The Anniversary

The Private Press Turns 20

MCA
2002
MCA
2002

When your debut album breaks everyone’s brains, what do you do next? Most of us will never have to contemplate this particular question as anything other than an idle thought exercise. For a few artists, though, that question is enough to kick off an existential tailspin. Josh Davis is one of those artists. In 1996, after Davis had only been calling himself DJ Shadow for a few years, he released Endtroducing…, a deep-concentration instrumental zone-out that took people on a headphones journey to the heart of the universe. Nobody could follow that. Decades later, Endtroducing… remains the undisputed masterpiece in the category of records made from other people’s records. With the possible exception of the Avalanches, nobody has ever even come close to what Shadow did with Endtroducing…, least of all Shadow himself.

Endtroducing… was a critical smash and, on an independent level, a minor commercial hit. (It went gold in the UK, and a couple of singles charted over there.) The world had no idea what to make of an album as rich and layered and thoughtful as Endtroducing…, especially taking into account how the thing was made. Five years after its release, Endtroducing… made it into the Guinness Book Of World Records as the “First Completely Sampled Album.” That listing was almost certainly not accurate, but it shows that the world simply did not have the vocabulary to properly recognize what Shadow had done with that album. Endtroducing… was a moment in time, a miracle that could not be repeated. Shadow didn’t even try. Instead, he spent the next years farting around.

Here’s an incomplete listing of what DJ Shadow did in the years after Endtroducing…. He put out a collection of his early singles. He got together with his friend Cut Chemist to make a couple of hard-to-find DJ-mix records. He helped launch the Quannum Projects label with the members of his old Solesides crew. He made remixes for friends, like his old buddy Dan The Automator’s Dr. Octagon project, and for big names like Depeche Mode. Maybe Shadow’s true Endtroducing… follow-up was 1998’s Psyence Fiction, but that record was credited to UNKLE, a project that Mo’ Wax label founder James Lavelle had launched earlier, and it invited rock stars like Thom Yorke and Richard Ashcroft to the party. Shadow might’ve made almost all the music for Psyence Fiction, but his name wasn’t on it. The pressure was off. Shadow didn’t remain with the project, either. He left UNKLE after the album’s release, and Lavelle kept it going without him.

And then Shadow kept fucking around with other projects. He made beats for friends — Blackalicious, Latyrx, Automator’s Handsome Boy Modeling School project. (This was one of the many guest-heavy conceptual recording entities that sprung up in the wake of that UNKLE album. Shadow could’ve just continued to do stuff like that, but he never made anything along those lines again until his own records became guest-heavy.) Shadow also scored Dark Days, a 2000 documentary about unhoused people living in an abandoned Amtrak tunnel under New York. Most of that score was really just recycled and previously released Shadow music, but that kind of fit the movie’s theme, and his contemplative tracks sounded properly cinematic in context. Shadow also appeared in a movie himself: Scratch, a 2002 documentary about the art of DJing. In the doc, Shadow is identified as “the king of digging,” and he airily puts forward the idea that a used record store’s stacks represent “a big pile of broken dreams, in a way.”

DJ Shadow was never a star. Scratch depicts him as a monastic figure, obsessed with mining forgotten records for unused sounds. Maybe that mentality is why it took Shadow six years to come up with a proper follow-up to his landmark debut. Shadow had to do more digging, more mining, more careful selecting. Shadow’s music makes more sense now, in a time when anyone with a laptop can transform old music into new permutations, but he was always an analog beast, and he never did things the easy way. But then, maybe it took that long for Shadow to figure out that he couldn’t make another Endtroducing…, that he had to figure out a different approach if he wanted any kind of sustainable career. Either way, six years is about the maximum amount of time that you can take between albums and still present yourself to the world as an active recording artist. When Shadow came back, the world wanted another work of genius out of him. Instead, he just made a really good record.

In some ways, the creation process behind The Private Press, the DJ Shadow album that will turn 20 tomorrow, is the same as the one that he used for Endtroducing…. Once again, Shadow, working entirely on his own, constructed an entire LP out of nothing but the records that he found while digging. Twisting and manipulating and recombining those samples, Shadow made his music into an expression of self, investing his personality into it without ever speaking a single word into a microphone. There’s just one exception: Lateef The Truth Speaker, one of Shadow’s Solesides teammates, appearing on the single “Mashin’ On The Motorway.” But Lateef doesn’t even really rap on that song. He mostly just talks about how motorized vehicles are dangerous over Shadow’s rushing car-chase backing track.

A song like “Mashin’ On The Motorway” could’ve never made sense on Shadow’s first album. Where Endtroducing… hung together as one big, beautiful piece of music, The Private Press never even tries to cohere. Instead, it’s just Shadow trying out different ideas from track to track. Where dance music was never even part of the equation on Endtroducing…, Private Press tracks like “Right Thing / GDMFSOB” dip their toes in the club. A few other songs tap into the twitchy, nervous aesthetics of ’80s new wave. On others, Shadow just scratches up slick vocal samples, talking shit without actually talking.

In retrospect, maybe Shadow should’ve released The Private Press as soon as possible after Endtroducing…. Maybe Shadow’s second album could’ve saved him from the burden of importance. The Private Press is the sort of record that you might make when you’re not even trying to craft a masterpiece — a short-story collection instead of a Great American Novel. On its own merits, The Private Press is a blast. It’s fun to hear Shadow toying around with horror-movie synth-drones on “Fixed Income,” drowning his breakbeats in echo on “Monosylabik, Pts. 1 & 2,” or inventing his own dusty synthpop variant on “Blood On The Motorway.” The Private Press is named in honor of the tiny record labels that people once used to put out tiny runs of music for fun, with no thought given to posterity. Maybe the album represents Shadow attempting to claim for himself some of the freedom that he heard in the records that he so obsessively collected.

There are a couple of moments on The Private Press where Shadow recaptured some of the majesty of Endtroducing…, but he always found new ways to do it. “Blood On The Motorway” and “You Can’t Go Home Again,” two long tracks that end the album, seem built to appeal to the rock audiences that had bought Psyence Fiction, but they do it without rock-star assistance, instead building fragmented guitar riffs out of discarded materials. And then there’s “Six Days,” one of the most remarkable tracks in a career full of them. For that one, Shadow essentially combined two forgotten records — the vocals from “Six Day War,” a spare protest song that British psych-rockers Colonel Bagshot released in 1971, over the music from “I Cry In The Morning,” a spaced-out piece of psychedelic pop that the former child sitcom actor Dennis Oliveri put into the world in 1970. There are other samples on “Six Days,” too, but it’s mostly just Shadow finding this strange aqueous equilibrium between these two deeply obscure songs that came out around the same time as one another.

Maybe “Six Days” was just a DJ blend, but it was a DJ blend of two tracks that virtually none of Shadow’s fans had ever heard. “Six Days” happened to come out around the same time that the DJ blend was going through a whole other evolution. Thanks to the internet and evolving digital technology, aspiring DJs didn’t have to use actual wax, the way Shadow had always done. They could just download tracks from the internet, legally or not, and chop them up on computers, speeding up or slowing down the tracks by twiddling with a mouse. The Belgian duo Soulwax did exactly that when they remixed “Six Days,” taking those Colonel Bagshot vocals that Shadow had unearthed them and throwing them over the jittery backing track from the B-52’s’ “52 Girls.” That remix came along just as the mash-up, the new name for the DJ blend, was becoming a sort of online sensation. Soulwax became a part of that particular zeitgeist. DJ Shadow did not.

But Shadow didn’t need to be a mash-up guy. “Six Days” might’ve been effectively the same thing as a mash-up, but it created a feeling that didn’t exist in the mash-ups that made the P2P rounds. Listening to “Six Days” felt like floating suspended in cough syrup. Shadow had found these mystical obscurities, and he’d combined them into something even stranger and more beautiful than his source material. He also got Wong Kar-Wai to direct a video for the track — one of only two music videos that the Hong Kong art-house auteur ever made. (The other one was for “To Make You Happy,” a 1992 single from the Taiwanese singer Tracy Huang.)

When Wong and Shadow got together, Wong was in a sweet spot. He’d just had his international critical breakthrough with In The Mood For Love, and he’d taken on some more commercial work, directing Clive Owen in a clip for a BMW-sponsored short-film series. Shadow loved Wong’s films, and Wong loved Shadow’s music. Wong’s “Six Days” video is its own kind of fever-dream artwork. The video has some kind of story, but that’s not important. What matters is the ecstatic imagery of his clip — the bodies moving together underwater, the orgasmic tattoo session, the hallucinatory parking-garage martial-arts duel. That “Six Days” video arrived a few years before YouTube. When you encountered it at 2AM on MTV, it felt like God whispering a secret into your ear.

Ever since then, “Six Days” has never really left circulation. Just a couple of months ago, Kanye West sampled that Colonel Bagshot song on Pusha T’s “Just So You Remember,” and there’s no way that would’ve happened without Shadow. “Six Days” remains Shadow’s biggest song by far; it’s got even more streams than “Nobody Speak,” the 2016 Run The Jewels collab that keeps popping up in movie trailers. And while Endtroducing…, will always be Shadow’s masterpiece, “Six Days” might be the single greatest bite-size encapsulation of Shadow’s particular sorcery — proof that Shadow only really needed four minutes to cast a spell.

The Private Press was DJ Shadow’s first major-label album, and I can’t imagine that anyone expected it to become a full-on hit. It didn’t. The Private Press did decent business, debuting at #44 on the American charts and going gold in the UK, where both “Six Days” and “You Can’t Go Home Again” were top-40 singles. It got positive-to-mixed reviews, and it kept Shadow’s name circulating, but it probably pierced his mystique a bit. Shadow’s next album came out four years later, and it had hyphy rappers all over it. Things had changed. These days, DJ Shadow can tour comfortably and put out records when they’re ready, and nobody expects another masterpiece. The Private Press essentially transformed DJ Shadow from mysterious genius into working musician. Maybe that’s its own kind of magic trick.

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