Retro Review: Endtroducing…..January 9, 2011
Summary: DJ Shadow (real name: Josh Davis), a quiet, unassuming guy from California’s academic capital, channels his depression and sense of mortality through a gajillion old records, interviews, and film clips to make what would become a cornerstone of alternative hip-hop.
- Note: Eliot Wilder’s 33 1/3 entry on Endtroducing….., consisting of a series of conversations Wilder had with Shadow, is a pretty comprehensive look into Shadow’s backstory and creative process. If you’re interested in digging more into the backstory of this album and its creator, I would recommend picking it up.
- Endtroducing….. is comprised almost entirely of samples from 90 or so different recordings (though only 7 are credited in the liner notes) The only non-sampled elements on the album come from the rappers Gift Of Gab (of Blackalicious) and Lyrics Born (of Latyrx). Both rappers also happen to be members of the Solesides crew, of which DJ Shadow is also a member. Gift of Gab chips in a few raps that Shadow scratches up in “Midnight In A Perfect World.” Lyrics Born (who is also the guy on the right side of the album cover) provides a few spoken word clips on “Untitled” and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96.”
- Shadow samples some films as well, including Silent Running, Blade Runner, and Prince of Darkness (that’s where those “Transmissions” on the album come from), as well as the Twin Peaks TV show. It’s kind of interesting given that VHS was still the dominant entertainment medium in 1995. I just wonder what kind of rig had to be set up to extract the sounds. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that info)
- In the 33 1/3 book, Shadow tells Wilder about how he suffered from depression over the course of making this album. Suffering can often be a boon for an artist, and Shadow turns it into some ominous, scary chillout music. “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” features this deceptively simple blend of piano, basic hip-hop drums, and a chorus combined into what ghosts might listen to in the haunted ruins of office buildings. “Stem/Long Stem,” begins with what sounds like a harp and a few chimes and builds from there. The intermittent double-time rock drums and crazy keyboards are chase scenes in a horror movie. The mellower sections are foreboding like when the last teen is hiding from the killer after one such chase scene.
- Another inspiration Shadow cites is driving along the highways in California early in the morning when the sun is coming up. The more positive songs have a zen, hazy quality, like when a marijuana user has a moment of clarity on the nature and purpose of the universe and things feel right. “Changeling” best encompasses this feeling by employing elements similar to “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt,” only with happier-sounding chord progressions and blurrier vocal samples. “Midnight In A Perfect World” reminds me of walking through suburban Chicago or Ann Arbor at night in the winter. Everything is covered in snow, which is reflecting the street lights and making everything feel brighter. Most people are inside because it’s so cold, so it’s very quiet outside. It’s a good time to be reflective.
- The spoken word bits are the album’s best kept secret. When I hear the stoned lady talking about Xanadu and Darth Vader on “Mutual Slump,” I don’t know whether to laugh at the non-sequitur or get nervous when she suddenly mentions “five feet under.” The intro of “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain” consists of a lone recording of a redneck-sounding guy inviting someone in for a game of chess. The original source is probably innocuous, but without any music to define it, it feels weird and foreign. The story about getting arrested on parking tickets that pops up about 4:25 into “Stem/Long Stem” comes from a stand-up recording by the late Murray Roman. It may have been funny, but Shadow’s recontextualization turns it into the scariest thing you can hear.
- One way that DJ Shadow was a pioneer among producers was his use of samples that fell out of the funk/soul/jazz continuum that made up the bulk of the hip-hop producer’s sound pool. Even though artists like Tone Loc and The Beastie Boys sampled rock records long before Shadow began work on Endtroducing….., those were higher profile samples. It’s very doubtful that even the seasoned listener would recognize most of the sounds this album. This album was put together by diving into piles of records no one else wanted. Wilder writes that Shadow’s use of old, forgotten records mostly by people who no longer have careers is like rescuing lost souls from old civilizations. Death pervades this album, but not always in a scary way.
- Getting into this album requires patience. It took me a few tries before I really appreciated it beyond the beats. More than half of the songs on the album are more than five minutes long and favor slow, repetitive builds as Shadow adds and removes loops from the mix. Luckily, they are spread out over the album and are mixed with palatable party cuts like “The Number Song,” which feature more conventional DJ scratch moves on top of the ambience.
- After getting into this album enough to where I ended up listening to it twice in a row, the only song I still don’t care for on the album is the Giorgio Moroder-sampling “Organ Donor.” Now, “Organ Donor” is probably my favorite song by DJ Shadow, only in its full length version that appears on disc 2 of this album’s deluxe version, or on the Shadow singles compilation Preemptive Strike. Shadow essentially makes a kick ass organ solo through creative sequencing and then throws sharp beats and scratches on top of it. On Endtroducing….., it’s cut to 1:55 and never really builds to the point of being interesting. Instead it gets swapped out for a cheesy g-funk keyboard meant to symbolize the conventional g-funk style of mainstream hip-hop on “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96.” Now, Shadow opens both songs with the same sample, and by juxtaposing them together in the track list, he makes a gambit in an attempt to be clever. I just don’t care for it or feel that it ages well.
- The variety of themes and sounds in the album and within the individual songs makes for great listening on its own, but difficult background music for chilling out or for dancing. This is the kind of record that asks for the listener’s attention, and that may limit its appeal.
Conclusion: Endtroducing….. is considered a key album in both alternative hip-hop and chillout electronic music. The sheer number of samples DJ Shadow creatively combines makes for incredibly dense and rewarding listening. It’s alternately intriguing, inviting, warm, cool, cold, manic, and scary. Getting into it may take a few listens, but I can assure you it gets better every time you crank it up.