wax Poetics
Photo by Jamal Chalabi.


“I have this Poison Idea record that pictured their guitarist sitting in front of all his treasured vinyl, and the name of the record is Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes. I always keep that mind when discussing my own records.”

For DJ Shadow, whose legacy is assured by the headlines he’s earned and the imitators he’s inspired, record collecting underpins his work. In light of recent collaborations with hyphy artists, and The Outsider going against the grain of his foundational sound, we thought we’d swing the focus back to records. And with such a dense history, we had to go back—way back—to Shadow’s first record purchase.

Shadow also discusses transformations in record-buying culture, how his interest in 45s began, his first digging experience, and even pinpoints the one record that he claims “changed his life.” With pangs of modesty—mindful of his Poison Idea vinyl—Shadow analyzes the history that has shaped his record collection and career.

published online
Originally published in Issue 23
By David Ma

Let’s start simple. Do you remember the first record you bought?

Yeah, it was Devo’s first record. [laughs

Can you remember what sparked your interest in records to begin with?

There were a lot of things that contributed to my interest in records, one of which being my dad’s old record collection, which was really eclectic. I mean, it had Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes, to Tower of Power, to Albert King, to weird fiddle music. Actually, my mom and my dad went to a Tower of Power concert about six hours before I was born. I don’t know if it had anything to do with my love for music from that era, but obviously I was hearing what they were listening to. [laughs]

What was it like growing up, since your parents seemed to appreciate good music?

Yeah, well I’d just go through more of my dad’s blues and jazz records, stuff like Maynard Ferguson and other records like that. And so just going through his records made me get into certain things that I might’ve overlooked as kid. 

At what point did you want to make or manipulate music yourself?

I think the really important moment was when I started making tapes of his records. Slowly but surely, samples I heard from these things made sense as I listened to rap records. I mean, all I listened to then was rap records. But when Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” came out, and they looped up part of the Hot Buttered Soul record, I was like, “Oh shit, I have the tools!” That’s what made me want to get into beats. I always looked up to PE and thought they were on another level. I remember going out for the very first time with the concept of, “All right, I’m gonna go look for samples,” and I just went to a local record store in Davis where I was living at the time. 

So this was your first digging venture?

As far as I can remember, it was. Back then, every small town had a huge record store. The first thing I bought was a James Brown The Payback double LP, [Herman Kelly’s] “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” 12-inch, and the second Soul Searchers album, We the People. And it’s not like I really knew what I was doing, but records like that weren’t rare then, not that they’re completely rare anyways, but they were just plentiful and cheap. I mean, I got them all for, like, five dollars. 

What eventually swayed your interest from LPs to 45s?

It was actually a friend of mine who went by the name of 8th Wonder, who did graffiti in Texas. He did a lot of the artwork for the early Solesides records. He had learned a lot about 45s from a New York producer by the name of Mr. Nice Guy, and when he came out to California, he had a stack of 45s with him. I was thinking, why does he have all 45s? I was like a lot of people who were under the false impression that 45s were just shorter versions of songs that existed on other records or whatnot. And he was like, “Nah, man! A lot of songs only came out on 45s!” I had never really thought about it in that way before. To demonstrate, he pulled out all these 45s that he found that were just featured on a 45 King beat compilation. It blew me away. So I remember him just giving me a bunch of 45s with cool label designs. None of them were real rare back then, but it was that moment that started my passion for 45s.

As someone who’s been searching for records all this time, what are the changes, if any, you’ve noticed through the years?

There are many, and in many ways. Like, there was a great store in Jackson, California, that was originally set up outside L.A., but moved to Jackson around ’90. That store was incredible. And it just so happened that my parents moved like twenty minutes away from there. It’s unfortunate that stores like that don’t exist anymore. It’s sad, because I used to document my digging trips for fun, and I’m glad I did, because I got pictures with me and my homies at stores that don’t exist anymore. That, to me—the simple lack of good record stores—is a huge difference.

When I look at my records, I know that I’ve never lowered my standards to get a good record. DJ Shadow

What about the culture itself? Have you witnessed any shifts in attitude?

Yeah, another thing started happening in ’98. Before then, I never bumped into any so-called “diggers,” but that’s when everything started to change. Thanks to eBay and things like that, people sort of realized they could make a living by flipping records. They’d dig for a record, sell it online, and it got really competitive. That also coincided with the fad of collecting funk 45s, and that was something I had never seen before. Whether you’re dealing with WWII memorabilia or something like that, there’ll be a community that’s interested. With funk 45s, it became the same thing, and around ’99 is when it reached its fever pitch. 

You’ve remained modest in the face of your success as a musician and collector.

Well, I started dealing with characters that were more aggressive and didn’t seem to have a “moral code” or whatever you want to call it. It all became bragging rights and the money, and it turned me off in a lot of ways. Plus, it’s always better to be grounded.

At this point, are you reluctant to exchange records with other collectors?

Well, I’m just really selective about whom I deal with. To this day, if someone shows up in front of my face and wants to trade a really rare 45 or something, and if I don’t get a good vibe off of them, or if I can’t identify with where they’re coming from, I’ll just say, “I’m straight.” I’d say that’s the main difference today.

Do you still get to look for records, even with your increasingly busy schedule?

It totally varies. Sometimes, I’ll just immerse myself for two weeks and take a trip somewhere. Recently, I took a ten-day trip to dig, and then when I was home working on my album, I would go to local record shops for weeks. When I was on tour the past few months, I only had a few chances to go out and look at the city or country I was in. 

What comes to mind when you sit back and look at your collection now?

I mean, the longer you’re in it, the longer you’ll realize that everything will come around again, you just have to be patient. Kids are in your face, but modesty and humbleness goes a long way with me, because that’s how I am. When I look at my records, I know that I’ve never lowered my standards to get a good record. 

And is there one single record in your collection you’d say impacted you the most?

Grandmaster Flash and Wheels of Steel, definitely. That record changed my life. It made me fall in love with hip-hop.

Could you sum up the importance of record collecting on you and your career? 

To me, digging isn’t about bragging rights or finding a $500 record for three dollars. So far, in my life, I have been looking for records longer than I have not been looking for records. As far as going to stores, I’ve been doing it for at least twenty-one years now, and I’ve been buying new records even longer than that. Around ’85 is when I started buying secondhand records. So, I’d say, digging’s shaped my own music and is simply ingrained in who I am as a person.

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