DJ Shadow – Top Ten

DJ Shadow

DJ Shadow

With his imprint Liquid Amber going from strength to strength, Getintothis’ Ste Knight takes a look back at DJ Shadow’s 26 year career and picks his top ten from the cult crate-digger’s back catalogue.

DJ Shadow‘s debut album, Endtroducing, was released almost 20 years ago in 1996. The album broke new ground as it was the first of its kind to be assembled solely from samples. Indeed it is Shadow‘s skill in sample manipulation that made the world sit up and take notice of Josh Davis, the young Californian producer, back in the 90’s.

It is fair to say that despite fast approaching its vicennial, Endtroducing still sounds as fresh now as it did back on release day. Truly a forward thinking concept, the album stood as a benchmark not only for sample based music in general, but for all subsequent DJ Shadow material. Shadow purists all look fondly back on the Endtroducing days with misty-eyed wonderment, and quite often will decry new releases by the beatsmith with some sort of ‘nothing like Endtroducing‘-based mumbling.

His debut release received critical acclaim when it was let loose upon the ears of the music community. The perfectly-ordered chaos contained within makes the record a truly emotional journey. For those of us who have been fans of Shadow since the album’s release you might even say that Endtroducing is a deeply spiritual record. Not in the godly sense, but in the way that once you hear the album, it sticks in your soul: What Does Your Soul Look Like? It looks like a collage of sampled beats and melodies, my friend.

Shadow is truly a beat-crafter’s beat crafter. Digging up long-forgotten funk samples, utilising public service recordings and never-before-heard riffs, he pulls together the forgotten dreams of disregarded artists and stitches them altogether into a beautifully mellifluent patchwork. Tracks like Organ Donor and The Number Song showcase Shadow‘s ability to go hard or go home, whilst the lamenting notes contained within Changeling illustrate his capacity to produce real emotion within his music. A truly eccentric medley of John Carpenter soundtracks, Kool G Rap bangers and Chester Randle soul snippets (amongst a whole stack of others) Shadow‘s Endtroducing is truly deserving of the ‘classic’ mantle.

Pre-Emptive Strike was Shadow‘s next release.  Whilst it was kind of an ‘add-on’ to Endtroducing, it brought together all four parts of What Does Your Soul Look Like? as well as treating us to overseas releases such as In/Flux and High Noon.

It is definitely fair to say that, in Endtroducing, Shadow left us with a legacy. One which, as mentioned, purists will tell you he is yet to top.  However, is it not his entitlement as an artist to explore new realms of sound? To evolve and grow into something different? Of course it is, and Mr Davis is not one to stick to the same path.

With The Private Press we saw Shadow take a slightly different turn. While he relied less on being sample-heavy in his tracks, he still threw down some seriously dope beats within the record – we only have to listen to the second full track, Walkie Talkie, to hear this. The drum sampling on the track is tight as you like, and the unforgettable vocal samples (I’m a bad muthafuckin’ DJ/This is why I walk and talk this way/SUCKA) make the track a real party starter.

Shadow‘s shape-shift starts to become apparent on the likes of Six Days, which introduces recorded (as in non-sampled) vocals to the wringer. Monosylabik is a total mindfuck of IDM style beat frenetics and sub bass that will make your speakers rumble. Right Thing achieves a similar effect as the vocal sample skitters and stutters around the drums and bass. Lateef the Truth Speaker of Latyrix hammers it home on Mashin’ on the Motorway, which perfectly conveys the stress and excitement of bowling down Route 66 at 90mph and weaving in and out of other angry motorists. Think about the first time you played Grand Theft Auto and you’re there.

While the The Private Press may not have been as strong as Endtroducing in terms of becoming another instant classic for Shadow, it was an excellent album nonetheless which prepared die-hard fans for the dynamic shift of direction Shadow was to take on his next offering.

2006 saw Davis take a whole new heavily (perhaps unfairly?) criticised leap into uncharted territory. The Outsider illustrated his new found love of the Bay Area precursor to pitched-up, treble heavy, Trap music: Hyphy. The thizz-heavy album saw Shadow producing some supercharged tracks with gritty, pounding and fast-paced drumming, while Hyphy legends Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk spat some incredibly infectious bars.

It is unfortunate that the album was criticised as being incoherent. Having said that, it does seem to be somewhat watered-down; the over-inclusion of guest artists meant there was less Shadow on show.

The Less You Know, The Better was greeted with the same disdain by many Shadow fans old and new. Again there was an over-reliance on featured artists, and their contributions did very little to improve the quality of the album. This matters not in the grand scheme of things; it isn’t as though Shadow owes us another Endtroducing, nor does he have to ‘stick to his roots’ so to speak.

Fly forward to 2015 and Shadow‘s Liquid Amber imprint is flying high, exhibiting a whole host of brand new emerging artists like Bleep Bloop, Mophono and Ruckazoid. Standing out from the crowd, however, is the mysterious Nite School Klik. Releasing their debut EP in June 2015, there was a certain buzz surrounding the tracks. Nobody really knew who Nite School Klik was/were. That was until Shadow confirmed it was indeed a collaboration between himself and producer G Jones.

You could say that Shadow and Jones have done the right thing in not telling anyone that Nite School Klik was, in fact, them. It means that those who heard the EP prior to their announcement didn’t do so with any preconceptions of what they think a Shadow record should sound like.

Liquid Amber is showing great promise, and could well be vehicle through which Shadow hits us with his next solo offering – here’s hoping we see that soon. In the meantime, though, here’s a DJ Shadow Top 10 to keep your thirst slaked.

10. DJ Shadow – The Number Song – Endtroducing

Sounding like Sesame Street on crack, the inimitable Number Song is a minefield of mental drum beats and, well, numbers. ‘What is this? This… is the Number Song’ hails the vocal snippet, before skeeting off haphazardly over the choppy beats that really make the track what it is – a fine example of Shadow‘s dexterity on the MPC.


9. DJ Shadow – Dark Days (Main Theme)  Dark Days (Soundtrack)

Dark Days is a track Shadow produced as the title theme for the British-made flick of the same name. The film chronicles the lives of residents of Manhattan’s Freedom Tunnel, and heavily featured tracks by Shadow and by Unkle. The title track was a Shadow original and conveys perfectly the lamentable lives of those who dwell inside the tunnel they call home. The lilting, almost ‘wild west’ style guitar is laid over some wondrously chilled out beats. The track actually samples the drums from David Axelrod-produced House of Mirrors by jazz musician David McCallum.


8. DJ Shadow – Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain  Endtroducing

The 9 minute magnus opus that is Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain features as track 14 on Shadow’s debut album. The song starts off with a somewhat unsettling spoken word grab from 1985 film The Aurora Encounter, before kicking in with some stripped down sample-crafting which marries the components up nicely. The second part of the track picks things up a touch to scatter your brain asunder with its glorious melange of breakbeats and minimal bass.


7. The Groove Robbers – Hardcore (Instrumental) Hiphop  Entropy

The Groove Robbers were an anonymous offshoot project by DJ Shadow. The groove robbers in question are, in fact, Shadow‘s trusty Technics 1200’s, with Shadow at the helm. The EP, Entropy, features Hardcore (Instrumental) Hiphop  which is a real lesson in cutting, sampling and scratching from the master himself. It’s a downright funky scuzzfest with a cracking guitar lick powering through the track and some seriously bomb percussion. Is it good enough for ya? I’ll say!


6. DJ Shadow – Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul) – Pre-emptive Strike

Organ Donor, from Endtroducing, is a delight in itself. The Giorgio Moroder hook which makes up the main body of the track is playful and the song is great fun. Only complaint? Too short: which is why the Extended Overhaul version from singles collection Pre-emptive Strike has pipped the original to the post in this top ten. If you’ve ever seen Shadow live, you’ll know he plays this track out on his MPC sampler and it is truly a spectacle to behold as his fingers work at the speed of light to perform it in its entirety.


5. UNKLE – Rabbit in Your Headlights – Psyence Fiction

It was a bit of a toss up whether or not to include any Unkle tracks in this top ten. First off the album featured numerous other artists in addition to Shadow, so it’s up in the air whether or not we can call this a Shadow track per se. However, I’m going to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke takes care of the haunting vocals on the track, whilst Davis fuses monumental strings and hissing static shots with his trademark choppy beats to make a real stunner of a track.  It is probably as much Radiohead as it is Shadow, in all fairness, but it is truly sublime nonetheless. The video is fucking great as well.


4. DJ Shadow – What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit) / Transmission 3 – Endtroducing

Shadow lays down a delightful slab of Cam-eqsue jazztastic hip-hop in the first instalment of the What Does Your Soul Look Like series. There’s a classic breakbeat going down throughout the track, with occasional lyrical samples fading in and echoing out. The main star of the show, however, is the sultry sax which flaunts its wares whilst the flute sample coils tightly round the nether regions. Unadulterated sonic sex, mate.


3. DJ Shadow – Walkie Talkie – Private Press

Walkie Talkie saw Shadow going back to basics with the looping vocal snippets, occasionally scratched into oblivion in the way only Shadow knows how. It is track three from his second album, and it is Shadow all over. Mayhem inducing drums clatter round like a handful of marbles in a perspex cube while the grungy, grainy, distorted bass waaaaahs away to its heart’s content from the thirty second mark. A proper growler.


2. DJ Shadow – Building Steam With a Grain of Salt – Endtroducing
The first ‘track proper’ on Endtroducing, and what a track it is. A complete groover which samples a school broadcast of George Marsh teaching drums, Signs of the Zodiac waxing lyrical about the tenacious Cancerian, sickeningly squirmy funk-guitar licks from HP Riot‘s track I Need You while the drumming comes courtesy of Frankie Seay and The Soul Riders. An absolute killer track to kick an album off with and it never wanes.


1. DJ Shadow – Stem/Long Stem – Endtroducing

Perhaps we’re guilty here of overplaying the importance of Endtroducing, having given five of the tracks from the album spots in our top ten. So what? Feel free to disagree but this album was a cataclysmic success and there’s zero doubt about that. One of the standout tracks (aside from the other 15) has to be Stem/Long Stem. At just under 8 minutes long it is quite the epic. All the better for immersing yourself. Slowly building, swelling string samples make up the start of the track which layer up nicely with further perfectly melded samples, such as twinkling glockenspiel dinks and xylophone hits, giving way to a blistering breakbeat which skullfucks you into submission. This track is a perfect example of how DJ Shadow can create a whole from the sum of its many varied parts. I come to lay rap down, I tell you children I can lay rap down. Dig it?