Most pop music fans either can vividly remember how highly-discussed Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and ARTPOP were at the time of release, or have heard about it from those who witnessed it. Paul Blair a.k.a. DJ White Shadow a.k.a. DJWS, though, being one of the minds behind the crafting of both projects — is one of the few who can tell the full story. The Ohio-born DJ and producer has been been making waves for over a decade now, but it’s safe to say his artistic and personal life were turned upside down after working alongside one of the biggest pop stars the world has ever seen. Now that time has passed and the dust has settled, the words of a true creative who’s made millions dance and has also been face-to-face with some of the darkest parts of the music industry seem to matter the most. For this reason, I’ve sat down with him to touch base on the evolution of his career — and the thoughts inside his head.
When ARTPOP was released back in 2013, it was met with mixed reception due to many factors: a messy rollout with plans that were put in motion and suddenly stopped due to poor management decisions, a change in sonic and artistic direction that not everybody understood, and a commercial performance that’s impressive in retrospective but wasn’t able to match the unprecedented success that Lady Gaga’s first three albums had provided. It felt like the world tried to brush ARTPOP off — but fans never forget, and this year the dedicated “little monsters” organized a movement to revindicate the project’s unique concept and forward-thinking artistic vision, eventually taking it to the #1 spot on iTunes in many countries and amassing impressive streaming numbers.
DJ White Shadow was open on social media about how touched he felt after seeing the campaigns to honor the album. “I’m in the life business of making things that make people happy. Since I was a kid, that’s all I ever wanted to do — create something that can change the world in a positive way,” he says to Affinity. “The fact that fans liked [ARTPOP] enough to champion it in any way makes me feel really good. We worked very hard at it and I wanted it to be great, well-received, and timeless. Any time people say it changed their way of seeing music or life, I consider that a victory. The fact that it went to #1 after so much time is pretty remarkable, and I’m very appreciative and thankful for that.”
A petition was created for Gaga and Blair to release ARTPOP Act II, a once-promised sequel to the album that never saw the light of day. It ended up receiving over 50,000 signatures while being a constant trending topic on social media — which led many to comment on how ahead of its time the project was, sonically speaking. “If you want your kid to grow up to be a respectful human being, you pay strict attention to their growth or development — I don’t think it’s much different to art. Not letting impure things get in the way of a pure idea is a very complicated thing to do and I think that’s a gift that she has,” says Paul when asked about the key of making art that stays in people’s minds and hearts for so long. “[The album] wasn’t trying to be something that was throwaway, it was meant to have an impact and be meaningful. We chose sounds that would be robust, rich and thick, and not gimmicky. Paying attention and being mindful and pure is the secret.”
Although its creators seem to look back at the album with pride and rejoice, both DJWS and Lady Gaga have spoken about how harmful this period of their lives ended up being, for many different reasons. “I struggled with mental health for a number of years. This is a very strange business, and when you start doing well a lot of strange people start coming around, crafting a way to integrate yourselves into whatever you have going on,” he admits. “During [the creation of] ARTPOP, there were a lot of things going on, a lot of confusing situations and a lot of easy access to alcohol, but not as many productive means to control your mental health — it was a very slippery slope, because it was so tumultuous.”
Just like Lady Gaga was able to pick herself up from the ground, releasing a number of successful singles and albums, launching a highly-lauded career as an actress and continuing her social compromise through the spread of kindness — Blair has found a way out. “I’m the best I’ve ever been in my whole life,” he says, with an undeniably more joyous tone in his voice. “I think when you run through a fire and you make it to the other side, and understand what that fire is, and emerge from it aware of the turmoil that you went through — you come out stronger. I feel stronger now. It’s also not easy to do, I’m still working at it.”
I fell apart after I released this album. Thank you for celebrating something that once felt like destruction. We always believed it was ahead of its time. Years later turns out, sometimes, artists know. And so do little monsters. Paws up 🙌❤️❤️❤️
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) April 13, 2021
After crafting two of the biggest pop albums of their respective years, DJ White Shadow decided to redirect his focus from the turntables to new endeavors. In 2015, he was named North American music director of W Hotels — and he took the valuable experience received during that time to expand his reach and give back to artists. This Fall, Graduate Hotels and DJ White Shadow will be launching the Graduate Sweet Dreams Society, a handcrafted incubator program where creatives will have a chance to make their art while receiving mentorship and resources. “We’re basically giving artists the opportunity to have a space in the hotel to create a project, collaboratively monetize it and give a portion of it back to supporting arts in secondary school,” he explains. “It took me a decade to know how to work in a corporate system and be an artist — generally they don’t go together. Hopefully, our members will be able to replicate that with someone else [after the program is finished].” The Graduate Sweet Dreams Society is now on the process of selecting candidates, and they plan to reach more cities to change the lives of more creators as time passes.
For Paul Blair, helping and honoring fellow artists isn’t just a want — but an obligation. “Back to ARTPOP, when I was doing that record I wanted to figure out a way to include my own heroes.” He remembers having proposed Too $hort and Twista when it came to figuring out which rappers would be featured in the trap-influenced track of the album, ‘Jewels N’ Drugs.’ “I loved those dudes when I was a kid. I owe it to the people I came up under, to pay them back and teach fans [about their art and skills] as well.”
DJ White Shadow is no stranger to touring — he’s embarked on a set of shows with Lady Gaga and as a headliner on separate occasions. With businesses in the United States fastly opening up and both live shows and nightlife having a revival, Blair is still wary about returning to normal life. “I still have a little bit of a hard time, I’ve been putting on a mask even if I don’t need to. It’s nice to see people’s smiley faces again, though — there’s a level of joy that’s kind of fun watching from afar,” he says while laughing, with an emphasis on the last word.
While you may not see DJ White Shadow doing more than one gig a month during the Summer, he’s far from leaving the music aside. “We have some crazy records that we’re trying to figure out the best way to release. I have a track with Adam Lambert that’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever done in my entire life, I have one with Myke Towers, a record with Aloe Blacc and Paul Oakenfeld, a whole album with Pitbull,” he says. “I’m interested in putting it all out in a way that’s meaningful, because it’s great music and I’ve really enjoyed doing it.”
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In the meantime, Paul Blair continues to build his portfolio as a versatile businessman. “You’re the first person I’ve ever told this, it’s not on my social media bio or anywhere else,” he exclaims before proceeding to talk passionately about FanLabel, an app that works as a game based on streams where friends can compete to find out who can reach the most amount of success in the music industry within the fantasy of the game. “We’ve been working on it for a while, my partners and I, and we’re getting ready to put some new features in it.” He additionally mentions that he has 3 movies in the works, which we’ll have to be on the lookout for. “I have so many different things in different pockets. I’m an extremely high-level multitasker.”
From 2011 to 2013, DJWS released a total of three solo EPs that showcased both his life philosophies and some of the most experimental sounds he was working with at the time — and while those days are long gone, he still looks back at his creations fondly. “Some of those little EPs, I did in a time when I had a vast pool of experimental creativity and I wanted people to have a frame of reference about how weird I actually am.” He proceeds to mention ‘Ratchet,’ an insane track with roots in electronic and trap music that was initially set to be a part of ARTPOP but ended up being included in one of Blair’s solo projects as an instrumental. “That song is a really good example of what’s going on inside my head. Maybe in 100 years people will find it, look back and think ‘this is insanely sonically complex, weird, and rich.’”
With the ARTPOP resurgence on social media, many have pointed out how some of the production displayed on the project that was initially dismissed for being too extravagant ended up being present within the mainstream and the underground music scenes, in one way or another. “The sounds that came out in ARTPOP, we were doing them four years before crazy trap music blew up — I would go out and play these songs and people would say ‘this is terrible,’” he says laughing. “After that, I did nothing but disco records and people thought it was ridiculous, and now everybody’s doing disco. I think I’m just bad at timing.”
As to provide for another example, we briefly come back to ‘Jewels N’ Drugs,’ one of the most polarizing tracks on the record that has divided fans since its release. Paul reminisces of how “crazy” it was to convince both rappers to jump on the track, and how little Lady Gaga’s label enjoyed it when it was first presented to them. “I think the great thing about ARTPOP is that it still holds up — that doesn’t happen to everything I make, because I didn’t love it when I was making it. But I loved ARTPOP the whole time,” he explains. “There’s a bunch of stuff that didn’t come out, I still have a lot of instrumentals that I went through and thought ‘f—k this is really good.’ One day somebody [should] clear up the hard drive.”
Though the last the public has heard of Lady Gaga and DJWS’ work together was for the A Star Is Born soundtrack back in 2018, the producer is eager to make more magic. “Hopefully we can get together soon and figure it out. I guess, as a more mature person, in life, I don’t rush things anymore. I believe wholeheartedly that when the universe decides it’s time, that’s when it’s time,” he says, being aware of how much fans have pleaded for a sequel to the 2013 project. “I’m looking at things from the forest view, not just one tree at a time. [I’m] very pleased that ARTPOP did what it did, very happy with the position I am in life to be able to give back, and I’m just smelling the flowers. We’ll see if this ‘ARTPOP 2′ thing happens, or if another collaboration between Gaga and myself turns out to happen. I will be as happy as everybody to make it and hear it — I would love to give you guys what you’re looking for.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Featured Image Credit: @DJWS on Instagram.