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Out of the Shadow 

The DJ who works out of S.F. has crafted both exquisite beats and a carefully cultivated mystique. Find out from him why the lush trip hop is being replaced by a local hyphy sound.

Wednesday, Sep 13 2006
Getting a face-to-face interview with DJ Shadow is, well, a somewhat shadowy pursuit. Weeks of tersely worded e-mail communiques with his New York City-based publicist finally resulted in a scheduled tête-à-tête, whose location wasn't disclosed until the day of the meeting.

The directions took us, surprisingly, to the sleepy, upscale, boho 'burbs of Marin County, where a thick veil of fog lingers near the top of the hills above Mill Valley, and after a few twisty turns on 101 our designated meeting place, the Acqua Hotel, looms.

While waiting in the lobby for the enigmatic man of mystery to appear, one can't help but wonder what form he'll take. Will he show up in a black ninja suit? Shrouded in acrid smoke? Or will his face be blurred beyond recognition, like the cover of his famous record Endtroducing — the only DJ album deemed classic enough to warrant Universal Records' gaudy "Deluxe Edition" treatment, and a record some compare to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

Unfortunately, the elusive DJ/producer is nowhere to be found, although the concierge reports she heard him speak on the radio earlier that morning. Neither DJ Shadow nor Josh Davis (his given name) are registered at the Acqua. A frantic call to the publicist ensues; she says "he wasn't feeling well" and had to cancel, although she promises to set up a 30-minute phoner a little later. Ten minutes later, she calls back. A hole has miraculously opened up in Shadow's schedule, and he's now available for an in-person at his house, located just a few minutes away. More twisty turns are taken through the streets of Mill Valley, and finally a pink stuccoed split-level domicile, modest by Marin standards and not the dark, foreboding dwelling one might expect of Shadow, appears.

When Shadow comes to the door, his face is fully visible. Just returned from six weeks on the road (in the U.K., Spain, Hong Kong, and Australia), he somehow looks rested and relaxed, with nary a trace of tour hangover. Dressed simply in a white baseball cap, faded white T-shirt, camouflage hoodie, and stylish Bathing Ape sneakers, his trademark soul patch a fiery shade of red, he apologizes for the confusion, which he attributes to miscommunication between his manager and his publicist. Offering a glass of tap water, he sits down on the floor — there's very little furniture, as he's currently in the midst of remodeling — and begins an illuminating two-hour conversation that would dispel some of the mystery surrounding the artist.

Right away, one misconception about Shadow is dashed to smithereens: that he's not talkative or engaging. Patiently and casually, he describes fully his long career, personal life, and the furor over his new album.

The Shadow answers questions pensively, with his head down, but looks you directly in the eye in between queries. One gets the feeling he does not suffer fools gladly, and is more than just a little weary of being asked the same questions over and over again. On his Web site, he posts a FAQ and suggests interviewers read it before talking to him so as not to elicit a "glazed-over response."

"Everyone wants to know about hyphy," he sighs. "I'm not a hyphy expert by any means." In case you haven't been paying attention, hyphy — a combination of "hyper" and "fly" — is a lifestyle, a culture, and a music that started on the streets of Oakland, spread throughout the Bay Area, and became a national movement. Primarily associated with inner-city youth living on the fringes of society, and celebrated by local turf rappers, the hyphy movement has been criticized for promoting drugs, violence, and illegal sideshows, yet its musical component and colorful slang has proven contagious and captivating enough to endear it to the suburbs, commercial radio, and MTV. Lately, it seems, a lot of people have been hatin' on hyphy, a sensitive issue for Shadow, since a considerable amount of criticism of his use of the form has been directed at him.

DJ Shadow, born Joshua Paul Davis in the flatlands of Northern California's Central Valley, is something of a magician, except in a musical sense. After serving an apprenticeship under various radio DJs and hipster label owners, Shadow blossomed from a crate-digging, beat-crafting teenage prodigy into a deconstructionist equally adept at reconstruction, a guy with not only a finely tuned ear for music, but a dedication to his craft way beyond obsessive. In the highly competitive DJ world, he's become one of its biggest superstars, with a rabid, if music geek-y, fan base on both sides of the Atlantic, a solid reputation among his peers, and, as he boasts on his Web site, a "bulletproof resume."

After paying dues in the music game since the late '80s, Shadow can afford to be a little bit cocky. He's built himself up from a nobody to a figure who commands cover stories in all the leading electronic music mags and has inspired a mountain of gushing press quotes. He regularly packs huge arenas in foreign countries, has a 19-page (!) discography on his Web site, had a video ("Six Days") directed by art-house favorite Wong Kar-Wai, and hauls in a six-figure income from touring, merchandise, record sales, and an online shop. Through it all, his mystique has only grown, to the point where it's impossible to tell if he's really a mysterious, brooding genius or just a cagey smart aleck with a carefully crafted image.

But with his latest album, The Outsider, Shadow has altered his familiar, non-threatening musical stance, recasting himself as a hip-hop visionary and embracing the bay's upstart hyphy movement. With that bold move, he runs the risk of alienating his faithful devotees, but also stands to gain untold legions of new listeners. Will his audacious gambit result in a fanboy backlash? Or is he leading the vanguard of an international breakthrough for Bay Area music? Like pioneering comic book writer Will Eisner might say, only the Shadow knows.

About The Author

Eric K. Arnold


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