Listen to this track by turntablist poster boy and instrumental hip hop auteur DJ Shadow. It’s “Midnight In A Perfect World”, a single as taken from the seminal record released in the fall of 1996 that kicked off a genre, Endtroducing. That record garnered near universal praise across the critical spectrum at the time, noted as much for its technical achievements as it was for the eerie and evocative atmospheres for which it is now known.
The album was created solely by its author, fuelled by raiding a local record store, Rare Records in Sacramento, in between work on the tracks, including this one. The cover of the album is pretty true to how it was made, searching the racks for grooves and textures, and then carrying them by the armful back home to be repositioned and transformed into a work that would establish a career and reputation for DJ Shadow, born Joshua Evans. The tools he had to hand to create this song were a sampler, a turntable, and a tape recorder. They were enough to garner not only rave reviews and sales, but also a Guinness World Book of Records entry for first album to be comprised solely of samples.
In an age before Garage Band, this was a neat trick. But, this song and the rest of the album is far, far more than an amazing technical feat, although it certainly is that. It was the beginning of a new paradigm that generated all kinds of discussions about something in pop music that is rarely considered; context and how it relates to the way we hear the music within one, as well as the nature of what it is to “write” a song in the first place.
The history of sampling is fraught with the same kinds of pitfalls as any emerging technology, with many pushing back against it in its early stage, and often being downright hostile toward it. In this particular case, the hurdle to get over was about the issue of originality, that new music wasn’t being written in the traditional way it once was. Lawsuits would ensue before practicioners would get it right and give credit where credit is due, and the culture surrounding it would accept it as the new normal as hip hop grew in stature.
That’s where the relatively new musical element came in to go right along with the accepted melody, harmony, rhythm, and tone; context. Once disparate musical elements are taken out of their initial context, combined together and therefore recontextualized, something original is born right out of that. Is this traditional composition? Not strictly. But, is it an act of listening for the sounds one wants, arranging them in a complementary way, and recording them as a whole piece an act of songwriting?
Well, of course.
This song, released as a single and representative of the album off of which it comes is proof positive of how that process of songwriting carries as much emotional gravity as the song written while hunched over a piano or acoustic guitar. This song is full of sombre reflection as any downcast indie rock tune you can name. Because it draws from disparate sources, it is not indicative or reflexive of any one style or musical tradition. As such, the shift in context is also a way out of a limited vocabulary when it comes to musical feel and texture. Everything goes into the pot as long as it fits the groove, and is in key. This song ranges from the late sixties jazz fusion atmospheres of David Axelrod’s “The Human Abstract” that provides the delicate piano flourishes you’re hearing on this track, to the early nineties hip hop vibe of Organized Konfusion’s “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” that provides the “clock on the wall reads quarter past midnight” lyrical hook, with even that “original” track itself sourcing from samples.
That’s another aspect of this, of course. That even “Midnight In A Perfect World”, a track constructed of other material across a wide musical spectrum, has since been sampled by other acts, and is a part of a tradition and legacy that blurs the lines between “old” music one can find in dogeared sleeves in the racks of record stores, and the new music that can be made out of it. When context becomes a part of the composer’s palette of colours, then the issue of time becomes unimportant. This makes the approach to the creation of this music prescient to a 21st century paradigm in the age of Spotify and iTunes, with the whole of music history looked upon not as being old or new, but as a part of a vast continuum from which songwriters and performers can draw to entice audiences in ways that they didn’t see coming.
If DJ Shadow’s work on Endtroducing did anything, then it certainly introduced (endtroduced?) this sense of the unexpected, with seemingly disconnected musical elements coming together to create something that is counted as an essential addition to a music fan’s life, beyond genres and any other musical pigeonhole. That’s an achievement that is much greater than a Guinness World Record.
DJ Shadow is an active musician and composer today. You can learn more about his work at djshadow.com.
For a full list of samples found in this song, take a look here and consider embarking on a journey of musical discovery, Good People.