Monday, March 22, 2010

DJ Shadow - Endtroducing.....

In the last decade, the production technique of sampling has become an artform all to itself. Sampling has its roots in hip hop as creative DJs cobbled together instrumental tracks to lay a foundation for a rapper without employing a full band behind him. The necessity bred creativity as sampling took off in the '80s and into the '90s. In the '00s, sampling itself emerged from being just a production style to being the entire basis for songs (mashups) or even full albums. The 2000 release by Australian DJ duo The Avalanches, Since I Left You, is composed purely of samples from over 3,000 sources and was widely praised for its creativity, if not its legality. Danger Mouse made a name for himself with The Grey Album, his controversial album-length mashup of The Beatles' white album with Jay-Z's Black Album. At the end of the decade Girl Talk wowed college kids across the nation with his infectious albums of mashups, scavenging hundreds of pop, rock and rap songs for samples, using between 20-40 on each "song" of his own. All of these artists used others' materials as their canvas, creating works of art without actually contributing any recording besides an ear and crafting hand.

Before any of those artists, however, there was DJ Shadow (aka Josh Davis.) Working solely with a 12-bit sampling drum machine he created Endtroducing....., his debut album. It was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "First Completely Sampled Album" and it landed on Time Magazine's All-TIME 100 best albums list in 2006. It stands as a landmark album both in terms of sampling as an art and also in hip hop, as the genre was overcome with gangsta rap in the mid-'90s and Endtroducing..... is just about as opposite to that genre as possible.

Endtroducing..... is a hip hop meditation album. The standout tracks, like "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt" and "Stem/Long Stem", are built around beautiful looping samples of piano and organ. The beats, samples of vocals and strings and other accoutrements serve to accent those loops, not unlike how classical minimalism evolves over the course of repetition. The vocal samples are typically introspective, in either calm placid tones or frantic with intellectual anguish. It's really more closely related to trip hop than hip hop in terms of genre. This isn't an album about sex and violence. It's an album about life and philosophy, which is sort of remarkable to say considering it's also an instrumental album.

There is a gravitas to Endtroducing....., and I suspect that's where its sense of import is derived from. The looping samples are almost universally melancholy in tone, although DJ Shadow usually employs either upbeat tempos on top of them or his sly sense of humor to work against that tone. ("Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" has only one vocal sample: a cautionary voice simply stating, "It's the money..." and "Organ Donor" is, appropriately, a fascinating escalation of solo organ samples.) The sonic bed often sounds like a rainy day, combining immersive ambience with steady pulses of disconnected rhythms. Where there are breaks in the action, as in "Stem/Long Stem" when after three minutes a string sample loops up as high as it can go and cuts out into silence, they grab the listeners' attention and, like the best minimalism, can affect the listener when they are accustomed to the slow-motion development.

Endtroducing..... is viewed in its best light when it's cast against what it isn't. As hip hop, it isn't shallow or morally bankrupt much hip hop can be. As trip hop, it's more rooted in humanity and organic samples of voices and jazzier horns than the often cold and distant standard. As jazz, it's more sonically expansive and varied. As itself, however, it doesn't inspire. It's a groundbreaking album and I believe its praise is well-deserved but mainly to that end. As a listening experience, Endtroducing..... is long and usually fades into the background. It's soundtrack more than songcraft. That's not a critique, however, that indicates DJ Shadow's efforts result in failure. His mission statement is right up top, in "Building Steam" which concludes on a repeated vocal sample saying, "the music passes through me." That's exactly what happens here. The music passes through DJ Shadow and it passes through the listener. Don't come expecting party music; this album is food for thought and a soundtrack to meditation. It lets your mind wander, and if there isn't much substance within itself, at least it's an instigation to examine the substance within yourself. Therein lies its praiseworthiness.


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