Master of Mystique

DJ Shadow's not settling for reruns.

Go crazy, get dumb as you want/It's time to motivate your body/Go ladies, get sprung, have fun/It's time to motivate the party.

Chances are, lines like the above—delivered by the tandem of Lateef and A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip—plus the salsa groove and electro pulse of "Enuff," the dance-floor banger in which they appear, are about the last thing you'd expect to hear on a new DJ Shadow album. Or Bay Area rapper E-40 introducing "Dats My Part"—one of several straight-up hyphy tracks, replete with sped-up crunk beats and crude, grimy synth bleats, on the 33-year-old producer's third official full-length, The Outsider—by shouting out an exuberant "2006, we got that boy DJ Shadow in this bitch!"

Nope, this isn't the ruminative, downtempo DJ you know from 1996's venerable Endtroducing . . .  or its similarly styled follow-up, 2002's The Private Press. This time, Shadow just wants to set it off.

"This is where I'm at; this is what I like," explains Shadow, aka Josh Davis, over the phone from his home just north of San Francisco (and adjacent to Oakland, ground zero for hyphy, which, after years in the underground, has become hip-hop's style du jour). He readily acknowledges that all but his most die-hard followers might find the vibe of the new disc a bit jarring at first.

"A lot of people who are shocked by this record, I get the feeling, only know Endtroducing . . .  and The Private Press, and if you don't know about the mix CDs I do on the side [such as 2003's Diminishing Returns or last year's crunk- and hyphy-heavy Funky Skunk] or, y'know, the early things I did in my career when I was working with Bay Area rappers 15, 16 years ago . . . I mean, I've been into this stuff for a long time, and I've always dropped crumbs all along about what I like and where I'm headed musically; and if people don't know about all those things I do every year, then they're gonna be a lot more surprised than the people who are up on that stuff."

Though he concedes that the new disc, which dropped Tuesday, Sept. 19, may alienate chunks of his fan base, Shadow says that on the eve of The Outsider's release he feels as confident about his musical vision as he did upon the release of his debut a decade ago.

"I think what it comes down to is, and this kinda sucks because George Bush has ruined the term, but, 'mission accomplished.' I had a certain mission with Endtroducing . . . —do I feel like I succeeded in the mission? Yes, absolutely. In the case of Psyence Fiction [Shadow's 1998 collaboration with James Lavelle under the U.N.K.L.E. moniker], the answer is almost. I just feel like we were one song short. And then with Private Press, it's a similar kinda thing—almost. But with The Outsider, the answer is unequivocally yes. I satisfied the mission that I set out to do, which was to redirect the momentum of my career and redirect a lot of perceptions about what I represent."

Certainly, a lot of people still want the Shadow they know and love: the guy digging around in musty basements for obscure funk and soul vinyl; the hoodied moodmeister crafting headphone symphonies for late-night bedroom contemplation. Not a party DJ making anthems for ghostridin' the whip. Yet in all fairness, The Outsider—though front-loaded and back-ended with hyphy tracks featuring such Bay Area notables as Keak Da Sneak, Nump, the Federation, and Turf Talk—stretches further, and for the most part does so brilliantly. There's the buttery '70s soul groove of "This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way)"; the dark, harrowing, Katrina-themed "Seein' Thangs," featuring Mississippi crunk vet David Banner, and its attendant "Broken Levee Blues," on which a voice repeatedly intones "Nobody cares . . . " over a brokenhearted electric guitar riff; and "Erase You," a kissing cousin to U.N.K.L.E's Richard Ashcroft–vocaled "Lonely Soul" that features British crooner Chris James.

Nevertheless, Shadow's enduring the first genuinely harsh reviews of his career for The Outsider's stylistic shifts, though he insists the risks inherent with change are definitely worth it in the long run.

"I listen to and read a lot about music, and when you do that you see there's been a lot of attempts people have made over the years to shake up other people's perceptions of them. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don't, but you sorta always feel like, 'Well, at least they tried.'

"So when I hear stuff like, 'He should just stick to the Endtroducing . . . formula,' that doesn't make sense to me," Shadow concludes. "To just repeat myself at this stage in my career, when I feel like I still have a good 30 years left, that just seems bizarre. I have to do different things, at the very least give it a try. It's a long road, and to me, it's too early to settle into reruns."

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