to make a modest living, he’ll be satisfied, he says, if he can simply keep pursuing his musical passion. Even though moving to New York or Los Angeles would probably greatly accelerate his career, he plans to stay in Davis.
“I like to come home to a small town after living in a big city, with no traffic, no smoke, no buses,” he says. “As everything else gets more crazy, I need to live in a place that doesn’t change. I like being able to walk in the pastures, to clear my own space.
“I just want to be remembered as someone who made a difference,” he says, “even if my name isn’t on everybody’s lips.”