He's a medium of sorts, a kind of gravedigger. Josh Davis is DJ Shadow, a producer whose intricate sampledelic collages build off small fragments of broken dreams, piled high and decades deep.
Though until this past June there hadn't been a Shadow album for six years, the DJ hadn't exactly disappeared into the dark recesses. There was a collaborative album he made under the name UNKLE, work with Quannum crew mates such as Blackalicious and Latyrx, as well as a high-profile tour/mix CD series with Jurassic 5 turntablist Cut Chemist. But while Shadow has kept busy being the world's foremost DJ/sample collager, Davis the private person stayed in, well, Shadow's shadow.
"I see a difference between seeking out attention and doing press," Davis says. "I'm happy to do press as long as music is the focus."
There has been music to focus on. But a single, compilation cut or soundtrack contribution was not the opus that fans had clamored for since Shadow's genre-defining debut, 1996's Endtroducing. But this past summer, with the release of Shadow's sophomore album, The Private Press, and now with his ongoing solo tour, the focus has finally shifted from Endtroducing to reintroducing DJ Shadow. Feeding off the neurosis and anxieties -- "black goo" as he calls it -- Davis is once again making hip-hop that, while instrumental, speaks volumes about the man in the Shadow.
Actually, it's not fair to call the new album completely instrumental. One of the three album "narratives" comes in the introduction "(Letter From Home)," which opens with a woman's voice addressing no one in particular, as if she's dictating a letter. It's a ghostly, intimate moment, the feeling heightened by the crackling of worn acetate.
The voice comes from sometime in the first half of last century, when boardwalks and arcades offered the novelty of recording your own personal records -- congratulations, condolences, professions of love -- to send, like a letter, to family and friends. The title of the album, The Private Press, alludes to these and other types of limited-run vinyl, the kind of localized releases that beat diggers like Davis thrive on. Their numbers were so limited (sometimes, only one copy) that sample clearances are almost a non-issue, and the chance of another DJ having the same record is equally unlikely.
It's a lonely image -- a person closed in a booth, committing a dedication to someone back at home, far from home, possibly never coming home. But it's also a calming image, one of focus. It's an image that resounded with Davis when the time came to commit to crystallizing his ideas for The Private Press.
"I don't have a phone in my studio; I don't have a TV," Davis says about his basement space. "When I shut the door to my studio, I'm shutting out everything. All the opinions, advice, rules, deadlines. When I sit down to make music, its therapy."
Cut to another image -- this one of Davis stooped over in a different basement. It's a scene from the 2001 turntablism documentary Scratch, which captures Davis in another form of personal therapy: beat digging. Pictured is Shadow in his personal nirvana, amidst heaps of good intentions and bad ideas, picking through thousands of forgotten records. As the camera follows Shadow through this claustrophobic cavern of LPs, you almost sneeze at the musty optimism and scratchy reality that comes with each drop of a needle. "If you're a DJ and you're putting out releases, you're adding to this pile, whether you want to admit it or not," Shadow states.
But the right producer can also draw from the piles, reanimating other people's drums and dreams into a new heartbeat, skeleton, muscle, joints. Davis is more a pragmatist than a pessimist, though The Private Press' titles -- with words such as "blood," "ghost" and "meets his maker" -- betray a predilection toward a darker realism. Davis uses his surgical sampler skills, however, to breathe some life back into bruised relics. Whether drawing on folk, funk, psychedelic rock, or anything else, Davis makes The Private Press a tribute to the carving of personal space -- whether physical space, headspace or even just space carved into the spiral of a forgotten record groove.
Cut to another scene -- this time in the subway maintenance tunnels beneath New York. Davis is not there, but there are plenty of shadows. It's a scene out of the 2000 film Dark Days, an award-winning documentary about a subterranean community that has carved space for itself, its members eking out a stark existence away from things on the surface that have forced them into homelessness.
Shadow often speaks of his work as bipolar. When he makes his drums sad, the result is brutally sad. The music can be manic as well -- as with the disco strut of The Private Press' "Walkie Talkie." While beats provide Davis a strong foundation on which to build, he still must grapple with the same kind of drifting uncertainty as the figures in Dark Days.
"When making music, it's almost like I'm trying to ...," Davis sighs, frustrated, as if he can't quite articulate the thought. "There's a definite visual aspect as certain refrains, keys, chords create pictures in my mind. And the music I'm making is my painting that picture. It's the form of communication I've settled into to allow me to express something that I'm unable to express verbally."
Davis composed the sparse soundtrack to Dark Days because it allowed him an expressive opportunity just as he was becoming disillusioned with the constrictions of working on Hollywood film. Perhaps it was also the social relevance that appealed to him, or something even more subconscious, something he reveals in passing.
"I used to draw quite a bit, but as soon as I started making music, I had no desire to draw, and I haven't in years," Davis says. "But I always found myself drawing these complex patterns. They weren't difficult to do, but they were time consuming. There was a lot of attention to detail and they were very stylized. If you can imagine the world's most intricate maze. There was always a sort of violence to it and a sort of alienation feel."
Intricate mazes. Alienation. Ghostly characters. These are images Dark Days, Davis' basement of unwrapped potential and even The Private Press all invoke. There's a story to be found in each, the most interesting ones often unspoken. But listening through electro laments, two-bar testaments and the weighty pluck of samples that burrow underneath one another it's clear that what The Private Press lacks in vocals it makes up for in presence.
At its heart, The Private Press is a tribute to the lope of the loner. Davis' projects aren't so much about dreams getting lost as they are about the different mechanisms with which personal direction can be found and recorded. They're about ups and downs, with no better metaphor than the way in which dropping a needle on a newly discovered slab of vinyl can allow people to share worlds.