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Exclusive: DJ Hero Interview With DJ Shadow

ctivision’s newest venture into the genre of music games is an exploration of the world of DJs. With a bold new peripheral, DJ Hero is on track to take the world of Guitar Hero and the science of mixing music and making a whole new experience. But developer Freestyle Games was not only interesting in making the game fun, but authentic and stylish as well. So they went straight to the source—DJ Shadow. One of the most ground breaking DJs of all time, Shadow is the authority on all things cool in said genre. To find out more, we chatted with DJ Shadow to get his take on the project and how he’s involved.

Game Informer: Can you tell us how you got involved in the production of DJ Hero? How did you first hear about the project, and what were the lines of connection that got you a part of that?

DJ Shadow: I’m trying to remember back—I think the first time I heard about it was in my twice-weekly calls with my manager. He usually is just kind of, “OK, so and so got in touch with me about this, so and so got in touch with me about that, do you want to license music to this documentary, do you want to do this?” And sometimes in the calls it ends up being just this kind of laundry list and I have to be really careful to catch things that sound intriguing to me before they just kind of roll on by. Because he often doesn’t really know what my true interests are, or what I would get excited about, and he’ll just present them to me all kind of deadpan, without his opinion, like, “There’s this, there’s that,” and when it came up, by the end of the call I kind of went, “Wait a minute, go back to that, that sounds kind of important and interesting.”

And what’s funny is that this kid that I met on tour about a year and a half ago had presented me with this kind of homemade videogame concept, and it had been kind of bubbling in the back of my mind, but basically what I ended up concluding was that there’s no way you can make a game on your own and have any chance of competing or developing, in the [market]… videogames have obviously come a long way since I was in the arcades. So it was just kind of serendipitous to me, it was good timing, because I had all but given up on that other concept, and just kind of thought to myself, “Well, I’d love to get involved, and there’s got to be a DJ game coming,” and then of course they reached out. So that was how I first heard about it, and then I basically said to my manager, “We’ve got to find out more about this, let’s move this one up to the top of the list.”

And then the next thing that happened is I went to L.A. and met with the team and got to see a little bit of the game, and from there it was kind of like, “OK, well as a DJ here’s what I think should be included, here’s the songs that I think should be included. Are you guys open to me feeding you this kind of information or do you already…”—you know, because I didn’t want to be sitting there going, “Here’s what I think you should do,” and having them say to me, “We got it, thanks.” So it was nice that it wasn’t just like, “We’re just going to borrow your name and likeness,” it was more like, “We want your help and your opinions in terms of from a DJ having a bulls***-proof radar out there.”  I don’t know, does that answer your question?

GI: For sure. How long ago was that, that you first sat down at the table with Activision and kind of had that conversation and saw the game for the first time?

DJ: It was back in either late November or early December. Though obviously at that point the game had already been in production for at least a year at that point.

GI: Sure. Since then it sounds like you’re in a position of serving some kind of advisory role with the game. Can you tell us a little bit about what that conversation has been as far as what you perceive as your responsibilities to the game and how you’re contributing to the project?

DJ: Well, it takes a number of different – there’s a number of areas where I’ve been able to contribute my “expertise”, for whatever that’s worth. I mean initially it was literally me sitting there going, “OK I hear these samples, this song, did you ever think about clearing this?” From menu music on down—just from my lifetime of listening to a lot of music that DJs have been using over the years. And a lot of the songs that DJs use, and a lot of the little things, little sound bites that are common on commercials and—you know, songs for the last twenty/thirty years—lots of times people recognize those sounds but they don’t necessarily know where they come from.

One good example is the “ahh scratch”: everybody probably in the world now has heard people scratch that familiar sound, like—it sounds like someone saying “ahh.” But very few people know where that actually comes from, I mean outside of the DJ world. So just being able to identify those types of sounds, or something like, “It’s Time” which is from a song called “Al Naafiysh” by Hashim—these were just kind of like underground 12-inch singles from the early 80s that helped form a basis for what DJs were doing. So pointing out things like that and on a musical level as far as what I was doing with my mixes, just trying to bring a level of… what can I say? I just basically wanted to provide mixes that were really, really tight, and had little references for other DJs and other peers to kind of pick up on and go, “Oh, he did that little scratch because that’s how it was done on this record way back when, the first people to scratch that record, and…”—so hopefully  there’s a lot of authenticity in the mixes that I provided and then the song selection that I tried to contribute to.

And you know not all of my suggestions were able to be incorporated because of, you know, “Well we’ve already licensed this many songs,” or “We can’t find the original copyright holder,” or “The production team’s eyes are bulging out of their heads and their brains are going to explode if we try to actually incorporate this into the gameplay.” So it was a little give and take.

GI: Sure—some of those old samples, finding even the copyright for it must be nearly impossible, right?

DJ: Well, I mean I know a lot of people and I’ve done a little bit of licensing as a hobby like with a lot of late 60s funk and soul stuff. I mean everything is out there to be found—there are things that are kind of legendary for being totally untracked to this day, but fortunately hip-hop only goes back to ‘79 on vinyl and that’s not so long that a lot of people would have passed away. When you start talking about clearing stuff from the 50s and 60s that’s when it’s—if it didn’t get absorbed into some major publishing house or one of the major labels, then it does get pretty tricky to try and find those people. So the hip-hop era is still to some degree—somebody’s going to be out there that knows. But yeah, there’s only a certain amount of resources that anyone can dedicate to finding one song, and I know in certain cases we just had to let them go

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