Thursday, March 19, 2009

Samples: Mixing DJ Shadow and T.S. Eliot

DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking debut album Endtroducing sits very near to the top of my list of the greatest albums of all time. When it was first released in 1996, I was listening to very little hip hop and even less DJ music, and I hadn’t really begun to appreciate electronic music, so this album (and my enthusiasm for it) came as a complete surprise. Endtroducing was the first album created entirely out of samples from other albums, but I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t recognize any of the samples. What drew me into the music were the percussion tracks, or backbeats, and the way they propped up Shadow’s eclectic mish-mash of samples.

The first full track on the album, “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” begins with a scratchy piano loop from Jeremy Storch’s “I Feel a New Shadow,” mixed with the voice of jazz percussionist George Marsh as he explains how and why he makes music. At 48 seconds, the beat kicks in; now the song has a pulse. At 1:12, Shadow adds another new layer of sound – ethereal chanting. This is not what one might expect. In my experience at least, hip hop (perhaps I should say mainstream hip hop) is rarely ethereal. Two minutes into the song, Shadow drops the chanting and adds a new, sultry voice (from Planetary Motiv’s “Signs of the Zodiac”) that speaks of “assimilating all that he receives, slowly, until it becomes a part of you.” At the same time, psychedelic sound effects emerge faintly from the background. Like the Pied Piper, the musician continues to draw us in. The song continues for another four minutes... It is stripped down to its bare essence – the beat – and reconfigured with the addition of a funky guitar loop and, later, a xylophone jam (!). In a moment of relative calm, a new voice emerges from the soundscape, crooning “I fly to the strangest land.” These interruptions are often somewhat startling, but they never last long enough to shake the rhythm out of your head. The beat returns quickly and carries the listener away – like a wave, like a lullaby, like some sort of primal urge. In the end, the musician lets George Marsh speak for him again, explaining, “It’s not really me that’s coming [through]… The music’s coming through me.”

In my more outlandish moments, I believe that this song achieves what T.S. Eliot set out to achieve in his poetry – it is a pure example of “auditory imagination.” In 1933, the poet famously defined this term as “the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.” Eliot, of course, was just as keen on “sampling” his influences and reconfiguring them to create something knew. The Waste Land was built almost entirely out of fragments from old poems as well as philosophical and religious texts. But that’s not why I was initially drawn to it. What first appealed to me about Eliot were his cadences:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells…

(from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

Here, the poet pulls us in by anticipating our anticipation. Unlike many of the poets who came before him, Eliot does not allow himself to be enslaved by rhyme. He uses it when and where it serves his goal, and discards it when it can’t. He’s a jazz man – trading fours when he wants to lure us in, then dropping the tune and jolting us with a line like

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

In this instance, he then casually lapses back into the rhyme. A friend of mine once observed that Eliot’s poetry seems always “in search of a rhyme.” The problem with this observation is that it suggests a lack of expertise on the part of the poet. While it may apply to his earliest works (see Inventions of the March Hare), I’d say that Eliot was in full control of his faculties as a poet by the time he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In that poem, we see him not only using rhyme to great effect, but also using the repetition of individual words for cumulative effect. The word “time” appears again and again, creating an overall sense of restlessness. Last but not least, Eliot uses thoughts and phrases at least some of which the educated reader will recognize from other works. On an intellectual level, this connects the poem to a historical and ongoing tradition of poetry. It also invokes literary scenarios and symbols that will inevitably evoke reactions and memories in individual readers – some that are arguably universal; some highly personal. It is, at least in my experience, a highly effective technique.

In “Prufrock,” I find oblique references to Greco-Roman mythology, Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. In DJ Shadow, I find samples of musicians as diverse as the Isley Brothers and the Beastie Boys, Tangerine Dream and Metallica, Nirvana and Bjork. (And there’s a host of others that I’m not as familiar with… check out this list on Wikipedia.) Both of these artists gather their influences and, in the process, create something new – something that is magically greater than the sum of the parts. Every now and then, I’ll hear a song that’s been sampled on Endtroducing and it deepens my appreciation for what DJ Shadow has done with the source material. That experience isn’t entirely necessary – one can appreciate the music without knowing any of the sources. Even without context, the Voice of the Future from John Carpenter’s film Prince of Darkness (which appears in the song “Changeling / Transmission 1”) is still eerie. Ditto for the Voice of the Giant from the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks on “What Does Your Soul Look Like? (Part 4)”. Knowing the context for each of those samples, however, enhances the listening experience for me: the first sample suggests that DJ Shadow is transmitting his music into our subconscious minds from a post-apocalyptic future. The latter suggests that the end becomes the beginning. As the Giant says, “It is happening again…”

DJ Shadow presents the album as a full circle because, for him, the meaning is in the music. The music has a history (see the original songs) and a future (Shadow’s influence on electronic music in the last 10 – 15 years is immeasurable). The beat goes on.

T.S. Eliot once said that “poetry begins with a savage beating a drum in a jungle… it retains that essential of percussion and rhythm.” I can’t help wondering what he would have thought of Endtroducing. Clearly, for him, poetry provided an experience beyond the intellectual. He suggested that good poetry cuts straight to the heart, filling us with excitement or dread or melancholy; the head engages later. For him, as for Shadow, audience participation is necessary to the completion of the song. Before we ever participate intellectually, we participate emotionally. Before we begin to analyze, we imagine. The first meaning of the poem is in the music.

And perhaps the final meaning is there as well. After untold hours of analyzing the ideas in Eliot’s poetry, this is what I keep coming back to: The rhythms and cadences remain just as new and exciting as the songs on Endtroducing, because I continue to participate and assimilate. The poetry has a history and a future. The music has become a part of me.

Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow


  1. wow! Of course I'm happy to catch a glimpse inside your mind, too.

  2. Great piece. I'll have to admit that I've never actually read Eliot, but I have a clear grasp on your comparison because of my love of Endtroducing.

  3. Endtroducing is the best album of the 1990s. No joke.

  4. Nice analogies! Never listened to much DJ Shadow but I just downloaded a couple songs. Your analysis is astute. Love your blog - keep 'em coming! -Jamie