Six Degrees of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing
It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it's not. It's the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we've deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
It doesn't take long for Endtroducing to show its hand. It happens during the second track and first real piece of music. "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt," DJ Shadow titles the composition, and that tells you something straightaway that he likes Charles Mingus, probably, but also that he considers himself an alchemist. Not simply in the sense that he sampled all his music (apart, on this album, from a few... voices from friends, such as Gift of Gab's on "Midnight in a Perfect World"), but that he wanted to create something else, something of its own, that supercedes its details. But the real point of no return occurs several minutes into the piece, when the drums start buckling. They skitter and scatter, playing some new, impossible time signature seemingly every bar, and far from a cluttered display of technique, it's breathtaking and immediate. It's also Shadow's way of showing us just how ambitious he, and this album, really both are. Music criticism's most-abused word of the '90s may have been "cinematic." Endtroducing earns that title because it's so obsessively detail-oriented. Tracks that seem to detour into blind alleys come out the other side transformed see the multiple shifts of the nine-and-a-half-minute climax "Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain," or the way "The Number Song" shifts between differing kinds of party anthems. In some ways, "Changeling" is the ultimate Mo' Wax record, full of rapt attention to tone and feel: keyboards like chalky liquid, cymbals that reverberate roundly. And the sequencing is so immaculate that even the sour-grapes 42-second "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" ("It's the money") fits snugly into its surroundings. Not a lot about this album seems to show its age. It's too accomplished to argue with.more »
The company DJ Shadow keeps has always been as important as what he does on his own. Long before Endtroducing, Shadow was making beats for his friends who rhymed and frequently rhymed well. SoleSides Greatest Bumps displays the early work of Shadow and his Bay Area crew Chief Xcel and the Gift of Gab (aka Blackalicious), Lateef and Lyrics Born (aka Latyrx), and Mack B. Dog as they twist... their genre in ways small and large alike. The humming Latin-tinged rhythm loop underpinning Lyrics Born's solo "Send Them," from 1994, is as show-stopping as any of Shadow's more ornate set pieces, and the MC's casual gruffness makes a nice contrast. Together, the crew would later go on to form the Quannum label, with Shadow taking a less hands-on role, but here he gets rough and ready with "Entropy" (1993) and "Hardcore (Instrumental) Hip Hop" (1996), both the kind of thing any MC might want to jump on.more »
Of course an ad man helped change the course of hip-hop. Rappers advertised themselves, and Steve Stein, along with his friend audio engineer Douglas DiFranco, began their accidental recording career advertising for hip-hop itself. They remixed G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid's "Play That Beat Mr. DJ" as Double Dee and Steinski, turning in the splice-a-thon "Lesson Mix," won the contest by a mile, then added two more "Lessons," as well as a plethora... of later material in the same referential vein. Steinski's "The Motorcade Sped On" worked the JFK assassination into hip-hop, like an answer to Keith LeBlanc's Malcolm X-sampling "No Sell Out." Later, "It's Up to You (Television Mix)" lampooned the Gulf War. The piece de resistance of this double retrospective, though, is the second half, Nothing to Fear an hour-long mix Steinski made for BBC's Solid Steel that is his ultimate statement as a cut-and-paste artist.more »
Here's how DJ Shadow ended the liner notes of his debut album: "All respect due to James Brown and his countless disciples for inventing modern music." This double-CD, the fifth in a long and well-deserved series that gathers the A and B side of every seven-inch Brown recorded under his own name, comes smack in the middle of the period when he was doing the heaviest invention. It kicks off with... the elastic "I Can't Stand Myself," recorded not with his longstanding road band but a white Cincinnati group called the Dapps, featuring bassist Tim Drummond, who helps J.B. out by walking a little, and went on to poke along with Brown's peer and opposite, Neil Young. The grooves on Volume 5 are springier and less frantic, as on "Licking Stick Licking Stick" and the epochal "Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud" (featuring backing vocals by mostly white and Asian schoolkids), not to mention "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," which is wound so tight you could never notice that almost no music is being played.more »
THE DEFAULT SCENE COHORT
The term "trip-hop" came to us courtesy of Mixmag's Andy Pemberton, and a lot of the artists it would be applied to came to resent it. But a non-pop-leaning approach to hip-hop production was always a good idea, and while the first albums by Tricky (in 1995) and DJ Shadow (in '96) don't have a lot in common beyond that basic idea, they do make for complementary listens. Tricky's grooves are far... less changeable (and sexier), Shadow's more free-limbed and filled with surprise. What they share is an otherworldliness that bespeaks its time, which seemed full of endless possibility and an odd dread both at once.more »