Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Artist: DJ Shadow
Release Date: September 1996 [UK], November 1996 [US]
Label: Mo’ Wax/A&M [UK], Mo’Wax/ffrr [US]
Producer: DJ Shadow
“And I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me, which is...which comes from all the music that I hear, you know, I’d like for that to come out. It’s like, it’s not really me that’s coming, the music’s coming through me.”
- from “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt”
This is one of my favorite movies scenes...
DJ Shadow talks about crate digging at the record store on the cover of his debut album, from Scratch, a documentary on Hip-Hop DJ culture.
Much like DJ Shadow, I was digging. But instead of glorious trips through crates of old vinyl, I was going through boxes of old packrat stuff, the detritus of my life, looking for one article, one piece of paper – an early 1997 (if I remember right) new artist spotlight on Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis from Mojo magazine, in which Davis talks about his two-year daily grind of sweating bullets in Dan The Automator’s tiny studio, crafting his debut masterpiece Endtroducing…. When I worked at Tower Records, I found the magazine when I moved into my office, and was so blown away by the article that I tore it out and tacked it up on the wall, where it stayed the whole time I worked there…
Anyway, I couldn’t find it in the boxes, but I did find The Source’s 150th issue, from March of 2002. This too is a good read. One of the features inside is a list of what the magazine feels are the 150 most important moments in Hip-Hop’s history. I scan the list…no DJ Shadow. Hmmm. Number 150 is “Big Daddy Kane appears in a 1991 issue of Playgirl magazine”. Now, maybe I’m a bit biased, but…wait, no I’m not – Kane is the shit, and anyone that calls themselves a Hip-Hop fan should have at least “Raw” and “Set It Off” on their iPod – but frankly, it’s ridiculous that such an achievement as Endtroducing… is ignored by the Hip-Hop community in favor of Kane hanging his wang out in a nudie mag. It’s even more perplexing considering that in the magazine’s 10th anniversary issue some years earlier, they did recognize Shadow by cherry-picking him as an alumni in the “Unsigned Hype” retrospective, alongside Biggie and other big names. But, the 150th issue, it shoudla-coulda-woulda read something simple like, “DJ Shadow releases sampling classic Endtroducing…”, or even better, “Guinness Book names DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… first album ever created from 100% samples” (which, shhhhh, is untrue, though having to say ‘99% sampled’ is annoying just because he used a couple snippets of friends joking around). As a tribute, I was going to compile this entry using 100% samples of other reviews of the album, but then I realized I had too much to say of my own, like I wonder if the reason that Endtroducing… isn’t readily recognized by the Hip-Hop community is maybe they just don’t understand it. Actually, I think very few people in the entire music industry understand what goes into the music of DJ Shadow.
Think about it – the two turntables have been out of favor in Hip-Hop since around the mid 90’s, so the community wouldn’t have any reason to watch what’s happening with the DJ’s. Everyone just started rapping to DAT tapes, and even before then, the DJ had been marginalized to just playing the track and maybe yelling the chorus. The DJ was no longer in the spotlight. The true believers had to create ‘Turntablism’ as a subgenre or else lose collective focus and interest on the still-evolving art forever. But even still, Shadow doesn’t totally fit into this category either. If you watch Scratch, the movie that the clip above is from, Shadow appears to be from an entire different world in terms of just his mindstate, how he approaches his art. He’s almost spiritual about records, like a monk. But he is a Hip-Hop head, there’s no doubt about it; he’s been immersed in the Hip-Hop world since he was a teenager, releasing his first tracks as early as 1991. He knows his breaks better than pretty much anyone – a break obsessive since high school, he famously impressed Chuck D in 1988 by knowing where quite a few of the unlisted samples for P.E.’s heavily-layered Nation Of Millions came from – and he can scratch with the best of them.
The intro of the album, “Best Foot Forward”, is Shadow’s conscious nod to his heritage, ten tracks – from the likes of Kool G Rap, Beastie Boys, Jeru, and others – cut up and scratched across 48 seconds, 48 seconds that let you know this man is definitely the real deal, lightening fast scratching and all. But it’s also almost like Shadow conceding, “Here you go, have some of what you’re expecting, before my music forces you to abandon all preconceived notions”; it works as a palette cleaner. The only other track on the album that has a vaguely Hip-Hop aesthetic is “The Number Song”, which scratches up old school cuts by Theodore, Flash, T La Rock, and Kurtis Blow, but is built on the back of Cliff Burton’s “Orion” from Metallica’s Ride The Lightening, about as far from Hip-Hop as you can get. He knows where his heart is at – he has infamously made a habit of moving copies of the CD in record stores from the “Dance” section to the “Hip-Hop” section, because Shadow is, in many ways, tied to Hip-Hop in the same ways an artist like Public Enemy is “Punk”, which is to say they’re truer to the spirit of the music than its accepted sound. This album was once even named the “best Dance album of all time” despite the fact that you could never really dance to it. Most of Endtroducing… sounds nothing like concurrent Hip-Hop of 1996 – Biggie, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Busta, etc. – but Shadow is no doubt getting his water from the same well, so to speak.
But as good as he is with a turntable and a mixer, it’s with the Akai digital sampler that Shadow is a master. There have been way more than a few moments when I’ve made the claim that DJ Shadow is the Jimi Hendrix of my generation, and just as many times, people have called me fucking nuts. But to me, A) that’s unnecessary hero worship for the Baby Boomers, B) resistance towards Hip-Hop as the predominant new cultural development and music form of the last 30 years, and C) ignorance towards what it is that DJ Shadow actually does, and how a digital sampler works. The sampler – in this case, the MPC60 model – is very much the iconic tool of Hip-Hop in the 1990’s, in the same way that the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul have become synonymous with Rock & Roll. I’m sure I could load some sounds into an Akai and mess around a little, but it wouldn’t come out like Endtroducing… Shit, maybe Kanye West uses an Akai sampler too, and maybe very well, but not like Shadow. It’s the results that he gets from the Akai sampler that allow me to compare him to Hendrix – he uses an instrument (the literal, general definition, not necessarily the musical definition) that is utilized by thousands of people, but somehow, like Jimi, what he creates seems not only timeless, but peerless. To say that 50 years from now Endtroducing… will be held in the same high esteem as Are You Experienced or Electric Ladyland doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch to me. But I’m a little ahead of myself – for a basic crash course in what this machine is, watch this video; it features Shadow (in the black t-shirt), DJ Nu-Mark (in the center), and Cut Chemist (without a cap, who you might recognize from his cameo as the science teacher in Juno), the latter two from Jurassic 5, all three playing the Akai sampler…
OK, so now let’s talk about how you get to the point where you can do something like that. When he’s working, Shadow will pour over hundreds of records a week – he’s been called both an anthropologist and an archeologist more than a few times. To give you an idea of how many pieces of vinyl he owns, Shadow has a second house just for his record collection; the only other person I know of with a collection like that is legendary Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa. After Shadow finds breaks or sounds or riffs he wants to sample, he’ll play the record on the turntable, hooked up to the digital sampler. Then once he has the samples in the sampler, he can manipulate them and layer them however he sees fit. Each sound is assigned a button; for example, as you see in the video, one button might be the kick drum, one might be the snare drum, and so on. Shadow can then bang out whatever beat he wants. He can then loop whole sequences, and then go back and bang out more sounds, etc. While the album is a masterwork of sequencing – with Shadow admitting that it simply couldn’t have been ordered any other way, that the songs dictated the running order – if you’re still not sure and need a starting point, look to the enduring landmark single “Midnight In A Perfect World”, the encapsulation of Shadow’s genius in five minutes. The loops are laid down in a clear way – it’s in many ways the calmest track on the album, and the reason why the album was often mistakenly grouped in with the Trip-Hop movement – and you can take your time dissecting each loop, focusing on each sample, trying to figure out where they began and ended, and what kind of songs Shadow could have possibly found them in.
The album opens proper with “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt”, a slow-building epic constructed on a hopscotching piano loop coupled with a crumbling-skyscraper boom-bap-beat, providing the base for the layering of the track – the stolen dialogue, the soaring choir, the funk bass and chicken-scratch guitar, the cascading bells – all swirling together as Shadow uses the sampler to juggle the beat like four people at the same time. The playful “Organ Donor” is the most obvious, simple example of the capabilities of this incredible machine; built almost entirely from one short passage of music, and cut and pasted in a hundred different ways to create a new one, it stands as another clear illustration of what is actually going on here. As you listen to the album, you start to realize that every single one of these sounds came from somewhere. None of them were created, save for the bits of dialogue on the untitled and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks” interludes. And the songs are whole, even full, not skeletal in any way. The swinging beats of “Changeling” and “Mutual Slump” clang and scatter, splashing all over the blank canvas. In the former, the cracks and crashes reverberate across the enveloping hum of the bassline and layer after layer of sighing strings, synthesizer washes, guitar fuzz, and who knows what else. In the latter, the racket forms most of the track, with its floor-tom-on-steroids acting as the low end; Shadow fills the leftover space with the melody from Björk’s “Possibly Maybe” (the most recognizable sample on the album), squealing free jazz horns and flutes, and frantic breakdowns.
Now, it’s not like no one had worked magic with a digital sampler before – De La Soul had pioneered the use of the Akai on 3 Feet High & Rising - but Shadow was making an album entirely out of samples, from scratch (no pun intended), and 100% from the original vinyl (no CDs!). As his base, the drums on Endtroducing… are so amazing and ridiculous and sick, that when I first heard the album, I remarked to my brother that this guy was the best drummer I’d ever heard; all his beats are like the best of John Bonham collected. I felt kind of stupid when Ian told me that he didn’t actually play the drums, that all the beats were cut and pasted from existing albums. The album is so seamless, I was understandably floored. When Shadow made the album, it was just barely at the beginning of home recording involving the desktop computer. Being at Automator’s studio, he got to see the future Dr. Octagon and Gorillaz producer testing out the earliest versions of Pro Tools. But Shadow stuck to his MPC60, which at the time worked with 3.5 floppy disks. So, no computers, no 2” reels of tape and mega-studio equipment – just a couple turntables, a sampler, hundreds of records, and dozens of floppies strewn about, each one full of Frankenstein parts for this puzzle-like masterpiece.
This is not the first time I’ve tackled Endtroducing… in this type of forum (though I’ve never gone to these lengths). Like a handful of the albums on this list - Loveless, 3 Feet High & Rising, Rated R - I previously wrote a review of this album for the original Cut Shallow website back in 2002. My original write-up hinged on what was my initial opinion of the album, which is that it seemed to me to be more a piece of art to be appreciated than a collection of music that presents a pleasurable listening experience. I, like more than a few writers before me, used the world ‘collage’ a lot to describe Shadow’s compositional skills. I have to dispute all of this now though, as over the years, this album has enriched my life to such a huge degree specifically through the music that it contains.
Endtroducing… is indeed a wonderful musical display, one that is not just a piece of craft, but a work full of passion and devotion to music itself, and especially the underappreciated corners that the sun never hits. The spacey funk of “Naplam Brain” is pulled out of the netherworlds of forgotten early 70’s swampy Southern Rock, crusty acid-damaged R&B, and pretentious Art Rock; and just as it thinks it’s going to get its point across, Shadow flips the schizophrenia switch, mutating it into the drum solo of “Scatter Brain”. It’s amazing to think in these terms – a drum solo on a digital sampler – but that is why this album represents so much about the promise of modern computer music. There is no shame, nor a lack of artistic skill or excitement, in creating what is basically an update of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” mixed with something along the line of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, all by “pushing buttons”.
An epic piece like the 9-minute “Stem/Long Stem” does not get written let alone recorded if the artist doesn’t have a passion about their music. It’s a symphonic, cinematic monster of a track, worked into a panic repeatedly by swollen string figures and some of the most brutal percussion you’ve ever heard (not actually played on drums); it’s so aggressive that it needs a breather. Shadow breaks by sewing in a piece of “Organ Donor” (before you’ve even gotten to that song, so you don’t even realize that it will visit you again) to shake things up, only to swell up again, this time with less of a percussive assault, but with no less drama brought by these stranger-orchestras fronted by homeless classical guitarists. Without even intending to do so, Shadow understood the sense of exhilaration and spectacle filmmakers look for in a score, because the song remains his most requested for use in film and TV.
Most everyone likes music, a lot of people love music. Others are obsessed. And yet, still more are consumed by it. DJ Shadow is consumed by music. I know this feeling; my friends might laugh at me for writing this, but what they don’t understand is I’ll never find a way to verbalize to them what it feels like to me. Most of my friends fit into the two former categories; a few of them would likely be in the third. I only know a couple people that I’d put into the last group along with myself (my brother would probably be one). To me, music is a transcendent encounter; it produces bodily reactions that I cannot explain, reflexes of emotion. Furthermore, for me personally, I am a creature of rhythm. My favorite part of almost every kind of music is the percussion. This is why I probably hate that most of Hip-Hop today – twelve years on from when Shadow asserted that it “sucked” – has abandoned the drums, instead content to get by with digitized kicks, handclaps and snaps. Where are the fuckin’ snares??? The Shadow knows – they’re on every dusty piece of vinyl in every second-hand store, musty basement, and garage sale across the world. And it’s that dust and damp smell that informs this album. Shadow’s obsessions led him to only the choicest bits for his massive project. This is where I tell you to call this album a collage is so misguided. A collage implies a sense of randomness that is nowhere to be found on Endtroducing… To listen to the two parts of “What Does Your Soul Look Like” presented here, you just know that they were composed with great care. Shadow has called the entire 4-part work (found on Pre-Emptive Strike) his “depression masterpiece”, and the pieces he chose to weld and splice together echo his emotional state. Parts 4 and 1 are both overcast jazz, beats rolling and swinging lazily, their bass fat and round and warm, giving room for the horns to…not cry full-stream, but more sob in their drinks. Stray vocals from far and wide float in like patrons to Shadow’s pub, each with their own sad story of life or love or the road or all three. What Shadow has done on these songs, and indeed on this record, what he has dreamt and then orchestrated, is closer to a musical quilt. You can picture him in tiny, dark, hot studio, huddled over the Akai sampler, piecing hundreds of errant sounds and beats and melody lines and whatever together, stitching each one to the larger whole of that particular song. It’s a truly awe-inspiring work, masterful execution, but not just craft. Endtroducing... is run through with heavy emotion, soul and sweat from hundreds of forgotten artifacts frankensteined into a true love letter to music itself, one that will one day be hard to find in those second-hand stacks, because I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to give up their copy.
01. “Best Foot Forward” [interlude]
02. “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt”
03. “The Number Song”
“** Transmission 1” [interlude]
05. “What Does Your Soul Look Like Part 4”
06. [untitled interlude]
07. “Stem/Long Stem”
“**Transmission 2” [interlude]
08. “Mutual Slump”
09. “Organ Donor”
10. “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ‘96” [interlude]
11. “Midnight In A Perfect World”
12. “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain”
13. “What Does Your Soul Look Like Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit”
“**Transmission 3” [interlude]
"Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt" [live at Coachella 2007]
"The Number Song" [live in London, 2002]
from the Live! In Tune & On Time DVD
"Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)" [live in London, 2002]
from the Live! In Tune & On Time DVD
"Midnight In A Perfect World" [video]
- BONUS: "Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt" [audio]
- BONUS: "Changeling" [excerpt; live at the 2006 O2 Wireless Festival]
- BONUS: "Changeling" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Stem" [single edit - fan video]
- BONUS: "Mutual Slump" [fan video]
- BONUS: "What Does Your Soul Look Like part 1 - blue sky revisit" [audio]
- BONUS: DJ Shadow talks about his MPC60 sampler that he made Endtroducing on