DJ Shadow crept into the public consciousness in 1996 with his debut album Endtroducing. By that point he had already issued a dozen or more singles, but with his first album he hit the mainstream running. Suddenly, people outside of DJ culture were grooving to his brand of jazzy hip-hop. It was unlike anything heard before, and remains one of the few records that could be called a masterpiece. It may be because or in spite of this that it has taken six years to see the release of Shadows’ second record, The Private Press. But don’t call it a comeback. In the ensuing years since Endtroducing, he has worked on several projects, including soundtracks (Dark Days), underground mixes (Brainfreeze and Product Placement), as well as the Mo’Wax all-star record, U.N.K.L.E.. His energies refocused, Shadow spent 15 months creating his new album.
The Private Press opens (and ends) with a spoken word from 1951, a woman reading aloud a diary or letter. The sound of crackling vinyl fills almost as most of the aural space as the words, and is a fitting introduction/ending to the record. The term private press refers to those old, homegrown records people used to make for themselves (the recent Langley Schools Music Project being a perfect example). DJ Shadow made this record in the same fashion as his past ones, sampling only existing music (save for a live vocal from his Quannum mate Lateef on “Mashin’ on the Motorway”) to create his musical collages. In his own words: “I take a very strictly-delineated traditional hip-hop approach, which is from vinyl. The way I look at it is, if you can’t find it on a record, keep looking. Because it’s out there somewhere.” Or more simply, “Reconstruction from the ground up.”
The ultimate example of this is “Monosylabik”, and almost seven minute jam created out of only a three second, two bar sample of an obscure song. With tempo and beat changes, this is sound manipulation at its height. Adding different effects, using both the original sounds, marrying them to themselves as completely unrecognizable blips, beats and speeds, Shadow shows his mastery of the art (and why it takes 15 months to put together a record like this. His attention to precision and detail is evident on every track. “Fixed Income” layers everything from throbbing bassline, piano and glockenspiel, to some beautiful, fluid guitar work over a simple rock beat. While a track like “Giving Up the Ghost”, with its percussive effects and beat could have been an Endtroducing outtake, songs like “Blood on the Motorway” and “You Can’t Go Home Again” could not. Both of these sound like DJ Shadow channeling 80’s pop and British New Wave. “Blood” has the grandeur of a Depeche Mode or Alphaville ballad, as heard through Shadows’ filters. “You Can’t Go Home Again” recalls dancefloor synthpop, and sounds like it could have been made in 1985 or 2005. Shadows’ touch can apparently make anything sound ultra-modern.
DJ Shadow is a musician’s DJ. He obviously has an ear for melody, and his reconstruction of sound is impeccable. He always seems to know what fits where, without throwing it all at you at once. His use of little vocal cues and other found sounds adds a cinematic feel to everything, while still making you shake your ass. He eschews typical DJ leanings (house beats, endless repetition), which puts him on another level. But he still knows what gets people moving. The Private Press may not be Endtroducing, but it’s not a fair comparison at this point anyway. This is DJ Shadow version 2.0, and he wouldn’t want to repeat himself in the first place. The Private Press is a more diverse collection of styles and sounds, and still surpasses anything else out there. The only problem is that it is so gratifying an experience that hopefully it won’t be 2008 before we can compare it to his next work.