- DJ Shadow leaves the backpackers behind in favor of a dance-floor vibe.
Chances are that lines like the above -- delivered by the duo of Lateef and Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) -- plus the salsa groove and electro pulse of "Enuff," the dance-floor banger in which they appear, are about the last thing you'd expect to hear on a new DJ Shadow album. Unless it's Bay Area rapper E-40, introducing "Dats My Part" -- one of several straight-up hyphy tracks replete with sped-up crunk beats and crude synth bleats -- by shouting out an exuberant "2006, we got that boy DJ Shadow in this bitch!"
Nope, this isn't the ruminative, downtempo DJ you know from 1996's revered Endtroducing . . . or its similarly styled follow-up, 2002's The Private Press. On The Outsider, the third official full-length from the 33-year-old producer, Shadow just felt like setting it off.
"This is where I'm at; this is what I like," says Shadow, aka Josh Davis, from his home just north of San Francisco (and adjacent to Oakland -- ground zero for hyphy -- which, after years in the underground, has become hip-hop's style du jour). He readily acknowledges that all but his most die-hard followers might find the vibe of the new disc a bit jarring at first.
"A lot of people who are shocked by this record, I get the feeling, only know Endtroducing . . . and The Private Press, and don't know about the mix CDs I do on the side [such as 2003's Diminishing Returns or last year's crunk- and hyphy-heavy Funky Skunk] or, y'know, the early things I did in my career," he says. "I've been into this stuff for a long time, and I've always dropped crumbs all along about what I like and where I'm headed musically. And if people don't know about all those things I do every year, then they're gonna be a lot more surprised than the people who are up on that stuff."
He concedes that the new disc may alienate chunks of his fan base, but Shadow says he's as confident about his musical vision as he was upon the release of his critically lauded debut a decade ago.
"I had a certain mission with Endtroducing . . . Do I feel like I succeeded in the mission? Yes, absolutely. In the case of Psyence Fiction [Shadow's 1998 collaboration with James Lavelle under the UNKLE moniker], the answer is 'Almost.' I just feel like we were one song short. And then with Private Press, it's a similar kinda thing -- almost. But with The Outsider, the answer is unequivocally yes. I satisfied the mission that I set out to do, which was to redirect the momentum of my career and redirect a lot of perceptions about what I represent."
Certainly, a lot of people still want the Shadow they know and love: the guy digging around in musty basements for obscure funk and soul vinyl, the hoodied moodmeister crafting headphone symphonies for late-night bedroom contemplation. Not a party DJ, making anthems for ghostridin' the whip. Yet in all fairness, The Outsider -- though loaded front and back with hyphy tracks featuring such Bay Area notables as Keak da Sneak, Nump, the Federation, and Turf Talk -- stretches further and for the most part does so brilliantly. There's the buttery '70s soul groove of "This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way)"; the dark, harrowing, Katrina-themed "Seein' Thangs," featuring Mississippi crunk vet David Banner, and its attendant "Broken Levee Blues," on which a voice repeatedly intones "Nobody cares . . ." over a brokenhearted electric-guitar riff; and finally, "Erase You," featuring British crooner Chris James -- a kissing cousin to UNKLE's "Lonely Soul," sung by Richard Ashcroft.
"Even I would be suspicious of what I was doing, if I just completely made a 100-percent hyphy album or something," Shadow says. "It was just really important for me to articulate on this album that it's not about any one genre or mood for me and never has been."
His live set is a testament to that philosophy. In Seattle, the first U.S. stop on the Outsider tour, Shadow deftly mixed material from all phases of his career. He also took advantage of some of the contrasts -- on the heels of the more expansive "Six Days," the hyphy and crunk tracks hit tough and get bodies moving, setting up "Midnight in a Perfect World," with its classic head-bobbing chill-out groove, as an epic finale.
"I'm not an idiot," Shadow says. "I know when people come to a show of mine, if I don't do anything from Endtroducing . . . they're gonna be pissed, and it's not my intention to confront people and constantly defy them. I appreciate everybody that comes out, so I put together a show that reflects my whole body of work, not just this album or any one album."
Despite the live love, Shadow is receiving the first genuinely harsh reviews of his career for The Outsider's stylistic shifts, though he insists that the risks inherent in change are worth it in the long run.
"I listen to and read a lot about music, and when you do that, you see there's been a lot of attempts people have made over the years to shake up other people's perceptions of them. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don't, but you sorta always feel like 'Well, at least they tried.'
"So when I hear stuff like 'He should just stick to the Endtroducing . . . formula,' that doesn't make sense to me," he concludes. "To just repeat myself at this stage in my career, when I feel like I still have a good 30 years left, that just seems bizarre. I have to do different things -- at the very least, give it a try. It's a long road, and to me, it's too early to settle into reruns."