19 Years Ago: DJ Shadow Spins Old Vinyl Into Postmodern Gold With ‘Endtroducing’
By the time 1996 rolled around, hip-hop’s golden age of sample-based production had already begun its decline. Five years had passed since Biz Markie was sued by Gilbert O’Sullivan over a piano riff in "Alone Again" and the stakes in sampling were altered forever. But it would still be another year or so before the dirty south stylings of No Limit and Cash Money would resurrect the 808 drum machine and synthesizer beats that continue to dominate to this day. While hip-hop was still a dominant force in popular music, electronica had only just begun to make waves in the U.S., mostly through pop-leaning hits imported from the U.K. This confluence of events struck in such a way that allowed a young man from California named DJ Shadow to release Endtroducing – an instant classic of sampled music that altered the course of both electronic music and underground hip-hop.
Josh Davis had already been doing production work under the name DJ Shadow for a number of years prior to releasing Endtroducing. His first release was a remix for the hip-hop crew Lifers Group, but the B-side contained something more indicative of his future. “Lesson 4” is a tightly crafted megamix of funk and rap samples created as a tribute to '80s underground legends Double Dee and Steinski’s and their sample-based collages, "The Lessons."
To say Shadow's "Lesson 4" is a common touchstone at that point in hip-hop history would be an understatement. While it was in no way a hit, the track – combined with his other megamix records, productions for MCs and self-made cassette mixes – he was able to catch the ear of noted U.K. label Mo’ Wax. The company would go on to release Shadow's music on compilations of music that was called "Acid Jazz," as well as his first true solo single, “What Does Your Soul Look Like." Davis’ songs fit in with the Mo’ Wax vibe, but also maintained a close affinity to hip-hop producers like Pete Rock and the Bomb Squad that allowed him to stand out in what was quickly becoming a heavily copied movement known as “trip-hop”. Mo’ Wax was rooted in electronic music, which helped Shadow’s music reach a larger audience than a rap label might have by releasing instrumental hip-hop. The results were obvious when Mo' Wax released Shadow’s full-length debut in 1996.
From glancing at the album cover, Endtroducing did not come off like an obvious classic. The cover features a blurry photo of shoppers browsing a used record store and the liner notes include the statement: “All respect due to James Brown and his countless disciples for inventing modern music.” However, once album opener "Best Foot Forward" comes booming through speakers, the album's brilliance was immediately indisputable.
Using a rudimentary old sampler (an Akai MPC60) and a stack of even older funk, jazz and soul records, DJ Shadow produced an album that pulled from the past while somehow feeling fresh and futuristic. Songs like “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” have an emotional narrative that eclipse much music written and played by human musicians, let alone music repurposed by sampling vintage records. Davis flipped hip-hop production techniques with the arrangement ideas of artists like David Axelrod and discovered a way to create something totally new. Genres like jungle, rock and spoken word make appearances either as sample sources or in the resulting compositions alongside the obvious genres, but the results are never easily categorized.There's a dark party funk within the essence of "The Number Song" and "Organ Donor" while dense collages of samples create lush cinematic soundscapes in "Stem/Long Stem" and "Midnight in a Perfect World."
The reverberations of Entroducing are numerous and far-reaching, stretching across many genres. It was one of the lynchpins of the mid-'90s electronica boom in the U.S. along with hit albums by the Chemical Brothers, Orbital and the Prodigy. This helped bring about renewed interest in longtime sample-based artists like Coldcut and helped tie that movement into the underground hip-hop of Shadow's contemporaries like Cut Chemist – then DJ and producer for Jurassic 5. These combined fanbases gave rise to a full-fledged music scene based on sampling and turntablism proliferated by the likes of DJ QBert and Kid Koala. Shadow was also soon recruited by Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle to do production for Psyence Fiction – the 1998 debut by his project UNKLE – which put the DJ before an even broader audience.
But beyond the direct musical influence of Endtroducing, its success also marked the beginning of the mainstreaming masses begin to dig for vintage records. Prior to that, scouring through stacks of old vinyl in used record stores was an activity mainly for audiophiles and rap producers looking for obscure samples. The album artwork and subsequent interviews with Shadow led many young fans to begin their own journey into dusty bins looking for lost gold. The renewed interest in these old records, especially those famously sampled by Shadow and others, reverberates to this day in the current fever pitch of reissues and compilations of old vinyl-only tracks for today’s audiences.
DJ Shadow’s own path has slowly led him away from the styles he helped popularize with Endtroducing. During the past two decades, he's moved away from strictly samples to instrumental production. And his performances have escalated from tiny club shows to massive multimedia exhibitions. Despite all that, there's still much interest in his earliest work and most definitive album – an unexpected breakthrough with everlasting appeal.