If there is any album that deserves the Biggie line “it was all a dream”, then perhaps an album created by Josh Davis would fit perfectly. Endtroducing (Mo’ Wax/ffrr) came out at a time when it was needed but it also depends on why it was needed, according to ones musical preferences. It was looked upon as a collage of 100 percent samples when the voices of Gift Of Gab, Lateef The Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow’s then-girlfriend Lisa Haugen were elements of the soundscape that is DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, where that randomness becomes part of the sonic decoupage. Thus if it is decoupage, one is left to ask “listen, children: what does this all mean?” or does it have to mean something? It meant something the moment he began creating the album and in a way, there’s more than one meaning to the album. I will share my interpretation of the album and songs that have created what I feel is not only one of the best albums of 1996 or the 1990’s, of any genre, but one of the best albums ever made in recorded history.
The first time I heard of DJ Shadow was when he received Unsigned Hype status in The Source back in 1991. The review made me curious as to what the mixtape by “Shadow” was about but unlike reviews found in the punk fanzine MaximumRockNRoll (MRR), there was no contact address to be able to purchase it or ask for more information. I wanted to hear “Let The Remix Hit ‘Em” and what he did with a Hendrix song and a Commodores break. Journalist Matty C. even told readers that if people wanted beats, they should inquire but without an address, one would have to somehow seek the “Shadow” in mysterious ways. Back then, no one knew he worked with rapper Paris nor did anyone know he was getting an opportunity to make himself known through the greatness of the late Dave “Funken” Klein, which leads me to Zimbabwe Legit.
Funkenklein had established a hip-hop division of Disney Records called HollywoodBASIC and one of the first artists he worked with was a duo of African brothers called Zimbabwe Legit. They released an EP that was highlighted with a song remixed by Black Sheep’s Mista Lawnge and while the songs on the EP were okay, I found myself enjoying something simply called “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix”. While Discogs claims the song was a remix of “Doin’ Damage In My Native Language”, it sounded nothing like what it was sourced from and perhaps that was the point: for Shadow to do his damage in his native language of records while also showing where the group came from. In my mind, “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix” seemed initially like a slight rip-off of the Beastie Boys’ “To All The Girls” with the shared use of Idris Muhammad’s “Loren’s Dance” but it seemed Shadow was getting a chance to explore the song far better than the Beastie Boys ever did in the intro and outro of Paul’s Boutique. It seemed like Shadow loved the beat too but wanted to let people know there’s much more than what they know. He wanted to bring people into what they didn’t know or should know. I was immediately hooked but it had taken me awhile to realize the Shadow of “Legitimate Mix” infamy was the guy whose demo tape I had been seeking.
The next time I heard from DJ Shadow was none of the music he was releasing in the UK, for I hadn’t been aware he was signed to Mo’ Wax. It was through a split 12″ single he did with everyone from the Solesides collective, which I had read about in URB magazine. Solesides was the label they had put together when they were attending college, as a way to get their music out into the world. Arguably, what Lateef, Lyrics Born, Gift Of Gab, Chief Xcel, and DJ Shadow sounded nothing like what Bay Area hip-hop sounded like but they were away from the norm and were willing to press up their own music, get it out into the world and see what happens. Shadow’s side of the record was credited to The Groove Robbers, for he was the one stealing from the grooves to create his music. I hadn’t been aware at the time that “groove robbers” was a phrase used in the intro of his song “Entropy” so it would take me awhile before I was able to accumulate the pieces of the puzzle he was creating for himself. However, it wasn’t “Hardcore (Instrumental) Hip Hop” that I liked as much as I loved “Last Stop”, as the beat was just in your face and it didn’t stop. Little did I know he was putting together music from sounds that were also a part of my origins of someone with a “sample ear”, it too was the roots of my love of the work of Art Of Noise, something he would scatter a bit in the debut album to come.
For someone like myself who still had to put the pieces of the puzzle together, Endtroducing was not an album that was recorded in one sitting or a series of sessions that was meant to create a full project. Some of those songs were at least two years old by the time Endtroducing, specifically “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)” and “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1) (Blue Sky Revisit)”, both of which were part of a 4-part movement gathered as a single on Mo’ Wax. However, one can either examine the album in-depth or simply listen to it for its textures and figure out if there was a meaning to the message, or was the message something you discovered when you looked at the run-off groove of a record and said “hey, there’s a statement here”?
If this was the the beginning of the end, what was ending? “Best Foot Forward” was a way to start on his instinctive travels and the paths of not only Shadow’s rhythm, but the rhythm of everyone he has come across since childhood, detected by the Stanley Clarke bass, Kool G. Rap saying “back again”, Stezo claiming someone would be “using and confusing beats that you never heard” and then touching back on his HollywoodBASIC by throwing in something from Lifers Group’s “The Real Deal” (“1990”). You can say bringing in Bob Wood, national program of the CHUM Group was a way to say he was a traveler, someone who did not stay in one place to compile his sound collection. With Russell Simmons letting listeners know that before things get started, the sounds were a way to fill you in before he began… producing.
When I made music, I said I would be “making music through sounds and samples”. Shadow was not someone who only looked for beats and cool samples just to create something funky, for the lyrics within the song or the song title itself would help to tell the story. In this case, the piano comes from Jeremy Storch (the uncle of one-time keyboardist of The Roots, Scott Storch) and his 1969 song “I Feel A New Shadow”. Shadow would make that an occasional signature throughout his career, using songs that refer to a shadow of some sort to let people know that while you may not “know” him, his presence is always there.
If a shadow is within his own presence, who is it? It seemed that this had a lot more to do than just making something sound funky from music not meant to be danced to at the club:
“I can fly through the strangest land. Black…”
“Black satin starry eyes/browm smile…”
Was there someone else within the shadows and if so, who is it, who is the one with the “brown smiling face on my pillow”?
“…and I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me, which is… which comes from all the music that I hear, you know, I’d like for it to come out. It’s not really me that’s coming (through), the music’s coming through me.”
The moment I heard that quote, I knew this guy had a sense of how I felt with music but I also knew that this album was far more than just a gathering of obscure samples from unknown places. There had to be more.
The moment “The Number Song” began, I knew that this was very much a hip-hop album, despite the fact a number of critics didn’t state it or refused to say this was hip-hop, or the 1996 brand of hip-hop. I immediately recognized the “one, two, three, four, five!” chops at the beginning, recognized the “break down, baby” quote” and I very much knew the bass guitar drone that went through the majority of the song. Was this in honor of the Bay Area vibe? One could have easily thrown in an E-40 or Too $hort reference, and I know he has done that in other mixes and performances throughout the years but by highlighting a Metallica instrumental that a good amount of hip-hop heads wouldn’t be able to figure out, he immediately stood out from everyone else who wouldn’t dare sample Metallica. Sampling Slayer was something only Public Enemy did. Not only that but he was sampling a drum break from a song that, for me, remains one of my all time favorite hip-hop songs. Using it was a way to say “there’s more to this song than everyone hearing the phrase “baby, don’t you cry now”, for he not only manipulated the break but was adding in a breath/inhale or the end of another word so it sounded like the voice couldn’t be pulled through.
It also asks “what is the importance of the number?” In soul and funk, numbers are very important not only in counting in a rhythm but a record collector need to know which was the preferred part of the song: a Part 1 or a Part 2? Catalog numbers? A need to understand rhythm and time signatures so one could manipulate a 3/4, 5/4, or 14/4 rhythm into 4/4? A countdown towards the Fantastic Five MC’s so one could be pleasing all the ladies over at Cypress Hill? Everything has order in a song that climbed into a valley and stayed into it was time to leave but once it left the valley, where would one find themselves?
While I liked being able to hear Endtroducing and know where I had heard that song before, I very much enjoyed hearing sounds that were foreign to me, as it made me want to hear more of what he was using. Not only that but the song was in a 14/4 time signature. In the days of the Usenet where people gathered in the rec.music.hip-hop and alt.rap newsgroups, music fans would talk about why rap groups never did anything outside of the 4/4 time signature or why very few tried to rhythm in a 3/4//waltz time pattern. Here, the beat was in 14/4, which means it was in 4 + 4 + 4 + 2, the last two beats in that time signature is cut off so initially, it feels like something is missing but we go back and return to the 4 + 4 + 4 + 2. The stuttering of the mixer, the bass line from an Embryo record, the magic of Tangerine Dream, the voice of Loudon Wainright III, it’s all there to hear. I still remember being on the highway locally when I was about to take the off-ramp. For some odd reason, my mind briefly imagined that I wasn’t there and I somehow imagined myself in a section on O’ahu called Wahiawa, roughly a 15 minute drive from where I used to live in Pauoa. Entering Wahiawa meant going over what people called the airplane bridge for when you drove over, you’d hear the sound of what sounds like an airplane. I’m driving on the highway and I knew exactly where I was and yet I wasn’t. It somehow made me feel it was a “Changeling” moment, at the 6:22 part of the song.
“What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)” always comes off as a temporary break on the album, even though it’s not meant to be. The keyboard, the guitars humming, the drums decorating itself and the saxophone entering the soundscape. What I love about the song is the breakdown at 3:36, where the majority of the drums is pushed far into the mix. The best part of this part is a man simply saying “tss”, an excerpt of a possible lyric that we never get to hear in full.
The truth intermission is the untitled track, which some simply call what it is: “Track 6”. Jolly Ranchers.
“Stem” is one-part beautiful, one part harsh. Is the return of the speed metal samples a throw back to what he did in “The Number Song” or is it yet another song made to sound like another thrash metal gem chopped up beyond recognition? “Stem” was released as a single in the UK and actually became a hit. Then again, “Stem” was originally going to feature lyrics so perhaps releasing it as a single in its final mix was partly intentional. Also intentional is what you may consider the second half of the song, “Long Stem”, an extension of the first experience, beginning with the organ by Girgio Moroder that ends up becoming “Organ Donor”. The overall song is moodier and when it ends, you hear a familiar sample within “Transmission 2” from David Axelrod, a pre-cursor for what’s to come later in the album. It’s a bit of continuity that is something Pink Floyd did on their albums, bringing up a chord structure in one song that was used earlier in their career (i.e. the guitars from the mid-section of “Echoes” heard in “Is There Anybody Out There”, the scream from “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” used at the end of “Run Like Hell”, a certain bass guitar phrase used sporadically) and while that may not be the intention (or perhaps it’s another inspiration that made him do it), it works.
The second transmission comes in before L.H. makes her only sonic presence in Shadow’s music.
Trippy progressive jazz/rock and Bjork: in other instances, this would be complete nonsense but somehow within “Mutual Slump”, it works. Lisa gets a chance to share a small bit of her life when she came into the United States but the continuity is here too, with a reference to Darth Vader, perhaps an indirect suggestion of what Shadow would use with the UNKLE album Psyence Fiction) (i.e. “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now” from a Star Wars trailer.) The song finds itself chugging its vehicle, only for Lisa to tell her story but what I like the most about the song is what I originally thought was a sample from Art Of Noise’s “Donna”, the Synclavier sound of a human voice. Instead, it’s from the Roger Waters & Ron Geesin soundtrack to Music From The Body, a male “duh dum” from “More Than Seven Dwarves In Penis Land”. As a Floyd fan, I very much knew of Music From The Body as an album that was close-to-impossible to find at the time, since it was out of print. Was it worth the OOP status and if so, is it because it’s good or because it’s related to Roger Waters? It’s as weird as some of Floyd’s earlier soundtrack-related albums and while its use hear is somewhat peculiar, it fits within the Bjork and Pugh Rogefeldt sounds.
Quick story. Years ago, Eothan Alapatt, better known as Now Again Records founder Egon, once released a 12″ compilation EP with Samson & Delilah’s “There’s a DJ in Your Town”. The 12″, Guerilla Breaks Volume 1, featured the original song plus the break beat looped, not unlike something you’d hear on Ultimate Breaks & Beats or one of the breakbeat albums made by Simon Harris. In 1999 around the time of DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist’s Brainfreeze, I was figuring out the samples used in the mix plus wanting to hunt down all of the records used. That lead me to wanting a 45 of “There’s A DJ In Your Town” and on a mailing list that Egon was a part of, he said he had a copy. I had the money at the time, for it was a bit pricey and I bought it. When I got my copy, it was the white label promo on Indigo and I asked if this was an actual copy, not a counterfeit pressing. He kinda questioned me as if to say “do you know who I’m talking to? I value what I collect and if it’s a fake, I’d tell you if it’s a fake. This is real.” I eventually got the 12″ with “There’s A DJ In Your Town”, I believe a pre-cursor for what he would do when he joined Stones Throw at the time and I noticed that one of the numbers on the 12″ was the same as the 45. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not so I asked, not to be nerdy or nosy but I was just curious. Egon knew what I was doing, simply playing nerdy record collector games and he more or less said “good spot”, as in “you figured out something a lot of people wouldn’t know.” Anyway, the Guerilla Breaks Volume 1 EP had Nashville on the bottom of the label, where Egon was going to college at the time.
Back to the album. The Moroder organ sample was very nice but what I also loved was the drums taken from Tim And Bill’s “Someone”, a duo who were along the lines of Samson & Delilah or Sam & Dave, or perhaps more like The Righteous Brothers. Producer Ron Price would release it as an instrumental under the name “P.M. Or Later” by the session musicians used on “Someone”, but credited to The New Breed. There wasn’t an actual group, just a name to be used and in time, records would be released as The New Breed featuring Tim And Bill.
A brief interlude thrown out with Lyrics Born making a brief three word statement, a statement that may have seemed odd to say in response to the question brought up in the song title but it has since become one that has been used every year throughout its first presentation. Why does hip-hop still suck in 2016? Please answer us, Mr. Shimura. It wasn’t a way for Shadow to say his style of music was better than everyone else but why everyone else was not doing the kind of music with the vibe he grew up with and preferred. Why were things changing? It was much more than just new technology.
The use of Organized Konfusion to open up “Midnight in A Perfect World” could be said to be another throw back to Shadow’s HollywoodBASIC days, taking verbal cues to continue his story. The use of Pekka Pohjola’s “The Madness Subsides” (b/k/a “Sekoilu Seestyy”) beautifully welcomes the listener into this world that welcomes in the new day. The use of the drums in Rotary Connection’s “Life Could” and slowing it down is a similar approach Dr. Dre had when using The Winston’s “Amen Brother” for “Straight Outta Compton”, turning into something one wouldn’t normally decipher unless they knew how to do a match between both records. (At one point, fans had assumed the drums used was from Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” but someone figured out it was actually the Rotary Connection. What links both Marlena Shaw and Rotary Connection is not only Minnie Riperton being heard in both but the fact the drummer used by producer Charles Stepney is said to be Morris Jennings, although Maurice White had also worked extensively with Stepney before White moved to California to start Earth, Wind & Fire.) What is also beautiful is the vocal choir created by Meredith Monk and her vocal group. It may not have been something one would normally find on ECM Records but then again, ECM is not exactly on the same level of a Blue Note, Verve, or Prestige.
The song can be considered meditative, a downtempo classic even though I always hear it as being very hip-hop in the vein of “Straight Outta Compton”, but down the railroad tracks somewhere else in town. Not “across the tracks” but along the same track going on the same path to its destination. To this day, even though the vocals apparently are just a woman singing “ooh” (the Baraka sample), I swear I hear her singing “can you hear me?” even though she is just singing a melody. The song was blowing through the jasmine, at least in my mind.
When I was last home in Honolulu in 2000, I had met someone whom I had called a good friend at the time. I was doing a blog back then before blogs were a thing and to describe the moment, I said something to the effect of “when I walked out that building at midnight, it was then I realized my perfect world was here” in the city that started my greatest influences in life and music.
While I enjoyed the songs that were four to five minutes, I am someone who always enjoy sit when an artist chooses to go on a lengthy excursion in their music. It’s why I loved the 11-minute “In/Flux”, the 33-minute “What Does Your Soul Look Like”, or the 10-minute “Lost And Found (S.F.L.)”. This is a journey song that takes you along the aforementioned tracks in the valley and at one point, one feels like wanting to brave going to the other side, which happens at the 3:54 mark. It’s the “Scatter Brain” part of “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain”, where the drums are chopped in double time that may sound like something Timbaland would make his trademark a year later but also reminds me of a lot of Tahitian music I grew up with. It could have easily been something from teh 49th State album Little Brown Gal but the keyboard sample in the background still lets us know that while he wanted us to travel elsewhere, we are still very much here, in the familiar place you still call home.
The album ends with yet another beginning, in this case Part 1 of “What Does Your Soul Look Like”. In this 4-part suite, Shadow began the album at Part 2, goes to parts 3 and 4 before ending with the beginning of Part 1. If you keep on following the path, you may wonder if he knew what direction he was going in teh first place but he knew. He simply wanted to present to you his designed map in the hope you’d be willing to travel his own way.
The song begins with random sounds from the Alan Parsons Project before fading towards jazz from The Heath Brothers and “The Voice Of The Saxophone”. The first voice we hear is that of singer Shawn Phillips, who tells us “and why should we/want to go back where we were, how many years could that have been?” Do we continue to reminisce or is it brave to look forward to the future and what is the future? The drums played by Idris Muhammad on “Joe Splivingates” by David Young is incredible, fitting to me considering where I had first heard Shadow (the Muhammad sample of “Loren’s Dance” in “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix”, that continuation of continuity).
What makes this song work is something that was not used on the original mix of “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1)”, but this version is subtitled “Blue Sky Revisit” which means something is different. In this case, it’s the presence of a female voice who sings “all my life I’ve felt contempt to stargaze at the skies, now I only want to melt“. Originally, I had interpreted the lyric as something she “could not understand” but “now I understand” until I discovered who and what the sample is (Irene Kral’s “Star Eyes”) and heard the song in full. When you realize the sample is called “Star Eyes”, it goes back to the lyric in “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” about “black satin starry eyes”, everything begins to tie in. Once the voice says her lines, it response in French:
“E c’era già (and there was already)
questo amore che viviamo tanto tempo fa (this love that we live a long time ago)
c’era già, una rosa che ti ho dato le canzoni (there was already a rose I gave you in song)
che ho cantato la tristezza in allegria (in sadness, there is also happiness)”
Are these the souls that found each other and if so, where do they plan on going and how?” It does not matter for somehow, the souls looking for one another are able to fly up together and there is someone who sings what I always heard as “I’ll fly” but is most likely part of the Italian lyrics in Gianni Nazzaro’s “C’era Già”. Whatever the reason behind the use of the new voice in “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1)”, it works beautifully and it is perhaps realized that Endtroducing is a love story but one with a triple meaning:
1) It’s a love story from one person to another
2) It’s a love story of hip-hop
Then there’s #3.
The album comes to a close with the third transmission, where the radio waves are coming in from the distance but we’re not sure where it’s from. We feel things are about to fade but we realize this is the moral of the story, one that can be deciphered only by those in the know. If you simply hear the sounds, it’s just eerie sounding but like a number of spots on the album, I knew exactly where the soundbyte came from: Twin Peaks (season 2, episode 2). Julee Cruise was singing on how “the sun will come out each day” before her surroundings freeze and a man says “it is happening again.
It is happening again.”
It fades to another scene that shows a record player at the end of its record so all you hear is the run-off groove in repetition. At the moment it shows the record player, the character of Leland Palmer is looking at the camera and something happens, one of the biggest moments in the Twin Peaks series. It is revealed that Palmer is either Bob or that anyone may have the evil of Bob within them. Endtroducing ends cold at the moment when the revelation is finally made in the TV show so one is meant to left wondering what happened. Why did he end the album as soon as you hear Leland give a confident snicker? Do you focus on what’s to come or simply at the play of visuals, a record player meant to represent the end and if so, do we continue? It is then we realize the use of a record-related sample makes this album a love story to vinyl.
When DJ Shadow did an online chat with the In/Flux mailing list in 1998 or 1999, I had asked if Endtroducing was a “Bob Sandwich”. He wasn’t sure what I meant at the time but I stated the album begins with someone talking about Bob Wood, the national program director of the CHUM Group and ends with the revelation of Bob from Twin Peaks. If true, then could “Bob” also represent the number 808, which in hip-hop refers to the Roland TR-808, one of the most notable drum machines of the genre? I was simply wanting to know if DJ Shadow was playing a game in the hopes someone would figure it out. He replied and stated it’s an interesting theory but is very much a coincidence. He didn’t state yes or no either but I like the idea that it “could” mean something if I want it to mean something extra.
Endtroducing was an album that challenged its listeners. At the same time, it also seemed to confuse people who weren’t able to figure out what it was, what were the influences and why it wasn’t just a megamix all at 94 beats per minute. It didn’t have a Gang Starr vibe, it didn’t have a Goldie vibe, an Acen vibe or come from the world of house, jungle, or fridgebeat. Yet in a way, it had all of those things, trying to interpret the music in their own way. It could very much be something you’d hear at a club, in a R.E.C. room, at a rave, or in your bedroom with headphones. The album mattered because I made it matter at a time that I needed it in my life. 1996 was a year that also gave us Prince Paul’s Psychoanalysis? and Dr. Octagon’s debut album. A few months before its release in the U.S., Ghostface Killah released his debut album, Ironman. I thought 1996 could not get any better from a guy who was willing to talk about a brother named John who peed in bed. Then Endtroducing came around, an album I read about through an interview in URB. It was then I realized this DJ Shadow was not only the DJ Shadow I bought two years previous but also the Shadow I had been seeking since 1991.
I also liked the fact that by calling himself Shadow, the moniker had a double meaning of sorts. He insisted that he was a shadow of hip-hop, to the point of non-existence but always present. If you didn’t see his face, you would know his music, whether he was “Giving Up The Ghost”, understanding when “The Mountain Would Fall”, being “Sad And Lonely” (or perhaps not), getting down to a 108 tempo, being positive about the flash-flash-flash-flash-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-back or understanding what happens when someone is alone and satisfied, realizing someone else could be alone and satisfied too. Oh, you are alone? Maybe he, through his music, can help you.
It’s the mystery of DJ Shadow’s music that keeps people coming back and I’m glad to say I’ve been a fan for 25 years, even if searching for his music was difficult in that first year. 20 years after Endtroducing was released in the United States, it remains an album that is still a welcome relief for people who were seeking something different, only to discover it’s not as different as initially believed. Your personal discoveries lead you there and new discoveries will keep you hearing it in different ways each time. I hope to be 70 years old, still listening to it with the same excitement as I did in my first listen 20 years ago.