DJ Shadow has been turning heads for 30 years, and that’s no easy task. From birthing the concept of records comprised only of samples in 1996 with his critically acclaimed masterpiece Endtroducing to 2019’s Our Pathetic Age, a gorgeous, vibrant double album (first half flexing his already celebrated instrumental prowess, second half showcasing his beats and collaborative process with some of rap’s finest MCs), this is a man who cannot be stopped.
He’s been around, whether it’s lending his master stroke to 1998’s Psyence Fiction by UK trip hop outfit Unkle, cutting a series of hugely influential mixtapes, or performing live turntablism shows with Cut Chemist of Jurassic 5. Dropping a remix here, featuring a collaborator there, he’s an artist who’s work is best measured by his philosophy of progression.
Three decades into a prolific and groundbreaking career, DJ Shadow is still creating some of the most striking electronic music in the world.
There’s a brilliant excerpt from the 2002 documentary Scratch; Shadow is sitting in a basement of a record store, a basement that’s absolutely congested by the amount of vinyl stacks just gathering dust. He describes the room as his “nirvana” before shedding light on his philosophy.
“Just being in here is a humbling experience for me because you’re looking through all these records, it’s sort of like a big pile of broken dreams, in a way. Almost none of these artists still have a career, really, so you have to kind of respect that.”
“I mean, if you’re making records, and if you’re DJing and putting out releases, whether it’s mixtapes or whatever… you’re sort of adding to this pile, whether you want to admit it or not. 10 years down the line, you’ll be in here. So keep that in mind when you start thinking “I’m invincible and I’m the worlds best” because that’s what all these cats thought…”
His discography plays like a reflection of this idea. DJ Shadow’s music is so uniquely his own, a sample of his could be replicated but never emulated. There are scores of instrumental passages that sound like they were historical relics forged from the deepest crevasses, brought to surface level and methodically preserved inside a contemporary, hip hop-inspired groove. A poignancy and playfulness achieved from three decades of roaming borderless through the history of recorded music.
When he’s at his most playful, he’s also at his most challenging. There’s a fantastic Boiler Room set on YouTube where he comes across less concerned about whether his cuts are effective or if the audience is dancing, then he does trying to create a live show like no other. And, of course, he does.
Our Pathetic Age, his new studio album, is no different. His overarching pitch is the hopelessness of humanity and, in equal measure, our constant search for said humanity. A pretty timeless notion, but Shadow’s take is quite timely in 2019.
“In my part of the world, people are scared. There’s rampant homelessness, and a real fear of falling into generational poverty. People are addicted to, and addled by distraction; they’re angry and confused, and disaffected by their own governmental institutions.”
“There’s songs that are inspired by this energy and seek to harness it, to make sense of it. In some cases, there’s attempts to salve the wound; in others, the songs merely observe but don’t offer solutions.”
Our Pathetic Age is an agitated, desperate record. It has the flow of psychedelic funk, where paranoia is just as crucial as madness in the rhythm section. It’s glossy, jagged production blends well the variety of influences it dabbles with.
Bomb Squad-era beats? Flamenco guitar breakdowns? Moog synthesisers with Buddy Rich jazz drumming? Harsh noise and distorted grand piano? Blues a-cappella vocals with rapid fire crossfader action? It could only be DJ Shadow.
Yet another extension of his philosophy. In an era where sample culture is now synonymous with music culture, the work of DJ Shadow still sets the benchmark for pushing sound forward while bringing the music of the past along for the ride.
Our Pathetic Age is out now via Mass Appeal / Caroline Australia.