Josh Davis’ debut album Endtroducing was a high-water mark of instrumental hip-hop on its release in 1996. On his new album, The Mountain Will Fall, the producer has finally made peace with the scene he did so much to influence, telling Laurent Fintoni that his legacy is “only an albatross if I surrender to it.”
Artists should be able to create free from the grip of any perceived legacy, yet as fans we often demand they abide by it.
When Josh Davis released his debut album, the seminal Endtroducing, 20 years ago, hip-hop was gifted the sample-based compositional masterpiece it had always deserved. But when its creator, Josh Davis, followed it with albums attempting something new or different, fans began to ask why he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) simply give them more of what his instrumental debut had hinted at.
Over the years, through interviews and his public statements, certain qualities were attributed to Davis, regardless of fact or intent. “It all became a bit odd,” he says, speaking over the phone from his California home. “Some people think I’m a vinyl purist, others that I think all good music was made 500 years ago. It got to a point where I found people dictating to me what they thought my values were.”
Endtroducing came to signify something important in hip-hop, a shift in aesthetics and an unavoidable statement on the producer as artist, but it was only the beginning of DJ Shadow’s legacy. And he never intended to let it end there.
This month, Davis returns with The Mountain Will Fall. It’s his fifth solo album, the first in five years, and the first to be released outside of a major label deal. Despite being one of the select few producers from the 1990s era of independent hip-hop to have built a lasting career, Davis has always seen himself as the provider of “an alternative”, a cog in the machine that can move in the opposite way. Speaking in the careful and deliberate tone he’s known for, Davis describes his approach to releasing an album as “almost like a DJ saying, ‘Here are the things I value in music right now.’” What Davis values in music today originates partly from a period of extensive touring and travelling following the release of 2011’s The Less You Know, The Better.
“I want to be inspired, not imitate”
Working the US and European festival circuit, Davis would walk around sites soaking in the diverse sounds the crowd responded to. In July 2012, Daddy Kev invited him to perform at Low End Theory in Los Angeles, the flagship night of the global beat scene. It had been over a decade since Davis had broken away from performing only “thematic sets” as a DJ. From 1999’s Brainfreeze mix album to the recent Renegades of Rhythm, (both alongside turntablist Cut Chemist), DJ sets have been an integral part of DJ Shadow’s artistic legacy. And so Davis began playing contemporary music again, harking back to selections full of “underground rap tracks or weird drum ‘n’ bass records” he had played around the release of Endtroducing. The Low End Theory appearance led to more requests, and Davis hit the road again for another two years, meeting artists whose music he had discovered online and playing a broad spectrum of sounds he defines with various genre tags before admitting, “Whatever you wanna say, just beats, basically.”
The Mountain Will Fall is not the DJ Shadow of 20 years ago, but it bears a resemblance to various facets of his career. If anything, the new album is closest in spirit to the curveball Davis threw on 2006’s The Outsider, which celebrated the Bay Area’s hyphy sound. With The Mountain Will Fall, he turns to his current appreciation for the new status quo of ‘beats’, the blurry meeting point between hip-hop and electronic music that has fuelled both rap and dance for much of the current decade. But while the links between hyphy and his own work weren’t obvious to everyone 10 years ago, the new album’s focus feels logical when you consider how much today’s beat scene owes to what Davis articulated in his groundbreaking debut.
On The Mountain Will Fall, he weaves links between the new club sounds he has immersed himself in and various elements of his work to date: throwback indie rap on ‘Nobody Speak’ alongside Run The Jewels, another pair of scene veterans; old school breaks, samples, and cuts on ‘The Sideshow’ with Ernie Fresh; cinematic, sample-based introspection on the title track; delicate sweeps in ‘Ashes To Oceans’ with Manchester’s Matthew Halsall. The album is varied yet remains grounded in the sounds and styles Davis has been most engaged with in recent years. He feels it’s his place “to take disparate elements, like Matthew Halsall or my love for hip-hop” and try to make a whole from them. “It’s just a snapshot of everything that [represents me] and everything I feel is valid in my musical world right now.”
Some of the tracks on the new album straddle an uncomfortable line between obvious and daring. Many of Davis’ sonic choices —— the speeding, tumbling drums on ‘Ashes to Oceans’, the euphoric rise on ‘The Mountain Will Fall’, the incessant changes on ‘Ghost Town’ —— are subverted tropes pointing back to the contemporary music he’s taking inspiration from. Davis is the first to admit he doesn’t “make bangers,” so instead he interprets that in his own way. “I want to be inspired, not imitate,” he states, pointing to his love of DJ Premier productions or the sound design and engineering of G Jones, a young producer he’s been collaborating with. For Davis, a song like ‘Swerve’, released at Christmas and included on the album as a bonus cut, “doesn’t sound like what you would hear if you went out to experience this beat scene stuff. It’s still alternative and I’m okay with that. It was an important realisation for me to make.”
In the process of putting together the sets he performed between 2012 and 2014, Davis realised that many of the artists he was drawn to were, like him, hip-hop heads adapting to a new world. “It suddenly all started to connect with me,” he recalls. This spurred him to engage with the music in the way he knows best – the hip-hop way – and break from predictable arrangements designed to maximise response in a club environment.
“In the sets, I would take the basis of a good beat and do more with it, try to take it somewhere else,” he explains. Back in the studio, this translated into what Davis calls a “feeling of songs within songs.” This is most apparent on ‘Three Ralphs’, ‘California’, and the aforementioned ‘Ghost Town’. “These songs have distinctive, different parts to them,” he says. “I wanted to cram in as much as possible to deceive the listener. Four minutes of the record passes and you wonder, where am I in the record? Has it been one song or three? I like to play with that a lot. It’s one of the things I wanted to bring to the table I felt was missing a little.” In attempting to subvert the most obvious tropes of today’s club beats, Davis found a way to put his own twist on them, to inject some of himself into the music. “I still like for it to feel there is a lot of deliberate thought and work going into the programming,” he adds.
“The only direction that has ever offended me is blatant commercialism”
Back in the early 1990s when he was a student at UC Davis, the young DJ Shadow stumbled across the work of American composer David Axelrod while diving into the archive of the university’s radio station, KDVS. Famed for a short string of solo albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s that fused diverse sensibilities, including jazz and rock, Axelrod’s work became an inspiration to Davis (who sampled him on his debut) and a rallying point for his first crew, Solesides.
But while Axelrod explored his trademark sound across multiple albums until the limits of its potential had been reached, Davis seemed to abandon the voice he had found on Endtroducing. And that’s where the frustration of many fans resides. I tell Davis it feels like the power of the statement he made with Endtroducing became an albatross around his neck, creating tension with a core fanbase who refuse to let it go. “I think it’s only an albatross if I surrender to it,” he replies. “The only disappointment I’ve had in my own peers growing up is when they do surrender. [For me] it’s always too soon to capitulate.”
Some of the early criticism of The Mountain Will Fall Davis has made much of the perception of Davis as someone who is out of touch, responsible for a classic (or two) but not quite able to capture the zeitgeist his new material references. Yet he has been consistent over the years in stating where his interest lies as an artist: in celebrating the present, not repeating the past. “I understand why there would be resistance with any variety of things I’ve done over the years,” he says, his tone almost resigned. Throughout his career he has aligned himself with what others are known for —— the indie rock of UNKLE in 1998, hyphy in 2006, beats in 2016 —— perhaps to the detriment of further pursuing the unique sound that first propelled him to fame. And while it’s easy to belittle the choices, it means ignoring the intent behind them. “It’s really difficult to hear somebody say, ‘Well you’re not doing what I wanted you to do,’ and know how to respond in any way other then shrug and say, ‘Sorry, I gotta do what I gotta do.’ The only direction that has ever offended me is blatant commercialism.”
Two years ago, he left the major label world after close to 20 years and struck out on his own. The decision came in part from the difficulties he faced releasing 2014’s The Liquid Amber EP, which offered the first hints of his current direction. He’s still grateful for what being on a major label has afforded him, but leaving was a case of not having “much in common with their objective” or sharing “the same values,” he says. Keen to be able to move faster and tap into the new reality of music consumption and distribution, Davis set up Liquid Amber as a digital-only independent imprint, self-funded, and with the aim of giving other artists a “power up”. So far the label has released music from new talents Bleep Bloop and G Jones (in collaboration with Shadow as Nite School Klik) alongside Californian underground veterans Mophono and Ruckazoid.
He’s effusive about the work of Wisconsin’s Noer The Boy, whose Spilled Noise EP on Liquid Amber is an ebullient combination of sound design and club music. “There’s so much personality in his music, so many ideas, all the things I love about beats,” Davis says proudly. “It’s what I love about footwork, drum ‘n’ bass, and the new permutations of electronic music and beats from the past 25 years. It’s somebody reaching for something.” Hearing Davis talk about his label and work, there’s an obvious sense of excitement about the current synergy between hip-hop and electronic music. “I like to include contemporary rap in my sets because otherwise it starts to feel a little too ravey,” he says. “If I don’t I feel like I’m not really representing my aesthetic. It signifies something important to me. I don’t know if I fully understand it, I just get uncomfortable if I’m not referencing stuff I like in rap.” He brings up Clams Casino as an example of someone whose instrumental music moves him and who can translate that to rap work, as he did on Vince Staples’ recent debut album. “There’s something about it that’s hard to put your finger on. Like the difference between NYC rap and rap from somewhere else in the 1980s. NYC rap felt more real and that’s the way I feel about [the work of someone like Clams].”
When Davis chose his artist name in the late 1980s, it was as a response to the first wave of producer stars within hip-hop, from Marley Marl to Puff Daddy. Davis viewed himself like a movie producer, someone who could walk the streets in peace. The solitary practice of making beats is now often appreciated and celebrated with the same fervour as rapping. It’s not a stretch to say that there would be no beat scene had there been no Endtroducing. When I spoke to Daddy Kev in 2012 he admitted as much, saying Davis “was the first to demonstrate the full thunder of a real instrumental album.” With Davis embracing the current beat scene, and its many facets, The Mountain Will Fall sounds like his most honest work to date. “The one thing I do feel like this album has in common with Endtroducing is that I worked hard and was focused on it,” he says. “It did feel joyful, and I can’t say that about the last record and other records I’ve done.”
Last month, Davis took to Twitter to state: “Nobody ever made interesting music worrying about their ‘legacy’.” Instead of thinking about what others might expect from him, Davis has climbed the mountain. The last song he finished was ‘Ashes to Oceans’, a “high moment” that will remain with him even if no one else ever talks about it. And then, without having realised it, Davis had arrived at the summit. The mountain fell.