I’ve reviewed and interviewed the one and only DJ Shadow many times over the last couple of decades. That is a lifetime in the world of hip hop, where tastes change by the minute.
But not talent and transcendence, which is why DJ Shadow has endured and evolved, while other hip hop and (especially) pop artists have not. It’s a brutal calculus, which is why I’m always interested in the stories behind the songs, the thoughts that led to the work.
And so I am giving thanks on this Thanksgiving for the letters he has been sending to our inboxes, explaining why and where and how all of the music from his latest, perhaps greatest effort, Our Pathetic Age, was born.
Below are origin stories for two of the mightiest tracks from that effort —- out now as an old-school double album, separated into an instrumental suite as well as a conventional suite with vocal legends like De La Soul, Run The Jewels, and more —- as well as my extensive coverage of DJ Shadow, some extending all the way back to my Berkeley ‘90s.
DJ Shadow Reveals “Urgent, Important, Please Read” Origin Story
The origins of “Urgent, Important, Please Read” don’t have to do with a sample, but with a beat I was 99% sure wasn’t going to make the cut. That it now ranks as one of my favorite rap tracks on the album is attributable to a friend’s intervention, a little luck, and the talents of the vocalists.
Essentially, I was stuck. I liked the music I had written, but it couldn’t exist as an instrumental. At the same time, it felt like nothing that was out at the time. Who was going to tackle something so against the grain? Throughout the making of the record (ALL of my records, in fact), there was a certain level of conservatism toward my beats…they didn’t sound like the latest hot singles, and guest artists were sometimes suspicious. And for the record, I understood the sentiment. Who was I to tell anyone what was dope and what wasn’t? Nonetheless, I was determined to either find a willing collaborator, or kill the track; compromise was not part of my agenda this time around.
I never contemplated giving the beat to a “big name.” I felt that the only way the song would work is by getting lucky with someone a little hungrier, someone who would embrace not only the music but also the thematic direction I wanted to pursue. I also knew that by this point in the album, I was pretty much tapped out in terms of vocalist ideas. So, I decided to enlist Trackstar (Run The Jewels’ touring DJ). We discussed the concepts and the type of voice I was looking for, and he eventually came back to me. “I honestly think my guys in St. Louis could really kill this one,” he said.
So, I sent off the music and hoped for the best. Even though I was encouraged that the song was being given a chance, I knew that the odds of things coming together to my elevated standards were slim. My mindset was, “the album works without it, if it’s not super dope I don’t want to use it.”
I got Rockwell’s part first; then Tef; then Daemon. As each verse came in, I thought, “Ok, wow, this could really be something.” But it wasn’t until all three performances were in, and the music completed and arranged to suit the verses, that the song locked. I kept playing it over and over going, “Damn, this really came together.” Every vocalist had their own unique perspective and vocal quality, yet they all enhanced and elevated each other. And, most importantly, the song hit the exact tone I was hoping for: topical, without being preachy or heavy-handed.
As soon as the final mix was approved, I knew the song not only belonged on the album, but also deserved a special placement. It’s the last track before the title song, and the perfect ending note in a suite of music designed to represent my continued love of rap as an art form. My profound gratitude is extended to Rockwell, Tef, Daemon and Track for enabling me to realize the vision.
DJ Shadow Breaks Down the Inspiration Behind New Single “Rosie”
There’s usually a point on every album where most of the music is finished, but I find myself with time on my hands. Perhaps I’m waiting on a vocal feature to be turned in, or I’m psyching myself up to do a scratch part…but essentially, the project is 90% done. The singles have been flagged, the sequence of songs has taken shape, and I’m feeling good about everything. Yet, there’s still time to mess around with a new demo if I get the inspiration. If the idea works, perhaps it can still make the album; if not, no big deal, at least I gave it a shot.
On my first album, Endtroducing, the song that resulted from just such a moment was “Organ Donor.” Most of the weighty, sophisticated tracks were finished, and I just wanted to blow off a little steam. I didn’t think James Lavelle (who ran my label at the time, Mo’ Wax) would like it, and I was prepared to remove it if required. To my surprise, he loved it, and the rest is history. On this album, Our Pathetic Age, the song that slid in at the 11th hour was “Rosie.”
Because I listen to so many different kinds of music, new and old, and have worked with samples for so long, it has become difficult for me to find sample ideas that strike me as being truly unique or exhibiting qualities that remind me of nothing I’ve tackled in the past. Yet, the vocal refrain which starts off “Rosie,” is just such a sample. It’s from The Phoenix Singers, a short-lived African-American folk trio from the early ’60s. There are undeniable gospel overtones, and the voices are majestic, dignified and forceful; qualities I admire, and examples of which are in short supply in our time.
Deciding to try to build something off of the Phoenix Singers vocal sample, I started by adding a bunch of left-over drum and percussion sounds that I hadn’t got around to using yet. This formed the basis of the first of three distinct movements within “Rosie,” and in a way, this section represents my past. There’s nothing really groundbreaking production-wise about layering a bunch of different drum breaks, it’s something I’ve done from the beginning. So, knowing that, I didn’t want to leave the song there.
As the father of two daughters who dance semi-professionally, I began to imagine taking the song into different expressive directions, changing the sonic palette each time. I tried to visualize how the music could inform different styles of dance, from the conventional into the contemporary. This concept defines the shift into movement number two.
The third and final section is perhaps most representative of the rest of the album, with the emphasis being on melody rather than beats or tricky programming. The vocal sample is stretched and manipulated beyond recognition, reintroduced as a new melodic basis. No less than eight other instruments are written for, resulting in a (hopefully) satisfying and resonant conclusion. “This part gets me in the feels,” says mix collaborator NastyNasty, which I take as a significant compliment.
So there you have the story of how “Rosie,” the final song to be created for the album, came to be. No big guest stars, no catchy hooks…just me having fun with a great sample. That it was chosen by the label to be the song to mark the project announce is fitting; it represents where I’ve come from, where I’m at, and just maybe, where I’m headed. And hey, even if not, it was nice to blow off a little steam.