Friday Jukebox: DJ Shadow’s “Building Steam With a Grain Of Salt”
When I was a teenager, I learned that I not only had a distant cousin, but that he’d be coming to visit. When he arrived, we hung out with my friends, and the young women I knew at the time were irritatingly smitten with him. Such is being a teenager I suppose. Subsequent visits between the two of us bridged no gaps and we haven’t had any contact in at least five years, maybe more. This isn’t a lament about that. It’s background.
One of the many ways we failed to gel was musically. I listened to the things that one listens to growing up in West Virginia’s university city: classic rock, college rock, and poppy punk stuff. My cousin listened to DJ Shadow. I remember him going on at length about Shadow. My response was one of shrugged shoulders and a general understanding that not knowing about this person made me even more uncool that I already was(n’t).
At the time, my cousin was championing tracks off of DJ Shadow’s transcendent Endtroducing…... It was only later, after I heard Shadow’s track “Stem” (from, oddly enough, the 187 Soundtrack), that I realized I’d missed the boat, that even if my cousin and I weren’t bound for a lifetime of friendship, this particular bit of musical endorsement was genuinely right on. (It is worth noting he managed the same trick again, accurately predicting the rise of various Caribbean performers including Sean Paul. This may have been a function of where he was living as much as anything; being in Boston gave him access to music well before it ever reached my ears here at home. Still, I wonder if this is a skill he still has.)
I’ve written before about how daunting I find it to consider music’s creation. DJ Shadow’s work ranks right up there in terms of my confused frustration. Endtroducing….. is built from samples taken from dozens of other records. Shadow himself has said that the goal was creating an album that was one-hundred percent sample. In other words, he dumped out a thousand unmarked puzzle pieces and put them together into something beautiful. It is an astounding individual achievement, one that, even if he never managed it again, would be worth regarding with awe.
In a little less than ten years, Shadow managed to produce two of my favorite albums ever. Later, he branched off from his own trip-hop, desperate to get away from the box he felt that he was being put into, and those explorations have been uneven at best. I imagine there are those that hold this against him; I remember there being plenty of fury at the idea that he wasn’t willing to spend the rest of his life remaking Endtroducing…... But given how hard it is to make a single musically memorable thing, to do it twice is superlative.
One last note: when my daughter was four, the above was one of her favorite songs, mostly because she could follow the vocalization that kicks in at the 1:14 mark. I’d catch her singing along to it, which was odd, because most songs didn’t hold her attention in the same way. She’s older now, but I feel like I earned my Good Parenting merit badge when I got DJ Shadow into her head.