Celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, DJ Shadow's breakthrough album Endtroducing was the first album to be comprised almost solely of samples, and took hip hop to previously unexplored territories.
Prior to the mid-'90s, instrumental hip hop was purely functional - generally made up of breaks records for MCs to rap over the top of or short, inconsequential intermissions and experiments sandwiched between the "real" content on rap albums. Hip hop without vocals was largely a side-thought, and certainly never the kind of genre that could be called sprawling or conceptual. That is, before Endtroducing.
Sacramento native Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow was a vinyl junkie with a big habit and unfettered access to his favourite record store, Rare Records - an expansive cornucopia of second-hand vinyl, mostly dusty and forgotten stored in boxes upon boxes in a basement. Davis would spend hours each day searching through records for samples, and over the course of two years he amassed enough material to create his debut album - the first to be comprised almost exclusively from sampled material.
Released on the fledgling hip hop label Mo' Wax Recordings, Endtroducing was an instant classic - an hour-long trawl through forgotten funk records, B-movie horror soundtracks, obscure snippets of spoken word and otherworldly sound effects. All sampled on an Akai MPC, with layer after layer of material frenziedly whipped together into a mélange of strange new arrangements, Endtroducing alternates between psychedelic trip hop, skittering breaks and trigger-happy blast beat techno. Hip hop had never sounded this eclectic, sample-based music had never drawn from so deep a pool of influences, and beat-based electronic music would never be the same again.
With Endtroducing Shadow pulled together such disparate source material as Kraftwerk, Metallica, Tangerine Dream and Björk, assembling it all in yet more ingenious and unexpected ways to create an album that moved through so many moods that the results often hardly resembled hip hop at all. Taking the moody introspection of trip hop, which was at the time finding favour thanks to the efforts of a number of UK-based groups, Shadow augmented its fusion of melancholic breaks with a genuine sense of otherworldly spaciousness. Elsewhere on the album, the climactic sections of tracks such as 'Building Steam With a Grain of Salt', or 'Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain' layered beats so thick and fast that they more closely resembled the kind of rhythms one might find on jungle or techno records.
It's easy to label an album a masterpiece, but the true test of such is its capacity to influence residual music culture. Twenty years later and it's difficult to imagine a world without Endtroducing - it laid the blueprint for the stream of hip hop producers from Madlib to The Avalanches to Flying Lotus who fused crate upon crate of disparate source material into their own iconoclastic sampladelic works. One glance at the list of producers assembled to undertake remix duties on the third disc of the forthcoming 20th anniversary edition of the album confirms just how far and wide the album's influence extends. From the shoegaze breakbeat of Clams Casino, through the gyrating neo-trap of UZ to the smooth yet ominous footwork of Salva, itself reminiscent of Endtroducing's unforgettable climactic passages, it's widely apparent from these new takes that the source material from which they draw is still as fresh as ever.
Elsewhere Scottish wunderkind Hudson Mohawke moves from spooky introspection to off-kilter glitched-out bass music taking on album highlight 'Midnight in a Perfect World', and Bondax/Karma Kid take 'Building Steam with a Grain of Salt' to new heights of shimmering digital beauty. What all of these new takes are so evocatively reminiscent of however, is the way in which Shadow himself was able to fuse the beautifully strange with the groovy and head-nodding. Endtroducing might be an intricate work of sampling genius, but after two decades it's still also an incredibly engaging listen that works on both a visceral and emotional level. In turns hauntingly obtuse and booty-shakingly satisfying, the album enchants repeatedly and consistently.
In subsequent years Shadow paired up with indie-rock royalty like Thom Yorke (above), tried out short-lived genres like crunk, and took odd soujourns into balls-out rock. The roots of all of those stylistic tangents are here though, as is the sonic DNA of many subsequent styles and sounds, honed and expanded upon by Shadow's successors. Somehow, quite fittingly, Endtroducing provides an origin for all of it. Funny then, that Shadow's first statement was also the definitive word on the possibilities of instrumental hip hop. Sometimes and ending's just a new beginning.