Joshua Paul Davis emerged from the blackout – heroically from the shadows – to redefine an art form, resurrect a genre, and reflect the essence of a culture with his debut album, Endtroducing…. The 1996 release told the tale, that in 2010, portrays modern hip-hop’s epic poem on record. DJ Shadow laid the foundation for hip-hop from the ground up, producing the first album entirely constructed from samples. As he creates the aural masterpiece, he allows the past to dictate the future – grabbing clips from vintage movie reels, and television shows, blending them with layered instrumentals from aged vinyl recordings – and in doing so introduces the world to his own sound, but more so the identity of an urban creative class on the cusp of social impact.
Davis begins the journey putting his best foot forward – fusing no less than seven separate soundbites and a fifteen-second funk jam session – to take the veil off the silhouette and bring the DJ into the light. “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt”‘s unknown narrator echoes “producing…” over chilling piano scales, as the story begins and Joshua sets the stage from a single grain. In the midst of an industry cheapening musical quality in the face of quantity – rationing and rehashing masterful tracks of old like a 20th Century European crusade through Africa – Shadow reminds us that there is an art to the sample; and for a genre founded upon the collage of collaboration, Davis crafts a montage original in its new fusion of old fragments.
DJ Shadow captures the authenticity of the sample through layered acoustic sounds. “Building Steam…” finds pianos, deep percussion, and distorted guitar riffs setting the tone for a complete work that reaches beyond the genre’s shallow veneer, by reaching back to the depths of its origins – reminiscing,
From listening to records I just knew what to do, I mainly taught myself And, you know, I did pretty well – except there were a few mistakes; But um, that I made, um, that I’ve just recently cleared up
rewriting the history of the victors, blindly prophesying with a sapient wisdom, the rise of the hustler – the social cancer of urban youth – their spirit, and steady progression from the projects to the penthouse – Marcy to the Monarchy
What makes Cancer tenacious? The moon rules the fluids – including the inner juices of human beings – that which assimilates and feeds the body. So the crab feeds his astral plane, assimilating and distributing all he receives, slowly, until it becomes a part of you…
and navigating the road ahead
And I would like to able to continue to let what is inside of me – which is, which comes from all the music that I hear – I would like for that to come out; and it’s like, it’s not really me that’s coming… The music’s coming through me… The music’s coming through me…
As a maestro of more than just music, as the producer of a populous, Shadow understands the nature of the sample: that he is a hub, a crux, a medium for the message – that the music comes through him; that his most powerful presence is as a promulgator and channel. The standout track encapsulates the collaborative nexus fueling hip-hop – slowly but surely the chords and choirs build Endtroducing‘s backbone, rolling over the individual just as the genre did the mainstream.
Endtroducing… is a complete story: concept and atmosphere, rhyme and rhythm. As Davis creates the sonic landscape with instrumental samples spanning an array of genres from psychedelic, classical, funk, ambient, soul, baroque, jazz, and a collection of others, he in turn establishes an entirely new aural aesthetic. The environment emerges slowly, erecting track by track – like brick, beams, and mortar – to develop a new borough of sound built by endemic beats.
The introspective “What Does Your Soul Look Like Part 4” exudes a sense of calm, and eases the listener’s mind with rich bass, light percussion, and subdued woodwind accents coasting beneath interspersed piano riffs and bellowing echoes. Shadow sees the artist’s soul as expansive, undefined, elemental, and true – it breathes volumes without dictating past a dull roar. As the track fades, so the story progresses past self-reflection and leaves the soul in search of style.
“Then I came to America, saw Xanadu; that’s all I wanted to do – rollerskate,” our narrator returns, as we enter 1980s America from the eyes of hip-hop on the brink of the bubble dream. Shadow references the 1980 film drawing a parallel between hip-hop and protagonist Sonny, just as Sonny built his discotheque from the inspiration of a blonde Olympianic muse, so modern rap’s castle has been built upon the shoulders of the ever-present, oft-spoken, white girl – that gifted curse. Wailing trumpets call over crash cymbals, toms and snares dialog, dense kick drums march beneath airy flute samples, as the mood elevates ominously before a distant female voice asks: “Do you feel like Darth Vader?”
Now, from hip-hop’s dark roots – the urban decay, the “welfare queen” single mothers, the crack epidemic, the incarceration, the miseducation – emerges an entire movement; as Darth begat Luke, so it was Hova’s all black past that made it possible for Kanye’s lights to flash… and yet, yet and still, all that remains after success attained is the demise – the “Mutual Slump.”
Shadow brings in hymnal samples with slight echoes of an indiscriminate emcee on “Organ Donor;” as Davis lends hip-hop a heart one last time, the track plays along like a brief requiem before the inevitable death of a genre. Mellow bass guitar and muted back beats ride beneath synthesized pitch effects as we come to the penultimate climax revealing “Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96:” “It’s the money…” Our proverbial casket closes as we drift down the River Styx and enter “Midnight in a Perfect World.”
Deep vocals melt away as a baritone narrator cries, “insight, foresight, more sight, the clock on the wall reads a quarter past midnight…” A lone female voice ushers in weathered jazz percussion, and ephemeral chants build the atmosphere like a foggy mist descending upon a sonic garden of good and evil.
Fifteen minutes into a new day, well before dawn but with the lifespan of a star already gone, slowly, steadily, naturally, Davis incorporates subtle lingering piano, secondary vocals, and string sections drawn out to near inaudibility – all perfectly blended to build emotions over instrumentation. The original narrator’s tone elevates, as his echoes dominate the scene with sounds of “midnight, midnight, midnight…” the beats build and a familiar ticking sound peaks as the voice declares “now approaching MIDNIIIIIIIIGHT” – and so, within this perennial state of birth, death, and renaissance exists midnight in a perfect world: constant perpetuated chaos, death, calm, and creation.
The end is only the beginning, and from a perfect world at ease we descend into sonic chaos to begin the journey again. Deep bass rolls along soulfully beneath hot psychedelic guitar riffs as we enter “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain.” Anxiety and uncertainty build as rapid hi-hat scats take instable precedent over rumbling foundational beats, like shuffling feet above the quaking earth. Quick snare rudiments pop rhythmically along like a little drummer boy’s battle tune, stepping in-toe with the pulsating kick drum/bass tandem below. Violins flow along vaporous, elevated above the grounded bedlam, as the faint – but omnipresent – essence reminiscent of that perfect world.
Well after the pandemonium subsides, all that remains is the lone tone of a sole violin – a ray of light emerged from midnight.
Happiness is procuring honesty over percussion: just as that is hip-hop, so “Endtroducing…” is the acting epic. Joshua Davis depicts and dictates true vivacity, pulsing the heartbeat of a genre and a culture. Davis created an aural masterpiece by crafting an original sonic montage and social landscape entirely from past works; and in so doing, became a catalyst for the artistic urban renewal we live, breathe, and create in today. Here we have H.E.R. 20th century tale; in a world where the only things remembered are the first impression and last words, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… is unforgettable.