The enormous critical success and cult following which DJ Shadow’s seminal debut Endtroducing….. attracted has been a double-edged sword for its creator over the subsequent two decades. The first ever album to be constructed entirely from samples, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it came to so completely encapsulate the hazy, smoky trip-hop that became fashionable in the late ‘90s that it’s been an millstone for Josh Davis (aka. Shadow himself), or at least the public’s perception of him. His adoring fans have never quite allowed him to make that necessary artistic evolution, always instead demanding more of Endtroducing….. and never truly accepting what he has delivered over four subsequent LPs, forever holding it up by way of comparison.
As a result, Endtroducing….. is to its sub-genre what Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue was for modal jazz, or Boards Of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children was for ambient IDM: a symbol, a shorthand, ‘if you must own one record, own this’. Davis himself has always been taken aback by just how adored it became, but has denied any pressure that derived from it. “I have a healthy enough respect for the lineage of the music and how rare it is that you can connect with an audience,” he told Gigwise in 2011. “If that will always be ‘the record’ then so be it, that’s cool.”
Growing up in San Francisco, Davis fell in love with the ‘golden age’ of hip-hop from both coasts: De La Soul, Paul’s Boutique, Public Enemy, Pete Rock, Eric B & Rakim. At the start of the ‘90s, he and a group of friends and like-minded associates formed the Quannum collective, producing a string of now-highly collectible singles with the likes of Blackalicious and DJ Krush. With his own 1993 single, ‘In/Flux’, he had helped to form the embryonic sound of trip-hop, alongside the likes of Massive Attack on the other side of the Atlantic.
However, his first full-length album, recorded for British underground label Mo’Wax, was to be the release that established Davis’ reputation. What made Endtroducing….. such an evolutionary milestone was that it deployed samples in order to create an entirely new musical universe, as opposed to other crate-digging enthusiasts who tended to simply build in one, two or more loops and vocal samples in order to create party-starting anthems. Davis saw hip-hop as an innovation in and of itself, without the trappings of politics, fashion and nostalgia that were often associated with first-wave hip-hop and the gangster rap of the early ‘90s.
Shadow’s universe was one where the listener was invited to feel different, more complex emotions. Furthermore, because Davis arranged and layered all these elements (horror movie pianos, slowed-down funky breaks, snatches of soul vocals) so expertly, the music simultaneously felt both shockingly new and yet somehow familiar, half-remembered from some kind of dream state. It is music where genre boundaries are blurred to the point of irrelevance, and where texture and ambience reigns supreme.
Ranging from spectral, midnight moods on the longer, sparser tracks where Davis displays his arrangement skills (‘Changeling’ and ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ being perfect examples of this) to shorter, busier cuts in which he gets to explore his quickfire technical skills, Endtroducing… is a showcase of every facet of its creator’s deep fascination and reverence for its subject matter. On ‘The Number Song’ and ‘Organ Donor’, he maintains a link with the sound of his earlier and more upbeat recordings, while keeping them of a piece with the rest of the record – possibly due to the fact that it was made almost entirely with one sampler, the Akai MPC60.
The listener is ushered into the experience after a short intro with ‘Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt’, built around a fragile piano loop sampled from cult composer Mort Garson. A sampled interview with jazz drummer George Marsh features the words “I’m a student, but I’m also a teacher”, which perfectly encapsulates Davis’ own approach to the music, which is a portrait of an eternal, monk-like apprentice thoroughly grounded and expertly capable, but still devoted to perfecting and honing his craft.
The wonderful ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’, a piece of atmospheric hip-hop featuring jazzy samples from David Axelrod and Pekka Pohjola, and the clipped hi-hats of the bassline-free ‘Organ Donor’ represent the most well-known songs on the record to the unacquainted listener, as they’re occasionally found on television soundtracks. The epic centrepiece ‘Napalm Brain / Scatter Brain’, a moody nine-minute beauty that gradually builds in some slowed-down Billy Cobham ‘wah-wah’ funk guitar over some rock hard beats, while ‘Stem / Long Stem’ is an industrious flurry of beats that never loses sight of its central structure, keeping the listener’s attention rapt.
Two tracks entitled ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like?’, the first a feather-light requiem combined with a prominent bass figure and blurred Kraftwerk sample, and the second built on a heavy, hazy beat and covered in smoky sax and light turntable scratching, are both like funk tracks slowed down to molasses-thick grooves. Davis’s moniker of ‘DJ Shadow’ felt beautifully appropriate – he is never front and centre of these songs, but his presence unmistakably looms over them. All the diverse moments are tied together with the same underlying buoyancy, and, unusually for what is essentially mood music, the listener is always compelled to focus on what’s happening rather than let it simply wash over them.
It was received particularly well in the U.K., where Davis had already established himself as one to watch, with Endtroducing….. eventually hitting the Top 20 and being certified gold for selling more than 100,000 copies. His reputation then began to pick up in his native America over the subsequent years, to the point where his albums started becoming minor Billboard hits, partly on the back of more melodic efforts like ‘High Noon’, released in 1997. Psyence Fiction, another superb record Davis made in collaboration with British producer James Lavelle under the name U.N.K.L.E., arrived in late 1998 and raised his profile still further.
Ever since, he’s released records in precise five year intervals. 2001’s The Private Press, which got a warm reception but has never been as fondly regarded as Endtroducing….., is an intriguing companion piece that introduced vocal elements for the first time. 2006’s The Outsider, 2011’s The Less You Know, The Better and 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall all focussed on live guest vocals to varying degrees of effectiveness. But barring something extremely unlikely, Davis will forever and rightly be remembered for his debut full-length record, which is one of the most essential albums ever released.
Influenced: Massive Attack, St. Germain, J Dilla, Boards Of Canada, Four Tet, Nightmares On Wax, The Avalanches, Bonobo, Danger Mouse, Madvillain, Gold Panda, Mount Kimbie, Clams Casino
Influenced by: Kraftwerk, Eric B. & Rakim, Beastie Boys, Aphex Twin, Orbital, David Holmes, Cut Chemist
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Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, classic album, cult '90s, DJ Shadow, Ed Biggs, Endtroducing, Josh Davis, Mo'Wax
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