Written by Ben Wilcox
07 Monday 07th November 2011

It is the lot of the journalist to spend an awful lot of time waiting in coffee shops, but you do get the chance to take everything in. The middle-aged couple sneaking out for a forbidden liaison, the intense coffee addict who can’t get enough sugar in his cup, and the pensioner happily enjoying the buzz of it all.  Today they all have something in common: they are enjoying their dark-bean hit whilst listening to DJ Shadow. His music has become endemic in our culture, from hardcore beat-heads and hip-hop purists, to record shops to bars to television and, most importantly, homes and headphones across the world. It features in many ‘Best of All Time’ lists, and his breakthrough album Endtroducing… has weaved itself into our musical vocabulary without most people even being able to name a track. In fact in wouldn’t be overstating the case to say everyone loves a bit of DJ Shadow.

After doing a guest spot at BBC Radio 6, Josh arrives and is whisked straight past ‘a certain pop star’ (and her army of stylists and their yappy dogs) up to his own 3rd floor interview suite where he spends all morning talking to journalists from around the world, happily answering questions about his new album, the aptly named The Less You Know, The Better and inevitably fielding what must be his two most loathed questions: ‘how many records do you own,’ and ‘when will you make Endtroducing…2?.’

At this stage I should declare an interest; I gave DJ Shadow his first print interview in 1992 for hipster’s bible Straight No Chaser to support his first solo release, “In/Flux,” for the painfully fashionable Mo’Wax label. The label’s office was James Lavelle’s living room in a flat off Portobello Road, and so I did a phone interview from his home landline. Josh was polite, quietly intense and enthusiastic, and gracious beyond his years, but a lot has happened in the intervening time. He has gone from San Fran crate digger, making beats and cutting breaks for his pals, to the talisman of turntablism and creating the kind of music that is self-defining. A bit soulfully ethereal, at times edgy and jagged, globally respected and always uncompromising, he produces music that is almost a genre to itself; how many times have your friends described a track to you with the words “it’s a bit DJ Shadow?”

I get the call and, knowing time is short, I get my arse in gear to get my time to talk about his new album. But there is one small problem: I haven’t heard it all yet. A limited trickle of pre-release music (no surprise and understandable in the current climate of leaks), including two singles (“Def Surrounds Us” and “I Gotta Rokk”), has been put out there, but knowing Josh’s sense of mischief this may not be anything to do with the finished album at all, and no pre-release albums have been given to anyone. When he named the album The Less You Know, the Better he obviously meant it.  The only existing missive, a journal entry on his website from early ’09, provides DJ Shadow’s honest thoughts on the way music (including his own) is consumed. In it he briefly articulates, with dignity, about the endless shuck-and-jive artists have to do to sell their records, CD’s and downloads, likening them to second-hand car salesmen and how, unfortunately, many artists lose their self-respect in the process.  Ironically for someone so enraptured with technology, the Internet is one of the targets of his ire, along with the passive consumer complicity that perpetuates the art/commerce imbalance. Fast-forward to 2011, and his new tool to by-pass this is that tricky little concept: satire.  Not much for me to go on but it’s a start.

We exchange hurried hello’s and catch up with the gossip on mutual friends and he is as thoughtful and courteous as I remembered, even alerting me to the fact that my new digital voice recorder isn’t actually recording and then, with the marketing manager checking his watch nervously, we get straight into it.

A deep breath and we proceed, asking him about the idea of ‘ownership’ of his music and The Less You… specifically: “I feel like I own it now but once it’s been disseminated out there, I don’t know. What I’ve learned is that there are so many so-called ‘official channels’ like Wikipedia etc that you don’t really own anything anymore, and it’s a bit frightening. For this album, once I knew the music was right I had to sit down and think ‘how is this going to be marketed?’ In 2011, unfortunately, the fact that I or any other artist have a record out isn’t newsworthy enough, and that’s a revolting development, because I’m a music lover and I think it SHOULD be newsworthy when someone has put two years of work into something.” It is becoming clear that DJ Shadow’s view on the marketing angle isn’t garnered from a desire to be in control of every process it’s just that he is still a music fan and wants the artist and their work to be respected in the way he values it. “The process is the same as selling a candy bar. I tried to think of innovative campaigns through time. I was heavily inspired by Banksy, but it seems now that every new language is immediately co-opted by advertising. I think music is important and I want people to understand…I want to grab their nose this way and go ‘look!’ without using a used-car salesman tactic of giving away free windshield wipers with every car.  I’m trying to satirize what it’s like to be a recording artist in this era and make myself the butt of the joke.” The ‘joke’ appears all over his promotional material, website, artwork, videos, flyers etc in the form of three characters that constantly sabotage his efforts: a malevolent iPad, a blase laptop and a sinister cell phone are all over this project, thwarting Josh’s travails at every turn and, well, taking the piss out of him really. An odd way to promote an album perhaps, but he is opening up a debate around the internet/artist/record company that perhaps is long overdue and is doing it, thankfully, not from the position of a preacher but as a 100%, dyed-in-the-denim devotee of music.

But it’s the music that got us here and I’m becoming increasingly frustrated that I have to talk about an album I haven’t heard much of yet. So far the only way any of us could hear these tracks was live. With the album partially finished DJ Shadow embarked on a hectic world tour in 2010 that saw him take his multimedia ‘Shadowsphere’ all over the world to massive sold out venues. If your guitar-freak buddy ever says ‘well, a DJ only plays records,’ sit them down in front of the recordings of a DJ Shadow show. Entombed in a projection-immersed globe and surrounded by one of the most intense light shows you will see, DJ Shadow works his magic and twists his tunes into cerebral new forms: “I was influenced by bands that would go out and tour halfway through a record and have the opportunity to go back and work on it for six months. That’s what I did,” he explains enthusiastically. “The audience response became a validation of what I had been working on, and I’ve never had that opportunity before. When I hit the road last summer I had over half the album done, and I put a good share of those songs in the show. They were fully mixed and finished, but I wanted to work some more. I was able to focus on what the album wasn’t representing yet, like facets of a diamond.” It’s very rare to meet someone who can articulate their passion so well, and Josh is constantly referencing other people’s music: “my favorites like It Takes a Nation of Millions, or 3 Feet High and Rising, no one song sounds like the next song, and that’s how I approach the record and that’s the way I listen to music.” He has been called ‘an indie kid in hip hop clothes,’ and from what I have heard so far his music masterfully straddles the common ground for those that love anything from 4AD to Rawkus Records. Of the few tracks already released the heavy, incessant guitar groove of “I Gotta Rokk” is the crowd favorite at the shows, leaving a heaving Brighton show breathless with its relentless sonic assault, whilst “Def Surrounds Us” is a deep and twisted labyrinth of track showing how DJ Shadow’s vision is constantly evolving. Perhaps now he can finally put certain ghosts to sleep. “I think this album shows a little bit of maturity. With Endtroducing… I just wanted to make a full-bodied album that reflected a range of emotions and experiences, and every record I’ve tried to make since does that as well. I think it comes down to how far I feel obligated to push that.” One of the things this interview has done for me at least is re-contextualize his last album, The Outsider and it becomes apparent how difficult it must have been for him to make. “I don’t think this album has the extremes The Outsider had. There I wanted to rub the softest of the soft in people’s faces next to the hardest of the hard, and not compromise in the middle. I feel The Outsider wiped the slate clean. It was a provocation, intended to push my fan base against the wall…either you’re in or you’re out, because I could never make Endtroducing… again. But if you want to stay with me on the journey, there’s good stuff coming up,” he explains honestly.  “I think it must’ve worked, at least for me, because when I sat down and worked on this record in earnest in ’09, I felt totally free. I had no residual weight or pressure or feeling that the music needed to have a context beyond the music itself.” Josh speaks with such sincerity about ‘The Less You Know…’ you can see why he unpretentiously wants this project to be about just music, and not marketing hoopla and give-away distraction. 

In the next office at Island records, some staff are listening to a new track that sounds like a battlefield of beats, proto UK rap, and messed up sonics, and for a moment I’m distracted at the relentless noise. Josh sees this and a big smile breaks out on his face: “I delivered that this morning. It’s called ‘I’m Excited’ but it was originally called ‘Fuck It’ because I’d finished the album but I wanted to do something just for fun, like ‘Organ Donor,’ not like ‘OK, this has got to be the one.’ It has vocals from this guy named Afrikan Boy and it’s sort of ‘alt.grime’ … I don’t know what else to call it.” A better description than most could proffer, but on first listen it sounds like a massive musical collision that is making the windows of our interview room wobble and is already occupying a space in my brain. Large sound systems were made for this record. And then it makes sense; the office next door is playing the total album whilst I’m interviewing DJ Shadow himself. So it’s my first listen, and I’m interviewing the guy that made it-is it a lucky coincidence or part of Josh’s mischievous plan? Either way, I’ve lucked out and I can now ask him about the tracks whilst he can see someone’s first reaction.

The tracks are coming thick and fast now, and I have to say, the cognoscenti will be amazed at the breadth of styles all brought together by DJ Shadow’s knowing finesse. Kicking, balls-against-the-wall beats and guitar fuzz sit happily next hip-hop bouncers, and there are tracks of such beauty they make you want to cry. It is obvious there are a few guest vocalists on the album although DJ Shadow’s original plan was “to make this album 100% instrumental…but then I realized the record would be better if I relaxed my own rules.”

One startling collaboration is “Scale It Back,” with the brilliant Little Dragon; a song so enchanting it’s like a secret you want to tell the world. “’Scale It Back’ is one of my favorites” DJ Shadow explains keenly, “in the past there would be a sound in my head and, through the collaborative process, we were able to reach exactly what I was hoping for.” More familiar territory comes in the inspirational hip-hop of “Stay the Course,” featuring the mic prowess of Talib Kweli and, a longtime hero, Posdnuos from De La Soul: “Posdnuos has the reputation of being one of the most underrated MC’s in hip-hop, and I definitely feel that way. He was absolutely a pleasure, so easy to work with,” he says obviously still high from the experience. “I love when people you look up to for twenty three plus years live up to (the) esteemed position in your mind.” With its message of overcoming struggles and ‘maintaining’ this track is obviously close to his heart: “Hip-hop raised me and will always be the context by which I view everything else” he says defiantly. “Warning Call” features Tom Vek, the London based multi-instrumentalist (and kindred spirit.) “The song was OK as an instrumental, but it wasn’t really going anywhere, so I asked him to work on it with me. It ended up being another song on the record where I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“The samples are the vitamins in the soil,” DJ Shadow tells me, and there is plenty of evidence of his mastery of the art on this record too, from the “impossible to make” “Redeemed” and the elegiac “I’ve Been Trying,” to the plaintive beauty of “Sad and Lonely:” a song which is already edging out stiff competition to be my track of the record.  Of it, Shadow proffers, “It’s pretty amazing. The vocals come from a folk record from the ‘50’s, and the vocalist Susan Reid unfortunately had just passed away before we tried to clear the sample.  We were able to make contact with her husband and son, who heard it and said ‘it’s beautiful, you have our permission.’ So that was a nice moment in the process, and having it validated in such a way was humbling.”

DJ Shadow talks about ‘validation’ a lot and that must be because it’s a natural bedfellow to respect, something that during this interview he has shown to practically everyone he talks to or about. He’s not here as some kind of musical magpie, constantly plundering other peoples sounds.  He’s here, through his own undeniable genius, to take them somewhere that they might never have gone, and that goes for his fans too. Like he says, “If you want to stay with me on the journey, there’s good stuff coming,” and we don’t doubt it.

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