DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ Explained

We go in-depth on why this is one of the most influential hip-hop albums ever made.

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DJ Shadow Endtroducing album cover
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Group

To listen to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is to hear sampling approached as a spiritual practice, an aural document of one man’s lifelong reverence for hip-hop and his communion with the history of recorded music. After years of bending over record crates and inhaling dust from decades-old vinyl in the basement of the Sacramento record store, Joshua Davis pulled hundreds of samples together to create a record that reimagined and expanded the possibilities of the art form. Producers had sampled for years, and perhaps the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique rivals the number of sources on Endtroducing, but nothing before Endtroducing had its sonic scope. The fact that Shadow was able to keep every musical fragment in his brain almost makes him seem more like a conduit than a composer.

In the expansive, ethereal, and meditative world that is Endtroducing, The Meters coexist with Tangerine Dream (“Changeling”), Pink Floyd plays on the same bill with Jimmy Smith (“The Number Song”). Hip-hop, electronic, ambient, jazz, rock, classical, and more coalesce. Endtroducing was a hip-hop record that irrevocably blurred the lines between genres, exposing the reality that genre never really existed. It was a construct that DJ Shadow helped deconstruct one sample at a time.

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In this article, we’ll answer a few questions about why the album remains such a touchstone.

Order the remastered vinyl edition of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing here.

Why is Endtroducing so important?

Endtroducing legitimized sampling as an art form unlike few albums before it. If ever anyone says sampling takes no skill, that’s it’s lazy theft, you can point to Endtroducing. The seamlessness and shape-shifting of Shadow’s sonic collages aren’t impossible to recreate, but they would take years of study and innate musical skill to get right.

“By ’95, when I was really working on Endtroducing heavily, I was very much trying to make a statement about, ‘Why are we all abandoning this artform? What everybody else is doing is great, but I feel like there’s a lot of work left to be done in this discipline.’ And I wanted to create a record that pushed that conversation forward,” Shadow told Westword.

The album gave rise to the notion that hip-hop producers could create a full instrumental album, that they were more than composers for rappers. Without Endtroducing, the world might not have been ready to accept J Dilla’s Donuts, another brilliant work of sampling bricolage. Somewhere between Shadow’s Endtroducing and Dilla’s Donuts, you have the roots of the Los Angeles Beat Scene, the hip-hop and electronic music community that spawned Grammy-winning producers like Flying Lotus. There are decades of music that might not have happened if not for Endtroducing.

Where was DJ Shadow in his career?

In 1991, when Shadow was just 18, he was featured in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column. Hailed for his “beats, fat drum fills, [and] swift cuts,” he was already synthesizing disparate sounds, pulling from Jimi Hendrix (“Purple Haze”) and The Commodores (“Assembly Line”) on a single song. By the time he started recording in 1995, Shadow had graduated from UC Davis, toured Europe as a DJ, and was living in a small Davis, CA apartment that he described as a “little rat hole.” Though Endtroducing was his debut, he’d released several Mo’ Wax singles, including 1993’s “In/Flux,” and completed many remixes for labels like Hollywood BASIC. In 2012, Shadow told NPR how his career status in 1995 directly influenced the album title. “The reason it’s spelled E-N-D at the beginning was because I saw it as the final chapter in a number of singles that I had done already.”

Who influenced Shadow when he was making the album?

By the time he started composing Endtroducing in 1995, Shadow was undoubtedly well-versed in the majority of hip-hop production that had come before him. Though Endtroducing doesn’t sound like the records of Shadow’s production predecessors, he still pulled from their artistic ethos.

“On Endtroducing….. I was using European prog and a cut from Metallica, Björk, etc.,” Shadow told VICE. “To me, that’s simply following the same aesthetic as who I consider to be the real pioneers of sampling, whether it be Prince Paul and all the barriers that they broke on Three Feet High & Rising or hearing Large Professor flip something a little bit out of the norm, or Premier using Jean-Jacques Perrey, a French synthesizer pioneer. You see that and you kind of go “oh, there are no boundaries.”

How did Shadow source the album’s many samples?

Cut Chemist once called DJ Shadow “the king of digging.” Shadow did most of his crate-digging for the hundreds of samples on Endtroducing at Rare Records in Sacramento, the now-shuttered used record store commemorated on the album cover. After years of sorting through the stacks upstairs, the owner granted Shadow access to the store’s basement, a cavernous catacomb of disorganized and otherwise jettisoned vinyl. In Doug Pray’s DJing documentary Scratch, Shadow sits among the basement’s floor-to-ceiling record stacks and discusses finding the samples for Endtroducing among them.

“In fact, most of [Endtroducing…] was built off of records pulled from here. So, it has almost a karmic element of, “I was meant to find this on top,” or, “I was meant to pull this out because it works so well with this.” So it has a lot of meaning for me personally,” he says in Scratch. “Just being in here is a humbling experience because you’re looking through all these records, and it’s sort of like a big pile of broken dreams, in a way. Almost none of these artists still have a career, really, so you kind of respect that. If you’re making records and you’re a DJ and putting out releases, whether it’s mixtapes or whatever, you’re adding to this pile, whether you want to admit it or not.”

While digging through those mountainous, near-toppling stacks, Shadow was guided by intuition and his ever-growing musical knowledge. Sometimes, he pulled records at random. Just as often, though, he looked at the labels. “You start to develop a sense of [which ones will have] something fruitful within the grooves. You start looking for certain labels; you start looking for certain producers,” he told NPR. “One of the first things I realized is that anything prior to 1966 probably wasn’t going to have what I was looking for. Once James Brown invented funk and rock ‘n’ roll began to combine certain jazz aesthetics, then music began to take form and began to settle into a 4-4 groove, which is what hip hop is based on. … You were going for something that you could nod your head to. Anything before 1966 is going to have just a completely different approach.”

Did the samples cost a lot of money?

By the time Mo’ Wax released Endtroducing, rappers, and record labels had been sued for millions over sample clearances. Somehow, Mo’ Wax cleared as many samples as they needed to release the album and evaded spending a small fortune. In 2012, Shadow discussed the Endtroducing clearances with NPR, as well as the ever-frustrating and complicated process of clearing a single sample.

“I was asked by the parent record company, ‘Give us your first 10 [samples] that you think are the most obvious or the biggest usages, and we’ll work on those first.’ I said, ‘Fair enough, here they are.’ … Clearing samples is not a cut-and-dried process. Some people have reasonable expectations of what they think the usage is worth and some people don’t. Some people have artistic scruples about it, some people don’t. And then the third most common thing is, you can’t find the people: The labels don’t exist or they’ve been absorbed into a massive conglomeration who doesn’t even know what they have or where the tapes are. These are really common scenarios, and you just have to do your best to navigate them.”

What does the album sound like?

Hip-hop. Trip-hop. Electronic. Ambient. None of those broad genres encapsulates the sound of Endtroducing. It is each one of those and more. The album can be as introspective as it is aggressive, as uptempo as it is downtempo. The songs build layer by layer, break down, and turn back on themselves.

The album essentially opens with “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt,” Shadow uses ominous classical piano and choral singing to create the haunting bed for a fusillade of damaging drums. It sounds like walking through a bombed-out ancient city, the score playing as more artillery decapitates whatever buildings, statues, and humans are still standing. With “Organ Donor,” Shadow turns an obscure Giorgio Moroder song into a hypnotic organ loop, accenting the grinding, mesmerizing, and almost carnivalesque melody with a barrage of drums. “Midnight in a Perfect World” is a swirling, expansive ambient suite that thumps with chugging percussion, the suite made fuller with subterranean scratching, gently plinking piano, violin, and vocals that sound like they’re echoing and repeating from another realm. It’s both serene and strange, calming and unsettling. The jittery drum and bass of “Napalm Brain / Scatter Brain – Medley” stand in stark opposition to the slow, swaying, and almost spiritual jazz of “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit).” There are movie clips that drift in and out, suggesting a meaning that is endlessly fascinating to consider but forever unknowable.

Yet, each track brilliantly segues into the next. Shadow finds the sonic threads necessary to stitch them together, knows the right track to offer a reprieve. Endtroducing accomplishes the towering feat of sounding like countless things you’ve heard yet retaining its singularity.

Did hip-hop “suck” in ’96?

The Endtroducing track “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ‘96” offers a brief, sampled explanation of its titular assertion (“It’s the money”). But the title was written in jest. “To a lot of people I’m the digging guy and I am always in a basement in a record store,” DJ Shadow told Bonafide Magazine. “To other people – and I always find this to be strange – I am the person who stood up to hip-hop and this is why hip-hop sucks. I am always, like; ‘This was a tongue in cheek, funny title.’”

In any case, 1996 was a landmark year for hip-hop in a decade full of them. The list of undisputed classic albums released that year include Fugees’ The Score, 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, Busta Rhymes’ The Coming, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and UGK’s Ridin Dirty. However, as hip-hop rapidly became more popular and commercially viable, people within and outside of the hip-hop community leveled broad criticisms against the genre, pointing to everything from rap artist’s perceived glorification of wealth and violence to producers’ lack of originality in sampling.

DJ Shadow likely shared some of these sentiments to varying degrees, but he also loved hip-hop. Unlike people who rejected the genre or stole from it without acknowledging their sources, Shadow embraced hip-hop for its flaws while hoping to push the genre forward.

What is the story behind the photo on the album’s iconic cover?

The Endtroducing….. cover will never eclipse DJ Shadow’s music, but it’s become one of the most recognizable pieces of album art of the last quarter-century. On paper, the image doesn’t sound especially remarkable or novel. Two men (technically three men and one cat, if you’re looking at the gatefold) stand under dim fluorescent bulbs and dig for records in a used record store. The man turning toward the camera (Latyrx’s Lyrics Born) has a motion-blurred face, while the man holding a stack of records (Blackalicious producer Chief Xcel) remains in focus. When you see the image, though, the impact is immediate.

Captured by revered and now-veteran hip-hop photographer Brian Cross (aka B+), the cover photo distills the essence of the album’s composition, the countless hours Shadow spent hunched over or squatting in front of dusty crates for samples in that same Sacramento record store (the now-shuttered Rare Records). The image also captures the timeless joy of musical discovery, the solitary moments of face-blurring sonic revelation and the camaraderie fortified when shopping for music with your friends. It doesn’t feel contrived or forced like the big-budget, highly stylized, and color-saturated hip-hop covers of the mid-’90s.

While Endtroducing….. represented a musical breakthrough for Shadow, the cover was an equally pivotal moment for Cross. “It was a breakthrough photograph. It was weird and mysterious but from the minute we saw it on the proof sheets, we were like, ‘Well, that’s the cover anyway.’ … That photo has really stood the test of time – a really bizarre, technically incompetent photograph,” Cross told Dazed. “That photo was a recalibration in terms of my photography practice. Evaluating what was important about that image and why it works allowed me to reconsider my ideas and philosophy. Up until that point, those photographs would be considered in the margins, and then suddenly it was like, ‘Well, how do I make those kinds of moments the center?’”

How did the album wind up on UK label Mo’ Wax?

Mo’ Wax was the brainchild of James Lavelle, an Oxford DJ who relocated to London as a teenager and began spinning at club nights like Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud. In 1993, Lavelle and Peterson started Monday club night That’s How It Is, which coincided with the opening of the Blue Note and club nights like Goldie’s infamous drum and bass night Metalheadz. Rooted in this fertile club scene, Mo’ Wax sprang up as a post-acid jazz label between 1992 and 1993.

During Mo’ Wax’s inaugural year, Lavelle heard DJ Shadow’s remix of “Doin‘ Damage in My Native Language” by U.S.-based rap group Zimbabwe Legit. “It was just this amazing version, nothing like the original,” Lavelle told High Snobiety. “It had this classical thing about it, almost like Pink Floyd doing hip-hop, and eventually I found out who he was and contacted him – and the rest is history.” After Lavelle and Shadow toured together and Mo’ Wax released several successful DJ Shadow singles, Mo’ Wax gave Shadow an advance for Endtroducing.

What is trip-hop? How did DJ Shadow feel about Endtroducing being classified as such?

The word “trip-hop” first appeared in print in a June 1994 Mixmag feature written by Andy Pemberton, which surveyed an emerging scene of musicians in the UK. Pemberton described it as “a deft fusion of head-nodding beats, supa-phat bass, and an obsessive attention to the kind of other-wordly sounds usually found on acid house records,” citing DJ Shadow’s “In/Flux” (1993) as trip-hop’s germinal record. To add on to Pemberton’s description, trip-hop became shorthand for an opiated fusion of breakbeats and downtempo jazz, soul, and funk. Two years before Shadow’s Endtroducing, trip-hop went global following the release of Portishead’s 1994 debut, Dummy.

Trip-hop’s detractors criticized the genre as a softening and rejection of US hip-hop. Shadow didn’t initially bristle at being labeled a trip-hop artist, but it began to bother him when trip-hop became a fad divorced from its hip-hop roots, the now global scene populated by opportunistic producers.

“[I know people] that have a problem with that term and find some perverse pleasure of putting me in the bracket even though they know full well I was doing KMEL mixes seven years ago – the first all Hip-Hop mixes, so they know they ain’t right,” he told Rap Pages in 1996. “I mean, I get frustrated with these bogus ass groups that try and put themselves under this ‘trip-hop’ umbrella to make a buck, because most of these fools don’t know shit about hip-hop. I guess that’s why I’ve never considered myself a ‘trip-hop’ artist.”

How was the album received upon its release?

In the UK and Europe, Endtroducing was a critical and commercial success. The album spent ten weeks on the UK album charts and was certified gold within two years. Apart from a negative review in The Wire, foreign press was extremely positive. Tom Wilkes, who reviewed Endtroducing for British music magazine Melody Maker, couldn’t have been more adulatory. “I hear a lot of good records, but very few impossible ones…” Wilkes wrote. “You need this record. You are incomplete without it.” NME called Shadow the “Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page of the sampler.”

However, after a whirlwind of press and successful gigs abroad, DJ Shadow returned to Davis still virtually unknown. Fans recognized him on UK streets, but sales and critical acclaim were slow to arrive stateside. “The album wasn’t getting radio play anywhere, as far as I could tell. Even my own college radio station didn’t seem to know who I was, or have any interest in playing my stuff. So, I thought that was it,” Shadow told Eliot Wilder for his 33 ⅓ book on Endtroducing. “At that time, Davis was the world to me. [laughs] Even though I had been a lot of places, it’s the only thing that seemed real. And then, all of a sudden, the weekly Sacramento arts and entertainment paper did a cover story on Endtroducing, and I didn’t even know about it. That’s when it hit home.”

What does DJ Shadow think of the album’s legacy?

DJ Shadow seems to discuss Endtroducing in every interview. This isn’t his fault. Even if the focus of the interview is Shadow’s latest album, the interviewer eventually circles back to his debut. In 2016, 20 years after Mo’ Wax released Endtroducing, Shadow reflected on the album’s legacy in an interview with Rolling Stone Australia.

After expressing his gratitude for the album’s continued resonance, Shadow said he hopes Endtroducing was “bought by 100,000 artists.” In other words, he wants musicians to return to Endtroducing for inspiration, to use the album to push their art forward. He also realizes the rarity of creating a piece of music of this magnitude.

“Being a student of music and reading about other artists and their aspirations, I know how difficult it is to connect in a meaningful way and have a record that endures for 20 years the way this one has, so I know how lucky I am. I know how grateful I am every day that I managed to achieve that at least once in my lifetime.”

Order the remastered vinyl edition of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing here.

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