Two years after the release of his epochal "In/Flux" single, DJ Shadow's abstract beat collage is still a mutant strain in the hiphop nation. This article originally appeared in The Wire 151 (September 1996).
'TripHop': as an example of journalistic shorthand, it feels like a casual pun, a throwaway spurt of second-rate insight. But however approximately, this dumb little phrase has somehow managed to define a genre, and as soon as that happens an inevitable slew of misbegotten chancers is just a stack of major-label cash away. That the perpetrator deserves to be burned alive on a pyre of Ingrid Schroeder records is beyond doubt, as is the fact that one of the effects of the term was to drive a wedge between DJ Shadow's then-revolutionary brand of instrumental HipHop and the street culture that effectively gave birth to it. Despite the misunderstanding that being hailed as the progenitor of TripHop inevitably provoked, Shadow remains both a HipHop devotee and a HipHop visionary, as well as a producer with talent and imagination to spare. Maybe it was growing up an addicted beathead in Davis, California (rather than the Bronx or Compton) that gave him the distance and perspective to forge this mutant strain of the HipHop nation.
"As soon as HipHop was out, as soon as "Rappers Delight" came out, HipHop had a presence worldwide," he says. "There was never any question of where it came from, everybody knew that it came from New York, [but] we would hear stuff from Philadelphia, Miami, Texas, Britain, and everybody at least in the Bay Area knew that HipHop was already worldwide long before New York did. I think that growing up away from New York gave me maybe a more well-rounded view of what HipHop is."
That well-rounded view has led him into conflict with the HipHop 'establishment'. His credo has been "to go back to the extreme form of experimentation [which marked HipHop's early evolution] while still keeping that funk", an approach that he finds woefully lacking in contemporary HipHop. There's even a track on the new Endtroducing... DJ Shadow called "Why HipHop sucks in 96".
"The reason that it sucks is because a lot of the stories that are being told now are the same stories that were being told in the mid-80s. People are not as creative lyrically as they could be, and there's no room at all for any variation in themes."
Although Shadow works with rappers under the auspices of the Soulsides label in California, his inspirational break with the repetitive cycle of gangster yarning that still dominates HipHop lyrics came with 1994's "In/Flux". Like most revolutionary ideas, it was a simple one: replace verbal storytelling with audio narrative; emphasise melodic and textural progression; construct from a dizzying variety of samples, tones, effects and found voices complex emotional journeys which nevertheless remain firmly rooted in the beat. For Shadow, "In/Flux", a record which is turning out to be as epochal as Grandmaster Flash's "Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel", was far from being a rejection of the spirit of HipHop - rather, it was an affirmation.
"I went through a really militant phase when I was overridingly concerned about how to 'save' HipHop. But after a while I realised that nobody cared but me - or that's how it felt - and I thought, 'Why am I beating my head against a wall? All I can do is just make the kind of music that I want to make and be true to the original aesthetic and the original codes and just go from there'."
Shadow's debut LP is a plangent collage or restless textures and fragmentary melodies, peppered with expressive scratching and curiously haunting found voices. There are many subtleties to catalogue: the way that "Stem" constructs an almost Pre-Raphaelite tableau of plucked harps and cor anglais, only to gatecrash it with a tumultuous four-beat rhythmic assault that transforms a serene, arcane soundtrack into a breathlessly syncopated Ministry-derived headfuck; or, on "Scatter Brain", the way that a shivering hi-hat is menaced by impatient timpani and a tapping snare until the three elements become a complex tapestry bound together by a wind-tunnel drone and pierced by sweet, keening strings. Like Wu-Tang Clan producer The RZA, Shadow conjures from his sampled sources pervasive and penetrating vignettes, stretching the beats of 70s funk to their expressive limits.
"I can't deny that I'm drawn, as I am in books, film, and paintings, to an 'alternative reality' type of theme, and you can't express that unless there's some kind of expression in the music and in the way that you pick the samples. In "Long Stem" there's a guy talking about getting a traffic ticket in Long Beach, and I'm obviously not making some kind of a profound statement about parking regulations - [but] the displaced context of the words, juxtaposed with the music, is interesting to me."