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....