DJ Shadow: Action Adventure

It was an eBay purchase that pulled DJ Shadow out of a pandemic slump: a trove of some 200 tapes’ worth of broadcasts recorded from a Baltimore and Washington, D.C.-area radio station in the 1980s. Novel yet stuck in time, their blend of dance, R&B, and early hip-hop triggered nostalgia without feeling overly familiar. On his latest LP, Action Adventure, Shadow homes in on a related aesthetic, importing an underground hip-hop ethos into the most expensive studio money could buy—in 1983. Whether with an MPC or a DAW, he remains a world-class drum programmer, and the beats here balance vintage luxury with slick modern production value. The synth space lasers and electronic drums on “Time and Space” sound clean and classic; the drums and melody on “Ozone Scraper” are basic but richly textured. The total effect is like a 4K remaster of an old film’s 35mm print, its fine grain beautifully rendered in high resolution.

The art and business of sampling have evolved significantly in the 30-plus years since DJ Shadow started making music. By the time of his first releases in the early ’90s, cratediggers were already starting to chop up and manipulate samples beyond recognition; by the end of the decade they had perfected the art of burying them in the mix, layering dozens of pieces of audio like camouflage. Shadow’s 1996 masterpiece Endtroducing… carries the distinction of being recognized by Guinness as the first album constructed completely from samples. But in 2023, the landscape looks much different; digital tools make identifying samples easier than ever, and publishing unlicensed material can create a legal time bomb.

The samples on Action Adventure, rather than providing a wealth of material from which to create a collage, feel like calculated choices, hyper-specific triggers that help set the tone for the songs. The rambling riff and scream from Dust’s 1971 hard rock jam “Loose Goose” provides the jump-off for the high-octane “Free for All,” a raucous bruiser that could easily pass for a Run the Jewels instrumental. A line from Loudon Wainwright III’s 1986 folk ballad “Expatriot,” about a man leaving home, becomes the centerpiece of “All My,” a blistering ode to crate-digging that would feel right at home at a Chicago footwork party. And he’s still capable of finding salvation in the stacks, pulling an inspired vocal performance from Jan Jerome’s obscure 1990 R&B B-side “Baby, Got Me Goin” to build the stunning new jack swing track “You Played Me,” with a bassline that could give a twentysomething Teddy Riley a run for his money.

In a statement, Shadow explained the album’s lack of features by saying he didn’t want to “write music to give someone else a runway.” But some of the beats—“Craig, Ingles, & Wrightson,” “Witches vs. Warlocks”—feel hollow without a charismatic rapper to float over them. Much of the album’s early runtime builds towards a climax that never comes; the final tracks (“Forever Changed,” “She’s Evolving”) only hint at an opaque sense of resolution. But the drums are captivating enough to save more than one song from sleeping at the wheel, and when Shadow shifts gears on the ambient exercise “Fleeting Youth (An Audible Life),” his mastery of texture and layering gives the track a gravitational pull, even if it’s too short to be immersive.

Operating largely without words, Action Adventure captures broad feelings of nostalgia from a POV enriched by decades of hindsight and experience; it’s a testament to DJ Shadow’s production skill and human touch. But where his last album used pointed commentary to communicate a clear concept, the new album’s instrumental abstraction is more elusive. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that even if he never makes another record as singular as Endtroducing…, artists will be banging down his door until he hangs up the MPC.

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DJ Shadow: Action Adventure