Counterbalance No. 91: DJ Shadow – ‘Endtroducing’

DJ Shadow
Mo' Wax

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.

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