DJ Shadow and The Avalanches / Thoughts On Hip-Hop and Musical Growth

DJ SHADOW record stacks2

I’m a bad. ass. motherfuckin dee jay / this is why I walk and talk this way

There comes a point in certain young lives when music evolves from a form of social currency to something to be enjoyed on a deeper personal level. It’s a headlong dive into a world most people use as wallpaper, geeking out over the sounds, hardware, history, and meaning of it all.

I was always rather independent in my music choices, but growing up in the midwest before broadband internet meant that my horizons were limited. The advent of file sharing programs like Morpheus, Kazaa, and Soulseek was a supernova moment for teenagers like me, desperately seeking new sounds. On the rare midnight-show occasion when something on the radio piqued my interest, I’d get on the computer to look them up, downloading a song or two in 30 minutes.

Before the internet, certain genres never had a chance to touch my ears. Once I’d taken the plunge, I started devouring every fresh thing I could. One was my favorite radio discovery ever, an album I’ve called my “desert island” record. It harkened back to something I’d heard in my youngest days, The Beastie Boys sampling landmark Paul’s Boutique. It boldly recycled sounds and tropes from across the musical spectrum into something vibrant and dangerous. It was entirely new to me.


I journeyed in search of more.

The song posted at the top of this post, Walkie Talkie, was one of my first experiences with what I learned at the time was called both turntablism and instrumental hip-hop. I called it sampledelic. I’d heard DJ Shadow’s Midnight In A Perfect World from friends, trying to steer me away from the trance and Phish I was jamming in the late 90s, and was irrevocably changed.

While The Avalanches‘ groundbreaking Since I Left You invaded my life first, Shadow had an equally large part in shaping my burgeoning musical journey. Because The Avalanches were so far adrift, so disconnected from anything else on earth, Shadow’s more street-level debut, Endtroducing… became my passport for travel to new realms of sound. The lines between hip-hop, techno, and rock were vanishing before my eyes.

However, I couldn’t buy Endtroducing on CD. It was nowhere to be found, and I didn’t have a credit card to purchase online. A couple years later, I wandered into the local Best Buy and found Shadow’s new album The Private Press. It may not shoulder the weight of historical importance like its forebear, but it sank much deeper into my personal narrative.


While Endtroducing took the wordless language of hip-hop and sculpted a cinematic masterpiece, The Private Press goes global in its sound and approach. Eastern instrumentation graces many of the tracks, while techno, house, and tropicalia expand the color palette, and a French announcer presents the catchiest song. The penultimate track is a statuesque 9 minute pop song in the vein of Radiohead’s best electronic work, but better.

While it will certainly move your body or soundtrack a perfect summer drive, this is true strap-in-and-listen music, rewarding close attention.

The insane variety contained in this single hour has got to be partially responsible for everything I listen to today. Along with The Avalanches’ brilliant collage, DJ Shadow helped teach me to pay more attention to the music. With sampling taken to such great heights, micro-details leap out, crackling with sharp energy in their new context. When every moment pops in frantic, handcrafted space, details emerge crystal clear. They speak in a way that grabs even the casual listener. There’s a reason that the best electronic artists are considered more like classical composers than traditional musicians.

Innovative sampling trips our minds up, exposing the building blocks of sound in unexpected ways. Our internal autopilot crashes into these aural mountains, and we’re forced to pay closer attention. I think it can be a gateway drug for the further reaches of music, the kind of artists and sounds one doesn’t just stumble into. I certainly owe much of my explosive musical growth to these artists, as I entered my twenties. As I fumble to explain much of what I’m into nowadays, it’s energizing to look back and share the formative pieces of my own evolution. These bridges between what I was raised on and what I’ve become are not just important; they’re still an insane amount of fun.

5 thoughts on “DJ Shadow and The Avalanches / Thoughts On Hip-Hop and Musical Growth

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  2. I absolutely adore your writing style. And your history is quite similar to mine. Since I Left You made me realise just how good music could get. I find this record so mindblowing and estupendous that for a long time it was the only work I considered a perfect 10/10. I had to lower my standards quite a bit so that I could include other albums in my 10s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words! I felt the same about the Avalanches album for years. It is still probably the one album I’ve listened to most in my life. There are a few others that now stand in the same level of greatness for me, but none in the same style.


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