25 years ago today, DJ Shadow released Endtroducing….. and it forever changed what I thought was possible listening to music.
I first heard about DJ Shadow in the latter days of working retail in late 1996 and early 1997. That being said, I don’t actually remember the name of the coworker who told me to look him up. I was close to moving to San Diego, but I recall him saying I needed to check it out. But that is how word got out – word of mouth from one music lover to another.
It is tough to properly categorize the album, simply because of how the album was made. Sampling was nowhere new, and had a long and proud history in R&B and Hip Hop in particular. But the Guiness Book of Records lists Endtroducing….. as the first album entirely made of samples. And the samples are diverse, which is why the album relentlessly defies categorization. There are some who call it Trip Hop, but that comes mainly from Shadow’s association with James Lavelle at Mo’ Wax Records, who eventually fronted Trip Hop collective UNKLE. At the time though, there was literally no way to pin a genre on this record, and I consider that strength.
DJ Shadow made the album on an Akai MPC 3000 sampler, a very early and limited digital sampler that was originally designed to create 13 second samples. The fact he was able to make a 64 minute album from it is mind-blowing.
The samples themselves were sped up, slowed down, pitch changed, and all manner of twisting and turning to fit the sound he wanted. The most recognizable sample is the Cliff Burton bassline from Metallica’s Orion – yet Shadow’s The Number Song makes it easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it. That is part of what makes the album so remarkable – it really is an original creation sampling work he loved. Most of the other samples are from really obscure sources, and remained so before the internet was mainstream.
All that being said, the songs are what count. After the opening track intro, the first true song beings with, “Producing,” and the beautiful piano kicks in on Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, one of my favorite tracks ever.
Many of the track incorporate jazz, soul, and carry a downtempo and relaxing vibe. Track 4, Changeling, shows how some of those sounds come be meshed together into something unique. It is a beautifully layered track with so many subtle touches to it.
Track 5, What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)1 is one of the most well-known songs, with a beautiful bass line that continues the downtempo mood. It is truly sublime.
This is also an album with some sad or anxiety-ridden influences. DJ Shadow has been on record that he was fighting depression when making the album, and you can pick it up, especially if you’re like me and often searching for that type of music. Stem/Long Stem is a long and a somewhat anxiety-ridden track, with drums that may seem out of place with the original melody. It also incorporates a comedy sample redressed as a moment of paranoia and apprehension. One of the ways this album is able to escape genre is as simple as his ability turn humor into angst.
The last track I want to specifically mention is track 11, Midnight In A Perfect World. It is yet another masterpiece of beautifully matched samples that are so much greater than the sum of their parts. As much as I have often thought, “wow, he did he put that together?” I find I really want to just suppress the analysis and enjoy the composition. The pieces….they just fit.
The album cover is also iconic, with some of his fellow artists “crate-digging” at a Sacramento Rare Records store. The cover has always reminded me of my times looking for new and old music, and building my collection. I don’t remember where I first bought it, but it was on CD. Vinyl was considered a thing of the past that was never coming back.
At that time in the last 90s, Best Buy had just started its invasion of the West, and their loss-leader to get you into the store was an extensive CD selection, with many sold at $ 9.99. Virgin Records still had their megastores. Tower Records was the best place to ask an employee for a recommendation. And when I got to San Diego, they had a large chain of Music Trader stores. I miss them all. I am certain I picked up DJ Shadow’s first album from one of them.
When I decided to join the part and become a vinyl snob myself, this was the second LP I purchased 2
Calling DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. a landmark and important record is, of course, a pretty obvious point to make. It comes in at 329 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time3. But I would like to point out just how incredible it really is, an album of samples that is considered on par with 90s classics like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearljam’s Ten and Vs. and Radiohead’s OK Computer. That shouldn’t be possible – and yet it is. That is the best testament to this groundbreaking album – from the past, he created something that will live forever. Albums primarily made of samples are nothing unusual these days, another group, Boards of Canada, remains a favorite. But Shadow did it first, and he did it so well, that this album will always stand the test of time.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.