by: Michael Shields
Twenty years ago today DJ Shadow released Endtroducing, one of the most audacious and innovative albums ever birthed…
In the 2002 film Scratch, a film about hip hop DJ’s and turntablism, DJ Shadow (born Josh Davis) is introduced as the “King of Digging.” “Digging,” short for “digging in the crates,” refers to the combing through of milk-crates, stacks, or boxes in search of vinyl, attempting to unearth a jewel. The film finds DJ Shadow in the basement of Rare Records ((Featured on the cover of Endtroducing.)) near his hometown in Sacramento, surrounded by walls and accumulations of records piled in every direction, lurching about like a mad scientist in his laboratory. “This is my little nirvana,” DJ Shadow states, genuine and dead serious about his art form. He talks about the heapings of records about him in a wistful way, suggesting of the “promise” they may hold. This potential he speaks of came to fruition in a brilliant work of art entitled Endtroducing, DJ Shadow’s extraordinary first album, which was constructed from the records pulled from this dungeon of vinyl.
DJ Shadow went on to describe the stacks of records he sat amongst as “sort of like a big pile of broken dreams.” Yet, these splintered ambitions he was referring to were resurrected to a whole new life, functioning as the backbone to Endtroducing, an album meticulously crafted entirely out of samples. When Endtroducing ((The reason it’s spelled E-N-D at the beginning was because DJ Shadow viewed Endtroducing as the final chapter in a number of singles that he had previously released.)) dropped, the soundscapes DJ Shadow composed were like nothing the world had heard before, and the genius behind it subsisted in the intricate manipulation of the assorted source materials, stitched together with spoken-word and comedy passages, break beats, and scratching. Endtroducing was all about the details, an elaborate pastiche that had the capacity to floor the listener time and again with its genius.
In an interview with NPR in 2012, DJ Shadow explained the process that propagated Endtroducing, comparing sampling to a collage, stating “It’s taking little pieces from here, adding it to little pieces from there, as many different disparate elements as you can find, and making something totally new out of it. Literally down to, not just the drums from one record, but the snare from one record, the kick from another record, the bass line or part of a bass line from another record, putting it all together.” DJ Shadow, in Eliot Wilder’s 33 1/3 book about Endtroducing, further explained his creative mindset: “When I sample something, it’s because there’s something ingenious about it. And if it isn’t the group as a whole, it’s that song. Or, even if it isn’t the song as a whole, it’s a genius moment or an accident or something that makes it just utterly unique to the other trillions of hours of records that I’ve plowed through.”
Endtroducing was a labor of love for DJ Shadow. He began working on it in 1994, utilizing, amongst other locals, Dan the Automator’s home studio lovingly christened The Glue Factory. Although Endtroducing is DJ Shadow’s first album, he had been in the game for over five years at the point of its release, putting out samples, making beats for other artists, and generating a plethora of remixes. Thus, DJ Shadow was a fully maturated artist prepared to make a statement with Endtroducing. Summoning from all genres, from jazz to rock to psychedelia to funk to heavy metal and beyond, Endtroducing was a hat tip to all the music he unearthed that inspired him, or as he put it, “Part of what I was trying to do on Endtroducing was really tip the cap to all the different people that came before me that inspired me.” Within the confines of the thirteen tracks, some pulsating haymakers, others moody mindfucks, DJ Shadow samples over 90 albums, from artists such as the Beastie Boys, Bjork, Organized Konfusion, Stanley Clark, Nirvana (UK), Bjork, and the Alan Parsons Project, just to name just a few.
In all respects, Endtroducing puts the listener through the ringer. It’s a roller coaster ride, one that commences thoughtful, as it creaks to its peak with the hypnotic, looped piano melody and gummy drumbeat of “”Building Steam With a Grain of Salt,” which ushers in the campaign. Through to the closing track, “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit),” which subdues you into a trance-like state leaving you wondering what the fuck just happened ((Endtroducing closes with the words “It is happening again,” a soundbite from The Giant in Twin Peaks.)), Endtroducing subsists as a unique beast, one that cannot be placed neatly into a box, try as you may. Hip hop, trip hop, soul, funk – all labels that on their own do not do justice to this eclectic work of art. It’s an album that has its own ecosystem, one that is both ominous and lively, as foreboding as it is hopeful. And unto today, there is nothing that exists that sounds anything like Endtroducing.
In the Fall of 1999, a few friends and I jumped into a beat up old Jeep Cherokee and set sail on a six hour drive from the mountains of Appalachia, where I lived at the time, towards Baltimore, Maryland. Choosing a school in a remote part of Virginia lent itself to long journeys in order to see the sort of acts that didn’t bother with the college circuit. The occasion for this venture was to catch a glimpse of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s Brainfreeze Tour. Commencing as a mix tape, Brainfreeze consisted of two lengthy mixes, entitled Uno and Dos, where old soul and funk 45s were spun and cut together amounting to one of the most soulful dance mixes ever conceived.
That evening, in a tiny overpacked club full of die-hard turntable heads, Cut Chemist donned the stage with a somber look on his face. Letting the crowd down easy, Cut calmly explained how all of the 45s that belonged to him necessary to perform the show had been stolen from him the night before. Cut was visibly broken, and the crowd began to follow suit, brought back to life only when he announced that DJ Shadow was about to bring the noise. Using the 45s from Brainfreeze he had in tow and records he employed for Endtroducing and Preemptive Strike and beyond, DJ Shadow was poised to present a sort of Best-of exhibition highlighting both his expansive collection and his freak of nature talents. Not to be left out, Cut Chemist took up position at the soundboard and used his nimble fingers to provide an entrancing light show for the performance, while DJ Shadow put on what I can only describe as a master class in beat-juggling and scratching. I have never seen anybody work turntables like that, leaning into each cut and transition with unfathomable precision and conviction. That evening was the the first time I heard “Organ Donor,” live, the frenetic apex of Endtroducing, and I’m still in awe of the feeling that overtook my body as DJ Shadow brought the classic to life. The slow build that defines the track sent shivers down my spine and all the changes, which I knew absolutely from the many hours I spent with the album, tore through my body, as DJ Shadow toyed with the audience, slowing the pace to a near stop, and then patiently building the pace back up until it reached a frenzied fever pitch, leaving the room convulsing with electricity. To that point I was in love with ”Organ Donor,” but until that moment I never knew its exact power. And I also didn’t fully understand, until that moment, the momentous abilities of DJ Shadow – undoubtedly one of the greatest DJ’s to ever cut it up – and Endtroducing remains his masterpiece, proof positive of his unparalleled brilliance.