The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is that all existence leads to suffering. Replace the word “suffering” with “sampling,” however, and you have the First Noble Truth of deejaying. Where the Buddha’s path to enlightenment is to end suffering by ending one’s desire, the DJ’s path to enlightenment is through the sample, of layering it, tweaking it, delaying it, scratching it, looping it—any technique that will ultimately lead to one badass cut. From Steinski on up through Greg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, the art of the sample is one that has been refined over time, sometimes descending into pure anarchy a la the Evolutionary Control Committee, or straight-up hedonism (see: Fatboy Slim).
DJ Shadow is neither anarchist nor hedonist. On the one hand, his approach to sampling is most certainly a liberal one, and on his magnum opus Endtroducing…, there are literally hundreds of samples, looped over one another, with little random bits of sound in-between the melodic combinations. Yet unlike Girl Talk or Jason Forrest, there is no erratic barrage of breaks and minimal Top 40 rips, but rather carefully structured sonic strata, building new creations which ultimately come to be brand new songs, with their own melodies and identities, built entirely out of other songs.
Shadow, a.k.a. Josh Davis, also puts his sense of humor on display frequently on Endtroducing…, sprinkling curious, sometimes hilarious, voices throughout. One man says “Maureen’s got five sisters…they all got ass,” while the answer to 30 second G-funk track “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ’96” turns out to be “it’s the money!” And let’s not forget “Best Foot Forward,” which pieces together various voices from hip-hop records to introduce the man behind the decks, “just your favorite DJ savior.”
It’s important to note, however, that Endtroducing… is neither a dance record (though a handful of tracks might get a room moving), nor a scratch record. Shadow doesn’t concern himself with hot dog turntable acrobatics here, but rather the intricacies of samples in a melodic interplay. The vast majority of sources on Endtroducing… are obscure records pulled from Davis’ massive library (vinyl hunting, he proves, is most definitely an art), though the likes of Björk and Tangerine Dream are represented among hundreds of others that you likely haven’t heard of, or couldn’t identify within the dense tapestry.
What Shadow crafts on Endtroducing… is absolutely breathtaking. The resulting record is more like listening to OK Computer or Dummy than a DJ Mix, as one can easily become lost within its haunting soundscapes and stunning, crackling orchestrations. “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” pits the sound of a musician speaking over a melodramatic piano, with otherwordly voices and funky wah wah guitar soon taking over, like a faster, more intense cousin to Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By.” “The Number Song” is one of a handful of faster, more identifiably hip-hop sounding tracks, with more scratches blazing over a surprisingly well-placed Metallica sample and a number of voices spliced in to count up to 10. “Changeling” is a bit new age, a bit jazz, a bit ambient, and a track that makes my brain melt every time I hear it. Its seven minutes and 52 seconds open up various nooks and crannies into which one can be very easily lost, and never want to be found. Atmospheric synth opens the track, while a funky bass and a sublime waterfall of guitar takes over. When this song comes on, I don’t want to do anything else but soak it in. I mean, it’s playing as I write this, but I’ll have to play it again afterward, as to ensure I hear every last note.
The most famous track on Endtroducing… is “Midnight In a Perfect World,” which was released as a single, and even had a remix with Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab dropping doomsayer verses over breaks of silence in between melodic bridges. The original, however, is the essential version, a magnificent hip-hop symphony. It’s graceful and beautiful, and 12 years later, still sounds more advanced than anything being released today. Though I’m not always one for absurd bouts of hyperbole, I will say without hesitation that Endtroducing… changed the way I listen to music. There is nothing quite like it, and neither rock music nor hip-hop approaches what Shadow does here. Endtroducing… is in a class all its own.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
David Axelrod – Songs of Experience
Portishead – Dummy
DJ Food – Kaleidoscope
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.