DJ Shadow finds peace among towering stacks of records. He sifts through them in a cluttered basement of a record store in Davis, California. It looks like an overbearing mess, like a hoard guarded by someone who may have a compulsive disorder. But he doesn’t think or behave like that. Instead, he focuses on the clutter, searching, and evaluating.
“He’s the king of digging,” says fellow DJ and producer Cut Chemist in the 2002 documentary Scratch. To DJ Shadow, born Joshua Davis, digging through thick stacks of records is an art. It takes a certain sense of obsession to rummage through them, examining the ones that catch his intuition and trusting that something will click with his creativity. “It has almost a karmic element,” he says. “Like I was meant to find this on top, or I was meant to pull this out because it works so well with [my music].”
Digging is the key to his creative works. It leads him to create masterful sonic compositions. Davis boils down his intentions clearly with a single reflection: “There’s the promise in these stacks of finding something that you’re going to use and, in fact, most of my first album was built out of records pulled from here.” He’s referring to 1996’s Endtroducing….., released through British record label Mo’ Wax. It’s DJ Shadow’s highly praised debut instrumental hip-hop album created almost entirely out of samples. Using little more than an Akai MPC60II sampler and a turntable setup, Davis repurposed snippets of songs from other recording artists to create experimental, multilayered instrumental music.
Of course, Davis doesn’t merely lift pieces of music from records and place them into his tracks. He also manipulates pitches of melodies and basslines, cuts up drum patterns to create patterns of his own, and finagles the equalization of samples to bring them to the forefront or background of songs. It’s like building something out of Lego bricks if they could be reshaped and recolored.
Unparalleled and nuanced, Endtroducing….. has proven that sampling is more than taking other artists’ music. When experimenting the way that he has, sampling becomes an intricate art form. Songs like “Changeling” and “Midnight in a Perfect World” are sophisticated compositions where all the pieces fit so nicely together that it’s hard to believe that they came from other songs.
The intro track quickly establishes the album’s slick production. Titled “Best Foot Forward”, it strings together 12 samples from forgotten hip-hop acts such as Masters of Ceremony, Stezo, and Divine Sounds in a mere forty-two seconds. Davis certainly shows that he is a music editing wizard who can cut tracks together however he sees fit. I can only imagine the painstaking, obsessive process necessary to make music like this.
Looking closely at the design of Endtroducing….. reveals how keen and resourceful Davis is. For instance, he takes sounds from specific musical genres and uses them to represent other styles. “Mutual Slump” takes from the intro of Swedish singer Pugh Rogefeldt’s 1969 song “Love, Love, Love,” a psychedelic pop-rock song mind you, and turns it into a somber jazz tune. Likewise, the “Stem/Long Stem” beat is taken from a simple drum beat from “Run’s House” by Run-DMC and repurposed into a fast-paced, thrash metal style drumming pattern. Weirder yet, the acid techno beat on “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain” comes from drum sounds sampled from soul singer Jo Ann Garrett’s “Walk on By”. These drum sounds are repitched to carry the same tone, making the songs cohere earnestly.
Although Endtroducing….. is an instrumental album, it includes occasional dialogue samples that seem meaningful to DJ Shadow. “Building Steam from a Grain of Salt” includes a sample of George Marsh interviewed by Terry McGovern from 1974’s Music Makers Percussion where Marsh reflects on his sense of creativity. I assume that Davis used this because he found it intellectually relatable. That said, he also samples comedian Murray Roman ranting about being prosecuted for traffic offenses, which was probably just funny to him.
Davis’s sampling technique is most interesting when he takes inconsequential portions of songs and makes them significant parts of his songs. For example, a sample of a quiet, droning distorted guitar from Metallica’s “Orion” from their 1986 album, Master of Puppets resonates loudly throughout “The Number Song”. Likewise, a slight, computer-like synth buzz at the beginning of “Numbers” by Kraftwerk is manipulated into a froggy vocal noise in “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)”. These sounds are negligible in their original states, yet Davis makes them prominent elements in Endtroducing…..
And even without recording a single live instrument, Endtroducing….. exudes the energy of a live performance. For example, take the drumming at the end of “The Number Song”. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t a single live take, but he certainly pieced it together through sampling and editing. Davis is also a skilled performative DJ, which we can witness in the lengthy scratch solo in “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit)”.
I could go on and on about the minutiae of this album. There’s so much to discuss here. However, the biggest takeaway about DJ Shadow as an artist is his conscientious, committed, contemplative, and intuitive nature. From the start of his career, he’s been an expert song crafter and sound editor.
Just as important, DJ Shadow understands how fleeting music can be. He sees it when he digs in piles of old records. “Almost none of these artists still have a career,” he says among the albums in the aforementioned basement. “So you have to kind of respect that in a way if you’re making records… you’re sort of adding to this pile whether you want to admit it or not. Ten years down the line, you’ll be in here.” In the future, perhaps someone like him will dig up Endtroducing…..