Shadow Dancing

After a triumphant Valley appearance and a clutch of collaborative projects, DJ Shadow gets set to step back out on his own

For the hundreds packed into Nita's Hideaway on June 27, three hours seemed like a glitch, as time froze and the rest of the world just disappeared. The reason for this ethereal afterglow was the "surprise" appearance of internationally renowned DJ Shadow at Z-Trip's weekly Funky Cornbread night. Shadow's set, part of which found him performing with Z-Trip, was something that none of the Valley urban music aficionados in attendance will soon forget. (Readers will note that Urban Sprawl had an exclusive tip about the show in the debut edition of this column.)

DJ Shadow, a.k.a. Josh Davis, dropped his debut CD Endtroducing on the world in 1996. The implications of the groove-heavy, evocative soundscapes changed a lot of people's conceptions about what hip-hop could be. The style was dubbed "trip-hop" by the British music press, as if it were somehow outside the parameters of what hip-hop should be -- a glaring misassumption. The album earned Shadow worldwide acclaim, and accolades including being named "Best DJ" by both readers and critics in the annual Rolling Stone year-end poll.

The misapplied "trip-hop" moniker seems almost insulting, but Shadow takes it all in stride. "It only bothers me to the degree that I feel people who use that term are sort of just buying into the media pigeonhole. It doesn't offend me, it just means to me that they don't really know my history."

Shadow's hip-hop roots date back to his days as a 9-year-old buying Afrika Bambaata and Sugarhill Gang records. Spending his formative years in the northern California college town of Davis, he eventually found a like-minded group of hip-hop peers, got himself a show on the campus radio station and began conceptualizing the aural ideals that would go on to have a devastating impact on hip-hop.

He founded his own record label, SoleSides, with several Davis homies, assembled his Quannum crew (whose debut, Spectrum, is a stellar collection of Shadow-produced tracks featuring the lyrical skills of MCs from Jurassic 5, Blackalicious, Company Flow and Latyrx), and after hooking up with James Lavelle, founder of London's Mo' Wax Records (which released Endtroducing, its prequel Preemptive Strike and Shadow's early singles), produced Mo' supergroup U.N.K.L.E.'s Psyence Fiction. The album is a landmark in its own way with the most diverse array of guests imaginable, with Beastie Boy Mike D., Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Metallica's Jason Newstead and the Verve's Richard Ashcroft all participating.

Since then, Shadow has done work with Blackalicious and Handsome Boy Modeling School, and put out an extremely hard-to-find disc with Jurassic 5's Cut Chemist titled Slurp (a prerecorded version of the Brainfreeze show the two DJs played in January at L.A.'s El Rey Theater; Z-Trip opened the bill).

The recent Valley set by Shadow was nearly a year in the making. At the time the idea was first conceived, Z-Trip and Cut Chemist were trying to convince Shadow to go "rock the party" sometime as opposed to playing his normally strictly choreographed sets. But Z-Trip's regular Funky Cornbread nights hadn't yet been established. "Z-Trip was trying to give me a little history on some of the club nights he's been doing in Phoenix over the years," Shadow explains. "And he said as soon as there's another night jumping off that he's got a residency at and it's getting a cool little vibe going, he'd ask me to come out."

Z-Trip flew Shadow and his fiancée out and gave them a quick trip around the state that included a visit to the Grand Canyon and scavenging record bins in Flagstaff. "Doing this gig with someone like Z-Trip would be fun anyway," Shadow explains, smiling. "But all the extra stuff on top of it was like, "I could definitely do these kind of gigs year-round.'"

As for the mostly improvised set, Shadow explains, "Normally, if I'm billed as doing a show, if I don't do my own material, sometimes people get upset. When I first started DJing, obviously, like anyone else, you just play a DJ set, which I still love to do but I rarely get the opportunity to do because if I ever try to do it and people hear that I'm gonna be there, I always get some guy going, [fakes Euro accent] "I came all the way from Belgium -- you're not gonna play "Midnight"?' I get trapped in that a little bit, but I respect that, too. This is just like what I do at home when I'm just messing around."

The show at Nita's began about 10 p.m.; the crowd, comprised of nearly the entire East Valley hip-hop scene, as well as various club promoters, musicians and other artists, was giddy with anticipation, and the atmosphere inside was charged with electricity. When Funky Cornbread residents Tricky T and Tige stepped offstage, Z-Trip and Shadow jumped up, threw on a just-released remix of Sugarhill Gang's "8th Wonder" and immediately started a playful exchange of cutting, scratching and mixing. After about half an hour of tandem work, Z-Trip left the stage and left Shadow to his own devices. After apologizing for the set being unplanned, he kicked into a groove-heavy mélange of beats, demonstrating his skills with stylish tweaks and splashes of subtle postmodernist turntable trickery. Eventually he began working in his own tracks, including the brilliant "Organ Donor" (off Endtroducing), as well as "The Number Song" and the blue-tinged opus "Midnight in a Perfect World," mixing them with other records, sometimes even the side where the sample originated.

It was a stellar evening for the hands-pumping, ass-shaking mass that had gathered, one of those rare nights when the performance matches the anticipation. "It was really, really great," Shadow says. "Everybody was really nice, and as far as what ended up transpiring onstage, I had a great time. Some of it worked, some of it didn't. I tried a couple things I don't usually get to do; I really had fun doing a little set that was semiprepared."

For Shadow, the show was a release from the usual pressure that accompanies his shows. "First of all, when it's a "DJ Shadow' show, I feel an obligation to the people that paid to really put my all into it, and that means that I need to know exactly what I'm doing. I don't feel that I've ever been the best or the most seasoned at just wingin' it. I really have to get something together that I feel like . . . I mean just like any bands would, it goes from one song to the next for a reason. I'm the same way when I do my own material."

Shadow's next project is his contribution to the score of Dark Days, a documentary by Marc Singer about homeless people in New York who live underground in an unused train tunnel. He composed a pair of tracks for the film, "Dark Days Theme" and "War Is Hell." The film, which debuted at Sundance this year, was just picked up for distribution. Although there will be no soundtrack available, Singer and Shadow are planning to sell singles with the tracks at theaters where the film is playing.

Dark Days isn't Shadow's first foray into cinema-inspired composing. He also worked on some tracks for the Michael Mann whistle-blower flick The Insider, which weren't used. Scoring films is a natural progression for a movie buff who admits that "Transmissions 1, 2 and 3" from Endtroducing were directly inspired by Alan Parker's Angel Heart.

"When you're scoring a movie, it's a little bit different when you're working with samples," Shadow explains. "If you're writing music, it's easier to look at something and say, "I feel that this is like a minor key here and it goes like this; lemme sit down at the piano and write it and then arrange it and have the musicians play it.' But when you're working with samples, to a certain extent you're -- I don't want to say limited -- but you're more confined. You have to use what's around you, and depending on what you find, you have to steer it to a certain degree towards what you want, but it's still gonna take on a life of its own. The only thing I'm going for is an appropriate mood, and I thought I took [Dark Days] in a direction that was unique, I don't think it would've been an obvious choice. [Singer] was pretty thrilled with it as far as the direction I took."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about DJ Shadow's music and sensibility is that it's so transcendent --attracting hip-hoppers, techno kids, even punk rockers, with a style that bridges genre divides. His work has extended the parameters of how hip-hop is perceived, yet he feels no responsibility to push his work with that aim in mind. And as he heads back to the Bay Area to begin work on his next solo record, Shadow's not the least bit worried about what people will think of his intentions for the future.

"I think you go along at different moments in your career feeling like you're spearheading something, and at the moment, for me, it's less about that than it is about really tapping into my own resources. It's hard -- I did Endtroducing and then I did U.N.K.L.E., and to go back to working all by myself again is definitely going to be a challenge, but it's a challenge I'm looking forward to.

"It's just more about tapping into what I want to hear," continues Shadow. "When I sit down to make a record, I can't really worry about whether this crowd's gonna like it or that crowd's gonna like it. For me it's always been, "Does it appeal to my sensibility of what I grew up listening to as far as hip-hop?' Because that's mostly what I grew up listening to. Since then I've obviously heard a lot of other kinds of music and gotten into those as well. So, hopefully that will have a role also. The last thing I ever want to sound like is retro, even inadvertently."

Def and Deffer: Mad props are in order for local turntable prodigy Megadef, who only recently celebrated his 18th birthday. Megadef, along with partner DJ Fact, will be opening the Phoenix date of the Spitkicker Tour at the Celebrity Theatre this Friday, July 7 (see Recordings, In Town, page 108). Among the headliners are De La Soul and Biz Markie, as well as a cast of other hip-hop heads.Asked how he pulled off becoming the only local opener, Megadef explains, "I just bumped into the Celebrity Theatre's booking guy. I didn't have any tapes or anything to give him, I just went in and told him "I'm dope. Lemme play the show. If I'm wack I'll pay you."

Megadef will soon be releasing his first CD, Megadef Set Disorder, which Urban Sprawl will fill you in on extensively in a future installment. The disc features an appearance by X-ecutioners' DJ Total Eclipse, a guest spot that will surely garner attention from all quarters of the turntablist macrocosm. Megadef also has an upcoming joint release with local MC Serge-Rock titled Disorderly Conduct. In the meantime, be sure to check out the precocious DJ's skills at the Spitkicker show.

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