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DJ Shadow: Genesis (1982-1988)

Right from the early 80s and throughout, Josh's thirst for music knowledge and learning to grow his DJ skills quickly superseded everything else. But for a teenager living in the small town of Davis, CA, the gap between his hunger and reality was challenging as access was limited...


Tower Records, Sacramento in the 60s
Tower Records, Sacramento in the 60s

 

Jon

What was your mum's opinion on this kind of music?


Josh

Yeah, that's a great question. The radio wasn't going directly to the tape recorder so if our dog started barking it's on the tape, you know? And she happened to come in to say good night as I was recording the song and on the tape you can hear her going, "What is this?" That was every parent's reaction I think the first time they heard rap, and to some it was maybe like a good "What is this?" to some it was a bad "What is this!" Hers was kind of in the middle and I just kind of went [whispering], "Sssssh, I'm recording, I don't want this permanently etched in my memory of this song!"


Josh in his room with a wall of records, age 15 (1987)
Josh in his room with a wall of records, age 15 (1987)

This happened again later when I bought Run DMC's first album [self-titled / Profile Records, 1984] when they would walk in and look at my wall and it was you know, records like Criminal Minded [Boogie Down Productions / B-Boy Records, 1987] where somebody has a pistol. They would ask me to educate them, like "Tell me what this is about? Tell me why you have these records on your wall? Tell me what the music means to you?" But they never told me "You can't listen to this!"


Jon

Did you ask your mother to purchase "The Message" for you?


Josh

No, I ended up buying it as part of a compilation and it wasn't until about a year later because I heard it maybe three times on the radio, but it wasn't like a number one hit single. And like I said earlier, in that time it just disappeared and I never heard it again for a long time, I wasn't even sure who the group name was.


But by 1983, I started seeing other media about hip hop culture. So for example on the Nightly News, I remember seeing they had a thing on The Disco 3 who later became the Fat Boys. And literally at that time, they were just hanging out on a street corner and a film crew found them. And I think they were just doing what a lot of people did at that time, whether it was pop locking or breakdancing or beatboxing, it was a hustle to get street change. Like busking, right? Tourists would walk by and be like "Oh you know, stick out the hat maybe we'll put $1 in."


So I started seeing little hints. Like I remember seeing the ad for Wild Style [dir. Charlie Ahearn, 1983], and I was starting to become aware that there was a street culture happening somewhere way far away from me that I didn't know anything about, but I knew that rap was a part of it. And so I'd be talking to kids at school "Do you know what rap is?" "No!" And then little bits here and there, like "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know!" And then they talk about "Rapture" by Blondie [Chrysalis, 1980] or this and that.


Wild Style (1983), Breakin' (1984) & Beat Street (1984) movie posters
Wild Style (1983), Breakin' (1984) & Beat Street (1984) movie posters

By 1984, hip hop exploded into the mainstream with movies like Beat Street [dir. Stan Lathan, 1984] and Breakin' [dir. Joel Silberg & Sam Firstenberg, 1984] and songs like "Jam On It" by Newcleus [Sunnyview, 1984]. And these were songs that were crossing over to the same radio stations that were playing Queen songs or whatever. So prior to 1984 it was very difficult for a ten-year-old to piece together all the different parts of the puzzle, because I wasn't old enough to see the movies I wanted to see, I didn't have enough money to go to the record store and buy the records I wanted to buy.


There was no resource, even music magazines basically ignored hip hop. Maybe there was a little [article], and again how could I afford Rolling Stone or Spin, or any of that stuff? I actually saw MTV very early on, like almost when it launched [1981-82] because my dad's girlfriend happened to live in this one community where they were testing it out on cable [when] almost nobody had cable yet.


Jon

In the early 80s, most of your classmates had labeled rap as a fad, but you were still interested in exploring it.


Josh

I couldn't find anybody that really knew what it was but I didn't care whether other people were into it or not. How old are you Jon?


Jon

I was born in 84.


Josh

Got it. Well, in 1982-83 the kids that were starting to show signs of self-expression and self-identity went in a few different directions, right? You had the heavy metal kids, you had the punk kids, you had the skate kids (or surf kids), that was youth culture in the town I lived in. And if you were into something that was underground that wasn't one of those three things, you had to be careful about who you revealed that to because you might be bullied or you might get beaten up! It was a very different time, things like bullying it was an everyday thing and it was just a fact of life. It's not like anybody had options [he laughs], so I mean I didn't really go around wanting to identify with just anybody about this thing that I was into. But it really wasn't until I met my friend Stan [Green, The 8th Wonder] in seventh grade that I felt like, "Okay, he's into the exact same thing that I'm into."


I mean don't get me wrong, by the time 1984 came along it was cool to be into it because everybody thought it was a cool new fad. But once that fad blew over, um, I felt like there was nobody that I could talk to about it until I met Stan. The breakdancing thing kind of got blown out of proportion, and you know maybe that's not so cool anymore to a lot of people. But he understood as I understood that the music was different and the art was different, like for him it was about the art and the music, for me it was strictly about the music. And we knew from records like Run DMC's first album and so many 12" that were coming out! And we were starting to be able to identify there's an LA electro sound, there's a New York sound, there's this guy Sir Mix-a-Lot up in Seattle...


Jon

Do you remember when you started to notice DJs more than music production or rap?


Josh

So 83-84, there was a World's Famous Supreme Team video ["Hey DJ" / Island Records, 1984] and I think that was the first time I ever saw somebody physically scratching. And then also the movie Breakin' had that kind of famous scene in the club with Ice-T rapping and Chris "The Glove" Taylor scratching. Amazingly, I've still only ever seen that movie in the movie theater, I've never seen it since!



From 1983 on, I got more and more into comic books and more and more into records. I became obsessed with the art of trying to find money to feed my passion.


I think in sixth grade I started working in jobs, so one of my first jobs was to sweep out the warehouse of a lumber yard. I would go on a Saturday at like seven in the morning and sweep and clean for about three hours and then they would give me $10, and I would go right to the arcade or right to the comic store or right to the record store, and the money would be gone! So then it would be like, "Okay, how can I get more money?"


If I wanted something at the store, my parents would always say "No." I think it's a really good thing, it made me kind of really figure out how to [make money], so it made me really appreciate everything that I obtained. If I obtained a comic book, I would read it cover to cover, super engrossed! If I raised enough money to buy a 12" single or an album, I would listen to it over and over and over and over and over!


Jon

But when did you start to purchase records really, like by yourself?


Josh

Probably at the end of 83, early 84. And it was also things like my dad and my grandmother on his side would say "What do you want for your birthday?" And I would always just say, "Take me to Tower Records. Give me $20 to spend however I want." And so that became like every time my birthday came along or anything like that, I would go to Tower Records.


Jon

Christmas 1984 you purchased a $99 Sears home entertainment system that had a turntable, a radio receiver and a dual cassette deck all in one. Somehow you found a way to record your scratch over the recordings that you were making with the tape player. How did it happen?


Josh

It was just a total accident! With the dual cassette deck I could do little edits. So maybe if I would record a mix off the radio but I didn't want some song in the middle of the mix, I would dub it and edit out that part so that it would be on beat and it wouldn't sound wrong, and I started getting better at it. My brother's for example, if you pressed pause it would engage a mechanism but it took like a second and a half from the time you pressed it, whereas on the Sears when you pressed pause it was instantaneous. If you wanted to cut back in you would be holding it and then release it on the downbeat. And it would sound perfect if you were good at it.


Entertainment system probably similar to Josh's, with close-up on the selector knob (Sears Christmas Book 1984)
Josh's entertainment system, with close-up on the selector knob (Sears Christmas Book, 1984)

There was a little selector knob, so it would be Cassette, Turntable, Audio Source and Radio. It just so happened that Turntable and Cassette were next to each other, and if I held it right in the middle it was sort of a mistake on the manufacturing where it would allow both signals to happen. So in that way I was now able to do my own simple scratching while I'm dubbing one tape to the other. Maybe I have an instrumental and now I can make my own little scratch track over the instrumental!


But just scratching, like "Do we do we do we, do we do we do we" [imitating scratch] that gets boring, it doesn't sound good, right? What makes scratching great is the cutting and the scratching! So then you know, like "Dooby dooby doo" [imitating scratch and cuts] you know, like having the ability to cut. So I got better and better at going the slightest little tweak to On/Off, On/Off, On/Off to where it's like in the middle, just Tape. If it's just Tape you wouldn't hear me back cueing the record, so in essence it was almost like a transformer scratch. Because it's not a fader I couldn't make it fade in and out, it was On or Off just like a transformer switch.


Jon

Do you remember how you came to scratch in the first place? Was it from the videos that you had seen and you wanted to imitate these guys?


Josh

Um, I mean by 1984 there were some really important records that I taped off the radio because I discovered a radio station called KSOL, and they would have mixes every Saturday night. So that's where I would discover and listen to and try to memorize, and then I would go to the record store and try to match up what I thought was the chorus with the title. And that was easy with records like Roxanne Roxanne [Roxanne & UTFO / Streetwave, 1984] or whatever.

Davy DMX - One for The Treble (1984) / Run-D.M.C. 1st LP (1984) / Grandmaster Flash - The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel (1981)
Davy DMX - One For The Treble (Fresh) (Tuff City/CBS Associated Records, 1984) / Run-DMC - Run-D.M.C. (Profile Records, 1984) / Grandmaster Flash - The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel ( Sugar Hill Records, 1981)

Jon

But they weren't usually giving the track name on the radio.


Josh

Almost never, especially in a mix because they didn't want to interrupt the mix.


Um, so one big record for me was One For The Treble by Davey DMX, it was a 12" that came out on Tuff City in 1984. And obviously the first Run-DMC album with the Jam-Master Jay DJ cut [Run-D.M.C. / Profile Records, 1984]. But even going further back, I mean The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel [Sugar Hill Records, 1981], one of the most influential records for me!


So the sound of scratching I was ready to try to imitate just like somebody picks up a guitar and they try to imitate Jimmy Page or whoever their hero is, right? My heroes just happened to be Grandmaster Flash and Jam-Master Jay and anybody that I heard scratching on a record. Even just when I got that serious system, I just started trying to scratch right away, I just wanted to hear scratching.


Jon

Oras Washington and Alex Mejia both said that you are self-taught, but did you have How-To books or did you mostly experiment by yourself?


Josh

Just by listening to other records. My favorite hip hop songs were records where there were good rappers and a DJ. I liked other rap records if there wasn't any scratching, but I liked them a lot more when there was also scratching. Like, the group UTFO had a DJ named Mixmaster Ice and I really liked the way they incorporated him into almost all their records, and obviously Run-DMC was the same. As the years go on, DJs on records you hear more and more of it, you start to hear different styles and so anytime I heard anything I would try to do it, and that's how I learned.


Jon

For how long did you use this set-up?


Josh

So Christmas 1987, I begged and borrowed and pleaded with my parents, and we were able to get myself a couple of cheap turntables and a mixer so that I could start learning how to do actual mixing.


And by this time in the late 80s, people were doing a little bit better and we were doing a little bit better financially.


Jon

You were basically in your room making music, was it out loud?


Josh

No, it was all headphones. I don't know why but I just prefer to listen to everything on headphones. And it's funny because my kids are the same way, I don't think they want to have to explain what they're listening to or why, or they don't want to be embarrassed by what they're listening to. So for whatever reason they do the same thing I used to do at their age, which is I just like to live in my own little world with it.


Jon

When you met Stan [Green aka The 8th Wonder] I think you started to swap tapes early on.


Josh

I used to make tapes and mixes for Stan, I mean I would make my own copy and then record a version for him - and I have most of those - and I don't know if he still has any of that stuff or not, but I would record mixes really for him and him only. And then other people at school would be interested in hearing some things, so I would sometimes do special mixes [upon request], sometimes I would just record the songs. But the next big step, I started riding my bike down to KDVS.


Jon

You had been listening to KDVS for a while before you called Oras during his show, but how did you actually end up going there?


Josh

I think I used to call his show and request records. And I think he got a kick out of the fact that somebody would request, you know, "cool records".


Most people in Davis didn't know about a really big and really important record I think on the scene was the first Original Concept 12" on Def Jam called Can You Feel It? [1986], and I would request these really big underground records that most people didn't know about.


"Can You Feel It?" 12" by Original Concept
Original Concept - "Can You Feel It?" 12" (Columbia, 1986)

And so I think he liked to hear from me, and then at some point I think I just said something like, "Hey, do you think I could come watch you do your show?" Because he would try doing mixes at KDVS with this really primitive radio equipment that was not made for it, so I just wanted to see him do it. And so he said "Yeah, sure!" And that was maybe around 85-86. And then probably after a few times I said something like, "Hey, if I brought a mix, would you want to hear it or play it?" And he said "Yeah!" Then I started making mixes for him to play or that he might like, and that kind of all continued until the next big step that was getting a four-track cassette recorder in 89.


Josh's earliest known mix, aired by Oras Washington at KDVS '88
Josh's earliest mix, aired by Oras Washington at KDVS '88

Jon

You learned about records, you learned about scratching, you learned about mixing, but then when did you start to become interested in building your own tracks through sampling?


Josh

First of all, it's really hard for me to divorce the idea of sampling from the idea of scratching. Because what first entered my head and made me wonder about, and become so fascinated with DJing and scratching was the fact that I hear a stab sound, right?


Starting in the 70s, when they want to introduce the break DJs would rub the stab, the downbeat for the start of the break. So famously, records like "Ashley's Roachclip" by The Soul Searchers [Salt Of The Earth / Sussex, 1974], well that was a record that I heard on "One For The Treble" [Davy DMX / Tuff City, 1984], and then I hear it later in another hip hop record, and then another hip hop record.


The Soul Searchers - Salt Of The Earth (Sussex, 1974)
The Soul Searchers - Salt Of The Earth (Sussex, 1974)

So I started going, "Well, why did all these DJs know what that sound is and I don't know what that sound is?!" So the idea of breakbeats, I became obsessed with trying to find out "Where is this information? What is this knowledge?" Because where I lived, Ultimate Breaks & Beats [Street Beat Records, 1987] and Octopus Breaks [originally released during the early 1980s] all these records didn't exist, those records did not come here. So I didn't know about like, you know, "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" by Bob James [Two / CTI Records, 1975] and I would hear that drum, and then later I'd hear the same little drum fill on another record.


So that's what initially sparked my mind like, "I need to start looking for those records, and I know they're not rap records per se but they're related," and I didn't know quite how yet. And I didn't know where to look and it took a long time to start to piece that together. Because I didn't even ever hold an Ultimate Breaks & Beats record until...


Jon

Until you met John Rhone aka DJ Macaroni [from Bigger Than Life Productions]?


Josh

Yeah exactly, John Rhone was the first person I knew. He had family on the East Coast and he would go out there and find these records.


You have "The Art Of Noise" [(Who's Afraid Of?) The Art Of Noise / ZTT, 1984] and the first time that I'm hearing other sounds programmed to make beats. And I start hearing about this thing called the sampler but it's like £60,000, you know? That's how much a Synclavier cost back then! So only people like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush or Quincy Jones had one and you had to be super rich to be able to afford it. So it was this really elitist thing until, I think it was Ensoniq or Korg came out with a very cheap version that Marley [Marl] used on records like "The Bridge" [on Beat Biter by MC Shan / Bridge Records, 1986] and stuff like that.


Ensoniq Mirage DSK-8 (1985) sampler
Ensoniq Mirage DSK-8 (1985) sampler

So 85-86 that's when you start hearing samples in rap records, and since a lot of producers like Marley and like others at one point were DJs, it became a natural thing. Like, "What do we want to sample? Well, we want to sample that stab, we want to sample that drum track." So it went from DJs playing those records to people putting it in the sampler.


So that's why for me when people talk about like, "What was the first sample you heard?" it's all kind of blended together. Because before it was a sample it was a DJ weapon! And those breakbeats that people like Kool Herc, Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Afrika Islam and all the Zulu [Nation] guys, they're the ones who found those records and they're the ones who decided "This is something I want to play to people in 1976 or 77 or 78." So really the lineage is quite amazing, you know?


It goes from parties in front of 50 people to parties in front of 500 people. And then people like World's Famous Supreme Team showing it to Malcolm McLaren. And then you know, Trevor Horn a producer of those records deciding, "Hey, I'm going to put those sounds in the Synclavier." And that's how you have "Kool Is Back" [Funk Inc. Funk Inc. / Prestige, 1971] on a YES record [Owner Of A Lonely Heart / ATCO Records, 1983], right?


"And that's how you have "Kool Is Back" on a YES record!"
"And that's how you have "Kool Is Back" on a YES record!"

So it's interesting the lineage of the breakbeat and the DJ as it segues into a new technology, and that's my mini dissertation on sampling!


And then it goes from there obviously...


 

Extra special thanks to Brian "B+" Cross who provided the cover photo and shows constant support. All other photos from online sources.

Follow DJ Shadow on Instagram & djshadow.com ----- Interview conducted by Jon on August 27th, 2021

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Another great read. Looking forward to the next one! 👌🏻

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