By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
IN 1996, WHEN Josh Davis (a.k.a. DJ Shadow) became the first white artist ever to revolutionize hip hop without selling any records, he changed the music, albeit quietly, forever. Where nearly every other great DJ that came before him made history by dropping bombs, Shadow radicalized in ripples. The most surprising tracks on his church-building debut, Endtroducing...,were the quietest ones; he owned empty spaces, and at times seemed more of a cloth with Steve Reich than DJ Red Alert. And his most striking innovation--a beat-splicing technique that caused his grooves to intentionally derail themselves--was as frustrating as it was invigorating. As revolutionaries go, he was kind of a dictator, and a bit of a prick.
With indie rock's obscurist aesthetics applied to funk, fame proceeded. There had always been "underground" hip hoppers, but Shadow was the first to have his top-10-records list published in Details.
So, it will be interesting for Shadow fans to note that Preemptive Strike--a compilation of (mostly) successful singles recorded over the last four years for the U.K. label Mo' Wax--is, for the most part, a void. Its centerpiece, "What Does Your Soul Look Like pt 2," is a 14-minute long, steely trip-hop song, rooted in a slow-mo metal riff that could grow moss on its ass in the time it takes to get from groove A to groove B--except there is no groove B. It may be the most pretentious rap-related song ever recorded, and the fact that it was a huge U.K. hit in 1995 proves for all times that English people understand rap music about as keenly as a Bronx stickballer understands cricket. The three other versions of "What Does Your Soul Look Like" aren't nearly as useless, but only converts will find fun in their monkish minimalism. Ditto Q-Bert's utterly formless, 22-minute-long molasses-like mix of Shadow tracks that brings Preemptive Strike to a yawn-inspiring close.
Ironically, this is still a record worth owning, if only for 1994's "In/Flux," one of the best 10 singles of the decade. Then known to no one, our suburban wiz kid presents himself as a doom-ridden Watts prophet, running reggae dub, funk-noir, and poetry samples over a slab of acoustic-seeming souljazz 'n' hip hop that is at once black and beautiful. Fans of that myth-making debut single will be happy to know that the fleetest, densest funk here is also the most recent. The organ-heavy free fall "High Noon" (released last fall) might as well be a machine-gunned re-mix of Black Flag doing "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." It's tougher than punk, and almost reifies our hero's legendary DJ status, too. Almost.