Shadow's One-Man Band

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If you didn't know Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, you might reasonably conclude that he belongs to an order of very hip monks. When Davis performs in concert, or does just about anything in public, he wears billowy pants, a long-sleeve T shirt or hooded sweatshirt, and a cap pulled down to eye level. He looks like one of the sand people from Star Wars, only with more sportswear logos. When Davis speaks — and he doesn't speak much — it's in a soft, measured voice, just above a whisper.

Davis isn't a monk, but his music requires monastic focus. To make his trippy new art-rock album, The Private Press (MCA), he spent 15 months alone in his California basement trying to match the unmatchable edges on thousands of vocal, drum and instrumental samples, and then turn them into something beautiful. "Whenever I hit a wall," says Davis, "part of me always wishes I knew somebody who played bass, so that I could just call them up and have them come in and bail me out with a new riff to bridge things together. But that's not the discipline. When you hit a wall, the only thing you can rely on is your instrument, which in my case is a sampler."

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Jan. 17, 2004

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There's a lingering perception that DJs are hustlers — guys who play other people's records, throw in a new beat and call the result their own. It's true that mixing two hit records (which is what party DJs do) and making one are not equivalent achievements, but Davis, 30, is not a mix man. He's a composer who uses samples as his notes. If making music is like putting together a puzzle with infinite pieces, making music with samples is like putting together a puzzle with finite pieces that don't fit. Tempos clash, keys carom off each other — it can be ugly. In 1996 Davis made the pieces fit well enough to create one of the great leaps forward in contemporary pop music, Endtroducing ... DJ Shadow, an album of odd snippets blended into warm songs that serves as a kind of jumbled soundtrack to modernity. The Private Press doesn't have Endtroducing's shock of the new, but its music is just as seductive.

Davis builds his songs like any rock or rap producer. He starts with a drumbeat or bass line, adds piano or guitar to carry the melody, sprinkles in a few odd elements — a triangle, a cello, an organ — to make things interesting, and finishes the whole thing off with vocals. But before he begins, he has to comb through old vinyl bins for raw materials. "In the most passive way," says Davis, "what I put out depends on what comes in."

In the past Davis has sampled music close to his own tastes — funk, hip-hop and R. and B.--but other DJs caught on and started copying his style. Now he looks for the stuff they pass over. In 2000 he struck an obscurantist's mother lode. His local record shop, Village Music in Mill Valley, Calif., bought the entire stock of a defunct 1980s dance-music store at an auction. Davis went mad flipping through 10,000 records — mostly rare new wave European singles — that had been frozen in a storage locker for the past decade. "DJ Shadow is my best customer," says Village Music's John Goddard, who guesses that Davis has relieved him of around 7,500 pieces of vinyl over the past two years. "If there's an artist I've never heard of before, in a genre I've never heard of before, he'll buy it."

Obscurity has its virtues. While most DJs use vaguely familiar samples to get a nod of recognition from their listeners, Davis finds familiarity a distraction. On Six Days, one of The Private Press's best tracks, he uses a vocal about the horrors of war from what sounds like a brassy female jazz singer. It's actually a Liverpudlian male psychedelic group from the early '70s sped up to match the song's tempo. If it were, say, Shirley Bassey, the effect would be sabotaged by kitsch. Instead, it's haunting.

The most pointed criticism of Davis is that his creativity, like that of Robert Rauschenberg (another pop collagist), is invested in process rather than results. Listen to his music casually, and you wonder: What does DJ Shadow have to say for himself? But focus on the voices he chooses to speak for him on The Private Press: there's the woman dictating a letter home, the giddy record collector discussing his tape collection, a kid asking to be told a story, the egoist who declares, "And now...eternity!" as somber keys take him away to some sad netherworld. Not everyone will have the time or patience, but those who give Davis close attention will discover his secret: he turns technology into humanity, and you can dance to it.