DJ Shadow: Genesis (1972-1982)

This is the first part of a series of interviews with Josh Davis about what influenced and shaped him to become the artist that we know as DJ Shadow.

Let's go back to when it all began...


Josh age 1 (1973)
Josh age 1 (1973)
 

Jon

You were born on the 29th of June 1972 in San Jose, California to Larry and Penni. Can you tell me where your family came from originally?


Josh

Most of my early memories were from a town we lived in called Middletown, California, just with my mom because they separated when I was about two or three and it was chaotic, I guess because it was the mid 70s and a lot of people were pretty poor. We had to move around a lot, we would live here for two weeks, there for two weeks. She was only 24-25, single mother, two kids, you know.


So there was a lot of that until I was about five when we ended up in a town called Davis, California.


Jon

What sort of impact did it have on you to move so often before you settled in Davis? Was it easy for you to make friends?


Josh

I mean when I think about that time, my half brother was five years older and we couldn't be any more different. It would be like if you saw a stranger out on the street and said, "That's my brother." [he laughs] We're completely different people mentally, everything about us, our interests, everything is completely different. He loved playing soccer but I loved playing baseball. We didn't share any interests I don't think, except I remember he liked Star Trek and I liked Star Trek, but every kid did in the mid 70s.


But when I think about Middletown, first of all I was young and just a tiny kid. We had to also move around to a few different schools so I had one friend, his name was Denton which is an unusual name, but that's the only friend I really remember having prior to Davis. My mom was struggling to work to make money but also she was trying to get her teaching credentials to be able to be a school teacher, so she would work during the day and then often be like at night class. And I remember lots of times having to wait around, you know? I would have to sit in a playground for hours just on my own.


And so I never liked to go anywhere without a big stack of comic books because then at least I can entertain myself. One time I borrowed my brother's big stack of Archie comic books and this older kid came over and he was like, "Hey kid, what do you have there?" And I just knew it wasn't going to go well and I was like, "Oh, they're my brother's comic books," and he goes, "Oh, well can I borrow them? I'll bring them back, don't worry." And I felt so bad because I had no choice, I had to hand them over and then my brother got so mad... But I just think about so many stories where I have to be somewhere for hours and hours, and all I have is some little toy or some books to occupy me. And you can't really meet friends when you just end up in a playground somewhere, you don't know where you are, you don't know any of the kids that are there. It just felt like there was no stability.


Josh age 4 playing trumpet (1976)
Josh age 4 (1976)

Jon

When you settled in Davis, I guess that it took a while for you to understand that it was gonna be home for good?


Josh

It was 1977, maybe society was stabilizing a little bit and it felt brighter and happier than where we had been. I just know that when we moved to Davis, my mom's mood improved, and my brother's mood improved, and my mood improved. And it just seemed like, "Okay, well, even if we don't stay in this house, as long as we stay in this town we'll be good." And the reason she decided to move there was she heard it was a good place to raise kids. The places we were living in were rural, there wasn't a lot for kids to do and the older kids would get in trouble. At least in Davis there was a university, so there was a built-in context of education and kind of progressive ideas, you know what I mean?


[My father] would pick me up and then sometimes we would go all the way back to San Jose, but just as often we would go camping somewhere else.


Jon

You said that you used to read Archie comic books, but did you have other centers of interest?


Josh

Star Wars came out in 1977 so I became obsessed with Star Wars cards and Star Wars figures. Every kid was a fanatic about Star Wars and it was a very big deal. But you know, I didn't have an allowance yet, I had no income. When you're five years old maybe you get lucky, you can beg and beg and beg when you're at the drugstore or something to get a pack of baseball cards or a comic book or something. But up ‘till 1977, I guess what I liked and what I was into, you know Peanuts' Charlie Brown? Charles Schultz, the author and illustrator, he lived only maybe 15 miles from where we lived, he was kind of a local celebrity. So there was kind of a connection to that comic strip that I would see in the newspaper and so at that time you could also buy collected strips in book form and things like that. And they were quite cheap, so I liked Charlie Brown and Snoopy and MAD stuff, and we played baseball even when I was like four or five, you know. And I liked music but I wasn't very sophisticated yet, I just listened to what was coming out on the radio.


Jon

Is it around this time that your mum purchased Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron [The Royal Guardsmen / Laurie Records, 1967]?


Josh

Yeah, in the 70s of course children's records were a very common gift like at a birthday party, so I somehow ended up with that record. I don't know whether my grandparents bought it or maybe it was even my brother's, but you're right that was one of the first records that I remembered liking and listening to over and over, and that was 1976 or so. I mean, it came out much, much earlier but that's when it entered my awareness.


The Royal Guardsmen - Snoopy vs. The Red Baron LP (Laurie Records, 1967)
The Royal Guardsmen - Snoopy vs. The Red Baron LP (Laurie Records, 1967)

And so she started buying me classical music records. There used to be a series of classical records that they sold in supermarkets in the States and they all had a different bust of a different composer, whether it was Beethoven or Chopin or whoever. And so, although we didn't have very much money, instead of maybe a toy car or something she would buy one of these records and I would listen to it and she would talk to me about the music.


But despite all that I never felt like it was my music, you know what I mean? I always talk about you know, if you fast forward a couple of years I think around 1979, another conversation with friends and my mom asked me, "What's your favorite song? What do you like to listen to?" And the song "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc. [Casablanca, 1979] had just come out. It was kind of a futuristic sounding disco record and I said that's what I liked. And she asked me why and I just said, "Because rock and roll is the past and this is the future!"


I guess I was about seven at the time. I decided that I liked r&b. I liked Chic and Kool & The Gang, and The Gap Band, and Lakeside, and Evelyn "Champagne" King, and basically stuff that was on what they call black radio, right? And that's what I would listen to. My brother would listen to kinda like pop and rock, but my station was at the time KFRC a famous radio station in the 60s, because it was the AM station that played stuff like Jefferson Airplane, and like kind of progressive rock music of that era. But at some point in the late 70s, they switched formats and they leaned more - quote unquote - "urban". Again, these are just sort of antiquated radio terms to describe if they were playing soul or music of that type.


Jon

You told Wax Poetics that you played piano for a while. When did you start?


Josh

I guess probably 1981 or something like that. I think my mother talked to her parents and basically said something like, "Don't get him any of the things he asked for Christmas, just see if you can figure out a way to get him a piano." And they ended up finding some 100 year old upright piano for cheap at a garage sale, kind of like you would see in an old Western movie or something. And it ended up in our house and I started taking lessons. I could play the same songs I learned back then, probably.


Jon

Your family's taste in music was completely different to yours, do you remember anything that appealed to you anyway?


Josh

Well, my stepdad came onto the scene around 1979, so then at that point I had basically three parents, right? Because I had my birth Dad, I had my stepdad and I had my mom.


The Beatles - Beatles For Sale (Parlophone, 1964), Joan Baez - Any Day Now (Vanguard, 1968), Paul Revere & The Raiders - Midnight Ride (Columbia, 1966)

My mom, she grew up like a lot of teenage girls in the early 60s. I mean she loved The Beatles and she also loved Gerry & The Pacemakers and I think maybe Paul Revere & The Raiders. I remember there were a few that she was a fan of, but The Beatles were her absolute favorite. And as she became 18-19, she got into stuff like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and then later in the 70s, stuff like Fleetwood Mac. It was all pretty much popular stuff and some of it was okay, it was more just kind of they'd be playing a record and I'd hear a song that I liked.


As far as my dad goes, we would always be driving somewhere because he would drive to pick me up and then we would drive - and that's where I got my love of driving you know, just being out moving around from point A to point B, I like getting out there - and he would always have the radio on but what he liked was a combination of like older soul stuff and like doowop.


Larry's records
Maynard Ferguson - M.F. Horn Two (Columbia, 1972), The Rivingtons - Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow (Liberty, 1962), Clifford Coulter - East Side San Jose (Impulse!/ABC Records, 1970)

Because if you think about radio in the 70s, of course it wasn't things like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, it was like the 50s music. So it was like, "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" by The Rivingtons [Liberty, 1962] and like old r&b and old doowop stuff, and so he liked that at that age for whatever reason. And he had like Asleep At The Wheel which was kind of a country fiddle band, and he had Clifford Coulter who's like a San Jose jazz artist, he had Maynard Ferguson...


I guess, the common thread with my dad is he liked kind of roots music. Whether it was Cajun fiddle music or country western or blues or jazz, he liked music that was kind of genuine and rootsy, he didn't really buy a lot of pop. Just because everybody else was super into The Tubes, he didn't go that direction or whatever, he just would kind of be into this stuff he liked. But the records that ended up at his house were a combination of records that used to belong to my mother. And about five years ago my mom moved from Folsom, California up to Seattle, Washington, and there was a box of records in the garage and I hadn't looked at it in probably 30 years. And I was surprised to see like Curtis Mayfield in there and you know some stuff where I was like, "Oh, that's pretty cool," you know.


And then my stepdad his tastes were kind of progressive rock pop, like The Alan Parsons Project and Jean-Luc Ponty, and some blues stuff also like Taj Mahal and yeah it was a total mixed bag between the three of them.


Jon

I think that you started to record not only music but also your environment and everything that sparked your interest on a portable cassette player. What was your aim with that?


Josh

Back then if you saw a TV show that you liked, you didn't know if you would ever see it again, you know? It would be on and then if they decided never to show it again, you might never ever see it. And you would be talking with school friends and you'd be saying, "Did you see that show last night? Or did you hear that song that they played?" And singles would come and you'd hear 'em on the radio, and then they'd stop playing them and you'd never hear 'em again.


And it just started to occur to me that there were things that I wanted to capture. And one of the first things that I liked to record were just cartoons on TV. In the States in the 70s and early 80s it was all about the cartoons on Saturday morning, so you'd get up at like seven in the morning, Casper would have a cartoon and The Superfriends would have a cartoon, and obviously cartoons go way back... But yeah, I was always fascinated with the sound design and also just the way they put together the voices and the sound effects and the music. Because you're aware that when they draw a mouth moving it's not actually saying what you're hearing, so I was always just interested in the way they are put together. And I also liked recording you know, just recording.


Jon

Did you do some field recordings?


Josh

Yeah, basically there used to have what they called desk recorders and they were designed for lawyers or insurance company meetings where they needed to record the whole thing and then type it all out. So you just would set the recorder on the desktop and press Record, and there was a microphone and so you're just recording the ambient room. It's not like hardwired to a radio or hardwired to the back of the TV, I would just hold it up to the speaker on the TV or the radio basically, because we only ever had like little cheap radios and our TV was [small and] black and white. I adored my grandparents and I used to record them talking to me or having a conversation. So I started around 1979, and in fact I probably still have all of those tapes.


Exemple of a desk recorder
Example of a desk recorder from the late 70s

But yeah, so when "The Message" came on, I just leaned over as I always did. I was probably trying to fall asleep and I used to record whatever was new and interesting. So Duran Duran, Michael Jackson or anything that I saw as being progressive and of high quality. Even I remember I liked Golden Earring and I liked some hard rock as well, so it wasn't all rap and r&b.


Jon

Is it a passion that you could share with your friends at school?


Josh

If you were a kid in school in the early 80s or 70s, pop culture was your key to new relationships, new friendships and also popularity. When you're not naturally good looking, you have to sort of have maybe a good sense of humor, you compensate in other ways, right? And for me, I was only friends with other kids who were hyper media savvy and just always seemed to know about the latest song on the radio, or the latest movie or the latest TV show, it was like a currency. And you know obviously way before the internet, way before everything that made it much easier to find what was cool, at that time you determined what was cool by taking in a lot and going "Well this sucks! This is cool!" But I don't know why, I was just always very self-assured about what I thought was worthwhile and what I thought was not... And that doesn't mean that I was right.


Jon

You kept to your point of view, just like your father preferred to listen to the music he wanted to listen to, and I guess you were a bit similar to him?


Josh

Yeah, but I've thought about this a lot and I mean I wasn't mindlessly watching every TV show. I somehow had a sense of like, "Oh, they usually put the good shows here at this time slot on this network," or "The commercial for this looks really good, I think I want to watch that." I didn't like stuff that seemed, you know, cheap and throw away. Stuff like Happy Days which was a big phenomenon at that time, to me it just seemed dumb. And I think a lot of reasons why I was so opinionated is my mother was very opinionated. She taught me from my earliest memory to be aware of what the media that you're watching is trying to tell you. We were talking about commercials a lot and as we would watch TV or listen to music, she would react to things that she liked and didn't like. So from a very young age I perceived what she was doing and I did it too, and she would encourage me to share those opinions. So if I thought something was silly or dumb, I just was very opinionated always about what I was watching or listening to with the time that I had, and I didn't want to waste time with stuff that felt like it was from another time.


Jon

When did you hear "The Message" [Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five / Sugar Hill Records, 1982] for the first time?


Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Message (Sugar Hill Records, 1982), Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force - Planet Rock (Tommy Boy, 1982)
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Message (Sugar Hill Records, 1982), Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force - Planet Rock (Tommy Boy, 1982)

Josh

1982 on KFRC, and I believe it was like a charting record at that time. I think that's the year it came out, and I'm still trying to find the tape where I recorded it at that moment. And then "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa [Tommy Boy, 1982], but they would only play the instrumental version for some reason. So now I was 10 years old.


Jon

Can you explain how you felt about hearing these tracks at this age, and how it was different to you compared to the music you heard before?


Josh

So you could receive AM radios from further distance, like KFRC that was located in San Francisco, Bay Area, but all of the FM stations which played pop music and mostly rock music and everything, they're all based in Sacramento which was the nearest major city to Davis (but it's never been known as being a very progressive place).


In 1980, I remember the main rock station there did like a Top 100 Songs of the year. I was always fascinated with those kind of countdown shows, so I would sometimes record the whole thing, and they'd be like a four hour show. I remember the number one and two songs on their countdown were "Stairway to Heaven" [Led Zeppelin / Atlantic, 1972] and "Purple Haze" [The Jimi Hendrix Experience / Track Records, 1967], but those songs were already 10 years old and as a nine-year-old, I go "That's so weird, why would you pick 10 year old songs?" And you know when you're nine years old, songs that are nine years old might as well be 1000 years old! So I decided rock and roll was sort of a dead end because it was stuck in the past, that's why I started listening to more r&b stuff. Because it felt like there was not a lot of romanticism of the past, it was always innovating, always changing, always moving!


First of all "The Message" and "Planet Rock" are so different sonically and thematically. When I first heard "The Message", what struck me was that the lyrics were so direct, I had never heard anybody talking about street crime and all of the things that are being talked about, like that kind of reality. I mean, all what rock and roll ever talked about was girls and it just was sort of mindless in a certain respect. I mean I loved rock and roll then but I had to admit that when I heard "The Message", it just seemed so much more urgent and real and relevant, and then it struck me as something really important that I needed to hear and people needed to hear.


Jon

But how can a nine-year-old relate to that kind of feeling of emergency?


Josh

I mean, my dad was one of those kind of parents where he really didn't understand what was appropriate and what was inappropriate for children. That's another example where my dad was completely the opposite from my mother, she was very protective. And it was actually really great because it allowed me to get the best of both in a way, because if I only had been with my mom, I would have totally rebelled at some point as I wanted to have more freedom. But my dad in the meantime was still a kid in a lot of ways, you know. I think he was in his 20s and didn't really think a lot about whether at five years old I should be watching this or that.


And so there wasn't anything about the content of "The Message" that seemed foreign to me, it's just the idea that you could talk about those things in a pop song, I had never heard that before. Also you know, there wasn't anything pretty about it. Nobody was trying to sing in a pretty way or in a cool way or like in a macho way... There was something about literally hearing rap, it seemed like it just cleared everything else out! And the musical background was so stripped down and just the drums basically and the voice, it was just like an entirely new way of thinking about music for me. Sorry for the cliché, but it was all about "The Message" and nothing else!



 

Extra special thanks to Brian "B+" Cross who provided the cover photo and shows constant support. Much love!

All other photos from online sources.

Follow DJ Shadow on Instragram & djshadow.com ----- Interview conducted by Jon (eikimono) on August 27th, 2021

Foreword by James Gaunt

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