Looking back a couple of decades, it’s not that much of a shock that turntablism produced a masterpiece. It’s more of a shock that it produced only one masterpiece. DJing, of course, had been a vastly important part of hip-hop for decades before 1996, the year DJ Shadow released Endtroducing…... (The album turns 20 tomorrow.) It had been a part of rap before rapping was a part of rap. But sometime in the ’90s, it broke off and became its own twitchy, insular thing. DJs went off and formed their own subculture, one that had precious little to do with what rap music had become. It was a music unto itself, with its own stars and rules and boundaries. Its practitioners looked at it as something like a sport, and its biggest annual event, the DMC World DJ Championships, treated it like one, handing out trophies to the DJs who showed off the showiest, most pyrotechnic routines. And maybe that’s why DJs like Q-Bert and Roc Raida never released defining works. They were concerned with the moment, with wowing crowds and impressing their peers, with displays of raw skill. DJ Shadow was something else. He was interested in textures and feelings, and those textures and feelings are the reasons that Endtroducing….. still resonates so deeply today.
Shadow had started DJing on Bay Area college radio in 1989, and he was putting together his own tracks, transforming the records he was finding in dusty record stores into completely separate pieces, as early as 1992. This wasn’t a new concept. Grandmaster Flash had released “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel,” possibly the first commercially available live DJ mix, in 1982, and tapes of routines from Flash and his peers had circulated in underground channels before then. In the years afterward, virtually every big ’80s rap album had at least one instrumental track, and production geniuses like DJ Premier occasionally took a break from making beats for rappers to put together something like the sublime 1989 single “DJ Premier In Deep Concentration.” But those tracks worked, more or less, as rap music, with all the confrontational energy that the term implies. By the time he developed his style, Shadow was into something else. He was into internal journeys.
In the 2001 documentary Scratch, there’s a scene where Shadow takes the camera on a tour of Rare Records, the Sacramento record shop immortalized on the cover of Endtroducing….. Looking at all the bins, all spilling over with the work of anonymous artists, Shadow mused that the whole store was “a big pile of broken dreams, in a way.” Most of these records — the raw material of the music he was making — were forgotten relics, abandoned by history. From a certain perspective, that’s sort of like a guitarist wondering aloud about the lives of the people who manufacture the strings of his instrument. But the same insular, searching nature that would lead Shadow to think in those terms is what led to Endtroducing…..
Listening to Endtroducing….. today is a profoundly moving experience, just as it was in 1996. Little motifs appear again and again, as they might in a piece of classical music. In SPIN, Sia Michel called the album “urban classical music” — something wholly removed from hip-hop. (Shadow would disagree. The liner notes literally say, “Don’t get it twisted. Endtroducing….. is a Hip Hop album.”) Shadow could make intense, in-your-face beat collages, and he indulged that ability on the Endtroducing….. track “The Number Song.” He also wasn’t above a little piece of music criticism; the track “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96” consisted of nothing more than a G-funk synth whine and a sampled voice saying, “It’s the money.” (Nevermind that hip-hop emphatically did not suck in 1996.) But that stuff wasn’t the point. The point was something like that eternally repeating circular David Axelrod piano line from “Midnight In A Perfect World” — a beautifully mournful moment of music isolated from its original source and transformed into a mantra.
Maybe the power of Endtroducing….. is that it forces you to confront those broken dreams that Shadow talked about in that documentary. Maybe those broken dreams aren’t those of the musicians who made the music originally. Maybe those broken dreams are your own. Endtroducing….. allows plenty of room for contemplation. Shadow didn’t really make beats as such. Long stretches drift by with no drums — though when the drums do appear, they’re often hard enough to snap your neck. Instead, the horns and pianos and cellos and acoustic guitars wind in and out of each other — sometimes spiraling off into an ambient haze, sometimes snapping into hard emotional focus. The album almost never sounds like a bunch of records being faded into one another. Instead, it’s the sound of a young man contemplating the vastness of the universe and wondering about his place in it. There are moments of fun, like the “eyes big as Jolly Ranchers” sample. And there are thrilling moments, like the part on “Organ Donor” where the drums kick in. But mostly, there is transcendence, the feeling of closing your eyes and levitating above the space-time continuum.
Shadow made the album on relatively cheap, crappy equipment — an MPC60 sampler, mostly. And while this sort of downtempo instrumental music is fundamentally an electronic form, there is physical heft and dimension to the sounds on Endtroducing….. Maybe that’s because Shadow didn’t have the option of putting the album together on a laptop, or maybe he was just insanely great at extracting the right sounds from his records, making sure you could still hear the sweat in that ancestral music. But it’s been 20 years now, and this substrata of dazed, headblown digital music still hasn’t produced another record that hits me the way Endtroducing….. does.
Shadow might call Endtroducing….. a hip-hop record, and its success would certainly lead to opportunities for the other members of his Quannum rap crew; associates like Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and Lateef The Truth Speaker would go onto make some great records in the years that followed. But the real impact of Endtroducing….. wasn’t on rap music. Instead, it serves more as the beginning of a tributary, a place where these sounds branched off and found their own groove. There were, of course, other artists whose music worked with the same vibes and ideas. Endtroducing….. slotted in nicely next to the work of trip-hoppers like Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky. But Shadow’s intricately sculpted, finely textured sample-work had an influence that arguably went beyond anything from those artists, especially in the UK, where Endtroducing….. charted and went gold. Jonny Greenwood would eventually call Endtroducing….. an influence on Radiohead’s OK Computer, and it’s hard to imagine a group like Boards Of Canada digging into the collective subconscious in the same way if Shadow hadn’t gotten there first.
Shadow himself would go on to do some great work on records like UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction and his own The Private Press. But his own music would continue to exist in the shadow of Endtroducing….., and nothing else he made would have that same kind of expansive focus. But its real legacy wasn’t in the work that Shadow himself would later do. It was in the romance of the idea, the concept that there could be a whole world hidden in these old records. About a decade ago, I wrote a Village Voice profile of the great rap producer Just Blaze, shadowing him as he went shopping in East Village vinyl shops, the sorts of places where you could easily drop a few hundred dollars on out-of-print Italian psych-rock records from the ’70s. Those shops were busy. In one of them, a clerk introduced Just to Dan The Automator. Automator, a huge name in his own right, had done some engineering work on Endtroducing….., and Shadow had put much of the album together in Automator’s home studio. All of these guys were out digging through shelves, looking for the lost sounds that they needed, the lost artifact that would spark a whole new idea. That pursuit is a noble thing, and Endtroducing….. remains the fullest expression of it.