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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