Thursday, November 13, 2014

DJ Shadow Interview - Renegades of Rhythm Tour - November 14, 2014 - Mr. Smalls Theater

DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist bring their Renegades of Rhythm tour to Mr. Smalls this Friday. We previewed the tour yesterday, but here again is the official description: 

Music fans are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience when turntablists supreme DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist celebrate the legacy of Hip-Hop vanguard and Universal Zulu Nation founder, Afrika Bambaataa on their Renegades of Rhythm tour this fall.  Using only vinyl pulled from Bambaataa’s historic collection – over 40,000 strong and permanently archived at Cornell University – DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist aim to present Bambaataa’s legacy in all its genre-busting and socially-minded complexity.

We were honored to be able to speak with DJ Shadow about the current tour, the legacy of Entroducing..., and his favorite record shops in Pittsburgh.

Whose idea was it to have you and Cut Chemist team up in this unique way to honor Afrika Bambaataa?

The responsibility for that goes to a guy named Johan Kugelberg. He initially met all the Zulu guys through working with Buddy Esquire's collection. Buddy Esquire was kind ofthe “flier king.” He's the one who designed a lot of the famous old school fliers starting in the late 70s, and his style has been much imitated through the years.

And, [Kugelberg] ended up getting involved with Cornell University, and helping them kind of start up their hip-hop collection there at the university, like a permanent archive. And since then, Bambaataa donated his [record] collection to Cornell, and it was Johan's idea that, before the collection moves to Cornell, from Queens, that Cut and I go through his collection and build a set, kind of as a way to get the records out there and keep them in circulation in a way, and keep them in people's ears, and kind of bring the whole collection back to life in a way. And, we wanted to make sure Bambaataa was cool with that. And once we got his OK we had to roll up our sleeves and go through all the records and try to build something cohesive.

Do you remember the first time you met Bambaataa?

Well, the first time I met him was sometime in the 90s. He was walking by me in an airport. And, so I just sort of said, “Hey, peace,” you know? (*chuckles*) And then I saw him play a couple of times in the late 90s. But, I really didn't kind of meet him since then – he really didn't know who I was back then – and I never didn't really meet him since then. I talked to him on the phone a few times in the last year, and met him in person again when he came to the first New York show about a month and a half ago.

Talk a bit about the tour so far, and especially your relationship with Cut. You two have been touring together and collaborating together for like 20 years now.

A little less than that (*chuckles*) Yeah, I mean, we first met like twenty years ago and then he did my “Number Song” remix. That was kind of our first collaboration on wax, I guess you would say. And then of course we did Brainfreeze together, in 1999. And then that started everything that came after.

But yeah, the tour has been great. And, you know, we were always very interested in the subject matter, and it was a dream for us because we both love hip-hop, and we both love the roots of it, but its difficult I think to – I think for us to just go out and play that music, without any kind of broader context, its difficult to make it interesting. So when we were asked to be a part of this tour, and to do this, I think we both saw it as a really good opportunity to kind of air this side of our personality and air this side of our musical upbringing and heritage in a context that we can really get behind. Because I think its an easy show to love, and it's been really satisfying, because I haven't done a vinyl-only show in seven years. Cut and I haven't played together in eight years. So, it just sort of felt like a good, fun thing to do, very different from a lot of the stuff I've been doing lately, which is kind of playing really ultra-contemporary stuff- which is also really fun and great, and its kind of the other side of my personality. But, I would say this side of DJing and that kind of “back to the essence” style of DJing is something I very rarely get a chance to do.

Now what was it like the first time you got your hands on Bambaataa's record collection? I read somewhere it took you guys, like, four weeks or six weeks to pare it down to the 500 or so records you're using on this tour.

All told, yeah, I'd say about five weeks, including the time it took to go through the collection, to set it aside to play through the hundreds of records we didn't know. There were a lot of records that looked interesting, and especially crucial to us was for it to look like he had played them. A lot of disco we didn't know. A lot of calypso, and soca, and salsa, and West African music we needed to play through – dancehall, stuff like that. Because we felt like we wanted to represent a little bit of everything. We didn't want it to necessarily be the most famous records, or the rarest records, or the most expensive records. We really kinda wanted it to reflect him and his totality before he got famous as well.

So yeah, we had to play through a lot of stuff. I'd say it took about two weeks to play through everything and kind of make piles - “yes or no” piles, and “ok, these can go back,” because the thing is we don't own any of these records. These records are all on loan. We ended up sending back about two-thirds of what we pulled. And then, built the set based on the part that we held back.

Now, sticking with the record theme, I was watching that documentary Scratch, and in it Cut calls you the “King of Digging.” Now, whenever you're in Pittsburgh, are there any record shops you like to stop at?

Yeah I mean I first started going to Pittsburgh to look for records in the late 90s. And it was really great back then for sure. A lot of places have closed, obviously, but Jerry's is great. And I still like to go to The Attic, which is in that little nook... its not in Pittsburgh proper...

Millvale – your concert is like two blocks from Attic Records

The venue is like two block from The Attic? Is that what you said?


Oh, wow, crazy. Yeah, I guess that's where we're playing. So yeah, those are two great places. I think Jerry's is really a great store. Really well – you know, a really high turnover, always new stuff, and really reasonably priced. You can get lost in there for a long time (*chuckles*). So I really like it.

Yeah, we've all been there. Sticking with the Pittsburgh theme, what do you make of what Girl Talk is doing? He's doing something similar to what you did in the past, but in his own manic type of way.

I mean, mash-ups are really nothing new to DJ culture. And especially growing up, watching someone like Z-trip play a lot, I mean he really put mash-ups on the table, and really kind of took it there, and built a reputation off of it. So I mean, I don't know, I don't really like to criticize what anybody else is doing, or, you know, there's so many different ways to express yourself in DJing, and so many different types of technology in which to convey that expression. I mean, not every style is necessarily for me, but, you know, I'm not one to be like, “oh, this is the right way, that's the wrong way,” or anything like that. So, you know, whatever works for people. And people seem to – it seems to resonate with people, 'cause he's obviously built a huge reputation and plays to huge crowds and stuff, so yeah, whatever works, as far as I'm concerned.

Fair enough. So, looking back a bit, when Entroducing... was released, obviously, you know, overwhelming amount of critical acclaim, everything like that. When you were putting the record together, did you realize you were doing something that was going to be seen as “groudbreaking,” or did you have any idea that the album would be as well-received as it was?

Uh, no. I don't think anybody's... I mean, I guess I read a lot about music, and I read how certain artists promise everybody around them that it's gonna be a huge record, or whatever. But, no, that's not ever really been my personality. And I really had no idea. I mean, at the time – and I've kind of gone on record in the past saying this – at the time I was worried that I kind of missed the boat, because, the [self-titled] Portishead album came out. And, it was getting all kinds of praise and applause. And I was worried because I was working on Entroducing... when that came out, and I was worried that “oh, I wonder if this was a one time thing,” even though their music is obviously so different from mine. But, you know, the press can often, you know, pit artists against each other, and compare records to one another. So I was really worried that when my album finally did come out, that it would be compared unfavorably to other things that had come out just prior.

So, I really didn't know what to expect. And you know, the thing is that the reputation that the album has is something that grew over time; it wasn't an immediate, out of the box, smash success – definitely not sales wise. And it took a long time for the album to resonate in this country, in the U.S.. It took on a life of its own in the U.K., beyond what it ever did here in America. And I think that, I think its safe to say that Entroducing..., it resounds with a generation of people in the UK. Its very emblematic of a time in their life, in the same way that maybe something like The Jefferson Airplane's first album was in this country, and certain records of that ilk. And I'm not comparing my music to that in terms of importance or in terms of significance, I just mean to say that I hear from people in the UK a lot, and the way the album is, you know, kind of talked about in the press in the UK, it was like an album of people's lives at that time. And that's – here, it was always an underground kind of cult thing. So its just interesting the contrasts between, you know, when I would be spending time in the UK and when I would come home.

Who do you think is doing something really original these day. What's the last record you listened to that made you stop and just say, “wow.”

Well I mean, I hear stuff all the time that I really like. And I mean, up until June or so I was doing DJ sets of really contemporary stuff. I'm actually going to be releasing music of one artist that I kind of discovered in my own way, really kind of naturally and organically. Its a guy – a kid named Bleep Bloop -that's what he records under is "Bleep Bloop." So I'm going to be putting out a few of his beats. Hopefully next month.

Last question, I gotta ask. Whose got the better collection, you or Bambaataa.

(*chuckles*) Well, I mean, most of Bambaataa's collection now resides in the Cornell University, so I guess by default, I do now. I mean, that's sort of a glib way of answering, but you know what I'm saying.

You can say Cornell does.

Yeah, Cornell does. It's just been a total honor to be able to go through the collection, and then all the epiphanies that Cut and I had while looking at the records. And realizing – its not an immediate thing, it takes a little bit of time – I was sitting there and going, “these are not just any copies of these records. These are the original copies that really set the entire culture into motion." For that reason alone Bambaataa wins hands down.

-- B. Conway