When DJ Shadow released his stunning full-length debut, Endtroducing, in 1996, he created an entirely new reference point. Whether hip-hop, as he saw it, or trip-hop, a term he hates (but was unwittingly responsible for when a British music journalist coined it to describe his single "In/Flux"), it was, everyone agreed, a genre-defying breakthrough. His sample-based found-sound experiments won him praise and accolades from the press, the fans and recently anointed rock royalty like Radiohead, with whom he later toured. But, as that particular journey came to a close for him, courses he'd already plotted were shelved in favor of exploring unmapped topographies. With his subsequent work including the UNKLE project, two all-45s funk CDs mixed along with Jurassic 5's Cut Chemist and, most recently, The Private Press DJ Shadow has continued to conquer new lands of longitudinal beats and latitudinal pieces.
In the wake of Endtroducing, however, as is always the case with great new ideas, approaches, or sounds, lots of producers have tried to replicate Shadow's limber, mysterious, and often magical sequencing of coordinates. Manchester's Rae & Christian launched a promising debut, Northern Sulphuric Soul, only to sink with their flaccid follow-up Sleepwalking. Lamely-named Italian duo The Dining Rooms and their release, Numero Deux, managed a Shadow-like sound circa '96, but with none of the substance. As for Southern California's Nobody, whose rookie collection, Soulmates, had some depth, but also used too many of the same David Axelrod samples Shadow did, it remains to be seen whether he can deliver with his second album.
Few of these pretenders, tracking Shadow armed only with knock-off compasses, have discovered where X marks the spot. Which all leads us to Ohio, to producer/DJ Rjd2, and to his uncannily titled solo debut, Deadringer.
It kicks off with "The Horror," an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink opener deep rolling bass, pulsing drums, squealing synthesizer, and a mad scientist's voice explaining the matter at hand: "Time to understand the horror/ Time to understand the monster/ No one is safe...." It's transformative, a declaration by Rjd2 that he is Dr. Jekyll and his album, his living, breathing creation, is Mr. Hyde.
The great thing about his message is that he backs it up with one of the most exciting releases of the year. From bombastic ass-shaking jams to contemplative soundscapes (never stuck in a one-note groove) to straight-up hip-hop, this guy's covered it all, and, with Endtroducing as a reference point, he's made it sound new again.
His first surprise comes with "Smoke & Mirrors," a darkly melodic meditation on unrequited love. In the midst of a looped piano and strings, and a mourner's trumpet, a downtrodden man sings, against a drum-roll of the lost: "Who knows what tomorrow will bring/ Maybe sunshine or maybe rain/ But as for me I'll wait and see/ 'Cause maybe it'll bring my love to me." He wanders until his voice grows tired of the eternal questions, leaving us immersed in rolling waves of instrumental darkness. Then, as if her spirit's been there all along, a woman calls to him: "Sometime you'll take me/ Rain again/ Just to let you know/ Everything's going to be/ All right." She repeats "all right" again and again, as if it will help her begin to believe what she's saying is true. It isn't. And as the song drifts away quietly to strings and piano, one last effort to fight the fates is made, on a record spun backward, trying in vain to unite two lovers, but losing, as these searchers break your heart.
DJs are counted on to evoke emotion, but it's the highs they're expected to hit best, not the lows. A few before him, like the aforementioned DJ Shadow with "Midnight in a Perfect World," DJ Cam with "Dieu Reconnaitra Les Siens" and, recently, Bonobo with "The Plug," have produced tracks saturated in real beauty. With "Smoke & Mirrors," Rjd2 drops one that will be remembered.
There's another producer whose work is echoed in Deadringer but, after too much hype and commercialization surrounding his last album, his name reads like a four-letter word. And there are a lot of people out there who look at his spacesuit smile on the cover of 18 and want to launch him to a galaxy far, far, away. But Moby, and Play, must be mentioned. The tracks that rock Deadringer share a common energy with the best, the most novel moments of Play. Where Moby unearthed field recordings of gospel songs and, while maintaining their authenticity, injected a different kind of life into them, Rjd2 has done something similar with rare groove, making songs like "Good Times Roll Pt. 2" cook.
Coming on the heels of "Smoke & Mirrors," it's a disorienting mood/tempo shift. Composed with a driving break, unrelenting bass and guitar loops, and a charging set of horns, "Good Times Roll Pt. 2" will make you move. The first time a DJ friend spun it, he turned with an expression of shock and said, "This record is fucking hot." And when a sampled voice in calm contrast to the whirlwind of loops, scratches and a symphony of era-spanning beats (some sound funk, others reverberating electro, others straight hip-hop) sings "I'm goin' mess with you," it's too late. You're done.
The source materials shouldn't come as a surprise to those who've heard Rjd2's essential mix of old soul and funk, Your Face or Your Kneecaps. That work, blessed with fast twitch muscles and a spirit spitting excess electricity, rivals either of DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist's celebrated all-45 funk and rare groove mixes, Brainfreeze and Product Placement.
In the midst of both the moody pieces and the thunderous beat-downs, there are also several collaborations with Megahertz (or MHz), the Ohio-based rappers with whom Rjd2 began his career. As MHz, they are a very average crew. In this context, used sparingly, as pieces of a more complicated sonic puzzle, they are effective. The sentiment is there, especially on "F.H.H.," when Jakki raps, seemingly giving voice to his DJ, "So what the fuck is your definition of underground/Depressing beats and bleak cats who love the sound/ Well I ain't part of that...."
He isn't. Which makes it all the more interesting that the label releasing Deadringer is Definitive Jux. Best known for its dark and challenging work, projects like Cannibal Ox and, most recently, the solo debut by El-P (the label's proprietor and creative force), they've wisely chosen, by signing Rjd2, to add new spirit to their roster.