For the longest time I imagined a scenario like this going down at Casa Shadow: The man himself, Josh Davis, walks into the living room, where a commemorative gold-plated Endtroducing… hangs framed above the fireplace mantle, he looks up at it and smiles–first proudly, then wanly.
DJ Shadow performs tonight at Brooklyn Bowl. 9pm. $25.
He leaves the room, comes back in, looks up again. His face turns red and his blood begins to boil. He rips Endtroducing… off the wall and, with a frustrated howl, dashes it to the ground. It shatters. He looks down at the shards for a long while, slowly cleans up the mess, then sheepishly brings the disc to the framing shop down the street for repairs. This plays out again and again–like a two-bar loop–over the years.
Far-fetched? Maybe. After all, Endtroducing…, despite all the love and acclaim over the past 16 years, hasn’t gone gold yet. (Cred-wise, if not bank account-wise, Shadow shouldn’t feel too terrible about that–The Ramones, famously, never scored a gold album for any of their studio LPs either; only their 1988 hits compilation, Ramones Mania, achieved that.)
But Shadow’s had a tough time dealing with the giant legacy of Endtroducing…, even if he’s always put a brave face on it. In an interview with Gigwise last year, he maintained that the album never felt like an albatross to him, yet adding immediately after:
“If that will always be ‘the record’ then so be it, that’s cool. It took me a long time to reconcile with the fact that people are often fans of records rather than artists. For a while I used to go, ‘How come the same people who bought Entroducing don’t wanna buy The Private Press?’ And it took me a long time to sort of go, ‘Well listen, it was a zeitgeist album,’ just like this week it’s a different album, the one album people feel that they need to buy, even if they just buy one album a year.”
He could be right. Plenty of people fell for the mood, sound, and style of Endtroducing…–a meticulously crafted sample-collage, it’s still an atmospheric, soulful, haunting, occasionally playful, and transportive listen all these years later–and maybe that’s all they wanted or needed from Shadow. If there was to be more, they wanted more of the same. They were never going to dig anything short of Endtroducing… Part Two.
But there were also plenty of people willing to take a trip with Shadow and plunk down their cash for albums bearing his name–trusting in his artistic track record, open to being pulled along in whatever creative direction he was moving. I definitely felt that way, and I was hardly disappointed in 2002’s The Private Press, which felt like a natural progression and frequently came off as soulful and inventive as its predecessor. Not so 2006’s hyphy-drenched The Outsider–which suffered from Shadow’s obsession with definitively breaking from his past and all the expectations of his art, at the expense of good tunes–and last year’s muddled The Less You Know, the Better–which felt like a half-hearted capitulation to the past. Neither were absolutely TERRIBLE albums (well, The Outsider….I never expected to flat-out cringe at Shadow tracks like I did with “Erase Me” and “The Tiger”), but they weren’t particularly exciting listens, either–which is what Endtroducing… primed me for from Shadow’s career all those years ago, whatever path/genre/mood he explored. I never wanted an Endtroducing… Part Two, I just wanted something forward-thinking and thrilling, and lately, I haven’t gotten it from Shadow.
At the same time, I’ve been hesitant to write him off completely. The guy commands respect, admiration, and fondness–he’s always come off exceedingly humble and sincere; his dedication to hip-hop, funk, and soul is undeniable; his unceasing deference to the giants on whose shoulders he stands is laudable. He’s got one towering, self-contained achievement to his name; plenty of good tracks spread out across the rest of his career; he’s seen his ideas–however risky or arguably ill-advised some have been–through to completion; and he appears to have the urge to keep at it. (As someone who’s never been to the creative mountaintop, and who has plenty of half-formed projects sitting around that’ll probably never get finished, either out of self-doubt, fear, or laziness, I have massive appreciation for all of this.)
Shadow’s been looking back with a couple of projects this year: Total Breakdown: Hidden Transmissions from the MPC Era, 1992-1996 (compiling his pre-Endtroducing… experiments) and Reconstructed: The Best of DJ Shadow, issued as a single CD, a 2-CD set, and a definitive (and beautifully packaged) box set limited to 500 (signed) copies.
I hope this extended visit to the past doesn’t mean he’s thinking about giving in entirely, handing all the fans who want it something closely resembling Endtroducing… for the next outing. Even though that sort of catering is hardly unprecedented in music these days (and because parts of The Less You Know seemed to suggest he’s looking backward creatively), I’d like to believe Shadow’s got at least one forward-thinking thriller left in him.