Man Mantis: 'I think DJ habits are more important if you're a producer.'
Legendary producer DJ Shadow will play lots of other people's music during his "All Basses Covered" DJ set at the Majestic Theatre Thursday, Dec. 6. But his landmark contributions to instrumental hip-hop, namely his 1996 debut album, Endtroducing..., still resonate the most with his fans. One of those fans is Man Mantis, a similar-minded DJ and producer who will open the show. The Madison expatriate will perform live MPC and show off new material he's amassed since releasing his own instrumental opus Cities Without Houses last year.
I asked him about Shadow's influence and his own work recently.
You've released singles and done some production for Sole. What else have you been up to since Cities Without Houses?
Right after that happened, I was focused on doing live shows. I couldn't make another album right away, so I would just make little tracks here and there that I would work into the live set.
When I did Cities Without Houses, I found a sound. I remember making beats every night, and then I made this one song, "Come Into My Parlor," and was like, "Okay, here's a sound that I can ride out for 12 or 14 songs and really develop." Now I'm just waiting for that to happen again and learning new tricks.
What sets instrumental hip-hop apart from just beats?
One of the things I thought about and learned about by listening to DJ Shadow and other people like that who were making all sample-based music is that art is like creativity. If you're writing a book, you're limited by the words. If you're a painter, you're limited by the colors you're painting with. So, with sample-based music and instrumental hip-hop ... you're very strictly limited with what you can use in terms of other people's recordings and having to morph them into what you want. The better you can create your own idea or express yourself in a sophisticated way within those limits, the better [the music] is.
There are definitely just hip-hop beats that have that emotion there, but a full, all-sampled album like Endtroducing..., that's really like, "Here's a movie or a story I made with other people's shit." I think that's cool.
How important was Endtroducing... for you?
I heard the best songs on Endtroducing... before I got the album because I wasn't one of those guys who's like, "Oh, I knew him before everybody else." I got into him a little bit later than somebody who makes beats might be expected to. But still, it was early high school. I heard "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt," "Midnight in a Perfect World" and "Organ Donor," and those affected me in a big way. Then I went to the to the album. At the time, I was just into awesome beats. I hadn't ... thought about instrumental stuff other than just a hip-hop beat for someone to rap over.
So, Endtroducing... was a challenge in that I didn't really like or get all of it right away. I was expecting an album full of crazy bangers. Some of the weirder stuff on that album, I didn't really know what to do with it. But as I started making beats and learned more and more how it was done, it was something I always went back to and went, "OK, that's why this was such a big deal, and that's why I didn't get this when I was 15."
How have your DJ skills informed your production work?
I don't think it's really necessary to have DJ skills just to produce, especially since there's not a lot of scratching in hip-hop anymore. It's here and there, and there are people that are still amazing at it, but it's not something you hear all the time. When I started making beats, that was the reason to have DJ skills, so you could do cutting on your beats.
I think DJ habits are more important if you're a producer. If you're DJ, you get record-buying habits and sitting at home by yourself for long periods of time ... learning how to get good at something. If you have those habits, it makes you a better producer.
It's a shame you don't hear scratching on hip-hop tracks much anymore.
It is a shame. What's really a shame is that there are people that do mind-bogglingly surreal things with turntablism, and it would be awesome to see that develop. It's not like it's dead. I'm sure it's still around. When you hear something in a shampoo commercial enough times, it's not subversive, interesting or new anymore. It's been pimped out by big companies, and people move on, even from stuff that's really cool.
Do you also look for obscure samples?
I try to. One of the things I've been trying to do since Cities Without Houses is getting away from sampling and trying to make those other kinds of sounds without relying on [samples]. Part of the reason for that, other than if you're trying to make money with your shit, [is] it makes it a lot harder. But also, in that documentary Scratch, I'm 99% sure it's that movie, but there's a scene where DJ Shadow goes to a record shop, and this old guy takes him into a basement and it's this disgusting, massive haunted-house basement filled with records stacked to the ceiling. They're not organized in any way. It's like a labyrinth or like an episode of Hoarders, but all vinyl. There are no lights, just the lights from the camera, and it's really surreal and dreamlike.
Seeing that, I was like, "OK, there's no way. I don't have access to that." Whether I may at some point in my life or could aspire to that, I don't have access to that now. There are so many people sampling, and so much shit has been done. But if it's not something I can completely change and really just use for its tones. Not something where someone will recognize it and go, "Oh, I know that because I'm real cool, because I know about obscure shit."
You make a good point about the difficulty with wanting to sell your music and sampling other people's stuff.
I've never really stopped sampling, and there's stuff that I have made money off of and that I have licensed that has uncleared samples in it, but it's not a hook or anybody's vocals or a loop or anything. It's just sounds and tones that have been stretched, fucked with and had effects on [them] just for the sake of the sound itself.