Rumor has it that when Josh Davis, also known as DJ Shadow, would come across his debut album, “Endtroducing…,” in record stores, he’d pick up all the copies and move them from the “Electronic” section to “Hip-Hop” to make a point. “Endtroducing…,” the 1997 hip-hop classic, could be called electronic because it lacks live instrumentation and is made almost entirely from samples. But like the Australian DJs the Avalanches (whose sample-heavy music paid homage to the Beach Boys), DJ Shadow used sampling to invigorate the classics of his time and create hip-hop at its most distilled form.
Hip-hop’s image was built on narratives of hardship, the struggle of the inner-city underdog against a broken establishment. Sometimes boisterous, but always with an edge of bleakness, hip-hop relied on fast-spitting verses and afro-funk rhythms to convey the harshness of such a life. “Endtroducing…” as a tribute is less gritty, but appropriately heavy and nocturnal. The second track, “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” captures the momentum of ambition against all odds with a slow-building piano sample, set to the inspirational spoken-word sample applicable to any aspiring artist: “And I would like to able to continue/To let what is inside of me/Which comes from all the music that I hear/For that to come out/And, it’s not really me that’s coming/The music’s coming through me.” The steady drum-loops that structure the rest of the record emphasize this sense of determination.
DJ Shadow follows in hip-hop’s history of musical appreciation with a diverse assortment of samples, which he gathered from his collection vinyl records rumored to be over 60,000. Despite its lack of lyrics, DJ Shadow crafts a compelling emotional narrative through elements of jazz, rock and the occasional spoken word sample. Particularly gripping is “Midnight in a Perfect World,” heavy with ghostly reverb and deep drum cuts. After a lonely saxophone quiets the atmosphere and fades, Shadow record-scratches to turn a DJ call, “Now approaching midnight” into a bassline. Held agonizingly over the space of two verses, it escalates to the final exhalation of “MIDNIGHT!” over the anxious ticking of a stopwatch, and silence.
“Endtroducing…” started a microboom in instrumental hip-hop toward the end of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Yet regardless of its impact then, DJ Shadow’s debut remains a classic that transcends period or genre by its singular power and energy. The work of a true artist on top of his game, “Endtroducing…” is timeless.