Music

Counterbalance No. 91: DJ Shadow's 'Endtroducing…'

Bob Wood, National Program Director at the Chum Group, worked with us in producing this edition of Counterbalance, in which the 91st most acclaimed album of all time puts a smile on your face like Ultra-Brite.


DJ Shadow

Endtroducing...

US Release: 1996-11-19
UK Release: 1996-09-16
Label: Mo' Wax
Amazon
iTunes

Klinger: It's hard to believe, but there was once a time when the concept of sampling was highly controversial, and not just from a legal standpoint. There was a vocal segment of the pop world that refused to acknowledge that reshaping existing recordings into an entirely new sonic collage was a legitimate art form in and of itself. I know this because I was one of them. Growing up in the 1980s meant that hip-hop and its musical accoutrements were basically optional, especially for those of us who came of age during the Springsteen administration, and I was quite mistrustful of any music that didn't involve human beings playing actual musical instruments. My position has, of course, evolved along with the culture's. Nowadays just about everyone recognizes the legitimacy of sampling—much in the same way that we all now accept that the Earth is round and the moon landing was faked. And part of the reason sampling is undeniably accepted is because of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing...

Endtroducing... is apparently formed entirely from samples, making it the first such album to appear on the Great List that our hero over at the Acclaimed Music site has compiled, using every GOAT list he can get his hands on. And since you've established yourself on these pages as a champion of this sort of thing, Mendelsohn, I'll leave it to you to give me a greater sense of this album's overall importance. What's your take on our Mr. Shadow?


Mendelsohn: Where do I begin, Klinger? Endtroducing... wasn't just a record full of samples or simply an aural collage of the past four decades. Endtroducing... signaled the rise of turntablism, gave credibility to electronic music -- not just as a genre that had struggled for recognition outside of the clubs, but as a true art form and spawned the subgenre of instrumental hip-hop. This record paved the way for a vast majority of the music that would follow over the coming decade and transformed the DJ from being just some guy with a couple turntables and a sampler running the beat for rappers or club dancers into a legitimate artist, musician, and composer.

This was the record that did all of those things and it did it by connecting the dots of the musical past with the musical future. This isn't new though, we've seen artist appropriate past musical styles, stitch them together, and create something new. The Beatles, David Bowie and Prince were all masters at synthesizing their influences and putting a new spin on it. The only difference is the way in which it was done. DJ Shadow did the same thing so many artists before him had done, he just used a sampler instead of a guitar and, quite literally, stitched together a new piece of music.


Klinger: Well Mendelsohn, you're just the guy I want to talk to then. You've just placed this DJ Shadow guy among three of the undisputed titans of popular music, which appears to be the general critical consensus, at least as far as Endtroducing... is concerned. But I have to say that I'm not sure I fully understand just why. I get that it's made entirely from samples, and that sounds like something that would be really difficult to assemble. But that makes it more of a really cool art project than a great album.

Maybe it's my own expectations. When I first dug into Endtroducing...., I was expecting a Paul's Boutique-style blast of odd samples and mind messing and wickety-wickety scratch DJ noises. And I got that with the opening track "Best Foot Forward". After that, though, what I heard was a series of eight-minute think pieces that could easily be the soundtrack to a moody, artsy sci-fi movie set in a dystopian not-too-distant future. And after about the sixth minute of hearing the same four saxophone notes play over the same bassline, I was seriously wishing I could just skip ahead to whatever's next on the list. Then I realized that Kraftwerk was next on the list and I just got confused. Help me out here, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I don't want to suggest that DJ Shadow is on par with the Beatles, Bowie, or Prince. I was merely pointing out that, at the heart of this record, what DJ Shadow was doing isn't all that new. The way I look at this album (and you might find this to be a helpful analogy) is that it is sort of like jazz—you can listen to it, but you might not always hear it. DJ Shadow didn't just toss a bunch of samples together; he used existing sounds to create lush soundscapes, a suite of pieces compiled from found items. The difference between a Paul's Boutique and this record can be found in their intended purposes. The purpose of the sampling on the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique was to serve as a vehicle for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to pontificate on the sounds of science; without them the album would sound a little scatterbrained. Endtroducing... is more of a cohesive whole; it is a suite of songs, built around a theme much more like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

I also don't want you to think I'm placing DJ Shadow on par with Miles Davis but they did both pushed the boundaries of a staid genre, remaking it in their own image. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for DJ Shadow's Bitches Brew.

Klinger: Oh no, Mendelsohn, don't backpedal! You're not the first person to suggest that DJ Shadow pushed the boundaries and created an enduring piece of art—the critics have been singing the praises of Endtroducing... since 1996, and it's a love that shows no sign of abating. I don't have any problem with the notion that this album is indeed an important step in the evolution of a specific genre. My question is how I should be approaching it as a regular listening experience.

Unlike Kind of Blue, which has jazz's sense of spontaneous invention throughout, Endtroducing... gives me the sense that it was as carefully constructed as a ship in a bottle. So a nine-minute track like "Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain" just doesn't seem to convey the same forward motion that you get from a long jazz piece. I get that the whole thing must have been quite laborious to assemble, and the mood certainly stays consistent throughout, but I'm having trouble understanding how to listen to it as anything beyond background accompaniment when I'm feeling melancholy and/or a little paranoid.


Mendelsohn: I can't tell you how to listen to it. We have found ourselves up against the wall of subjectivity, the great immovable object that looms at the back of every conversation about music, art, religion, or gravity. Music will either speak to you or it won't, you will hear it or you will just listen to it. And, to be quite honest, I don't really want to help you. If I could, this little project would be far less fun and far too easy. The only thing I can suggest is let it be the soundtrack to your day when you are feeling melancholy or paranoid. Let the music find its own space.

Since we can't get over the great immovable object, let's just walk down the wall a little bit. I'm curious to understand your block with this album. Is it because it's a little dark? The whole sampling thing? The offshoot of hip-hop?

Klinger: No, I've long since made my peace with sampling—thank De La Soul for that. And hip-hop and I never had a quarrel to begin with. Darkness maybe? Obviously I've been known to take exception with the hand-wringing bleakness that was all too often a hallmark of 1990s pop music. (Oh, to return to a time when "selling out" was considered a serious concern.)

To be honest I think it's to do with the lack of editing. You may have noticed by now that I keep harping on the length of the tracks, and that's without mentioning that some of the interstitial bits seem like they'd be more compelling than the songs they're intersititializing. Does anyone else wonder where that one guy was going after he says that the one girl has eyes as big as Jolly Ranchers? I do, but instead we're headed right back into the spooky with "Stem/Long Stem" and I start checking the timer to see how long this track has been on already. Couple that with a certain, er, consistency of tone and I find myself zoning out.


But of course, you're right—we are in the midst of an unusual experiment, and I've dug into Endtroducing... mainly because it's 91st on out to-do list. No one really enters into music this way, nor should they. (Although proper critics do often review the discs that are assigned to them, so maybe our experiment isn't as asinine as it seems.) There is actually something sort of comforting in the knowledge that Endtroducing... will be there if I ever need it. I can hear the mysteries in the album, and I like the notion that they will open themselves up to me at a time when I'm least expecting it.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image