Private Pressure: DJ Shadow Makes the Personal Public
Talk about spreading yourself thin.
First, you release a landmark track, “In/Flux”, that more or less inspires countless beat junkies and critics to claim you invented trip-hop. Then, you follow it up with a landmark hip-hop album, Endtroducing—an endlessly diverse collection of found sounds, sampled beats and breaks, Twin Peaks in-jokes, Lenny Bruce recontextualizations, Joni Mitchell mind trips, introspective soundscapes and more funk than George Clinton’s bathtub—which goes on to not only explode the genre itself but also revolutionize the way people perceive the way musicians will create music in the 21st century. Next thing you know, your name and face is everywhere. Yeah, shit gets deep.
So you kick back with your hometown crew (named Solesides) and reform your ethic and style, creating a new identity (Quannum—named for the countless energies you feel that you all can bring to the table), a new label, a new CD, and a reunion tour that blows minds and wallets alike in the process. You also release some of your earlier stuff on a collection called Preemptive Strike, which is equally amazing (especially the four-part journey into the mind of sound called “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”) and bookends perfectly with what is now the already classic Endtroducing.
After that feat, you go back to the essence and help out a friend who gave you a break back in the day (James Lavelle, founder and DJ for Mo’ Wax Records). And while he may be the ideas man, you yourself go on to score the mix for a ferocious piece of sonic diversity called Psyence Fiction under your friend’s moniker, U.N.K.L.E. Replete with percussive chaos (“Drums of Death, Pt. One”, featuring old-school badass Kool G Rap), music scene-megastars (Beastie Boy Mike D, The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft), moody orchestration, pounding instrumentals (such as “Unreal” and “Celestial Annihilation”, the pick of Psyence’s litter, in my opinion) and more cinematic allusions (Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, etc.) than you can shake a stick at, Psyence Fiction is a multifaceted beat collage and a critical success. Business is booming.
Meanwhile, some dude who’s been living underneath New York City comes from outta nowhere and asks to borrow music from Endtroducing for his film, Dark Days, which goes on to win endless acclaim and almost an Oscar. Holy shit. Add that to an underground mania that’s been building for an all-45s set you’ve been clocking with Jurassic 5/Ozomatli DJ Cut Chemist—called Brainfreeze—the success of which causes you to head back to the studio and a word-of-mouth, jam-packed international tour for a similar experiment—called Product Placement—and you’ve got yourself one busy-as-hell DJ.
The accolades pour in relentlessly, and the pressure builds and builds. You’re not sleeping, your phone is blowing up and everyone is waiting for that next album, wondering at your next move, stacking the expectations higher and higher.
Let’s change the voice.
Private Press, indeed: both terms course through DJ Shadow’s latest disc like an engineered mantra, touch on everything the disc has to offer which, although it may not carry the mind-tripping gravitas of either Endtroducing or Preemptive Strike, is still quite a lot. From his first found sound—this time in the form of “Letter From Home” (to which, Shadow asserts, you can never return), a wax session gleaned from a family that has experienced a late-night journey to his beloved Bay Area and decides to commit the experience to recorded history—it is clear that Private Press is instilled with an insistent the-personal-is-artistic philosophy. It is also implicitly or indirectly (does it really matter?) aimed at defying expectation altogether. After all, you can’t please everyone all the time, especially when you’ve got a much larger audience and a much bigger label.
But you’ve got to please most of them, which helps explain the familiar atmospherics, the resolute pounding, the off-tune guitar picking of what feels like the disc’s finest track, “Fixed Income”. A track on par with Shadow’s classic “High Noon”—albeit less frenetic—or “Dark Days Main Theme”, “Fixed Income” is a groove-soaked step into Shadow’s more introspective sonic legacy, even down to its lonely, truncated voice sample (“It’s dark”, someone seems to lament as the coolest surf guitar noodling Shadow’s dug up recently reverbs in the background). And if “Fixed Income” covers Endtroducing‘s “Midnight in a Perfect World”-like beautifully morose territory, the track that follows it, “Walkie Talkie”, is “The Number Song”-like turntablist bragfest (“I’m a bad mutherfuckin’ DJ / This is why I walk and talk this way”) showcasing Shadow’s impressive deck skills, just in case everyone just thought he was all about the mood music.
Similarly, “Giving Up the Ghost”, an old track Shadow has used extensively in one form or another in his live shows—and one that all of us who downloaded it off Napster way back in the day are glad as hell see on a disc finally—feels like it fits into the niche he’s created on his former albums. Its relentless rhythm, boosted by an addictive melody and some visceral snare samples, gets the heart rate up just enough that the following song, a dreamy, sinuous lilt called “Six Day War”, seems like the perfect counterpoint. One of Private Press’ standout tracks due to its extensive use of pre-recorded vocals (something Shadow hasn’t really implemented on the majority of his solo work, save for Psyence Fiction), “Six Days” is ominously encoded as “6 Day War” on some players due to its sample of the similarly titled tune from pschedelic jazz quartet, Colonel Bagshot. But its lyrical content describing the stomach-sinking dread of coming war and strife (“Negotiations breaking down / See those leaders start to frown / Tomorrow never comes until it’s too late”) so seamlessly brushes up against its optimistic, fluttering score that the actual context of the track sinks deeper into mystery.
And Shadow’s no stranger to these deft contextual maneuvers: Endtroducing ended with Twin Peaks’ Lynchian White Lodge giant droning, “It is happening again” over the sound of a record needle bumping up against the dead groove of its final song. Innocent on the surface, yes, but that sound signalled a ritual phenomenon within the television series that inevitably led to demonic possession, role-shifting (Laura Palmer’s own father turns into said demon), and, eventually, murder. It’s all about the pair of ears intercepting the message—where one innocent listener hears only an album ending, another savvy one hears a monstrous beginning. Such is the power of a DJ in command of the culture’s countless texts.
Which is why it’s refreshing (to some, unsettling to others, which I guess is his point) to catch Shadow pulling back from the brink of seriousness in the latter parts of Private Press, all the while just as cleverly pulling the humor card. After checking out the disc’s inner graphic of Shadow’s massive tape collection, you can’t help but crack an in-the-know grin as “Right Thing/GDMFSOB” kicks off with a sample of some Brit confiding that his “tape collection gets bigger every minute”, that he finds “it very hard to fit the music to the mood and there’s nothing worse than to make the wrong choice”. Until, of course, he finds “just the right thing”, and initiates a runaway train of break beats, synth lines and quacks, and even the cheesy Mr. Spock “pure energy” sample that made Information Society’s “What’s On Your Mind” an ‘80s dance hit. And keep laughing, because the curse words encased within the track’s acronym (“GDMFSOB” = “goddamn mutherfuckin’ sonofabitch”?) explodes all over the hilarious “Mashin’ on the Motorway”, in which Shadow’s Solesides/Quannum buddy, Lateef, pisses off every driver on the freeway, right after he cuts them all off, that is. A frenetic bass line and drum pattern, honking horns, streams of profanity, all the result of “hostility” emanating from those who won’t just let you “cut all the bullshit out” of your life.
Just like Lateef’s narrator, Shadow is looking for that “seam” to grab the fast lane and just let his own talent and ideas “burn big”, and just like Robert Plant’s scream at the end of “Mashin’ on the Motorway”, Private Press carries a personal, entertaining and ultimately primal purging in its playlist. Indeed, in “Blood on the Motorway” (the result of too much mashing?) he takes nine-plus minutes to sort out the individualistic mess he’s made in the previous tracks. “Be still now / You are at peace / You cannot be harmed / You will not suffer / Breathe in the healing love of the universe” might play corny on a track that sounds like it might have been lifted right off of Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, but after the multidimensional (that is, human) pieces he’s just laid down or sent through your headphones, he feels that a lengthy rumination on betraying his “ideals” is overdue.
Which are ultimately Private Press’ coolest gifts: thoughtfulness, contemplation, diversity and entertainment. After all, Shadow’s artistic credibility exploded faster than fireworks, engendering pressures different from those found in the pop music world, where sophomore self-referentiality exercises among artists such as ‘N Sync (No Strings Attached? Ok, we get it) and Eminem (The Eminem Show? Like I said, we get it) is par for the course. Trying to negotiate the underground and the popular, the personal and the political, the private and the public is no easy task for a guy who could spend all day mining beats and crafting sound collages whether he was paid to do it or not. And if those who find (as they have) “Blood on the Motorway” trite, the slice-and-dice masterpiece “Monosylabik” ponderous, or “Six Days” corny, maybe they were meant to be shaken loose from Shadow’s tip in the first place. “Blood on the Motorway” is not “Stem/Long Stem”, just as “Fixed Income” is not “Midnight in a Perfect World”—those Endtroducing tracks were just tastes of a greater indvidualistic striving for expression, not that expression’s schematized template.
No, DJ Shadow is pressing for privacy in a public way (the only one he’s left with), just as the family he’s sampled—who are sending their personal wax letters from home—are now relating their near-tears or heat-attracting experiences to the general music-buying populace. How strange it would feel to be one of those narrators that Shadow has sampled today, to hear their diary again after all these years and realize that countless millions are experiencing it, too. Wouldn’t lines, expectations and judgments blur considerably more than before?
Like I said, Private Press, indeed. Shadow has ironically withdrawn further into himself the more public he’s become. Which is a good thing, because he’s a brilliant artist whose bad ideas are better than the majority of the good ideas littering the musical landscape. And as long as he keeps sending these weird, personal and very funny letters from home to the world, we’ll be the better readers because of it.