Tomorrow, DJ Shadow releases Total Breakdown: Hidden Transmissions From The MPC Era, 1992-1996, his special archival project distributed by Baseware, Beatport’s in-house distribution service. “To me, [the project] is something that helps connect the dots in my own mind in terms of where I come from and what I’ve done,” he told us last week. “I know that there’s a lot of of people that are fond of the work that I was doing at that time, and hopefully they hear something that reminds them of that and helps to connect the dots in their mind as well.” In anticipation of this huge release, which includes MPC-made tracks from early sessions with Gift Of Gab, some made during the recording of Endtroducing…, and one Beatport exclusive, we’ve got a week of DJ Shadow coverage planned, including today’s exclusive interview with the man himself. Read on to hear more about the project, his swelling archives of unreleased material, his current production setup, and how he recalibrates his audience’s ears every few years.
Most of your records seem to be these grand statements of sorts, and I’m wondering if there’s a statement behind Total Breakdown as well.
I have what I consider to be my major albums, and those are very definitive artistic statements—at least I’m hoping that they are. And then every few years, after I put out one of those major albums, which I did last year with The Less You Know, The Better, I usually turn my attention to doing some kind of archival project. And my reason for doing that is kind of twofold. One, to recalibrate myself after spending two years on a project. One of the ways I find I can do that is by spending some time listening to what I’ve achieved in the past, and breaking bread, in a way, with my kind of former self, if that makes sense. A lot of the music on this compilation I hadn’t heard in a really long time and had almost kind of forgotten about. And I also think it serves to recalibrate the listening public as well. I think that every time I put out a big album, there’s questions about where I come from, and my roots, and why I do this and that, and I feel like when I put out these archival projects, sometimes those questions are then answered. I feel like it puts my whole catalog into a broader context.
So Total Breakdown is a labor of love, and it’s something that I’m happy to do, but in no way do I put it on an equal plane to Endtroducing… or the UNKLE album or The Private Press. It is what it is, and what it is is an archival project.
Is there a ton of stuff in your archive? I feel like there’s the Gift Of Gab EP, which obviously, some of the stuff from that is on Total Breakdown—but I’m wondering, with those other records, such as the Zack De La Rocha one that never came out… do you have a bunch of material sitting on your shelf?
I feel like I do, mainly because for every ten beats that I start out working on, I only ever feel like one of them is special enough to see through to the end. It takes me a long time to make the music that I make; I’ve never been the type of artist that can, you know, sit down one night, make ten beats, and then put out a record in a week. That’s just never been my methodology. So as a result, because it takes me on average about a month to complete each track, I have to be pretty choosy about which track I’m going to live with for a month, because there’s only so many months in somebody’s lifetime, so you don’t wanna waste your time with something that you feel like is second best. But the tracks on Total Breakdown are all tracks that, when I was going back through and listening to DATs and diskettes and things, they were all beats that I thought, like, “Man, this could’ve really been something; I should’ve taken this further.” And, as you pointed out with the Gab EP, in a couple of cases, I did take them further. You hear strains of “Giving Up The Ghost” on “Aye,” and you hear what ended up becoming “Six Days” as well. In the case of that track, it was something that I’d always really loved but I felt like I wanted to re-approach it completely and start over, and that’s not something I have done very often.
And I should also point out, just to give this series context, The MPC Era follows up on something I did a few years ago through my website called The 4-Track Era. So this series is part of an ongoing archival series that began with The 4-Track Era, which documented stuff I’d done on my four-track recorder from about ’89 to I guess about ’92, when I got my MPC. The MPC Era was something that I’d be anticipating for a long time. And yeah, there could probably be another three volumes, but I think it’s up to myself and the public at large to determine if that’s even warranted. You know, the last thing I’d wanna do is over-saturate the market with something I felt like wasn’t as strong as it could be.
How long did it take you to put Total Breakdown together then, going through the archives and everything?
A long time, because I’ve led a pretty chaotic life, as anybody else has. Some of these tracks go back 20 years, so, just finding a lot of the DATs and—DAT, unfortunately, is a very fallible format. I’ve had a bunch of machines die on me, tapes get gobbled up… I’ve had to try and find a better recording of it somewhere else. So going through the media, mainly on DAT, was really time-consuming. And picking my favorites and trying to put them in order was a little easier, but the most difficult part was tracking down the media, which I was surprised to find had spread out all over the place. I don’t have all the stuff in my house, so stuff is boxed up and stashed all over the place.
Was this a process of you knowing what you wanted and then going and looking for it, or was it more like a discovery of stuff that you forgot you had?
I always knew that there was probably enough stuff to do an MPC-era project similar to The 4-Track Era, but I wasn’t really sure until I started going through stuff. Of course, I found a bunch of stuff that I thought was second-rate, or, you know, not worth, in my mind, the reissue process. I think every artist goes that way; you don’t want every last brainwave that you ever had in the studio to get out there. Unless it’s 60 years later, and you’re a group like The Beatles, for whom something like that is warranted. I don’t think that’s the case in my case; it’s definitely a matter of, “Okay, here’s 100 hours of stuff. Let’s take the best hour and go with that.”
I feel like that’s almost a product of the internet age, that nowadays inexperienced producers can just crank something out and stick it up on SoundCloud, whereas when you started making records, that possibility for distribution didn’t exist. This is a very hypothetical question, but do you think they’ll end up regretting spreading themselves so thin and making everything they do instantly available?
What’s interesting to me about it is, I think it’s a really interesting way for people to get feedback instantly. In my era, when these tracks were being made, the general feeling was that you had to put your best work in front of A&R guys. When it arrives on their desk, you wanna put your best foot forward, otherwise they’re never gonna give you another shot. That was the way it was, that was the rule, and I tried to abide by that rule and really just kind of spend my 10,000 hours developing what I was doing and then go out and say, “I’m here. I’m ready to start making records,” or whatever the case may be. So I think that way has its merits, but I also think that putting up a bunch of half-finished beats on SoundCloud and soliciting feedback and getting that feedback from your peers is also a valuable tool.
I’m curious about your thoughts on the MPC as a tool, and I guess firstly, why do you think it dominated hip-hop production so much at the time?
Well, when I bought my MPC in 1992, it was very much an untried and untested piece of gear, and definitely the industry standard at the time was the E-mu SP-1200. That was what people like me were supposed to go out and buy. But my feeling was that [the SP-1200] had been around for like four years, the sound was well established, and it had some real audio limitations in terms of the bit rate and stuff. And those limitations were starting to come out. And it was actually from talking to the preeminent college-radio DJ at the time, Stretch Armstrong in New York—we were having a conversation about something having to do with Big Beat Records, the label from New York, which he was doing A&R for at the time, and I started talking about getting a sampler, and what should I get, and he said, “Well, there’s something brand new called an MPC, and Akai makes it. You should maybe think about that, ‘cuz apparently it has a lot more capability.” But it would be another three or four years—I’d say it wasn’t until closer to the late ’90s that it became the industry standard. So it was something that I felt fortunate about on one hand, because I feel like I helped sort of usher in, in some small way, a new piece of gear for people to use. And quickly after Endtroducing… came out, I moved to the—let’s see, I guess I started with the 60, and then I got the 3000, and then on from there.
Have you ever met [the MPC’s creator] Roger Linn?
I wondered because he’s also based in the Bay Area, and I’m always curious as to whether or not the people who use this gear so closely for so long are ever in touch with the people who invent it.
Yeah, I actually used to think about stuff like that as well, because I grew up in the mid-’80s buying Keyboard magazine, and there’d be Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with all their gear that they’ve been sent by all the manufacturers to get photographed with. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’ve kind of done a lot for the MPC,” but for some reason nobody ever really reached out to me.
Looking more towards the music you make now, what are your go-to pieces of gear these days?
Well, I’ve been largely Pro Tools- and plugin-based. I bought my Pro Tools rig in ’98, and was still using the MPC to arrange in, and that continued, I’d say, until about 2003. And then with the release of Battery by Native Instruments, and then later Maschine, to me it just became—I found that I was able to do more using those methods and staying within Pro Tools, because I’d been working on Pro Tools since the early ’90s. Dan The Automator, who was really the first studio that I’d used, was a really early adopter of Pro Tools, so I’d been familiar with that world for a long time, and never moved to Logic or anything else.
You’d mentioned Stretch Armstrong, and how college radio had a big role in your early days. I wonder, do you still listen to much of it?
Not really. For one thing, college radio is really valuable when you live in a college town. I grew up in Davis, and I lived there for 20 years, so in Davis, California, the nearest cultural beacon is Sacramento. And Sacramento at that time—the ’70s and ’80s—was almost exclusively a classic-rock town; this very Jimi Hendrix, “Stairway To Heaven,” classic rock to the hilt, The Who, stuff like that. Even though that music was quite old by the time I was listening to it, it was excruciating sometimes to find something on the radio to listen to. And what I started to realize, around ’83 or so, was that the local college station would occasionally have something adventurous played, whether that was dub reggae or some kind of hardcore punk thing or something very college-rocky like Camper Van Beethoven or the Butthole Surfers or whatever. But then also in that same spirit of adventure, they would throw on something like Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three “The Roof Is On Fire,” not realizing that towards the end of the song, they say “Let the motherfucker burn.” And it was always very amusing to me to hear the DJs frantically try to pull down the fader, not realizing what they played. So I started listening to KDVS in Davis, really just because occasionally you would hear Kraftwerk and this or that. And then one of my early mentors had the first all-rap show on KDVS starting in about ’85. Concurrent to that, when I would visit my dad in San Jose, where I was born, I would listen to KSOL and, starting in about ’87, KMEL switched formats from rock to R&B, and they started playing mixes by people like Cameron Paul and a lot of my early influences.
What’s your method of music discovery these days?
It’s a combination of “real world,” so to speak, and also digital. I definitely think via Beatport, via SoundCloud, via a lot of other sites, you can sort of dig digitally, and as a DJ I’m always trying to find something that I think is really good that nobody’s picked up on yet. And it’s kind of fun. I resisted it, frankly, for a long time and as I started to realize that a lot of the music that I thought was interesting wasn’t being released on vinyl—and really it was sort of pointless to try and search for CDs—it just made more sense to start buying downloads. I probably spend about $50-100 a week on downloads.
What made you decide to put out Total Breakdown with Baseware?
It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while, but obviously I’ve been on a major label. My label, Island, in the UK, which is part of Universal, has always been really friendly about allowing me to do side-projects and this and that on my own, because I’d always done that my whole career. And they’ve always looked the other way and been really cool about it. For a while, I was doing stuff on my own website, but around 2008-09, it started to become clear that with any artist website, you’re gonna have a ceiling. As all the aggregates started getting more active, and the online distribution model became a little more mature, a little more stable, it just became the obvious thing to do. But it just so happened that at that time I had just locked myself into working on my last album, which was released through Island, and, you know, in 2010, when we first brought it up, it was still kind of like, “Well, we don’t have a deal yet with these different distributors; we’re still working on it.” And, you know, major labels move at glacier pace sometimes. On one hand, I understand that—personally, I’m not one to demonize major labels nearly as much as some—but by the same token, this is the perfect thing to sort of get my feet wet and deal with a lot of these companies like Beatport that I do use.
With regards to digital digging, how do you organize your digital collection of music?
I just load everything into iTunes, and I spend pretty much every long flight kind of pruning and cleaning up my library and my hard drive. It’s something that I find you have to really stay on top of. If I’d had something kicking around for six months, you know, I may have paid to download it, but if it was a spur-of-the-moment thing and it never really resonated with me, then I’m happy to let it go. So, at any one time, I have about 100 GB worth of music on my iTunes and it’s a combination of being Serato-ready and gig-ready, and also just having a good 50 GB worth of stuff that’s just, like, my life music—stuff that I may never DJ with but stuff that I really like to return to often.
Do you bring vinyl on tour with you still?
Not in most cases. I think at this point it’s safe to say that, for a number of reasons. One being that systems are no longer calibrated for vinyl. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing to—I would say anything over 500 people and you’re gonna have issues. There’s gonna be feedback, there’s gonna be rumble. And it used to be that those were the problems everybody had to contend with, so the sound engineers knew how to deal with it, the clubs knew how to deal with it, and once CDJs took over—which, I like CDJs by the way—and once that no longer became a concern, it sort of became a lost art, calibrating the system for vinyl. Around 2008, 2009, in some cases I was trying to keep the spirit alive. I’d used Serato on tour and I liked Serato as well—I feel like I’ve always embraced new technologies, and I used Ableton on my last tour, but I do still like vinyl in some ways—but around 2008, 2009, I started to realize if you follow somebody that was on CDJs or Serato, you’re gonna be playing at half the volume. It’s just gonna be a real energy dip. And the other issue being, a lot of the music that I like that’s new doesn’t exist on vinyl, so I don’t wanna have myself be limited by that.
Are you really conscious of bit rates? Are you a WAV- and AIFF-only person?
If I have the option, I definitely pay more for WAVs, yeah. Low-quality MP3s, I really hear it in the high end, especially hi-hats and stuff like that. I really don’t like that “streaming” sound, you know what I mean? You hear it on satellite radio as well; it drives me crazy. I don’t know how it is that we have this technology that we have and yet the sound quality is so bad. So I always prefer WAVs and I’m happy to pay more for it—I mean, within reason [laughs].
Check back on Beatportal tomorrow to hear Total Breakdown while DJ Shadow talks us through its tracks.