Endtroducing….. – DJ Shadow ★★★★½

1996Endtroducing…..DJ Shadow★★★★½88ElectronicAlternative Hip-HopTrip-Hop

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. is a pioneering album that set the standard for sample-driven instrumentals in electronic and hip-hop music, and solidified the sound that would come out of most trip-hop artists for the rest of the decade. 

Sample-heavy music absolutely existed prior to 1996. However, having an album created almost entirely from obscure record samples, one that also carried emotional weight and creative energy in the same way a song with original vocals would, was something pretty unique. 

Similarly, trip-hop existed before Endtroducing..…, with Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack, Bjork and others crafting the genre from the ground up in the early 1990s. DJ Shadow himself had influential songs that defined the genre early, years before his debut record was released in 1996. But, while the trippy and laid-back part of the genre was there already, what Endtroducing.… introduced was a new depth in the layering and sound engineering process, and demonstrated how intricate a producer could get in stitching various elements together in instrumental mixes.

Creating an anatomospherice album that feels raw and urban, cold and bleak at times, and that doesn’t have many unsampled vocals to add warmth or life to the songs should not be something that demands your attention as much as this album does. But, even when the repetitive songs stretch past seven minutes, it’s impossible not to feel fully ingrained in your surroundings. 

The samples are blended together in a way that feels seamless, but that also feels like freeform jazz; you never know what will come next but it’s still precisely crafted. The sounds pile up like snow on a winter day, but smoothly glide like ice across the top of a puddle. 

The funky basslines. The hypnotizing drum loops and dizzying turntables scratches. The trippy vaporwave string and electronic samples. The eerie pianos, harps and vocals. They all work hand in hand. Most of the time, you can’t tell that it’s all been patched together from different sources. 

The entire album works as a whole, but most tracks also stand on their own and bring something interesting or clever to the mix.  

“Number Song” has a relentless drum kit loop, a funky beat switch halfway through for the bridge before returning back, and various samples that count in the beat. “Changeling” is a classic, extended trip-hop track, taking you on a journey that’s sounds evolve and change as you get deeper into the adventure. The earliest “What Does Your Soul Look Like – Pt. 4” has jazzy drums and  a memorable, soulful bass, while “Pt. 1” (which appears later on the record as the penultimate track) has laidback DJ scratches, and a reflective, pensive vibe that’s appropriate for the end of a record.

One of the standouts is “Stem/Long Stem.” Its snowy bells and haunting harp and strings set the mood before mechanical, machine-gun drumming gets more and more intense until abruptly being interrupted and starting up again, the final reprise building through trumpets and synths instead of percussion. 

The album is a bit long and at an hour and three minutes is draining. There is some fat that you could trim — “Transmission 2” is just a preview of a song later on the album, the interludes are harmless but don’t really add too much, and some of the white space in song intros and outros could be tightened up without losing anything — to get a pared down 50 or 55 minutes that’s a little easier to sit through every moment of each time. 

It’s also repetitive by design, because the point of the genre is to sit and settle in over time and to groove with the music as it morphs in a familiar and a hypnotic kind of way. But the lack of melody to grasp onto at times does lend itself to the “background music” criticism from folks not totally into the genre itself. If it’s background music, it’s damn good background music.

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