DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was released in November of 1996, almost eight years ago. It would have been impossible, at the time, to predict the extent to which Endtroducing would prove an undeniable touchstone for so much of what followed. The existence in the year 2004 of an album like Diplo’s Florida is a living testament to DJ Shadow’s enduring influence.
Did instrumental hip-hop even exist before 1996? Well, yes, of course it did. You can trace the evolution of the DJ as a distinctive and individual artistic force inside hip-hop to as far back as The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. But 16 years after that initial achievement, no one had produced anything remotely resembling Endtroducing’s singular achievement. Of course, there were precedents, and canny listeners could draw parallels between DJ Shadow and the Bomb Squad’s explosively layered production work for Public Enemy, DJ Premiere’s idiosyncratically melancholic contributions to Gang Starr, and Meat Beat Manifesto’s abrasively dense industrial sample sculptures. It is a testament to just how good Endtroducing was that it was hailed as a crowning achievement by the indie hip-hop community, the dance community, and even the rock community. If you ask anyone to characterize DJ Shadow’s work, they could call it hip-hop, big-beat or trip-hop… or merely good old fashioned psychedelic rock & roll, depending on their temperament. All these answers would be more or less correct.
And it is a direct function of this willful eclecticism that, eight years after the fact, there are still DJs and producers trying to crack Endtroducing’s genetic code. Earlier this year saw the release of RJD2’s Since We Last Spoke. RJD2 is perhaps the best of the turntable rockers to follow in DJ Shadow’s wake, and this album was perhaps the best attempt in this anomalous genre since DJ Shadow’s own sophomore album, 2002’s The Private Press. There are others, such as the endearingly peripatetic Avalanches, the whimsical Kid Koala, and the melancholy Mr. Dibbs, but to date the number of artists working in this highly demanding and specialized field has been small. We can add one more to that list, however, with the arrival of Diplo.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Florida, Diplo offers a debut album that is a sonic tribute to the mystery and murk of the so-called Sunshine State. Although he settled in Philadelphia as a member of the acclaimed Hollertronix DJ team, he obviously retains a fascination with the swamps. Sure enough, the album’s cover features Diplo rising out of the muck of a primeval pool, somewhere in the deep recesses of primal wilderness that lay near Florida’s heart.
The album begins with a short introduction, a sonic calling card that channels the awesome density of a distant swamp alongside the echoing breakbeats of abstract hip-hop. A lonesome guitar is playing in the background, a single sad scale repeated over and over again.
“Big Lost” is full of frenetic violin samples fighting for supremacy against booming bass drums and thunderous organ riffs. It’s discord and unease set to a 4/4 time signature. It’s what I imagine modern jazz combos would play if they happened to be filled with the criminally insane. “Sarah” continues in this vein with a menacing psych-rock riff slumped over the turntable while a staggered breakbeat and out-of-tune piano try desperately to keep their spirits up. There’s what appears to be a soft-jazz mariachi breakdown about halfway through the track, but the scary parts return in time for the track to dissipate into the inky black ether of the swamp.
“Into The Sun” begins with a litany of backwards-playing samples evocative of the Beatles’ “Revolution #9”, until the snapping techno booty beat kicks in and the uncredited female vocalist begins to sing. It’s a haunting, dense evocation of crippling melancholy. “Way More” is an interesting track, built around a frenetic, stuttering hard Detroit techno beat and garlanded with very slight atmospheric accouterment.
“Money Power Respect” is a satirical attack on the commercial excesses of modern hip-hop, with a snapping crunk bass pattern set under strange electronic flourishes. The centerpiece of the song is a sample of children’s dialogue concerned with “selling candy, getting money”. If I didn’t know better I’d say that Diplo was trying to say that going after monetary rewards in hip-hop music is somehow childish... he’s obviously not a fan of the Big Tymers.
“Diplo Rhythm” is the album’s most unusual track, which is all the more confusing when you consider that it was also the album’s first single. It’s built atop a grimy UK garage percussive pattern straight out of the More Fire Crew, even down to the multiple layered video game samples. There are guest raps by Sandra Melody, Vybz Cartel, and Pantera Os Danadinhos (the latter of which appears to be in Vietnamese or some other language I do not recognize). It’s an odd track, not one I expect to hear banging the walls at the local club anytime soon (even though it very well could).
“Works”, at almost nine minutes long, is one of the album’s centerpieces. Instead of DJ Shadow’s very well conceived songcraft, Diplo seems to prefer to rely on far more abstract structures. Melodies and rhythms drift in and out of focus like specters in the night. Eventually, the track dissolves into totally unmoored noise—the subtle and distant hiss of a vinyl record playing in the dark night.
“Indian Thick Jawns”, featuring a guest rap from P.E.A.C.E., is an impressively stolid song, with a repetitive Indian tabla contrasted with the traditional hip-hop beat and P.E.A.C.E.‘s laconic flow. “Summer’s Gonna Hurt You” is a fittingly grand finale, featuring an uncharacteristically uplifting minor-key melody combined with a gradually building beat and sparse vocal samples to create a sublimely affecting composition.
Diplo has crafted one of the year’s best debut albums, an ambitious ode to the art and craft of sampling. Although the dominant note in his work is a melancholy one, Diplo retains a firm grasp of the emotional subtleties of such willfully anachronistic music. The crackle of a well-aged sample and the mournful vibrato of a distant organ playing in the darkness can’t help but conjure up sweetly despondent imagery. There are secrets waiting in the dark swamps of Florida, lost and found in the muck and grime of a hidden past.