LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #15 - Albums that defy genre #3 - Endtroducing... - DJ Shadow

It’s week three of the albums that defy genre series. I trust it has been of some enjoyment to you readers; it certainly was enjoyable writing it, considering two of the three albums named here are some of my all-time favourites. But we have reached week three, and thus, gravys and lentilmen, we have come full cycle, completing this little series in a similar fashion to the way we started it – with an album packed full of samples. In fact, except for miniscule vocal contributions on three of the songs, this album is created ENTIRELY from sampled material. A gimmick? Perhaps. But gimmick or not, DJ Shadow’s debut masterpiece Endtroducing….. is a stunning musical achievement. Not only that, but it completely defies categorization.

DJ Shadow, as the name suggests, is a DJ, and this album is made solely with an Akai MP60 Mk II sampler and a turntable. As a result, it has its basis in hip-hop music, and this carries through into some of the songs. Scratches are heard from time to time, drifting in and out of the mix like the ebb and flow of the tide. But to say this music is truly hip-hop is like saying Joyce’s Ulysses is just a story. In the same way that Joyce manipulates and innovates within the English language, so DJ Shadow manipulates and extends the possibilities for innovation in the genre of hip-hop. Traditional hip-hop breakbeats are heard only at the slightest of times, rapping is almost completely absent and the album is filled with layer upon layer of avant-garde and forgotten samples from a variety of sources. Psychedelia, jazz, interviews, movie soundtracks, samples from horror films and forgotten hip records all are utilized by DJ Shadow into an eclectic collage. Familiar sounds drift in and out of the mix, tiny little pieces of other songs that somehow manage to form into another separate piece of music despite being from completely disparate source material. And as well as the samples work together, it cannot be said that this album sounds like anything else. Is it hip-hop? Is it rock? Is it funk? No one answer is correct, yet no one answer is incorrect, as elements from all of these – and more besides – are used. It’s music within music; ironic, satiric, transcendent, chaotic, beautiful and visionary. The postmodern ethic compressed into a compact disc.

Endtroducing….. begins with a short, humorous introduction called Best Foot Forward. Using mostly vocal samples from hip-hop tracks and virtuosic turntable skills, we’re introduced to the artist. “Guess who’s coming?” “DJ Shadow” “Back again!” “Who is he?” “Just your favourite DJ savior!” Arrogant maybe, or is it self parody, or parody of music in general? Hmm.

Building Steam With A Grain of Salt. Wow. Amidst the delicate piano sounds we can hear the pops and scratches of the vinyl from which the sample was taken. Once again we are reminded of the artificiality of the music. We hear a voice, sampled from a drum teacher: “I’m a student of the drums. And I’m also a teacher of the drums too.” And then he laughs. The laugh is looped. What is this? Is this music? What’s going on here? And then the drums kick in. And then the voices. My word. Did these all honestly come from separate songs? The drums break down in the middle, performing some crazed, dissonant, off-beat fills before adding more separate samples, quieting down for a moment and drawing all of the samples together for a hugely layered, sonic crescendo. Other worldly, genre-defying, mind-bending, Building Steam With A Grain of Salt is truly resplendent. At the end, the voice we hear at the start returns. This is as close to DJ Shadow’s ethic as we’re ever likely to hear: “And I would like to able to continue to let what is inside of me, which is… which comes from all the music that I hear, I would like for that to come out. And it's like, it's not really me that's coming; the music's coming through me.” Looped. “The music’s coming through me The music’s coming through me The music’s coming through me…”

The Number Song is probably the most traditional sort of hip-hop track on here. The bulk of the song combines the feedback from the opening of Metallica’s Orion with a breakbeat and some hip-hop samples of countdowns; “1, 2 3, hit it!” etc. Scratches occasionally pop up, and large portions of the song are dedicated to sampled drum breaks. Changeling, the following song, completely defies categorization. Led by a swirling, loose drum beat, DJ Shadow layers a bassline and many glorious ambient textures to create a piece of music that is entirely his own, despite the fact that none of the material is original. The song progresses as a dream or a fantasy; mysterious and ever changing. Imagine that sort of tired, overwhelmed feeling you get when driving home in the early hours of the morning after a glorious night with friends. It’s trippy and overwhelming.

Endtroducing…. was meant to be listened to as a whole. Several of the songs fade into each other, themes and samples that are heard in one song may be heard several songs later and there are short, linked interludes, going by the name of Transmission 1, 2 and 3. These three all feature a crackled voice from the future, sampled from John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness. Disjointed and eerie, these three connect certain songs and add to the album’s enigma. You’re probably wondering how an album made from samples of completely different pieces of music could have a common theme or atmosphere, but let me tell you now that Endtroducing….. is as coherent and focused as any album. Dream-like and harrowing, each song stands with ease alongside its neighbour.

What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4) is based around a heavy bassline and jazzy drumming, bringing in a faint saxophone, guitar chords and processed electronic vocals. It’s paranoid but with a trace of optimism: think of Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, stoned out of his mind, driving along a desert road hallucinating, and you’ll begin to get an idea of the aura this song conjures. Stem/Long Stem is similarly schizophrenic, with an optimistic guitar and eerie strings, a harrowing organ and frantic drum breaks. Mutual Slump, based on a Bjork sample, also covers the two ends of the spectrum; combining loud drumming and a violent vocal sound with ambient textures and a girl reading some of her innermost thoughts in an innocent voice. Yet the album isn’t all this unsettling: there are moments of humour. The brilliantly titled Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96 loops a funk beat for about 20 seconds before the answer to the statement – “It’s the money!” appears. (I should mention that the songs on this album, despite mostly being instrumental, have the most fitting names on any album I’ve ever come across) Another short interlude features a man speaking about a girl called Maureen, and how her five sisters “all got ass.” Organ Donor humourously combines classical-type organ with a drumbeat. And there’s room for optimism, too. What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit) is a glorious horn-driven anthem complete with some turntable scratches and soft chanting. But perhaps the album’s crowning glory, and one of the best songs in recent history, is Midnight In A Perfect World.

I can’t express how appropriate a title Midnight In A Perfect World is. It’s just that. DJ Shadow combines a ghostly female vocal with a repetitive drumbeat, an eerie piano loop and layers of textures. A vocal sample drifts in and out, a turntable is scratched, an almost silent guitar appears. Mere words cannot do this song justice, but the title Midnight in a Perfect World is as close and succinct a description as one is ever likely to get. It’s like a perfect dream; a moment of clarity. The album ends as unsettlingly as it progresses, with the repeated phrase “It is happening again,” sampled from the TV series Twin Peaks, and ending with an abrupt cut-off.

There is, strictly speaking, a name for the genre of this album: it’s called Turntablism. However, as the name implies, this categorization merely describes how the music was created (i.e. using a turntable) rather than what it actually sounds like. Truth be told, no words can truly describe what Endtroducing….. sounds like, because it doesn’t sound like anything else. When Monty Python first exploded into the public eye in 1969, they sought to create a new style of humour that was brand new and that defied categorization. However, their plan somewhat backfired, as the word “Pythonesque” was coined to describe their humour. In a similar fashion, I propose that the only word used to adequately describe this album is “Shadowesque.” Nothing before or since this album has sounded anything like it, nor, I’m sure, will anything ever. And I would be hard pressed to find a more visionary, fascinating, torturous and artistically supreme album than this in all of recorded music. Endtroducing….. is simply a must for anyone with a set of ears and an open mind.

Words - Adam

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