When, at 13 years old, I listened to DJ Shadow’s seminal 1996 release Endtroducing… I felt a bit like Thesus, lost in the labyrinth. Throughout my first few listens all I knew for sure is that there was some great, infamous beast lying ahead and all the rest was a dimly lit maze. There is no single sonic thread to follow, no typically easy entry point - there’s just layer after layer of beautiful, sampled sound to untangle.
Endtroducing… is a two-year labour of love from a basement-combing record collector; a bold and cinematic re-shaping of musical memory; an album that has inspired a generation of samplers (and sample-spotters); and an album that changed my relationship with music forever.
Aged 13, my musical diet had swung at random. I heard my Pap’s adoration of David Bowie, The Clash, Talking Heads and Grandmaster Flash, my Mum’s love of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Motown’s Gold compilations and Hall & Oates and my own detours into the music of The Beastie Boys, Gorillaz, Beck and The Specials (there was also my love of Sum 41’s All Killer, No Filler, Alien Ant Farm’s debut album and the Space Jam soundtrack but that doesn't really fit into the narrative).
On the recommendation of a 5-star review of the album’s reissue in Q magazine and my Pap telling me that I’d probably be into it, I forked over £14 of birthday money for the deluxe edition of Endtroducing…
I paced home afterwards in my oversized DC trainers and carefully placed the CD into my stereo. I didn’t know what to expect; all I knew is that I had a good feeling in my gut and loved the album’s blurry cover shot. I couldn’t have predicted that my personal musical journey was about to legitimately begin.
DJ Shadow started his own musical journey as a DJ for the University of Davis, California’s student radio station KDVS, and was always enamoured with the art of spinning, with a wanderlust for sample-based production such as that utilised by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.
Shadow’s work on KDVS impressed local A&Rs leading him to early, remix-based releases on the Hollywood BASIC label and an eventual contract with the now seminal UK-based label Mo’Wax.
It was on Mo’Wax that DJ Shadow would continue to hone his alchemy of hip-hop, ambient sounds, jazz, funk and soul breaks, releasing acclaimed singles such as ‘In/Flux’, ‘Lost and Found (S.F.L)’ and, in 1994, ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like’, an independent chart topper.
Mixmag’s Andy Pemberton coined the sound of Shadow – namely his ‘In/Flux’ single – as “trip-hop”, and thus a subgenre was born. This subgenre label would be applied to acts such as Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, Björk (who is sampled on Endtroducing…) and a number of other acts that were being spun in clubs throughout the UK in the mid-90s. Whilst the trip-hop tag is often remembered with a knowing chuckle these days, it’s a very apt descriptor of the yin and yang of Endtroducing…: slowly moving under the weight of thumping, tight drum patterns and rumbling bass and yet with a haunting elegance, compromised of found samples, angelic, gliding strings and ghostly exorcised vocal performances. Endtroducing… is an album that’s half submerged in the past and yet daringly stretching upwards to the future; both the end of a journey and the introduction of an artist, as its title suggests.
All I knew about DJ Shadow prior to my first listen was from the photo that accompanied the CD’s liner notes – a portrait of the man born Josh Davis sat between stacks and stacks of records in the basement of Sacremento’s Rare Records.
As I listened to Endtroducing…, it sounded like this goateed man had listened to each of these records, drawn out the best parts and compiled them into one album; and this wasn’t too far from the truth. Davis had set out the make an album that entirely consisted of samples, using only three items of equipment: an Akai MPC60 sampler, a Technics SL-1200 turntable and an Alesis ADAT tape recorder. Utilising these three items of equipment and a lifetime of music fandom, Davis accomplished his goal, landed in the Guinness Book Of Records and changed the landscape of instrumental music forever.
Opening number ‘Best Foot Forward’ holds up the “-hop” part of the trip-hop label, a brief flash of B-boy bravado that acts as a link between the album and everything that came before it. That is until the strident, atmospheric piano chords of ‘Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt’ glide ominously under the album’s opening monologue. By the time the track’s drums enter, elemental and thundering, all expectations have been washed away. As a 13 year-old, I had nothing to do but marvel at this crafted cacophony as it burst from my speakers for the first time. It was like nothing I had heard before and I was entirely hypnotised by the ebb and flow, the light and the thunder. The taut thrill of hearing this panoramic track slide into the frenetic break beats of ‘The Number Song’ still excite me today. The dense, calm warmth and blissful basslines of ‘Changeling’ and ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)’ follow this and provide an oasis amongst the album’s opening onslaught.
After a few spins, you realise that Endtroducing…’s song suites, like every other damn detail of the whole record, are carefully selected. Held together by brief transmissions, the album is crafted as complete journey through soaring peaks and crushing valleys. In an interview for the 33 1/3 book series, Davis has been quoted as saying he felt “in despair” whilst creating Endtroducing… and this can be heard in the tense, exciting, near-horrific jungle drums of ‘Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2’ and the frenzied melancholy of ‘Mutual Slump’. The fact that these two tracks are predated by a humorous interlude feel like a trick - a sucker punch of light before the album’s darkest suite. ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like?’ is asked throughout the album’s tracklisting, and this section of Endtroducing… feels like a plunge into the deepest doubts that DJ Shadow carried with him as he crafted the album in San Fransisco’s Glue Factory studio.
It’s Endtroducing…’s final suite that holds up the strongest to me: another interlude that leads into one of the best 20 minutes of music in recorded music. If ‘Stem/Long Stem’ was a detailing of Shadow’s doubts, then the album’s final section plays like a celebration of his accomplishment. ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ is the sound of trip-hop being perfectly crystallized: a gorgeous collage of shifting vocals with a warm underbelly of strings and another round of booming drums that cocoon the listener rather than attack them. Following this, we are given 10 minutes of blissful drum n’ bass in the form of ‘Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain’, which feel like the record’s upbeat answer to the difficult claustrophobia of ‘Stem/Long Stem’ as the uplifting drum breaks flutter off over one of Endtroducing….’s most delicate moments.
The magisterial ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1): Blue Sky Revisit’ samples a range of soulful voices, shimmering brass and understated bass over clicking hi-hats and rich snares and remains a pure musical escapism - one of my all-time favourite songs put to wax. That is before radio static cuts to the giant from Twin Peaks stating to you, as he states to Agent Dale Cooper, “it is happening again”. And it will, as Endtroducing… takes plenty of listens to fully submerge into and is all the more rewarding for it. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve listened to it over the past decade and yet I’m still uncovering more with each subsequent listen.
Endtroducing… is now a recognised milestone and remembered by many with the same reverence that I hold it in today. It’s a record that manages to remain timeless through the sheer bravery, inventiveness and heart poured into every second. Despite being sourced from a library of samples, it’s an album that sounds incredibly human, both majestic and melancholy. It’s an album that changed everything for me and countless other listeners, and for that we’re all incredibly grateful.
Words by Joseph Fuller