clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Midnight in a Perfect World

Twenty years after the release of DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing …,’ DJs, artists, and collectors talk about crate digging in the internet age

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

"It’s my little nirvana," says Josh Davis, better known as DJ Shadow, in a scene from the 2001 documentary Scratch. He’s in the basement of Records, the aptly named Sacramento store he made famous via the cover of his debut album, 1996’s Endtroducing … . It would be generous to describe the room Shadow stands in as "dimly lit"; its contents — thousands of LPs and 45s — are piled to the ceiling and wrap around the walls, turning the space into a maze of forgotten music. Shadow points to the spot where he once found a mummified bat and asks about the foul gas odor before smirking. "It’s probably just the records," he says to the cameraman.

Normal people go to great pains to avoid dwelling in sunlight-deprived, moldy rooms for hours at a stretch. But for turntablists, record collectors, and bedroom beatmakers those same dark spaces are heaven. The Scratch scene presented a romanticized ideal of a pursuit called crate digging — the art (and task) of excavating a cache of old records from the basements and backrooms of record stores, personal collections, and untapped warehouses. The sounds contained on those records can then take on a new life, making their ways into DJ sets or becoming the foundation for musical productions.

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing …, which turned 20 in November, is one of the crowning achievements of the crate-digger aesthetic, along with often-cited classics like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, and Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop.

"I honestly feel like the people that dig don’t stop digging, because it’s a part of who we are," Shadow says in Scratch. But 15 years after the film’s release, as the internet has changed the ways in which people consume not only vinyl but music itself, does that statement hold true? In a post-Spotify, post-YouTube world, one in which record sales are driven by eBay and the designed scarcity of Record Store Day reissues, is there still room for the crate digger?

"When you’re crate digging, you’re not trying to find copies of Thriller," says Oliver Wang, the scholar, DJ, and journalist best known for books like Legions of Boom and the music blog Soul-Sides, a decade-plus-old site that shines new light on obscure foreign records and waxes philosophical about canonical artists such as Curtis Mayfield.

As was the case with many in his age group, Wang’s point of entry into mainstream music was the hip-hop of the late ’80s and early ’90s — the era typically referred to as the genre’s Golden Age. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane ushered in a time of more complex rhyme schemes and flows, and new technology like the Akai MPC60 and the E-mu SP-1200 opened the door for an advancement in sample-based production techniques, led at first by visionary producers like the Bomb Squad, and later by Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Tribe’s Q-Tip. Drawing upon vast record collections, these beatmakers would use fragments of old songs to make a pastiche — maybe a Jefferson Airplane guitar riff, a jazz bass line, the flute from a Guess Who song, and some barking dogs for good measure — that would become the backdrop for an entirely new composition.

Wang says he would study the samples on those Golden Age records like they were a "treasure map." Using his ears, the sample-clearance lists in the album’s liner notes, and, later, an early online database, Wang would hit record shops looking for the original records — a process called "sample spotting." As his collection and reference points grew, he began to expand his search, looking for other older albums that shared session musicians, producers, or labels with the sampled material. "It was really a broadening of our musical knowledge," Wang says. "Samples were the entry point, but it opened a window into the past for people like myself."

One of those people was Eothen Alapatt, better known as Egon, a DJ and former general manager of legendary indie hip-hop label Stones Throw. Alapatt, who now owns reissue label Now-Again and Los Angeles record shop Rappcats, grew up in a musical household: His father was something of a proto crate digger, frequenting thrift shops and flea markets, collecting vinyl. The younger Alapatt got his own start by rummaging through his dad’s stacks, and expanded his collection as he found a peer group that shared his "almost endless supply of knowledge of all these old records."

Some of his discussions with fellow diggers would center on the basics — the brilliance of the relatively well-known funk group the Meters, for instance — while others went deeper, focusing on more obscure bands, like Salt, a funk outfit that received little acclaim in its day. By the time Alapatt was in college in Nashville, he was traveling the country in hopes of unearthing hidden gems. His quests took him to far-off locales, like warehouses "in some far-flung part of Texas."

Like many crate diggers, Alapatt’s vinyl collection began with amassing the funk, soul, and jazz records experiencing a second life via rap music, but broadened as time went on.

Perhaps no album represents that widening of taste like Endtroducing. Shadow was using as many as a half dozen disparate-sounding sources for a single track, drawing from unorthodox and ultra-obscure records.

Take "The Number Song," the third track on the album. Shadow borrowed the bass from a Metallica album cut, the vocals from a comedy record, and the drums from two funk 45s and a little-known Korean psych record, creating something that sounded like a b-boy jam composed by industrial machines. As Alapatt puts it, Shadow "deconstructed the loop," stitching together the past to create something new. "There had been tons of other people like him that had just been going deeper and deeper," Alapatt says. "He happened to go the deepest and grab from the most obscure."

In the wake of Endtroducing …, producer-driven, sample-based instrumental records became commercially viable and the frequent subject of critical praise (after all, these records were basically living music criticism). The Avalanches became an early-aughts college dorm staple with Since I Left You, which used a purported 3,500 samples. While on the more esoteric end of the spectrum, Four Tet and Prefuse 73 released acclaimed instrumental albums that appealed to the intelligent dance music (IDM) crowd. RJD2’s 2002 record Deadringer would go on to soundtrack television commercials for at least a decade to come, landing the Ohio-raised producer the most prestigious ad placement on television.

One of the artists indirectly influenced by Endtroducing … was James Anthony Simon, better known as Blockhead. A New York City–based producer, Simon didn’t set out to make instrumental LPs. Rather, he got his start providing beats for indie rap stalwarts like Aesop Rock and Murs. After an early instrumental composition of his appeared on a 2002 Aesop Rock EP, a record label approached him about putting out solo releases. The result was 2004’s Music by Cavelight, the first of Blockhead’s six mostly instrumental albums.

Despite drawing on similar sample sources as his peers, and producing songs that would sound at home on a playlist alongside Shadow and RJD2, Simon says that he has virtually no relationship with crate digging today. The reason? The record-buying market has largely moved away from mom-and-pop stores and dollar bins, toward a purely collector-driven world filled with boutique shops and eBay bidding wars.

About five years ago, Simon realized that he was spending upward of $30 on an LP just to gather source material. Today, Simon gets his samples almost exclusively from the internet, frequenting full-album blogs to download music. "I don’t want to pay a collector $30 for something I don’t really care about. It’s just source material for me. … It’s not a precious thing," Simon said.

This fall, to celebrate his classic album’s 20th anniversary, Shadow commissioned a remix album, inviting other producers to offer new takes on each of the album’s 13 tracks. One of the artists who contributed to the project was Salva, a Los Angeles–based DJ and producer who had previously collaborated with and toured with Shadow. Born Paul Salva Jr., the producer made a name for himself with an unofficial Kanye remix, and has done commercial remixes for Rihanna and Banks, as well as producing an instrumental album in 2011 and a rapper-assisted mixtape named Peacemaker in 2014.

Salva, who contributed a footwork remix of Shadow’s "Building Steam With a Grain of Salt" for the anniversary edition, says that in a lot of ways, Endtroducing … represents "a little slice of time" that can’t be re-created. In the past, sample-based music was driven by access to physical media. Now, digging takes place on YouTube or Spotify, or with torrent packs of every Motown song ever recorded. Music is available to anyone with an internet connection, he says. "Some people view it as bad, but from a purely creative, nonegotistical standpoint, I think everybody should just have everything, mediawise," Salva says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Michael Volpe, the producer known as Clams Casino, who first gained notoriety making beats for A$AP Rocky and Lil B. Volpe began producing at 15, mostly using samples he found on Limewire, Bearshare, and other post-Napster file-sharing services. Much of his early work bypassed the funk and soul samples of previous eras and drew on disparate sources like Björk and the emo band Thursday. Volpe often manipulated the source material to create a new, dreamlike composition that had few sonic similarities to the source material. "The reason I was attracted to finding samples like that is that I hadn’t heard it done yet," he says. "It was something new."

Volpe, who says he hadn’t heard Endtroducing … until his father bought him a copy about five years ago, remixed the track "Stem / Long Stem" for the anniversary edition. For the original, which was something of a hit (it reached no. 14 on the Irish Singles Chart in 1997), Shadow used sources ranging from Giorgio Moroder to KRS-One to create a paranoid, skittish song with several movements and a sampled monologue about isolation. In Volpe’s hands, "Stem" became almost ethereal, a release of the tension created by Shadow’s composition that nearly totally reimagined its elements. The end result was a take that Shadow himself could barely recognize: "Clams turned in his remix, and I listened to it. I loved it, but in the back of my mind, I got really worried because I was thinking, ‘Shit, did he send a demo of like somebody else’s track,’" Shadow said on the Talkhouse Music Podcast earlier this year.

Crate digging and sample-based music have proved to be a mixed bag for the original artists. For every James Brown who had his career — and finances — saved by the resparked interest the culture creates, there’s a James Brown drummer who has yet to see a windfall.

Take, for example, soul singer Gloria Ann Taylor, who has had mixed experiences resulting from her music’s rediscovery. A minor star in the 1960s and early ’70s, Taylor experienced modest success with the 1969 single "You Got to Pay the Price." Taylor signed a deal with Columbia, but left the record label after a dispute. She ultimately released a three-song EP on her husband’s small independent label, Selector Sound, in 1973, which failed to catch on.

More than 30 years later, the record took on a new life after crate diggers unearthed the EP, which contained moody slow-disco burner "Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing." Before long, collectors were paying north of $1,000 for the record and Pitchfork-approved blue-eyed soulsters were sampling the groove. Taylor’s work eventually received the deluxe-reissue treatment, but not before dodgy European bootlegs flooded the online marketplace.

In a 2014 interview with the Toledo Blade, Taylor said she was at peace with her long-lost music’s rediscovery, but weary from the unauthorized pressings and uncleared samples that others had profited from. "I just hope people enjoy it," she told the Blade. "But I don’t want people making more money off of it than I do."

At the same time, the modern-day beatmaker is handcuffed by copyright laws — courts have ruled time and time again that sampled artists are owed licensing fees and publishing rights, often at the expense of creativity. Even an artist like Volpe (Clams Casino), whose finished product often bears little resemblance to the source material, has had to adapt his approach as his notoriety has grown. In some cases, a high-profile artist he’s working with wants to avoid having to offer publishing rights to a sampled artists; in others, the original recording artist is so obscure, properly compensating the artist is arduous, if not impossible. Much of Volpe’s recent work — including his debut LP, 32 Levels, and production work for artists such as Vince Staples — has avoided sampling. Instead, he has spent time in studios containing vintage synths and pedals, "freestyling" for hours on end and then ultimately returning to those recordings to make beats — in effect sampling himself. "On a small scale, it doesn’t really matter," Volpe says. "But if I’m trying to get beats to rappers on a major label, it does."

Shadow adopted a similar approach when recording his latest LP, 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall. On the Talkhouse podcast, he discussed working at a studio owned by pioneering electronic musician Jack Dangers, which housed synths as rare as some of the vinyl he’d used to craft his earlier work. (In an aside, Shadow mentioned Dangers owns the model of synth used to create the "voice" of R2D2.) But even as he’s moved toward creating his own sounds, Shadow said he still plans to work with samples, even as it becomes less economically feasible. He also said there’s a need for expanded fair-use copyright laws as it pertains to the art form because "otherwise all of my heroes become criminalized … from DJ Premier to Large Professor to Pete Rock to Marley Marl."

"I want to continue to make music that’s sample based, but we’re living in this strange dichotomy where music has technically never been worth less and yet … people have never wanted more [for sample clearance]," Shadow said on the podcast. "It’s a fine line to walk in and I think with every record I do I’m trying to liberate myself a little bit."

Shadow caused minor heart palpitations among fans in September when he announced that he would be selling off a portion of his record collection at Alapatt’s Rappcats record store. In response to headlines like this one in L.A. Weekly, Shadow tried to dispel the notion that one of the crate-digging world’s most visible acolytes needed to sell off his stock.

For Alapatt, however, the idea of hosting a world-class DJ at his storefront wasn’t particularly newsworthy. Over the years, he’s held sales based on collections owned by famous DJs and producers, collectors who had trekked through South America, and reissue labels such as Ubiquity and Numero Group.

The boom in the vinyl market, amid a decline in overall music sales — and the emergence of streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Pandora — has been one of the more overreported industry stories of the past decade (though recent trends indicate that those salad days may soon be coming to an end). But even as vinyl has come back into vogue, as a lifestyle accoutrement as much as a way to listen to music, the rise in sales hasn’t always been a boon to mom-and-pop shops.

The chief beneficiaries have largely been retailers such as Amazon and Urban Outfitters, while iconic indie stores have shuttered — and others have become endangered. And, according to Alapatt, many of the small shops that remain bear little resemblance to the one Shadow used as his backdrop in Scratch. To put it another way: Record stores are now about ratifying a listener’s taste rather than expanding it.

The internet, despite the information it contains, has had a paradoxical antidiscovery effect, Alapatt says. Between Spotify, YouTube, and obscure-music blogs, an aspiring music aficionado can learn about and hear virtually any artist or album. In addition to having access to songs through a streaming service, they can punch the albums into an eBay search and purchase records that had been long-sought-after holy grails for a previous generation of diggers.

On the surface, it seems like a better situation than what Alapatt and his generation faced in their formative years, but he says that a large chunk of young diggers skip right over the basics, like the Meters, and immediately latch onto a long-forgotten funk band that put out a record with a drum break. "There’s a thrill of discovery that has gone missing, and I mourn that," says Alapatt.

Wang says that the internet has been both an "asset and a liability" for the world of crate digging. Yes, it’s had an effect of diluting hyperspecialized knowledge, making years’ worth of collecting accessible to anyone who can get online, but it has also brought together like-minded music aficionados to share knowledge, and has connected people with, for example, a rare LP a collector in the United Arab Emirates is selling.

"You can be anywhere in the world and you can learn about some obscure funk music label from the ’60s that had three releases," Wang said. "That would’ve been something that before the internet only a handful of people would’ve known about."

The Press Box

How to be a Music Critic With The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh

No Skips With Jinx and Shea

Breaking Down Future’s Confessional Masterpiece, ‘HNDRXX’

60 Songs That Explain the '90s

‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: In Defense of “Achy Breaky Heart”

View all stories in Music