Fifteen years ago DJ Shadow released his debut long-player, Endtroducing... It is a cut'n'paste instrumental hip-hop album; it effectively created that subgenre, all but creating an actual subculture. It wasn't music from another world - it was music from so many other worlds.
I heard the album for the first time in 1997 - I was working late nights in a music store and it was perfect shop-music for that time. Customers would mooch about and loaf through vinyl, tapes and CDs (all three formats were still for sale - and regularly selling; we even stocked cassingles then; remember them?). I didn't buy a copy of the album because I had been in the habit of purchasing a lot of the favourite in-store albums of that time. Then I'd take them home and never listen to them. I just made sure I got to listen to DJ Shadow at work. Often. Nobody was complaining - not me, not the other staff members, not the customers.
Flash forward to 2002 - I was back working in music retail. The industry was robust: tapes were a thing of the past, vinyl was sold only at dance music specialists and second-hand shops. DVDs were keeping music stores afloat, just as the compact disc had fooled a generation and a half to replace their tapes and vinyl the DVD was, at that time, a new format; people flocked to buy old movies they'd never seen, to replace worn VHS copies of movies and concerts; to buy documentaries they would watch once but heartily recommend.
DJ Shadow was a name I remembered; he had produced the first Unkle album and had appeared in the documentary Scratch (a must-see music-doco). He'd also scored the documentary Dark Days, a beautiful movie about transients living in subway tunnels; it's grim and gritty but a rewarding experience, possibly emotionally overwhelming and Shadow's score plays a huge (integral) part.
And then of course he released the follow-up to Endtroducing - 2002's The Private Press. So there was plenty of reason for me to reconnect with the amazing debut album.
I liked The Private Press (still do) but really its main achievement was that it served as the ultimate reminder for me to actually buy a copy of Endtroducing...
DJ Shadow's debut still sounded fresh and I remember selling as many copies of Endtroducing (pretty much) as The Private Press. One album would be the introduction to the other. There were obviously a few fans coming in to buy the sophomore release but there were just as many impulse buyers who were talked into the debut, or who heard the debut playing in-store and bought that, returning later for The Private Press.
And finally I had my own copy of it. Once I bought one copy I couldn't stop. I started buying it, regularly, as a gift. And was reminded of so many of the sampled sounds; the foundations the album was built on. My rediscovery of this album would lead to my rediscovery of David Axelrod. It would remind me that I had loved so much of Sinead O'Connor's music - and it was time to listen to her again. It sent me back to some of DJ Shadow's obvious heroes (Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, Billy Cobham). DJ Shadow's debut album reminded me to re-engage with so much music that I loved; it introduced me to a lot of new (and old) music I now love.
The album was a touchstone. Any vaguely trip-hop, DJ-guided, instrumental hip-hop, nocturnal turntablist soul music is, to this day, compared with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing - often unfairly, sometimes incorrectly but it's almost always meant as a compliment, to both the record in question and to Shadow's masterpiece. It's a tough act to live up to - I would argue that it's proved an impossible album for Shadow to live up to. But he has created a masterpiece. If he had made nothing else he would deserve kudos for creating Endtroducing. Even when he makes albums as appalling as The Outsider it does little in the way of damage to Endtroducing's scope and legacy.
Endtroducing has long been a "desert island disc" for me - sometimes I think it's my favourite album ever; it's certainly up there with A Love Supreme and Nick Drake's Pink Moon and Love's Forever Changes and Dr. Dre's 2001 and Radiohead's In Rainbows and Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, Filles De Kilimanjaro and Sketches of Spain as well as Abbey Road and probably another dozen albums I regard as truly special. It's one of relatively few albums to carry its daunting critical weight proudly, to not buckle as a result. Sure, in the scheme of things, it's 15 years old - not 40 years old. But to my ears Endtroducing continues to sound fresh. I think it always will.
It's also an album that really answers the sampling-is-theft and hip-hop-is-rubbish arguments. It showed that there was more to hip-hop than just rapping, and it showed that there was more to sampling than just lifting. With Endtroducing, DJ Shadow actually built an album from scratch. He created something new from found sounds; he worked in some of his favourite, formative beats and pieces and layered in opshop trinkets. There are beats taken from prog-rock and hip-hop records, from jazz and funk and soul, from rock and psychedelic pop; from old soundtracks.
And it's a crafted work. The album repeats motifs, states themes; it hangs together conceptually, the flow is evocative, it feels like a journey in that sense we hope for and speak of when talking about the effect of a truly great album.
I've had a copy of the record (the actual vinyl that is) for a couple of years now. I've kept it sealed. But unlike most of my other sealed vinyl this was not about waiting for the joy of seeing someone else discover it - I didn't buy Endtroducing for any introducing - at least not initially. I bought it for myself. I knew that one day, at some time that I deemed the right stage, I'd sit and play it. By myself. Just me and the record. I'd fall in love with it all over again - the chance to work through it on four sides of vinyl would be like listening to it with fresh ears; a rediscovery of the album. Like the time I heard it again in a music store some five years after all but wearing the album out.
Well, just this past weekend was the time. I sat enthralled as DJ Shadow's Endtroducing worked through the room. There were flashbacks to the life I had as a student working part-time at nights in a music store; to the life I had as a manager of a music store rediscovering the album; to writing a review of the "Deluxe Edition" of Endtroducing when that was released (2005); to the time when I bought my very first copy of this album (on CD) and sat in a room alone listening to it. My mind blown, sure that I was listening to the greatest example of music-as-art - a scrapbook of ideas that is so powerful as a statement but also just drifts along at its own pace, never wanting to be anything more than one man's ideas for how a whole lot of old music could be newly sculpted.
And it's exactly that approach - the care and commitment as well as the feeling that this was done for (primarily) one person to be proud of, to rightfully claim ownership and show that sampling is an art-form; that one can play a sampler just as someone would a drum-kit or keyboard - that keeps me coming back to DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. It's an album I've shared with many over the years but one I also like to keep for myself too. If you know what I mean.
How do you feel about this album? Are you a fan? Have you liked other DJ Shadow music? And do you agree that this album - created from dozens of other albums, their sounds tweaked and looped, manipulated, stretched beyond immediate recognition - is a masterpiece; a creative collage that manages to make its own bold statement? Or is sampling always just ripping someone off?
Postscript: You'll be able to find the whole album on YouTube, via a series of clips to, er, sample. But let me get you started by offering one link. If you haven't heard the album before, start here. Tell me what you think.
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