Midnight in A Perfect World - DJ Shadow's 'Endtroducing...' turns 20

There’s a segue track on DJ Shadow’s seminal full-length debut, Endtroducing… titled “Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96.” A 40-second selection, it’s based around a slick, smoothed out sounding groove, and it nearly fades out before rapper Lyrics Born steps up to the microphone, and through a cavernous echo, simply says, “It’s the money.”

This was true twenty years ago; this is true today.

This is just one example of the utter timelessness of Endtroducing….

I don’t remember how I first heard of DJ Shadow. I would have been a junior high school student in the fall of 1996. But at some point in my youth, he turned up on my radar. If I had to guess, I’d say it had to do something with his collaboration with Thom Yorke—the song “Rabbit in Your Headlights” closes out Psyence Fiction, the debut album from Shadow’s side project UNKLE.

The first time I heard Endtroducing…, I was a freshman in college, and I downloaded it using Audio Galaxy. Even as an 18-year-old kid, who still had so much to learn about music, I was blown away by it. I later bought a copy of it in 2005—picking up the preemptively released 10th anniversary edition on CD at K-Mart, of all places, in the town I grew up in.

It’s difficult to make a piece of art that ages well. Books, movies, records—there are countless things time has not been kind to. What sounds innovative upon release can sound dated and embarrassing later on down the line. This, however, is not the case with Endtroducing…, something that still sounds innovative, important, and immediate now, twenty years removed.

I stop short of calling it a “dark” record, but it’s a pensive, introspective, and at times, even a somber record. Play it over a stereo, yes, sure, but it is the kind of collection that reveals itself to you best when played over a pair of headphones. In that setting, it’s much easier to open yourself up to its subtleties, as the layers are unpacked. You can literally hear how much thought and precision went into every song.

Innovative in the sense that it is made almost entire out of samples, and important in the sense that it shows what kind of art can be created by those means, it takes its listener on a journey—and this happens almost instantly within the first three proper songs: the ominous piano sequences and unpredictable drum sampling of “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” is iconic; “The Number Song” is driving and unrelenting in its rhythm, and is probably only one of the few ‘fun’ songs to be found in the bunch, which is then followed by the laid back, reflective groove of “Changeling.”

That smoothed out, laid back, yet ponderous and reflective feeling is continued in many of the album’s other full-length pieces, like the bass heavy, dream-state of “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4),” as well as on Endtroducing…’s two stand-out pieces—the transcendental “Midnight in A Perfect World,” and the album’s gorgeous, swelling closing track, “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1.)”

Shadow—born Josh Davis—also returns to that ominous and mysterious state on the lengthy audio assault “Stem/Long Stem;” and, while not as oppressive and direct, the skittering and tense “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain.” It’s one of those rare records that you can put on and become immersed in from start to finish, as well as single out specific tracks.

Blending elements of hip-hop, jazz, funk and r&b, and something otherworldly, Shadow refused to pigeonhole himself as a performer following Endtroducing…. UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction, arriving two years later, could be looked at as a bit of a ‘spiritual sequel.’ It shares a commonality in its music, but this time around, features marquee name vocalists performing over tracks created by Shadow and his then-label head and producer James Lavelle.

A proper follow up to Endtroducing… was released in 2002. “The Private Press” found him moving further away from the sound he pioneered on Endtroducing…—something that he continues to do with each subsequent release, often ending in mixed results.

However, despite Shadow’s best efforts to damage his legacy by fighting against making an Endtroducing… part two, the spirit of the original album continues to thrive.

I started to take my record collection seriously in 2007, and for Christmas that year, I asked for vinyl copies of a bunch of stuff I already had on CD—Kid A being one of them, as well as Endtroducing…. Puzzlingly enough, for an album constructed of countless samples pulled from old records, and for an album that boasts liner notes featuring the phrase “This album reflects a lifetime of vinyl culture,” the original vinyl edition is rather underwhelming.

Spread across two LPs, there still apparently wasn’t enough room to include “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4),” which is omitted from the original LP sequencing—the packaging also left a lot to be desired. The first record comes in a sleeve with a few incomplete liner notes, while the second record is relegated to a white paper sleeve.

All of this, presumably, has been corrected with the album’s 20th anniversary edition—a sprawling six LP set housed in a box, complete with 48-page booklet, all of the album’s songs are present and accounted for, along with myriad extras.

As part of this reissue comes a re-hashing of the collection of alternate takes and mixes, Excessive Ephemera, which is also included in the 10th anniversary CD edition—a set of tracks that, really, no one needs to have on vinyl; and the same could be said for the newly cobbled together Endtroducing Re-Emagined, which features remixes and reinterpretations of the songs you’ve spent the last twenty years listening to, provided by today’s “it” producers like Hudson Mohawke, Clams Casino, Prince Paul, and DJ Spinn.

Re-Emagined does nothing to detract from the original album, but it sure doesn’t do anything to add to it. Sure, it’s marginally interesting to hear composer Adrian Younge’s take on “Changeling” by performing it with a live band. But the glitchy, skittish footwork remixes of “Building Steam” and “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)” are not very engaging, and Clams Casino turns “Stem/Long Stem” into a distorted, trap house dirge.

Twenty years later, perhaps the reason that Shadow never wanted to try to create a record similar in sound to Endtroducing… is that it simply just couldn’t be done, so why try? It captures a moment in time that can’t be reproduced; a rare moment that is both of the time that spawned it, as well as now. Nostalgia, when it comes to music, can be very dangerous. You can revisit something you once enjoyed at a different time in your life, and you can be reminded of all the reasons you didn’t carry it with you into adulthood. Endtroducing… is not one of those albums. You take it with you—but more importantly, it sticks with you. The atmosphere Shadow toiled over will both captivate and haunt you long after you finish listening, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.

The 20th anniversary edition reissue of Endtroducing... is out now as a 6xLP or 3xCD set. The remix album is also available on its own as a download