By Christian Hince | September 20, 2021
Having hit its 25th anniversary Thursday, “Endtroducing” by DJ Shadow remains a genre-bending masterpiece that shows the very best of sample-based music.
In terms of instrumental hip hop, the San Francisco producer’s debut album is one of the most prominent and heralded titles ever to be put on record.
While the label of hip-hop is often stuck to “Endtroducing” due to the techniques used to make the record, the association is made loose by how Shadow transforms traditional methods of production in the genre to make something original.
In 2001, Guinness World Records gave Shadow’s debut the title of “First album made completely from samples.” While it’s uncertain if “Endtroducing” was the first record of this sort, what is certain is the effort with which he shows in digging up sources of music.
Samples on the record range from classical piano, to hyperactive jazz fusion, to droning metal, and beyond. They range in notability from acts like the obscure disco band Baraka to world-renowned artists such as heavy metal band Metallica and art-pop legend Bjork. What matters most with a cornucopia of source material, however, is putting it to work, which Shadow certainly does.
“Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” the album’s first full-length song, features an ethereal and tense piano riff paired with angelic vocals over a heavy hip hop-adjacent drumbeat. Personal depth is added to the song by an interview with 20th century jazz drummer George Marsh, who talks about learning to play music and his artistic inspirations from within. This conscious angle is fitting for Shadow, who once said that he thinks his “issues of self-doubt and self-esteem come through in the music.”
Nearly halfway through the seven-minute track we’re introduced to his break sampling skill, a technique which elevates drumbeat composition from hip hop’s early days. Drum sampling typically entails sampling individual drum components (i.e. snare, high hat, bass drum) for re-arrangement into simple beats to be rapped over.
Shadow takes this concept to the next level, creating complex, fast solos (breakbeats) that add great dynamism to several songs on the album. The break sampling on “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain,” a number with frenetic percussion, or wild drumming, in the latter part of the track which reminisces of the drill ‘n’ bass and jungle factions of electronic music at the time.
“Endtroducing” also smashes hip hop tradition in terms of song structure. Take “Donuts” by J Dilla, a similarly acclaimed “instrumental hip hop” album characterized by looping tracks that end before the two-minute mark. While Dilla made songs with room to be rapped over, Shadow took the opposite route.
Five of the 13 tracks on his album run longer than six minutes in length, and most of the record’s songs feature multiple sections that deepen the soundscapes created by Shadow. The eight-minute, two-parter “Stem/Long Stem” is a great example of this. Part one includes an anxious harp melody which is overloaded during sections with raging fast black metal-esque drums, and part two takes a subdued approach to this unhappy atmosphere with an emphasis on synth-wave.
DJ Shadow doesn’t restrict elaborate composition to the album’s longest cuts. In “Mutual Slump,” a jazzy breakbeat rides through sections of chaotic Finnish prog-rock, relaxing synths from Bjork, and bleeding trumpet-playing. Its polarized dynamics articulate the associated but contrasting emotions of melancholy and angst. And it would be unfair not to mention what is perhaps DJ Shadow’s most popular song ever, the elegant “Midnight in a Perfect World.”
Sounding more like a straightforward hip-hop instrumental, it’s arguably the most accessible song on the album. Melancholic synths and piano are complemented by scattered bits of echoey singing and enhanced by a traditional hip-hop drumbeat. Complete with a guitar solo at the end, the song beautifully creates the peaceful environment described in the title.
To create a well-woven product, “Endtroducing” indulges in the realm of intros, interludes, and outros. “Best Foot Forward” is a fun sound collage of various brief musical/hip hop snippets that opens up the album well. “Transmissions 1-3” are mostly identical, lying across the album to spread ethereal creepiness with the same robotic voice saying, “This is not a dream, not a dream.” “Organ Donor” is two minutes of pipe organ-induced fun.
“Endtroducing” is a phenomenal album. Not only is its creativity legendary, considering the music on the record, it changed a booming underground music scene across the ocean in the UK. Trip-hop, a term which happened to originate from a critic’s evaluation of the 1993 DJ Shadow single “In Flux,” had become the name for a British music scene which combined elements of hip hop with electronic and pretty much anything else. Shadow’s magnum opus in 1996 became the defining work of this genre, cementing a legacy beyond just independent greatness.
DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing” is an incredible record that balances technical prowess with musical beauty and emotional potence. It balances emphasis on traditional methods with sharp originality and creativity. While old school in its musical methodology, the legacy of “Endtroducing” holds up as a masterpiece full of originality and human passion.