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The Retrospective Return Of DJ Shadow

The Retrospective Return Of DJ Shadow

To me, what hip-hop stands for, is unity through music. No boundaries, no genre barriers. When I play, you will understand that music is for everyone. That to me is what hip-hop is about. I don't represent rap music. I don't do it to imitade Wu Tang Clan, Coolio or anyone else. I do my own interpretation on what I grew up on. And I don't do it to sound old-skool, I do it to sound new.1

[dropcap]It's[/dropcap] been an interesting few years in the world of trip-hop mastermind Joshua Paul Davis aka DJ Shadow. From delivering what many regard as the perfect album on his debut release, to the lukewarm reception to 2006's effort "The Outsider" many wonder if on the eve of his 4th LP "The Less You Know, The Better" if he can rightfully reclaim his crown as one of the worlds most innovative and talented DJ's. It would be a brave man who would bet against him.

So come with us, as we take a retrospective glance at his formative years & retrace the steps of how this visionary artist set about defining an entirely new musical genre and the direction he'll take on the eve of his 4th studio album.

It all started back in 1996 when armed only with an Akai MPC-60, a Technics 1200, and an Alesis ADAT DJ Shadow created his debut record that was nothing short of semminal in the hip-hop world. To this day "Endtroducing...." stands as his most highly regarded release, serving as a sampling landmark – a stunning collage comprised entirely of (literally thousands) of sliced samples and turntable overdubs. Aside from being an incredible body of music, it widely referenced as the blueprint for the genre now known as "trip-hop". Since it's release, a generation of instrumental hip hop acts have spawned trying to mimic its success, but none have close to matching the scope, innovation and complexity of "Endtroducing....." and the boundaries it gleefully knocked over.

Over the 13 tracks, Shadow blended complex rhythms, limitless drum loops, ambient sounds and retro samples seamlessly - painting a multi-faceted record, as diverse as it was faultless, as it was rich as it was darkly hypnotic.

Endtroducing..... - 5 Track Sampler

Early reviews set the tone, TIME Magazine instantly named it as one of it's All-Time 100 Best Albums (not bad for your debut record) Rolling Stone gave it 4/5, Spin Magainze 9/10, AllMusic 5/5 and Pitchfork (yes those guys) gave it a perfect score of 10/10. To add to that impressive resume, it's legacy lives on today, Mojo UK listed it in their The 100 Greatest Albums of Our Lifetime, Rolling Stone gave it a spot in their Essential Recordings of the ‘90s and Spin Magazine dutifully place it into their Top 100 Albums of The Last 20 Years. Proof that quality & talent, regardless of taste or trends, are still both highly valued comodities in the world of music. Critical acclaim aside, it also attained an official entry in the Guinness Book Of World Records as being the first completely sampled album.

I called it "Endtroducing...", because to me its on one hand an introduction. This is a sound I have been developing for 4 years, and I don't intend to be doing this next year or the year after. The next album is going to be a lot different, it should be a lot different, cause I will be inspired by different things. And so the album is an end to that sound. It just follows the theory of build and destroy. If you build something you should be the first to destroy it before someone else does. That's what I believe. I could have named the album build and destroy. But I don't like it that obvious.2

If the darkly atmospheric "Endtroducing....." left music fans dazed, drooling and gasping for more there was to be a long wait in store. That wait spanned a lengthy 6 years, until 2002's follow up "The Private Press" finally surfaced cementing his legacy into the collective concious of the mainstream music fans. The greatest success of "The Private Press" was that it proved "Endtroducing....." was no mere accident. An intense tour to coinside with it's release, spanning 20 countries and complete with a hallucinagenic stage show that even today, puts many other DJs to shame.

"The Private Press" truly showcased just how talented a producer Shadow had become during that 6 years wait. The sheer scope of the sounds and genres he morphed and merged were equally as astonishing the second time out. His sampling & layering seemed more intricate this time around & numerous musical highlights (especially through the opening 5 tracks) which made the wait more than worth it. And though whilst earnestly stretching, it didn't quite reach the heady musical heights attained on "Endtroducing....." (The Private Press scored Pitchfork 7/10, Rolling Stone 3.5/5 & AllMusic 4/5 respectively). The overall feeling is of an album brimming with intriguiding ideas and possibilities but never quite managing to pull them all together over its duration - but it still stands as a worthy predecessor to an album which set the bar ridiculously high.

Official Music Video: "Walkie Talkie" from The Private Press

People always seem to suggest that there’s this pressure, and that ‘Endtroducing’ is some kind of albatross, and I’ve just honestly never felt that way. I think that I have a healthy enough respect for the lineage of the music and how rare it is that you can connect with an audience. If that will always be ‘the record’ then so be it, that’s cool. It took me a long time to reconcile with the fact that people are often fans of records rather than artists. For a while I used to go, “How come the same people who bought "Endtroducing....." don’t wanna buy "The Private Press?” And it took me a long time to sort of go, “Well listen, it was a zeitgeist album,” just like this week it’s a different album, the one album people feel that they need to buy, even if they just buy one album a year.3

On "The Outsider" Shadow delved back into his past (he was producing pure hip-hop records back in 1992), dropped the cinematic sounds of "Endtroducing....." and "The Private Press" defiantly shifted his cap to the side and teamed up with rag-tag of underground San Francisco Bay Area hip-hop vocalists (Keak Da Sneak, E-40 and Turf Talk amongst others) to create a collection of tracks with wildly varying results. It's easily his most fragmented and weakest release of his career.

After initially promising to take you on a journey through an electric musical landscape, it conspires to somehow get itself lost in the process. No doubt hamstrung and laboured by the weight of expectation of his fans and egos of the numerous artists he collaborated with, it's a record without a consistent theme, tone or voice. It lacked the brooding soul of "Endtroducing....." or the shimmering highlights of "The Private Press." At it's worst, it proved to be  schiziophrenic scattergun of ideas and underwhelming cameos, at its best a bold and brave experimental leap into unforged territory with more than a few missteps.

It wasn't just fans who were left feeling suitably baffled and dissapointed, critics too slammed the record. Pitchfork chimed in with a dissapointing 5.8/10, AllMusic an average 3.5/5, Stylus Magazine a sub-par 25%, whilst Metacritic User Score sits at a lowly 4.3/10.

The negative coverage clearly rattled Shadow, who felt compelled to response to the criticism of the record by posting on his blog "Repeat Endtroducing over and over again? That was never, ever in the game plan. Fuck that. So I think it's time for certain fans to decide if they are fans of the album, or the artist."

Official Music Video: "3 Freaks" from The Outsider

It wasn’t like I started out with a list of dream people I wanted to work with. It started out with a track. I’d do a track and think, who would sound good on this track? I didn’t want it to be a superstar cavalcade either. I just wanted to use who I thought would work. It is hard to balance that many artists. Just being in contact with that many people and massaging the process so it can go forward. That is hard because everyone is not just a phone call away. I didn’t know how to contact some people. 4

We're now days away from the release of his 4th studio album "The Less You Know, The Better" - ironically enough, nobody truly knows which musical turn will Shadow take this time around.

Will he continue on the same path as "The Outsider" and risk alienating more fans & fade into musical irrelevancy? Will he attempt to satifisy their wishes and recreate "Endtroducing....." or "The Private Press" when both should be left as moments in time? Or will he somehow take the core ingredients of what made those two records (and particularly "Endtroducing.....") so special and mix in those experimental leanings of "The Outsider" without going to far off the map?

DJ Shadow Performing Live in 2011 - A teaser of things to come?

Make no mistake, it's a difficult balance but with over 24 years in the music industry, 3 records behind him and a wealth of experience it would be a bold person to doubt Shadow this time around. It would be unrealistic to think that he could ever eclipse the scale and success of his debut, but does he have the ability to create and reinvent a sound an thereby a whole new chapter and era for himself?

You bet.

As history has shown, Shadow is a hard man to pin down or back into a corner - on "The Outsider" he flirted dangerously close to both of those things, this time around all bets are on him to come out fighting.

As for what Shadow think about all this expectation and pressure, we'll leave you with these fine words from the man himself.

“In the same sense that I never perceived of ‘contextual failures’ within The Outsider, I never perceived of contextual brilliance in Endtroducing…. To be honest, I don’t have the capacity to know what even the people in this building are going to think about my music, let alone the general public. And that’s the single best reason I can think of for making the music that I want to make, regardless of the public reaction. 5”

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