On the day of its 20 year anniversary, Mike Warburton sat down with his copy of DJ Shadow's 'Endtroducing.....' to relive one of the greatest moments in instrumental hip hop.
Last updated: 20th Nov 2016
“Bob wa-wa-wa Bob Wood, National Programme Director of the Chum Group, worked with us in producing…”. Thus begins one of the most passionately revered albums of the 90s, and indeed the last two decades.
Josh Davis', better known as DJ Shadow, Endtroducing… hit shelves on the 19th November 1996, and blew away audiences, music lovers and critics across the globe almost immediately. Signed to James Lavelle’s era-defining Mo Wax label, it came at a time when trip hop was at the height of its powers, countless bands sticking to a similar format that was by this point getting rather stale.
There were a number of exceptions - Tricky, Massive Attack and Portishead each delivering very unique, Bristol flavoured take on the style - but Davis’ debut LP really was quite different, a far cry from the trip hop manifesto.
Here was a producer that lived and breathed hip hop, with crate-digging in his blood. His central role in what was eventually called the Quannum crew, which featured Blackalicious, Latyrx and Lyrics Born (as catalogued on the supreme Solesides Greatest Bumps compilation), saw the initial fruition of many years collecting and obsessively beatmaking. Grabbing slices of rock, funk and soul and much more, and then placing them into quite singular sounding beats, they were inspired by the likes of Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic MCs which all heavily featured the role of the DJ.
And you can hear it, from the second the needle drops on Endtroducing….. there’s a palpable authenticity about this sample built album that has its own agenda, filled with ideas so fresh they’ve yet to fester.
The opener of quick cuts and scratches, chopped and spliced together in the same manner as his live performances of the time is no mere gimmickry, it's an attention-grabbing opening volley that arrests the listener, before effectively falling away into the now instantly recognisable 'Building With A Grain of Salt'.
Whilst immediately engaging, there’s a depth of darkness to 'Building...', grey skies cast above a stunningly beautiful piano riff, giving way to pitched down, chunky as hell drums - a recurrent theme throughout the album. He then takes his time to layer choral vocals over spoken word pieces all about the drum and the crab, a euphemism for the well used and hard as hell to master scratching techniques used to give a staccatoed effect in the placement of sustained vocal samples.
Shadow, as the sample suggests too showed himself a student, or at least intense lover of the drum kit at its most pummelling. ‘Numbers’ comes in with it’s grubby, held chords interspersed with splashes of soul and funk before chucking us back into those thick as treacle chords and overactive drum edits.
Far from being a ‘chillout’ album as it is often accused of, it’s at times aggressive - freakouts a plenty with countless genres intertwined over its duration with parts nothing short of abstract. But there’s a continuity and determined vision that shines through the whole album, something rarely realised by bands in command of all their instruments.
The strength of his vision and the 'God knows how many hours it took him to make this' elements can be easily overlooked, but there lies the reason that this album, all this time later, still gives a myriad of listeners a unique sense of excitement.
The seven time beats and abstract, stretched out scratching of ambient noise in ‘Changeling’ growls with intensity whilst at the same time lolling at a lower pace, before sunlight drenched guitars come in and completely flip the track on its head. Then a treated saxophone, more than likely ripped from a sleazy 80s r&b record, is ingeniously turned into a haunting, gorgeous riff.
The extreme, high tempo drums of ‘Stem/Long Stem’ come after a lengthy teasing of Baroque notes, like the soundtrack of Barry Lyndon played over the top of someone playing a drum machine demo at the highest tempo possible. It sounds grotesque on paper, but is perhaps one of the album’s very best moments. It’s spine-tinglingly beautiful and at the same time head-scratchingly insane, an outright success.
The mournful instruments morphed into sine waves as it closes release a feeling of utter calm, and the sublimely stolen cello is enough to make even the stoniest of hearts melt. You’d think in 20 years the impact of this track might fade - but you’d be wrong. Shadow proves eight-minute tracks of widescreen loveliness aren’t just reserved for post-rockers.
And then there's a sharp left turn. You’d be forgiven for clutching your heart when an outer space transmission is abruptly halted by the loudest, dirtiest drums you’ve ever heard on 'Mutual Slump'. A cranky blues riff instantly shakes off the tranquillity of 'Long Stem', that is until the sombre organ sample arrives and adds that gorgeous, understated refrain that ties the whole thing together. The subdued vocal snippets are endlessly arresting before a freak jazz sax comes in with drum rolls aplenty making it another absolute winner - bold and provocative but completely cohesive.
'Organ Donor' is a welcome, lighthearted skit (the full-length version can be appreciated on Pre-Emptive Strike), giving us a bit of a breather before a gaggle of samples lead to the album’s biggest single ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’.
The single fingered, warbling piano, that sounds like it was sampled from a 7 inch record not placed squarely on the deck, sits on top of smokey chords - its blissful arrangement slowly shattered by the glitchy teasing of ‘now we’re approaching MIDNIGHT’, which finally takes over and brings the gorgeous track to a halt. Edgy, inventive and masterfully executed, it’s the story of Endtroducing…, the product of one man with a sampler, an amazing record collection and a head full of ideas.
Endtroducing….. established DJ Shadow as one of the greatest beatmakers of a generation, right up there with the likes of J Dilla, Madlib and DJ Premier. Using hip hop is it’s reference point whilst engaging musicality plundered from a lifetime of record collecting, the album spawned a legion of artists heavily inspired by it, but few of course could reach anything like its dizzy heights. It remains a snapshot of a golden era in
It remains a snapshot of a golden era in instrumental hip hop, whilst inhabiting its very own time in space. There’s absolutely no doubt that Endtroducing... will sound equally as special in twenty years' time.