Reviewed by Scott von Till
Tuesday, November 17 1998, 6:33 PM
DJ Shadow Has Come To Save Music
It makes an odd sort of sense that the savior of hip hop, the musical soundtrack of the urban multinational technofuture, would come not from the big cities which claim the music as their own (like NYC and LA) but from the tiny outpost of Davis, CA, an agricultural township whose biggest claim to fame is its agricultural research. But this just goes to prove DJ Shadow's point, I believe, and here it is: hip hop is the inner bass of the human race. It defies these geographical associations we demand of artistic exercises. Beat-driven hip-hop is the pulse of the body and the spaces between bodies, the clash of electrons within the soul, the conflation of the muscle and the intellect.
"Intellectual" is usually not the first thought that comes to mind when recalling the attributes of today's hip-hop artists; like De La Soul (one of Shadow's influences) says in their liner notes for Buhloone Mind State , "peace and success to the MC's who actually still place some thought in their music cuz there's not a lot of us left." DJ Shadow is of a different breed than your run-of-the mill "throw your hands in the air" MC/DJ combination, your synthesizer-reliant-techno-beat DJ, your spin-the-discs-and-scratch-a-bit DJ. Josh Davis creates worlds with his music unlike any other hip-hop musician since the Bomb Squad. Unlike the Bomb Squad, whose streetwise sonic assaults shocked The System into attention, Shadow can lull you into acquiescence, kick your interpretive mechanisms into overdrive, take you on a trip into yourself and then out into the cultural universe. And he rocks you while he does it.
One way he does it is by mining the history of music, the public record, popcult consciousness, sampling Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" unforgettable guitar riff as easily and meaningfully as he lifts dialogue from famous sci-fi movies, ripping them away from their contextual memory and recasting them within the seductive atmosphere of his compositions. Never again will we watch Star Wars and hear the Stormtrooper's dull delivery of the lines," The tracks go off in this direction," without referring to Pre-emptive Strike's "Hindsight." Never again will we watch William Hurt's histrionic performance in Ken Russell's underrated Altered Statesand think it's . . . well, histrionic. It will seem like brilliance. And that is the sign of an artist who will Make His Mark. They change the way we look at the new use of materials, all the while causing us to re-examine the source.
Shadow's newest offering, Psyence Fiction, is a collaboration disc with hip-hop producer James Lavelle (the two have termed their union U.N.K.L.E.) and a cross-section of the pre-millennial musical landscape. Like another Bay Area phenom before him, Jason Kidd, Shadow makes every talent on his team that much better. Or he makes them look lazy. This is the problem inherent within collaboration, but the rewards usually outpace the disapointments. The disc starts off with a shining gift from Shadow and Kool G Rap, "Guns Blazing (Drums of Death Pt. I)," a drum-soaked, manic gangsta rap which privileges tonic ferocity over the monotone that passes for speech in hip-hop nowadays (see the vocals from any lame track off of any of Master P's posse: bo-ring).
This kind of vocal malaise isn't particular to hip-hop; the just-released film, Pleasantville, contains a seriously bored Fiona Apple murdering John Lennon's wonderful "Across the Universe" from Let It Be. Kool G Rap's loud and rough delivery are perfectly counterbalanced with Shadow's frenetic drums, distortion and radio static which assault the ears like the best of Public Enemy's past offerings. "The Knock (Drums of Death Pt. II)," featuring Mike D of the Beastie Boys and Jason Newsted of Metallica, is, however, an inadequate mirror image of the first tune, containing the same bottom-heavy sound barrage but lacking the vocal power. Mike D, like all of the Beastie Boys, is less a technique rapper than a freestyling jester (" . . . I hope you feel/Nice and complete like a Happy Meal") who uses the vibe to push him forward into his rap, which mostly turns on the rhyme of the last word of each line. When he sings, "I'm a break it down in the UNKLE style," I'm not too sure what that is until Shadow slices and dices the entire track before splicing an entirely new beat into the mix.
Then there are the middle-level masterpieces, all of which feature some vocal guest-stars. First up, after Kool G Rap, is "Bloodstain," a moody, heroin-tempo piece featuring Alice Temple's breathy seduction. Fueled by a clever guitar progression and a spare drumtrack, "Bloodstain" rolls along in its Gothic aura without a hitch. "Lonely Soul," with a guest vocal from the Verve's Richard Ashcroft, brings the throwback British voice patterns into the similarly constructed pathos Shadow pulls from a set of swollen orchestra strings.
Ashcroft's attempted Lennon reincarnation is about as successful as the aforementioned Apple's, but it is nevertheless a valiant effort for a song about loneliness which lasts almost seven minutes long. "Lonely Soul" showcases Shadow's talent for sampling and mixing, extending it past popular culture and into classical music, a gift which creates more success in another track, called "Celestial Annihilation." And then there is the disappointing, "Rabbit in Your Headlights," yet another whiny excursion into Thom Yorke's (of Radiohead fame) fragile psyche. For me, this is the only spot on the disc where Shadow's musical brilliance is smothered by an utterly uninteresting vocal addition. Check it yourself and tell me what you think.
After Kool G Rap, the best DJ/vocalist collaboration can be found in the heated thrash of "Nursery Rhyme." Beginning with a metal riff, the song is buttressed by an absolutely frenzied drum pattern, one which I still to this day cannot decode. And that is its brilliant pleasure. The vocals come from a gifted singer, Badly Drawn Boy, who weaves his deliberately well-paced voice into Shadow's cacophony, showing an amazing amount of poise and confidence. The entire song escalates into a showcase for Shadow's drum sequencing innovations and electric guitar ecstasy, climaxing in the exhausted exhalations of Lavelle on what seems to be his only cited contribution, the aptly named "Breather."
Badly Drawn Boy, along with Atlantique's soothing acoustic turn on "Chaos" (which she wrote and performed alone), provide some wondrous moments of collaboration that outdistance the combination attempts with Yorke, Ashcroft, and Mike D, although in Atlantique's case, she's the sole source of the action. It is apparent that U.N.K.L.E. wanted to stretch out into as many spheres of artistry as they could, and the disc carries much of that experimental fervor. However, the in-your-face physicality of Kool G Rap's vocals set a standard of intensity (an energy not only measured in volume) which the rest of the collaborative efforts just cannot surpass or reach.
When vocals fail, there is always the safe haven, the sanctuary of the worlds Shadow creates on his purely instrumental tracks.Psyence Fiction contains two masterpieces worthy of the best material offered on Shadow's previous discs, Endtroducing ("Midnight in a Perfect World," "The Number Song") or Pre-Emptive Strike ("What Does Your Soul Look Like" the steamrolling "High Noon"): "Unreal" and the aforementioned "Celestial Annihilation." It's a two-way tie for first with these tracks: "Unreal" carries a standard hip-hop stomp with some flamenco guitar pickings, a haunting vocal sample, and an atmospheric bass line while "Celestial Annihilation" is almost a what's-what sampling of the eighties hip-hop canon. Beginning with an ethereal string introduction (called "Concerto for Strings and Beats," by Wil Malone) which somberly creates an atmosphere for the anticipation of a promised annihilation, the composition progresses through a series of spare beats (reminiscent of "My Beat Goes Boom" or "Egyptian Lover"), funky ride and hi-hat swipes, synth lines sounding if they came straight from Depeche Mode, Yaz, sci-fi vocal samples, and over and under it all Shadow's amazing rhythmic scratching, cutting in time with the multifaceted beats and lines he has masterfully stitched together. It's a humbling experience, especially for those who, like Shadow himself, carry encyclopedias of styles and songs in their heads.
Shadow has done the best job yet of any DJ of replicating the processes of memory through his music: he works with fragments, snatches of sound, unforgettable vocal moments (Roy Baty's "Fiery the angels fell" speech from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner , and haunting cultural noises. This is how we remember, by piecing together these filaments of meaning and weaving them together into a doorway we can walk through or a mirror we can look into. The vocal sample from "Unreal" is hard to decipher (even with headphones) but we can hear it begin with "I'll set you free" and end with "How do you feel?" How appropriate, because this man's music is embodied in the ecstatic conjunction of both phrases. It takes us into another universe and then asks us to, with the benefit of this critical distance, examine ourselves and our feelings. That is something I think pop music has neglected to do for quite a long time now.
Long Live the Shadow!
Psyence Fiction is available through MoWax Records