DJ Shadow – “The Less You Know, The Better”

Josh Davies burst onto the scene as DJ Shadow in 1996 with his seminal Endtroducing…., which was, officially, the world’s first ever album made up entirely of samples. Surprisingly, this cut and paste method works every bit as impressively live as it does on disc.

What he does is to take samples from six or seven wildly different albums and superimpose each section one on top of the other. He might take the beat from one disc, the bass line from another, the lead vocal from one more and, giving them each their own loop he’ll then drop in, say, a screeching guitar solo from another, bits of a string and horn section from another, and a Motown backing vocal from one more, before dropping in a couple of lines of dialogue from a 50s horror flick to gently undercut the sentiments expressed in the main lyric. It’s an extraordinary juggling act to behold live, and the results are improbably precise and majestically coherent, both on a track by track basis, and as a whole.

Endtroducing…. is justly regarded as one of the great albums, full stop. And therein lies the rub. It’s the Orson Welles effect. “I started at the top”, Welles remarked wryly, many years after Citizen Kane, “and have been making my way steadily down ever since.” This, just as unfairly, is how many have come to view Shadow.

Both his second album, The Private Press from ’02 and his third The Outsider from ’06 were greeted by critics and public alike with decided indifference. The latter particularly was sniffed at for delving so deeply into the Bay Area Hyphy (as in Hi-Fee, for “hyperactive”) scene, with its heavy reliance on hardcore hip hop, and of the decidedly heavier variety.

What seems to have irked people particularly, and they are making exactly the same noises about the current album The Less You Know, The Better, is his refusal to stay in any one place. One minute they complain, it’s indietronica laced with death metal guitar riffs, the next it’s ghetto scratches with Talib Kweli guesting on vocals, and following on from which it’s a plaintive piano paired with a forlorn lament from a forgotten 70s folkie. The individual tracks are fine, but there’s no overall vision for the work as a whole, they moan.

But surely it was that fearless eclecticism, cinemascopic range and unrelenting inventiveness that made Endtroducing…. so exciting in the first place? More to the point, both The Private Press and The Outsider have comfortably stood the test of time, and have proved every bit as durable as their illustrious predecessor. The early indications are that, if anything, The Less You Know is an even more impressive addition to an increasingly imposing body of work. This is a serious artist producing significant music.

Today, we look back in wonder at how inexplicably the later films of Orson Welles were overlooked when first they surfaced. The Lady From Shanghai (47) is a Hollywood classic, Touch of Evil (’58) and The Trial (’62) are masterpieces, and F For Fake (73) invented a whole new genre in the filmic essay (see below). In years to come, there’ll be some very red faces when those last three DJ Shadow albums come to be re-assessed. For once, the comparisons with Welles are apt.



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