SONIC REDUCER Why do we want DJ Shadow, né Josh Davis, to suffer for his art? Why are we so enamored of the romantic image of Davis, pate and gaze humbly hidden by a hoodie, bowed like a monk before a crate of precious vinyl like a mendicant curled in prayer at the dusty cathedral of flat black plastic? It doesn't help that Davis seems to resemble in part that now-iconic pop image when he meets me at Universal Records' SoMa offices. Polite and erudite, rigorous and righteous, he obviously takes a subtle, scientific delight in the details and precision of language and in meeting commitments, making dates, finishing interviews, taking care of business. He's not some goofed playa tripping on hyphy's train.
But being a smart dude aware of all the angles, Davis, 34, is well aware of the disjunction between his image and his current sound — his past and present — too. "I feel like it was getting to the point where a lot of people were trying to tell me who I am and what I represent," he explains in the, yes, shadows of a Bat Cave–ish conference room hung with midcentury horror-cheese movie posters. "This image where it's just sort of like me in the dungeon of records, with the hood pulled over my head, and I only like old music, and y'know, hip-hop was so much better way back when.
"Yeah, that's a little piece of who I am, but it seems like some people kind of fetishize that culture or that aspect of my personality, where it has sort of devoured everything else. And, um, I just feel like it was important for me to make this record and articulate who I am, rather than let people compartmentalize me in that little box of, 'OK, this is DJ Shadow. He's the sample guy. He's the guy who made Endtroducing, and he'll never make a better record, and that's ... DJ Shadow. Next artist.'”
Hence The Outsider (Island). It’s a bold, deep rejoinder to scoffers that somewhat ditches the dreamy grooves in Shadow's past for ever-infectious hyphy-lickin' good times (radio hit "3 Freaks" with Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak and "Turf Dancin'” with the Federation and Animaniaks), a little bow to crunk ("Seein' Things" with David Banner, made in the interim between Davis's 2002 album, Private Press [MCA], and the rise of Bay sounds), funk and funny jams ("Backstage Girl" with Phonte Coleman), and even a completely outta-left-field dissonant pastoral ("What Have I Done" with Christina Carter of Charlambrides). Even E-40 takes part ("Dats My Part"), in what might seem to some like Davis's bow to the Bay and its players. However you read the title of his latest album, this outsider has probably made his most geographically specific, here-and-now recording to date. It's rooted in a genuine — though scattershot and even schizo — sense of place rather than an imaginative pomo zone where old 45s can be recycled and reused ad infinitum and a talented and introverted head like Shadow can study beats, the art of sampling, and music making inside out in bedroom-community privacy. Perhaps that's why the San Jose–born, Davis-raised Davis has been so often connected, mistakenly, to Hayward — therein lies the romance of burby anonymity, the decentered, very nonurban reality of so many hoodie-bedecked kids who fall for hip-hop and spring for decks.
So Davis leans forward intently and tells me about listening to hyphy for the first time on KMEL while driving over the Golden Gate to his Mission studio and getting an instant hit off its raw kick. How he tried to break down the "strange, almost Eastern chords and keys" underlying Rick Rock's, Droop-E's, Trax-a-Million’s, and Mac Dre's tracks. These are tales he has told many times before, to Billboard and URB (which lapsed by sticking the currently capped, clean-cut Davis in a white suit, like a datedly slick star DJ). But you have to appreciate the sincere passion of his mission.