25 Masterworks: DJ Shadow – Endtroducing…..
My Spin on Masterworks: 20 of 25
Arguments that lament the lack of “original” ideas in music are unbearably boring, and have been so for decades. Yet it’s a point which is raised again and again without fail, usually with the commenter making their claim as if he/she is dropping a bold new truth bomb.
Yes, things are very different in terms of how we process music as a culture. Genuine, head-turning surprises seem to be far fewer in number today, especially given we are granted the gift of hindsight. Thanks in no small part to the breadth and accessibility of music in its current environment, Big Releases are no longer unanimously hallowed as they might once have been. But that’s a given factor of changing times; we aren’t all going to reverentially gather around the stereo on the day of an album’s release like it’s Sgt. Pepper. As for the music itself, down the decades, the landscape has consistently relied on familiar patterns, whether they are being saluted, cribbed, recycled, warped or subverted. Popular phases will come and go in waves, ceaselessly revived and reborn.
But the true “originality” of a work is often far too nebulous to define with any degree of accuracy, and it’s stultifying to dismiss the worth of a song or album simply because it does not offer anything objectively new. The shape and substance of a work of art is measured afresh by each individual beholder; some personal significance can be discovered while perhaps more subtle intentions of the artist at hand go unnoticed. One step beyond this, who is to say that we can’t meddle with existing art to produce something else entirely? After all, it can be easy to the point of comical, since the means to build fresh works with existing materials is boundless. As an example, take a poem from a much-loved legend. Delete half the lines and replace them with your own. Splice it with lines from another poem – a pre-existing one or something you’ve penned yourself. Fiddle with the sequence. Turn the page itself upside-down and transcribe the weird new alphabet. To use a clunky platitude, put your mark on it. In most instances, it’ll be highly likely that what you emerge with would be deemed culturally inferior to the source material. But by having an active hand in reworking something, you have not only made a personal statement, but honoured the accomplishments of the creator. Even if your intentions were disparaging, by exhuming the material of someone else, you are expanding and continuing their legacy, validating the worth of their work.
DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is defined by this spirit. It pushes for innovative new forms while being almost entirely composed of sounds that existed previously, many of them for years. DJ Shadow – aka Joshua Paul Davis – spent years scavenging record stores, yard sales and musty basements of the West Coast in his obsession to discover forgotten treasures, and in his music, he grants each of them new life. The fascinating documentary Scratch shows the extent to which he reveres the work of artists who put their imaginations to record, and in his restless cratedigging, he has unearthed the work of countless lifetimes. Many of the records he celebrates were discarded in their own time, dissolving into faint memory or total obscurity. But with Endtroducing, DJ Shadow holds them up to the light once more, building a fascinating collage of long-lost snippets which bind together brilliantly, each piece colliding with another to spark fresh energy.
Gaudy horror soundtracks that whiff of messy rendering are dusted down and stripped back until a strange beauty glimmers through. Tumbling boom baps are layered beneath chaotic drones and cameo appearances from detached voices: dialogue from left-field cinema (the chatter that ushers in ‘Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain’ is pulled from bonkers 1986 sci-fi western The Aurora Encounter), refrains from artists both contemporary (Beastie Boys) and time-worn (The Turnettes), and all sorts of other curios. While the sum total features barely a note of his own composition, in piecing together Endtroducing, DJ Shadow nurtured an undeniably original creation. It may have roots firmly planted in the past, but Endtroducing’s various branches grow and twist into shapes that are all its own.
Listeners with greater knowledge than I will certainly be able to perceive the deeper nuances in DJ Shadow’s work, and to more astutely appreciate his technical skills and the influence that his work has had across sampling, instrumental hip-hop, and beyond. But when it comes to the pure enjoyability of the album in of itself, Endtroducing is a wall-to-wall delight. For all its breadth, the album’s flow is steady and enticing, reminiscent of a hazy, half-remembered dream: ghosts of the past regenerated in one long, textured suite. Swept into this journey are dramatic epics (the sci-fi freakout ‘Stem/Long Stem’), ethereal urban ambience (‘Midnight in a Perfect World’), and landslides of hip-hop debris (‘The Number Song’ and ‘Mutual Slump’, both of which collapse a mass of source material into queasy, oppressive heaps).
Whether his cuts are audacious or subtle, DJ Shadow’s fine-tuned approach births genuine wonders. ‘Napalm Brain-Scatter Brain’ intently builds to towering heights with such apparent ease that it’s hard to believe it’s founded on a sequence of disparate elements. It sounds as organic as the work of Jon Hopkins while never hiding the crackly artifice of its various components. Suitably for its title, ‘Changeling’ mutates from one form to another, its spacey swirl interweaved with passages of beefy slow jams, skittering drones, and heavy-lidded jazz. Alongside these daring works are some more bizarre little non-sequiturs: who is the “beautiful girl” with “eyes as big as jolly ranchers” who gets a mention during the album’s untitled cut? Why are the album’s three ‘Transmission’ pieces so strangely unnerving? Above all, how does it all fit together so well?
DJ Shadow’s own apparent philosophy is teed up in a sampled interview with George Marsh that surfaces during the exquisite ‘Building Steam from a Grain of Salt’. As the track draws to a close, Marsh – an esteemed jazz drummer and lecturer – announces that “I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me […] which comes from all the music that I hear; I’d like for that to come out. And it’s like, it’s not me that’s coming. The music’s coming through me.” This notion of an artist merely serving as a vehicle for the work often comes across as pretentious twaddle, but with DJ Shadow’s careful resurrection of Marsh’s words, and supported by the song’s breathtaking melange of sound, it washes as wholly genuine. Literally, with his work, DJ Shadow takes lost treasures and finds a new form of communication, blazing new trails with instruments of the past.
Endtroducing is a paean to sound and the craft behind it; an album built with love, care, wisdom and wit. Despite being made with minimal tech, it more than holds its own in the modern fray, even beyond sample-based work. It can be spun comfortably next to Pink Floyd, Public Enemy, Four Tet, Portishead, Radiohead… most anything. It’s a thrilling listen for casual audiophiles, as well as offering a fount of long-lost gems for seasoned cratediggers, who can spend hours and days on end hunting through its many layers and non-sequiturs to find each single lift and tip of the hat. And no matter how little new material was conceived in its production, Endtroducing is an album as original as any you’ll ever hear. It’s a diverse, inclusive, and entertaining trip into weird and wonderful places, guided by your favourite DJ saviour. Dig in.
Posted on November 12, 2016, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 25 Masterworks, Building Steam with a Grain of Salt, Changeling, DJ Shadow, Endtroducing..., Joshua Paul Davis, Midnight in a Perfect World, Mo'Wax, Sampling, The Glue Factory, The Mountain Will Fall. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.