dr. dre - the chronic (album cover)DJ Shadow‘s groundbreaking album Endtroducing….. has, so far at least, remained beyond the reach of the masses, which is too bad. Within the music community, Endtroducing….. is a treasured and hugely influential work, but as far as music consumers are concerned, they are more familiar with the effect than the cause, unfortunately. Sampling, which had driven the sound of hip-hop since its inception in the late ’70s, had fallen out of fashion by 1996 due to a series of lawsuits that made it prohibitively expensive by the early ’90s. Dr. Dre released The Chronic at the end of 1992, revolutionizing the sound of hip-hop by utilizing live instrumentation and thicker, heavier bass; samples and scratches were still present, but both were pushed to the background.

u2 - pop (album cover)Meanwhile, the British group Massive Attack popularized trip-hop — an electronic cousin of hip-hop — with their 1991 debut Blue Lines, which is an excellent album, incidentally. Throughout the ’90s, rock and pop music incorporated electronic elements, but did so only on a surface level; it was just for show, contained entirely within the presentation. As a result, trip-hop became something of a fad. I still to this day have not listened to U2‘s Zooropa (1993) or Pop (1997), the latter of which is supposed to be an especially disastrous attempt by the band to do an electronica record. The ’80s had really bad synthesizers and copious amounts of reverb; the ’90s had electronic music. Some of it was very good, but most of it sucked. A lot. Remember how huge the “Macarena” was in 1996? The way that song completely took over pop culture was mind-blowing. (If you can remember another song doing what that song did, let me know.)

massive attack - blue lines (album cover)Well, the “Macarena” was typical ’90s dance pop, which was the evil that electronic music wrought. (Incidentally, has there ever been a song before or since that doesn’t sound grammatically correct — though I’m by no means an expert on the song; I could be off base here — unless there is a “the” in front of it? It’s not like we refer to other songs as “the ‘Stairway to Heaven'” or “the ‘Layla.'” Weird.) Massive Attack’s album Blue Lines is real music; it’s subtle and artful. The problem is, every time a new style comes along, the entertainment business finds the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to cash in. And unfortunately, the way they always do it is by preying on the fact that most people can’t tell the difference between what’s legit and what’s a gimmick.

Which is why only the most adventurous music listeners have even heard of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….., which is, I’d argue, one of the most important and influential albums of the past twenty years. For one thing, there is no single material here — aside from some sampled vocals, everything is instrumental. In fact, Endtroducing….. is groundbreaking because the entire album has been constructed from samples; these tracks have been built from the ground up, to the point where the samples are completely unrecognizable, actually, though DJ Shadow — a white, suburban kid named Josh Davis from California — pulled most of them from obscure sources to begin with. I’m guessing the obscure samples were cheap to clear, but there are still some easily recognizable artists in the sample credits: Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Metallica, Tangerine Dream, Nirvana, Björk, Organized Konfusion, T. Rex, the Alan Parsons Project, and others.

beastie boys - paul's boutique (album cover)However, not a single second of Endtroducing….. is even the slightest bit familiar. It feels like it somehow should be, but Shadow has so deftly scrubbed the compositions of any familiar residue and bathed them in multi-faceted textures that everything on the album sounds astonishingly fresh, like a dirty old sports car emerging from a car wash as a shiny spankin’ new Ferrari. As I mentioned, sampling has long been a cornerstone of hip-hop music, but Endtroducing….. basically pushes sample-based hip-hop to the shallow end of the swimming pool. (The Beastie Boys’ album Paul’s Boutique comes the closest to joining Endtroducing… in the deep end.) For one thing, hip-hop instrumentation always exists to support vocals, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that if you were to listen to only the instrumental portion of a hip-hop album, you would feel like you weren’t getting the whole picture.

What makes Endtroducing….. so extraordinary is that each track is a true composition — there’s no rapping. Some tracks are less than a minute; some are almost ten. But the longer tracks all have various movements, and when you listen to the album straight through, everything runs together, and at first its hard to even tell what track you’re on. (Unless you look, of course.) Eventually though, slowly but surely, a clear narrative develops over the course of its 63-minute running time, and DJ Shadow presents everything with such a cinematic flow that it even comes across as something of a leitmotific score. (Seriously, themes come and go just like on a movie soundtrack.) In doing all of these album entries, I have noticed that albums “shorten” with repeated listens, and Endtroducing… is no exception. At first I can recall thinking it was too long, that 63 minutes was just too much time to be listening to instrumental electronic music. But now? This album flies right on by. And I catch new things each time through, even after having listened to it consistently for well over a year now. I never lose my sense of wonder about Endtroducing…; it’s like stumbling upon an ancient ruin.

I don’t know if you play video games, but one that I played in high school was called Metroid Prime for the Nintendo GameCube. (It’s one of the most critically acclaimed games ever.) Basically, the plot of MP is that you, as bounty hunter Samus Aran, investigate a planet that was hit by a meteor containing a radioactive substance (Phazon) decades earlier. The planet was subsequently invaded by the ever-evil Space Pirates in search of an energy source, who wiped out the existing civilization (the Chozo) and suffered complications of their own in their mining of the Phazon. Throughout the game you get to read logs and journals of both the Chozo and the Space Pirates that get left behind in the ruins, which shape a lot of the specifics of the plot, and there’s this one room in particular that kind of reminds me of what it’s like to listen to Endtroducing…..

It’s a room in the Chozo Ruins called the Hall of the Elders. I don’t think there were any logs or journals to read in there, but every time I had to pass through that room I would always stop and take in the scenery and think about all the history and so forth, about how that civilization is just gone and the ruins are all that remain. The game had that kind of weight to it. (For a long time a movie based on the game was in development, but nothing ever came of it. I believe I can explain why: there was only one character, and exposition was delivered via reading journals. While the game was certainly cinematic, the only way to make it work as a movie would be to change it considerably, which undoubtedly Nintendo never would have agreed with.) I don’t know why, but that’s the experience I always think of when I listen to Endtroducing….. Listening to this album is total immersion into something that’s altogether new, where, as I mentioned earlier, nothing sounds familiar. Of course, the overriding irony here is that nothing is new since everything is sampled from previously recorded music! It’s really an incredible achievement, one that’s unique in the entire pop music canon.

radiohead - ok computer (album cover)And yet, somehow, Endtroducing….. didn’t appear on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 2003 (or its 2012 update), which I don’t understand. (It does, however, appear at #71 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Albums of the Nineties list.) At the top of this I mentioned that most music listeners are familiar with the effect and not the cause. Radiohead cited DJ Shadow as an influence while making OK Computer, arguably their greatest album, which was released the following year. Most find Radiohead bizarre enough and probably aren’t interested in finding out what their influences are, and I would have to agree that most of Radiohead’s influences are probably pretty esoteric, though I probably shouldn’t just assume that. But Endtroducing….., like Radiohead, is accessible, not to mention immensely enjoyable. Give it a go.