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The Voice of America 

Deep listening with DJ Shadow

Wednesday, May 29 2002
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Everyone gets a voice but nobody ever gets a second one, any more than anyone gets a good face-lift. The pop artist’s voice is generally handicapped by people better versed in statistical probability than patience. “Neil Young! He can‘t make a good electronic album! He plays the acoustic guitar!” But Neil Young’s 1982 album, Trans, worked perfectly. Putting his lyrics through a vocoder and letting a computer eat the beat amplified Young‘s vision of people stuck with each other in situations they overcome but never change. A year later, Young’s rockabilly album, Everybody‘s Rockin’, failed miserably. High-energy party tunes and slicked-back hair might have seemed a natural fit for a folkie indebted to Americana, but the voice is a fickle partner. Until the stats are all in, nobody knows how flexible the voice will be, including the artist.

Josh DavisDJ Shadow, a collectorvisionary like Bob Dylan or Thurston Moore, had his voice down before he released a record under his own name. His first output, the Reconstruction mixtapes, are definitive compendia of what new MC Edan has post facto labeled “fast rap”: Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim and other galloping gourmets big on internal syncopation and James Brownian motion. On their own, tracks like Young Black Teenagers‘ “Proud To Be Black” and Terminator X’s “Buck Whylin‘” move a lot of air, but stacked up in a mixtape, they conjure a whole world where the DJ’s synapses crackle out loud and the drummers never get tired.

Shadow‘s deep listening led him to hip-hop’s DNA, the Southern funk 45s, crap soundtracks and American detritus that, on their own, didn‘t say much but could turn the world upside down in the aggregate. Producers like DJ Premier and Hank Shocklee started the work, but stopped their bulldozers right at the edges of the genre’s commercial demands. Perhaps because of his race, or simply because he came second, Shadow was free to abandon the consistency of a commercial narrative that served a sense of black history he wasn‘t obligated to follow but that his heroes had to preserve. Shadow would never make a social dent like the pioneers, but the formal field was wide-open for him.

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In the mid-’90s, Shadow‘s mixtape interludes became full-fledged singles for the Solesides and Mo’ Wax labels. He squeezed out the hip-hop latent in U2‘s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and made languorous soundtrack samples work on hip-hop’s terms. Shadow wasn‘t soldering the ends of the radio dial together for novelty’s sake but changing the database for hip-hop by returning it to its own governing principles: Anything can be hip-hop.

By 1996, the databases for hip-hop and pop were the same. The evidence of Shadow‘s role in this was there on his debut, Endtroducing, and the historically weighted shoutout in the liner notes -- “All respect due to James Brown and his countless disciples for creating modern music” -- was a polite way of killing his idol. Shadow and Dr. Dre had nailed Brown’s coffin shut with their long samples, slow tempos and cinematic tricks. Before the millennium hit, Shadow was giving his mentors new careers and hypnotizing English B-teamers who lusted after Shadow‘s ability to signify without getting all sweaty.

After Endtroducing planted his flag, Shadow said “No thanks” to being John Williams for the Soho scene and headed back to his friends (U.N.K.L.E.James Lavelle) and his roots, which resulted in two mixtapes of funk 45s (Brainfreeze in 2000 and Product Placement in 2001, both done with Cut Chemist) as conceptually definitive and fun as Reconstruction. But he didn’t release any “actual” original DJ-Shadow-as-artist records, whatever that means, until now, with The Private Press.

Shadow‘s collector roots are in the title. A “private press” is a record cut by an amateur on a mini-lathe set up at a fairground or game parlor. “Letter From Home” samples a couple “writing” home to the relatives on vinyl. It’s a cheap trick to plunder someone‘s home movie for emotional bulking up, but cheap tricks are at the center of many good things. The “real” music starts with “Fixed Income,” a layer cake like “Changeling” from Endtroducing. The beat is starched, the samples sweet. It’s familiar but different enough to get us pumped.

The fun “Un Autre Introduction” sets us up for the murderous “Walkie Talkie.” Standard DJ threats of omnipotence are strung together under a hellish tugboat blaat. Shadow pops his collar with a sample from Flash‘s “Wheels of Steel” (“Why don’t you tell me a story?”) and throws himself right up onto Mount Rushmore without invitation. The track gets wet for three minutes and then, perversely, while a sample begs him to “Let the beat rock,” Shadow interrupts our coitus. You can feel him thinking, “Aah, this is too easy.”

The opening minutes of “Giving Up the Ghost” find Shadow synopsizing himself -- the samples sound like a band, the drama reads well -- but then nothing happens. The great bits -- a boulder falling, hellish cymbal and string overtones -- are just great bits, and the repetition doesn‘t lead to any epiphanies. Living musicians might be able to make the ostinatos breathe or create the unexpected, but live musicians aren’t Shadow‘s thing. If you get up close, you’ll see there‘s nothing hip-hop at all about this track, except for the intro. Has he forgotten how big his voice was to begin with?

“Six Days” is a pop hijack in the style of Moby’s “Honey”: entire vocal track lifted and thrown onto new beat. The sampled eunuch is catchy, the shimmering beat is shimmery, and the message, appropriately vague for the demographic, seems to imply that war is good for absolutely nothing. And “Six Days” is verifiably from some tiny municipality within hip-hop. Is it the tempo, the chiaroscuro, the sonics?

Just like Dave Eggers telling us, very accurately, which parts of his book are going to fail, a built-in Macintosh computer voice announces, “Welcome to fear, side 2.” The shortfalls of “Ghost” become a free fall into music that isn‘t exactly one thing or the other. The Endtroducing clone “Mongrel Meets His Maker” sounds more like Ferrante & Teicher (“Theme From The Young and the Restless”) than Ennio Morricone and goes nowhere that isn’t accurately described as schlock.

“Monosylabik” (apparently made from a single two-bar loop) reviews territory picked clean by electronicats like Squarepusher and Matmos. If sampler-programming virtuosity is your cup of tea, you‘ll probably send this track to your friends with a note saying, “Dude is sick.” “Washing on the Motorway” is funny, or something, and based around Lateef the Truth Speaker playing the role of “fast driver” while people yell at him and the beat gets faster and faster. Nine minutes (days?) long, “Blood on the Motorway” might make sense if it were a Boogie Nights outtake of Alfred Molina trying to write a tune for Kim Carnes. It is not. There is no explaining a nine-minute song that makes us, first, think we are listening to Eric Carmen sing and then, second, wish we were. The closer, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” is an improvement only because it‘s shorter and faster. The overall similarity of the second half of this album to unused chase sequences from Risky Business could lead you to believe that sampling crap records can distort your sense of “crap” and “not crap,” but Shadow doesn’t feel like he‘s struggling here. The misses still have his old clarity, but, straight up, his rock and new wave suuuuuck.

Bob Dylan “discovered” he was a 60-year-old man when he was 19 and hasn’t blinked since. Steve Malkmus found that the best place to recite poetry is behind a microphone in front of a ‘70s boogie band. Mick Jagger chose to play the eternal one-night stand when Keith didn’t show for the gig and, defying science and God, didn‘t lose the role when the venues changed. Shadow is the kid who heard oceans in hip-hop and wanted to prove he wasn’t imagining things. As voices go, he could do a lot worse.

DJ Shadow performs at the Mayan Theater, Wednesday, June 12.

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