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Wednesday, May 29, 2002

HIGH NOTES

DJ Shadow: 'Private Press'


When DJ Shadow released his first album, "Endtroducing," in 1996, sample-based music was mostly complementary, designed for MCs or parties, and wasn't generally accepted as a viable creative endeavor by itself. It wouldn't be fair to all the turntablists who inspired Shadow (Josh Davis) to say that "Endtroducing" was the first sample-based album that mattered, but it's impossible to deny its watershed status. "Endtroducing" described a full emotional landscape. It was greater, and deeper, than the sum of its parts.

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It was also experimental. The challenge was to create entirely new music out of aural effluvia. Since then, sample-based music has moved out of hip-hop's basement and into the larger world. Artists like The Avalanches have taken it to the next level. Shadow has said his new album, "The Private Press," reflects the evolution of turntablism as a genre, but what it represents sonically is the substantiation of a truly personal style.

Opening and closing with actual "Letters From Home," the new record establishes parameters that are more deliberate than those which characterized the random-sounding "Endtroducing" (the entr'actes were called "Transmissions": radio signals picked up accidentally). Shadow is now creating real songs, with identifiable themes.

Six years on is six years closer to the end, and it's indicative of Shadow's larger concerns right now that at least four of these songs seem preoccupied with death. "Giving Up the Ghost" is a haunting, sometimes scary symphony of Caribbean percussion, treated strings and weird sound effects. A twisted, foul-mouthed comedy routine called "Mashin' on the Motorway" segues into the sober and disturbing "Blood on the Motorway." The dream-like drama of "Mongrel . . . Meets His Maker" has the heft of a netherworld epic.

The lighter moments take on DJ style with a sense of humor. In "Walkie Talkie," Shadow shows how you can throw together a standard-issue funk workout with a minimum of resources (the drum track alone could launch a dissertation), and in both "Un Autre Introduction" and "Right Thing/GDMFSOB" he contemplates the "artistry" of people whose capacity to entertain is limited only by the size of their record collections.

"The Private Press" is immediately entertaining, but it's also rich enough to reward repeated and careful listening. The penultimate cut is called "You Can't Go Home Again," which may mean that Shadow has moved beyond the recognizable frontiers of hip-hop that once nourished him. He's now in a universe all his own.



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