If you doubt that DJs are real musicians, you have not listened to DJ Shadow, one of today’s most innovative and exciting composers and practitioners, despite the fact that the elements of his music all come from other musicians’ recordings. In my book, Shadow is the electronic equivalent of a jazz player who puts his own spin on an existing repertoire. So when I had the opportunity to join a leg of his U.S. tour—working on the crew for opening band Nerve–I jumped at the chance. Over two weeks, I saw Shadow perform ten times, from Silver Spring, MD to Canada and to San Franciso, for the final Shadowsphere show ever.
It’s easy to assume that a DJ is somewhat isolated in his practice, metaphorically and physically juggling such a vast array of musical elements that he can only devote so much direct attention to the audience, but Shadow demonstrated that the best DJs incorporate the crowd among the elements of their live composition. Plenty of DJ’s play to crowds, but none so masterfully while operating such a complicated rig (Shadow spends the show surrounded by CDJ’s, laptops, mixers, and other assorted controllers). He also does all this while exercising a zen-like patience: no beat comes in too early nor lasts too long, every moment builds to its perfect apex before delivering its resolution. Few musicians have more control of an audience than Shadow. At a recent Pulp show at Radio City Music Hall, Jarvis Cocker had the crowd eating from the palm of his hand, but by the end, he was clearly exhausted from the massive effort he made to achieve such adoration. Shadow had people going nuts without even breaking a sweat.
While each night’s performance included most of the same tunes, the actual performance of each song was an exercise in improvisational mastery. The selection of songs already spanned the entirety of Shadow’s recorded career, but he managed to present an even deeper catalog of music by augmenting each song with elements from the remainder of his own repertoire. Not content to simply present original in-the-moment remixes of his material, Shadow also created different arcs each night, some shows being darker than others, some lighter, some leaning more heavily on jungle, some more four-on-the-floor. In an era where it’s hard to get an audience to show up let alone look at the stage, each night of the tour –weekdays or weekends– was a loud, sweaty dance fest.
As I get older, I still enjoy certain hard and dissonant bands, but I increasingly lean towards listening to the gentler sounds of, say, Sade or Punch Brothers. When I’m in the mood to listen to something pretty, I don’t usually listen to DJ’s, let alone go to their shows. Yet Shadow managed to create intense nightly dance parties that in addition to some of the hardest beats imaginable (all y’all dubstep DJ’s better call Josh for lessons), featured moments of overwhelming beauty and grace. Each night’s encore began with a mix of The Less You Know, The Better‘s “Sad and Lonely” and The Private Press‘s Blood On The Motorway that had every audience completely enraptured.
Dance music is by and large intended for the almost singular purpose of pleasure derived from audio. You’re supposed to check out a DJ’s show to dance your feelings away and get lost in rhythms and movement. Shadow subverts that paradigm by infusing everything he does with definitive emotional statements. The closest non-DJ equivalent I can think of as far as emotive performance is Radiohead, making it all the more appropriate that one of the more inventive mixes of the set involves Thom Yorke lyrically dancing with A$AP Rocky.
It was a joy to have the opportunity to watch Shadow’s show every night, but even more so, it showed me that great artists are still vital and viable in the modern music marketplace. From conversations with Shadow, he seems unsure about his next project, but I’m sure whatever he comes up with will be the new bar for not only DJ’s but for all musicians to try and clear.
Wayan Zoey plays drums and bass with and for a number of other people. He also plays guitar, but only when alone and listening to Phish. A regular contributor to FP, he recently reviewed Esperanza Spalding’s show at Webster Hall, Robert Glasper and Soulive’s Brooklyn Bowl shows, and new albums by Glasper and Spalding.