This is what DJs do to themselves: They erase the specific features of their own form and give life to the turntables, the mixing board, the vinyl. What remains of the DJ is a silhouette that floats behind the tables and flows out onto the dance floor, where people cry out its name. Not that the DJ is anonymous or lacking in personality. There will always be DJ superstars — the Larry Levans, the Red Alerts, the Dr. Dres. But the personality is in the music. When you call out their name in the midst of dance-floor ecstasy, you don’t want them physically — you want their music, you want for them to respond with more of their magic. You want to see the shadow.
Josh Davis of Davis, Calif., aka DJ Shadow, trusts in the allure of the shadow, which is why he’s so comfortable letting his sample cut-and-pastes spiral with no visible axis besides an erstwhile beat. Shadow uses no vocalists in the traditional sense, no singers or rappers on which to hang his works. And working in his studio, he’s freed, too, from the rhythmic consistency that the dance floor demands. In this freedom, he fuses hip-hop break beats with forays into soul, funk, jazz, New Age, classical and real-life-whatnot — whatever catches his ear. The results, collected first on 1996′s “Endtroducing” and now on the new “Preemptive Strike” (which compiles the singles he released in England on Mo’ Wax prior to “Endtroducing”) are long, winding rivers of sound that flow unceasingly toward beauty and revelation: chaos-theory tone-poems, sample symphonies and po-po-mo concertos.
The songs on “Preemptive Strike” don’t vary widely from those on “Endtroducing.” They are equally exceptional and boundary-free: If it makes sense to Shadow, then it makes sense — any sound can fit with any other sound. “In/Flux,” released originally in 1993, floats flute trills and quiet soul-synths over a laid-out break beat and some high-pitched scratching, before switching gears into anxious vibes. For vocals, he samples people speaking and reading poetry, testifying to revolution and change. “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 2),” which came out in 1995, opens with horns and a Celtic-sounding hymn and morphs into a slow, dark guitar line buoyed by a rickety-snare, which becomes a full-kit crashing over organ and flute. And it goes on and on, with scratching, distorted vocals and synth washes.
The two newish songs are “High Noon” and “Organ Donor” (remixed by Q-Bert), which were both released as singles last year. They are manic, action-filled tracks, with organs, synth fuzz and a fun-house, comic-book aesthetic. It’s a step away from the dreamy, laid-back funk of the past, toward a sillier, faster groove that vibes on drum ‘n’ bass while also freaking out on it. It’s weird, but it works. The Shadow may be elusive, but he’s always true to form.