Digger, Please

A Survey of Sampling Maestro DJ Shadow's Greatest Snips

Digger, Please

Dirk Lindner

DJ SHADOW The Mozart of the MPC.

DJ Shadow (born Joshua Paul Davis 38 years ago in San Jose, California) is the Mozart of the MPC. He is credited as the first producer to construct an album composed entirely of samples—the 1996 classic Endtroducing...—and in doing so, he set the bar impossibly high. Inspired by the Bomb Squad, the Dust Brothers, Ultramagnetic MCs' Ced Gee, and Eric B., among other key figures from hiphop's first decade, Shadow nevertheless eschews the hectic, slam-bang collage style of those legendary hiphop studio wizards for a more introspective, smoothly flowing approach. Many of Shadow's finest tracks consist of snippets lifted from several divergent sources, meticulously woven into seamless symphonies of funk and mood, occasionally augmented by movie dialogue. From such disparate sonic particles, he constructs deeply moving pieces that prove you can create original music without even touching a traditional instrument.

Shadow's encyclopedic (or should that now be Google-riffic?) knowledge of music history and sheer dogged persistence in crate-digging have elevated his art to rarefied heights. He possesses the cunning and audacity to combine passages from both obscure and famous musicians in his own compositions, resourcefully stitching together bits that have no business harmonizing so well. This is Shadow's main skill: maneuvering unlikely components into coherent and striking songs. (The same aesthetic applies to his DJ sets, in which, for example, you might hear the guitar riff to the Guess Who's "American Woman" juggled with Robert Plant's "whoas" from Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love"; from such fortuitous juxtapositions one can discern germs for new tracks.)

In Eliot Wilder's 33 1/3 book on Endtroducing..., Shadow explained his creative ethos: "When I sample something, it's because there's something ingenious about it. And if it isn't the group as a whole, it's that song. Or, even if it isn't the song as a whole, it's a genius moment or an accident or something that makes it just utterly unique to the other trillions of hours of records that I've plowed through."

Let us now spotlight some of Shadow's most "ingenious" samples in a catalog overflowing with them. (On a side note, you should know that some of Shadow's finest productions appear on his remix of Zimbabwe Legit's "Doin' Damage in My Native Language" and on UNKLE's Psyence Fiction, which aren't included in this survey.)

"In/Flux": This 12-minute epic from a 1993 12-inch on Mo'Wax is a tour de force of myriad elements. Bama the Village Poet's searing spoken-word screed about government brainwashing ("Social Narcotics") interrupts a laid-back funk rhythm supplied by Funkadelic's "Good Old Music," over which Jeremy Steig's gorgeous flute from "Howling for Judy" sighs invitingly. Later, a spangly guitar from Earth, Wind & Fire's "Bad Tune" adds a chilling frisson. These samples are only the tip of a very concentrated iceberg of a track loaded with cool ingredients. In a sense, "In/Flux" was Shadow's calling card, a masterly statement of intent trumpeting his sampling prowess and expansive music smarts.

"What Does Your Soul Look Like": This four-part triphop masterpiece contains an entire universe of sound. Shadow could've retired after releasing this multifarious suite and still entered the pantheon of immortals. (The original release is scarce, but you can easily hear it on the Preemptive Strike collection of early Shadow singles.) Part 1's mood is set by the Heath Brothers' "The Voice of the Saxophone" and Shawn Phillips's maudlin croon on "All Our Love." (Both are pitched down for maximum wistful somberness. Shadow has remarked that "What Does Your Soul Look Like" was made during a period of depression.) Part 2 is initially animated by the enchanting, descending guitar riff from the Growing Concern's "Edge of Time" before the next phase is signaled by, of all things, an incredibly poignant, hypnotic guitar motif nicked from Foreigner's "Girl on the Moon." Leave it to Shadow to locate that AOR dinosaur's most sublime moment and milk it for every ounce of emotional capital possible.

Part 3 contrasts that old hiphop warhorse Skull Snaps' über-funky breakbeat "It's a New Day"—which was already kind of played out by the time Shadow deployed it—with forlornly pretty woodwinds from "Twin City Prayer" by Hollins and Starr. (Who? Precisely.) Add impassioned dialogue about consciousness from William Hurt's character in Altered States, and you have another riveting addition to Shadow's impressive canon. Part 4 is powered by a slowed-down sample of Flying Island's momentous guitar riff from "The Vision and the Voice Part 1—The Vision." Again, who? Never heard of them, but damn if their little spurt of genius doesn't prove to be crucial to the irrepressible momentum of "Soul." Similarly, the mellow vibes in "Monica" by the People's People lend another key layer of intrigue to what many consider to be Shadow's peak production.

"Organ Donor": Shadow conducts a seminar on merging two drastically different keyboard parts: Giorgio Moroder's ostentatiously florid theme on "Tears" and Supersister's wickedly sinister growl from "Judy Goes on Holiday." There's some mind-blowing synching happening here.

"Untitled": If nothing else, this 25-second interlude brings to your attention the sly, stoned funk nugget "Grey Boy" by Human Race, for which you should be eternally grateful.

"The Number Song": Soooo damn funky—thanks to the striding bass line of Creations Unlimited's "Corruption Is the Thing," the galvanizing stutter drums from the Third Guitar's "Baby Don't Cry," the purring organ of Jimmy Smith's "8 Counts for Rita," and the beautifully resigned horn stab on Pearly Queen's "Quit Jive'in."

"Mutual Slump": It's hard to imagine a more attention-grabbing introductory sample than that contained in Swedish prog rocker Pugh Rogefeldt's "Love Love Love," with its huge, thumping tom-toms and frantic guitar trills sounding like some kind of ultimate fanfare for a supreme ruler of the universe. The subliminal inclusion of a bit of chanting and scatting from Roger Waters and Ron Geesin's absurdly whimsical "More Than Seven Dwarfs in Penis-Land" suggests just how perverse Shadow can be when the spirit takes him.

"Changeling": Do not underestimate Shadow's krautrock credentials. Here he nabs the fathoms-deep, stiffly funky bass line from Embryo's "Klondyke Netti" and threads some undulating synths from Tangerine Dream's "Invisible Limits." So it's no letdown when he underpins the track with beats generated by the oft-sampled Meters ("Here Comes the Meter Man"). Hey, they can't all be ultra-arcane sources.

"Midnight in a Perfect World": Shadow unearths a fantastic example of soothing somber beauty in Finnish multi-­instrumentalist Pekka Pohjola's "The Madness Subsides," which epitomizes the tune's pervasive melancholy. The understated coo from Baraka's "Sower of Seeds" is one of those tiny details that can push a track from great to amazing. Shadow sprinkles dozens of such touches throughout his oeuvre; one could spend a (rewarding) lifetime trying to discern them all.

"Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain": You gotta love a cut that embraces both Tyrannosaurus Rex's "'Pon a Hill" and Billy Cobham's "A Funky Kind of Thing." But the star of the track is the Daly-Wilson Big Band's "Space Odyssey 2001," whose wah-wah guitar gets submerged in molasses in Shadow's studio to add severe degrees of menace to what is the zenith of Endtroducing.... recommended

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Comments (7) RSS

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For the record, "What Does Your Soul Look Like" should be played starting with Part 2, then 3, 4, and back to 1. The article is written in a way which suggests the song should be heard properly from 1 through 4, but in this case, the song starts with 2. Also, the Heath Brothers and Phillips are not pitched down in anyway.

You lose credibility with me when you actually call DJ Shadow "Google-riffic", are you a Justin Beiber fan or some 42 year old woman writing about Bieber for Tiger Beat? Then to add insult to injury, you call this article "Digger, Please"? To The Stranger: next time hire someone who has a bit of sensibility and actually knows what he's writing about instead of doing a quick search on Google-riffic Google and coming up with nothing more than an exaggerated Wiki entry. Thank you.
Posted by Das Evan on October 22, 2010 at 5:43 PM · Report this
Seeds 2
Not to mention that Shadow recycles the same third over and over again on multiple albums and hasn't released anything decent and original in eight years.
Posted by Seeds on October 23, 2010 at 9:11 AM · Report this
Just having made Endtroducing elevates him to genius level for me. His work since hasn't been quite as good but, nonetheless, at least he has one true masterpiece to his name. Lighten up.
Posted by blsseattle on October 23, 2010 at 12:32 PM · Report this
John Horstman 4
@2: Umm... He's only released 3 solo studio albums (not counting Preemptive Strike), all of which were great, and none of which recycled material (The Outsider was something of a stylistic departure that a LOT of fans disliked; it's actually a very good album, it's just not [entirely, there are a few tracks] pure-sample-constructed trip-hop). The live albums with Cut Chemist are great (none of which recycle the same material from the solo albums), and Bombay the Hard Way and Bombay 2 (both with Dan the Automator, and both unavailable due to copyright issues; thank god for Gnutella in the early 2000's, else I wouldn't know about them) are amazing, particularly for fans of 70's/80's Bollywood or Indian music generally.

Also, @1: I'm not sure you can assert that "What Does Your Soul Look Like?" "should" "properly" be played in the album order: why keep the part ordering as it's listed if the only "proper" sequence is 2,3,4,1? It's not like the composition doesn't "work" if it's played 1,2,3,4. In fact, the end of Part 1 is a direct segue into Part 2 - the set actually functions as a closed loop that can be played on indefinite repeat, starting with ANY of the parts and playing them in order.

Also, "Google-riffic [sic]" is clearly a joke; the author is just commenting on the fact that "encyclopedic" has much less meaning in the era of Google (whereby Google's cache servers are the largest repository of information on the globe; perhaps "Wikipedic" would have been better?). I don't think The Stranger needs a more-knowledgeable author, I think its readers need to be better at critical thinking and more-aware of the topic on which they're commenting if they're going to attack the author's knowledge. :-P
Posted by John Horstman on October 25, 2010 at 2:11 PM · Report this
Mo 5
Breakanoimics Vol. 3 is a good history of Shadow's and others sample material.

Shadow was on Gilles Peterson's BBC show a couple of weeks ago and it was enlightening to hear him talk about his creative process and music in general. Looking forward to his new album dropping (next year?).
Posted by Mo on October 25, 2010 at 5:07 PM · Report this
Das Evan - you're a typical uptight Seattle hipster douchebag.
Posted by 2g1c on October 26, 2010 at 8:21 AM · Report this
Das Evan -

You're a typical Seattle hipster douchebag.

Get over yourself and lighten up.
Posted by 2g1c on October 26, 2010 at 8:24 AM · Report this

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