[9 June 2005]
In February of 2002, Muzik magazine compiled a list of the “50 Greatest Dance Albums Ever”. Usually lists like this don’t age well in hindsight, and most of them are good for nothing more than the kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking practiced by amateur critics and bloggers. But while hardly perfect, Muzik’s list was something of a surprise in its reasoned and well-conceived approach the genre’s nascent history. It provided a general and wide-ranging overview of the emerging canon, and as such it also served as a useful primer for examining the field’s incipient critical range.
All but one of the albums on that list’s top-ten had been released since 1990 (the lone ancestor was, obviously, Kraftwerk). The ‘90s was an extremely fertile decade for electronic music, with the genre moving out from the fringes of underground clubs and novelty pop and into mainstream recording studios across the planet. Less a genre than an idiom (although it is often myopically referred to simply as “dance” music), the philosophy of electronic production and composition has become so widespread that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint any field of popular music which has gone untouched. It may not have conquered the American charts in the late ‘90s, but it was the final crest of a long wave which forever changed the way music will be perceived, created and analyzed… which is something.
So, where do you begin to understand this movement and these ideas? How do you begin to grasp a history that stretches back decades, from the invention of the turntable through to the creation of the first synthesizer on through the birth of hip-hop? Well, the number one album on Muzik’s list, their pick for the number one dance album of all time, was DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…
DJ Shadow—AKA Josh Davis—wasn’t the first DJ to create “instrumental” (non-rapping) hip-hop, or the first person to sample a record or even the first artist to win critical acclaim doing so. He had been around for a long time before the release of Endtroducing…, releasing underground mix-tapes and singles on James Lavelle’s MoWax label. The concept of the album was hardly unique, except in the respect that it was so damn good—a methodical and studied celebration of ideas which had been around for a while but had yet to be fully exploited. Davis came along at just the right time in history to make an impact, a time when an album like Endtroducing… could stand out because it exemplified the best of so many progressive trends in popular music. In terms of it’s immediate importance it probably can’t equal Nevermind or The Chronic, but in terms of its influence, its stature and its quality, Endtroducing… could lay a serious claim to being the most important album of the 1990s.
In 1920, Stefan Wolpe conducted a concert composed of eight phonographs simultaneously playing sections of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at different speeds. The invention of recorded music created the possibility of the medium of music itself becoming merely another instrument in the composer’s repertoire. Wolpe’s bizarre experiments (which had been presented, fittingly, at a Dada concert) were eventually synthesized by John Cage, who attended the 1920 concert and would later incorporate turntables into his own avant-garde compositions. Another few decades passed and the Beatles created a taped drum loop for their 1966 recording “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the climactic, psychedelic capstone to their opus Revolver. A little later the Silver Apples made a brief but fruitful career creating strange, otherworldly music with a hodge-podge of obscure electronic equipment, music that eerily anticipated the creation of modern dance music by two full decades. Kraftwerk emerged from Germany in the 1970s. Finally, when hip-hop exploded out of the South Bronx in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the turntable and the entire philosophy of electronic music had come full circle, by incorporating the theoretical possibilities of the turntable into a full-fledged pop movement. Scratching, looping and reversing records was no longer merely the realm of the avant-garde or stoned teenagers. Music had been rendered irretrievably plastic.
Once these ideas had seeped into the popular imagination, the field exploded. From Grandmaster Flash’s primitive but still evocative “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel”, to the cut-and-paste aesthetic of early industrial pioneers such as Throbbing Gristle, to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s ground-breaking My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, there was no shortage of people with ideas about where to go in a world that had suddenly been blown wide open. Public Enemy brought a dense and kinetic collage ethos to their multi-faceted hip-hop while Meat Beat Manifesto did the exact same for industrial house music. The advent and widespread assimilation of high-powered personal computers created the potential for experimentation and advancement to occur simultaneously across the globe and in every home. Soon, dance music and hip-hop culture were growing and mutating faster than anyone could imagine.
The two genres have always been joined at the hip by their common origins and mutual preoccupations, even if peaceful rapprochement has been rare. (How many remember the hip-house phenomena as more than a brief fad? How many wondered at how Eminem could claim with a straight face that “nobody listens to techno” when many of his own beats owe more to Juan Atkins than Kool Herc?) But they both embrace the same aesthetic: a totally malleable sound created by artificial means which allows the composer (i.e. the producer or DJ) to wield a much stronger conceptual sway over increasingly outlandish compositions. That both fields often fall prey to petty parochialism and false essentialism is no real surprise. It used to be that musical movements lasted centuries, but now new sounds are born, assimilate and die in the space of a media cycle. It’s a strange world, and it’s getting stranger every day.
Endtroducing… was a field report from the frontlines of a brave new world, a world which has now become slightly less strange but no less visceral. It would have been hard to rank it above similarly important albums by artists like Orbital, the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, New Order and Kraftwerk, but while each of those artists have produced albums which are perhaps the equal of Endtroducing…, there’s not a one of them I could in good conscience put squarely above it.
The album begins with “Best Foot Forward”, the kind of scratch collage familiar to hip-hop since Grandmaster Flash. All of forty-eight seconds long, it’s something of a feint in the direction of conventional hip-hop, a string of phrases and beats gingerly chopped together. But as soon as the introduction dies the listener drops from the world of traditional hip-hop scratching head-first into the melancholy “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt”. Built atop an eerie piano riff that brings to mind nothing so much as the theme to Halloween, monstrous drum breaks appear like thunderclaps on the horizon. The spooky atmosphere is only accentuated by the strange, seemingly random vocal samples which are slid into the song over the rapidly-mutating drum patterns. Soon a sinister, sensual funk bass has come in to match wits against the beat. Six-and-a-half minutes later the song dissipates, fading into the ether from which it emerged, and the listener is left breathless.
And then, just when you think you know where he’s going with this thing, you hear a B-Boy counting down to a breakdown which crashes through your speakers like a bank safe tumbling down a flight of stairs. “The Number Song” is easily as dense and funky as anything produced up to that date by the Chemical Brothers or Public Enemy, building a flawless party jam on the framework of the best funk buildup the JB’s never laid down—although, for all I know, it could very well be the JB’s.
“Changeling” drops down into a sedate break, which establishes a contemplative mood before slowly expanding outward, building by adding new elements and vocal parts, while slowly and subtly changing the existing drum and bass patterns. The various different parts go in and out until congealing into a sublimely spacey coda—not even Orbital could have topped juggling so many different diverse elements into such a convincing and cohesive structure.
Shadow constructs his records and songs with an exquisite eye towards producing a cohesive movement. “What Does Your Soul Look Like Pt. 4” serves as both a low-key interlude in the context of the album and a thematic sequel to the album’s last song, “What Does Your Soul Look Like Pt. 1 (Blue Sky Revisit)”. The entirety of the “What Does Your Soul Look Like” saga was actually published on the two-disc Preemptive Strike collection released in the wake of Endtroducing…, but the tracks included here are in no way harmed by the exclusion of Parts 2 & 3. Everything Shadow does is unified by common themes—structural similarities cast a light on hidden meanings, and disparate tracks are informed by a cohesive philosophy: melancholy, cerebral, intricate and strangely playful.
“Stem / Long Stem” is another track that plays like a miniature suite unto itself, with stylistic nods to the baroque musical movements of heavy metal. The juxtaposition of measured strings against hard, almost proto-gabber beats which weave in and out of the song creates a subtly menacing atmosphere of anticipation. Eventually the first part of the song (“Stem”) gives way to the second (the brief “Long Stem”), a brief homage to the ethereal menace of artists such as Tricky as well as a clever foreshadow of later developments.
After the exhausting virtuosity of “Stem / Long Stem”, we reach the sedate funk of “Mutual Slump”, with echoes of Dick Dale’s acerbic ‘50s guitar throughout. “Organ Donor” is uncharacteristically sparse, with a rapidly morphing organ solo offset by a loping breakbeat. “Why Hip Hop Sucks In ‘96” is the album’s most perfect distillation of Shadow’s satrical bent, featuring a pitch-perfect ape of mid-‘90s psuedo G-funk (the kind of George Clinton-biting beat most conventional hip-hop producers would have killed for back in ‘96) and three simple words proffered as an answer to his rhetorical question: “It’s the money”. Unfortunately, it’s every bit as appropriate in 2005 as it was in 1996—perhaps moreso. (But, as an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Shadow is hardly a humorless, backpack-wielding puritan: he’s said that Manny Fresh is one of his favorite producers, and if the Cash Money crew don’t epitomize the best and worst excesses of modern hip-hip, nothing does.)
“Midnight in a Perfect World” picks up the ominous synthesizer chords from “Long Stem” (creating another thematic bridge between different suites) and straps a sluggish beat and an almost-heartbreakingly sad vocal line on top of it. The result is perhaps the most perfectly realized composition on a record filled with masterful compositions—a master’s thesis on the art of building mood and emotional resonance through the judicious use of disparate elements.
“Napalm Brain / Scatter Brain” inserts a steadily-building tension as it expands slowly outwards from a steady break into an increasingly wild rock tone, adding psychedelic guitars and swooping ghost choruses while building the beat meticulously up from mid-tempo shuffle to an incredibly intricate breakbeat reminiscent of “Elektrobank”. The song climaxes and then deconstructs itself, the beats and guitars falling away and leaving only the gentle, sweeping synths.
Finally, the album concludes with “What Does Your Soul Look Like Pt. 1”, which brings everything to a close by providing the album a wistful and romantic coda. This track is essentially the model for what the Avalanches would create with 2000’s Since I Left You—light-hearted but touched by a serious melancholy informed through hard-earned experience. Just as “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” feels like the perfect track to start the album, laying out the album’s themes with the efficacy of a thesis statement, this feels like the only possible way it could end: with the joyous release of the tension that has been building since the first note of the first track.
The second disc in the Deluxe Edition presents a pile of rarities which, while inessential, still provide a fascinating look behind the proverbial curtain. “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” is presented without the vocal samples placed throughout the original, as is “Mutual Slump”—as good as those tracks are, it’s hard to imagine these supplanting the perfectly constructed originals. The Cut Chemist Party Mix of “The Number Song” is an excellent alternative version, which retains the hectic feel of the original while providing a more DJ-friendly context
The Cops ‘N’ Robbers mix of “Stem” features large chunks of dialogue excerpted from Michael Mann’s Heat (you know, the one with both DeNiro and Pacino). “Soup” is the “Why Hip Hop Sucks In ‘96” beat with no vocal bits. “Red Bus Needs to Leave!” is only two minutes long, but it’s a singularly impressive exercise in slightly off-kilter circus funk (if that makes any sense). The Extended Overhaul of “Organ Donor” is rightfully a classic, and while the original is great this version could be easily substituted.
The Gab Mix of “Midnight in a Perfect World” is an almost total reconceptualization of that track, with the briefly-sampled poem from the original fleshed out to its full length and juxtaposed with the ominous beat. The Demo Beats of “Changeling” and “Napalm Brain” are almost exactly what you would imagine, and while these minute-long snippets can’t really impress, they should be of use to all the DJs out there (you know who you are). The Peshay remix of “What Does Your Soul Look Like” gives Pt. 1 a jungle workout that fulfills the Remixer’s Hippocratic Oath of “First Do No Harm”. It’s nice, but unless you’re a drum & bass DJ you won’t feel the loss if you never hear it twice.
The real gem here is a 12-minute-long excerpt of a British live performance from 1997. DJ Shadow is an excellent live performer, and it is interesting to see how he changes and mutates his own tracks playing live with only the aid of two turntables and a mixer. “Organ Donor” gains an entirely new mood with the aid of a few scratched soul samples and overdubbed organ samples, while “Midnight in a Perfect World” becomes a showcase for some of the most subtle cutting and scratching you’ve ever heard—if you don’t listen closely to the original you might not even be able to tell the difference. But then it transforms into something entirely different, inserting a psychedelic, Carnaby Street-vibe. When the excerpt fades out after only 12 minutes it leaves you wanting more.
Some tracks, such as the Peshay remix and the live excerpt, in addition to the Demo samples, have never been released before, while most of the other tracks have been previously available elsewhere, either on the aforementioned Preemptive Strike collection (which is really required listening if you like Endtroducing…) or on UK singles which you probably never heard anyway (unless you’re really cool). Shadow himself supervised the construction of this set, and it provides a pretty complete supplement to the album itself. I was slightly disappointed to see that the U2-sampling “Lost and Found” was not included, as that is one of Shadow’s best early singles and has never been anthologized. But the aforementioned sample is probably enough to keep it a collector’s item. (Unusually for these Deluxe Editions, I don’t think they bothered to remaster the album, but that’s not a big problem because the album was only released in 1996 and still sounds good.)
But the album itself remains the star attraction. Supplemental materials are nice but they wouldn’t mean a thing if the album itself weren’t so strong, if it weren’t already such a large part of our lives and music culture that we greedily accept any and all scraps. In the final evaluation, the only real problem with Endtroducing… is that it set the bar so high for Shadow and his peers in the instrumental hip-hop world that most everything else to date comes as an afterthought. It took Shadow himself almost six years to craft an appropriate follow up. The Private Press was a great record that suffered unnecessarily simply because it wasn’t Endtroducing… I quite like The Private Press myself (it has a few tracks that are actually better than anything on Endtroducing…), but you can only invent the wheel once.
The music world still hasn’t properly metabolized Endtroducing…, and perhaps it never shall. By proving that electronic music could not only compete with conventional pop but, in many ways, circumvent it altogether by adopting a conceptual structure more evocative of classical composition, with the masterful uses of recurring motifs, foreshadowing and thematic repetition. Most importantly, it is a uniquely evocative and intimate disc, a stridently personal statement masquerading as a genre-defining dissertation. As easy as it is to respect Endtroducing… for all its technical virtuosity and intellectual rigor, it’s even easier to love it for it’s warmth and passion, and the unerring, overwhelming humanity that informs what could have been a staid and formalistic exercise. It stands as an unparalleled achievement, the likes of which we may never see again.