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Longtime electronic innovator DJ Shadow and his "too future" futurism

Shadow of a Doubt

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"Too future." This is a phrase that should not be in the vocabulary of any electronic music listener. It is not a phrase that should bubble up in conversation, not a phrase that should ever pass through the lips of fans, DJ or promoters. The fact that the phrase "too future" — essentially a "fuck you" to everything that electronic music is supposed to embody, to the grand history of progress within the field of electronic dance music — is even in the lexicon of 21st century listeners is befuddling, bewildering and dispiriting. And that somebody would use "too future" as a reason to kick the legendary DJ Shadow off the turntables — at a bottle-service club, no less! — is offensive. But not necessarily surprising.

When the news broke in December that DJ Shadow — Joshua Paul Davis, creator of Entroducing, the harbinger of analog post-modernism and crate-digger culture — had been ungracefully given the boot mid-set at a Miami nightclub for playing a set deemed "too future," we were both annoyed and elated. It was exciting that yuppie culture, which has been so fervent in its adoption of electronic music in recent years, still can't handle actual artists creating art — one of the few proofs that there's some fire left in the art form. But then the realization slowly set in: If this can happen to DJ Shadow, then this is happening on some level in every city in America. Progression and futurism — the very bedrock of electronic music, from the days of Léon Theremin and the experiments of Robert Moog and Raymond Scott to the dance club classics of Mr. Fingers and Frankie Knuckles — are being choked out of the genre by bland, MOR pop culture and its "play something I've heard before" aesthetic.

As electronic music has become a full-fledged part of the mainstream, the audience-DJ relationship has been fundamentally changed. It's partially because in the age of accessible digital recording and playback, everybody thinks he or she is a DJ — every asshole with an iPod and auto-sync thinks he's just as qualified to be onstage as the person who has spent decades honing the craft. Production tricks — particularly "the drop," that most pedestrian manner of eliciting a response from drug-addled frat dudes — and meme-pop remixes are the order of the day, and the customers are ordering with a belligerence unprecedented in the genre. It wasn't so long ago that the DJ called the shots on the dance floor. You went to see a DJ because that was the only place to hear the new ish, the next ish, that ish that makes your head go swish. DJs weren't jukeboxes; they were the only people with access to the future of music, the key to hearing sounds from your own backyard.

And before you get all "We don't give a fuck about your lawn, Grandpa" or sneer something about your friend's genius "Harlem Shake/Thrift Shop" mash-up and how it's going to change the trap game, let's just look at contemporary "bass music" for a second. Besides having the most useless and broad genre name since "Americana," it's not a terribly radical departure from, oh, the history of electronic music. It must be recognized that the Roland TR-808 drum machine is 33 motherfucking years old and more prominent than ever. Mastering may be light-years ahead of the early days, sounds systems may be more dynamic, but the fundamentals of what makes the music work and what makes it listenable are as old as the art.

Take UZ and PAZ's recent breakout trap cut "Shit I Ain't Got" — which features the most zeitgeist-y lyric of the year: "Might as well go home / 'Cause everybody in this club is fucking with their phones." The melody and pacing aren't too far off from the Triton stabs of classic Three 6 Mafia, the score of a John Carpenter film or even Raymond Scott's early masterwork, the Soothing Sounds for Baby series. (Though one could also argue that any music that involves sequencer will catch echoes of Scott, seeing as how the man did invent that most essential of electronic accoutrements.)

Whether it's Innerzone Orchestra's "Bug in the Bassbin" or Skrillex's "Bangarang," the reality of the situation is that once you make the break from traditional instrumentation, you are entering a space that will always be deemed futuristic. It's ironic — or at least noteworthy — that the tradition of electronic music (the past) is to look forward (to the future). Which is all to say that DJ Shadow and the "All Basses Covered" set that got him booted from behind the decks at Mansion in Miami — you can hear the whole set at Shadow's Soundcloud page — are anything but "too future."

For fans who have for some totally confusing reason only listened to Entroducing, "All Basses Covered" might be an unexpected blast of contemporary vibes. But it should be no surprise, considering that Shadow is an artist who has always been about progression through the reconstitution of sounds that have fallen through the cracks of popular culture. It's the work of a historian as much as a futurist, of a craftsman attached to no particular point in time but rather roaming through them all. And if "All Bases Covered" is in fact the future of music, than we're in good hands — society would benefit from a future in which Shadow called the shots and culture followed his lead.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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