Like a lot of black men who grew up in the ’90s, hip-hop is the soundtrack for my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I can remember “borrowing” cassette tapes from my older sister—she had a new music plug in high school—dubbing them, and sneaking them back into her room before she noticed. It was through those means that I learned of N.W.A., heard Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, EPMD, Gang Starr, etc. Also, because I lived in Germany during the late ’80s and early ’90s, my family would send us VHS tapes of Rap City and MTV that had all of the newest videos. This is where I was introduced to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” which would become (and still is) my favorite hip-hop record of all time.
By the time I got to college in 1997, I was a hip-hop head. In high school, I remember having lots of convos with the homies about various rappers, groups and albums. I was a pretty staunch southern hip-hop and West Coast rap head sprinkled in with some East Coast stuff. I hated the Wu-Tang Clan (at the time) because of my boy Titus, who pretty much ONLY listened to Wu. But by the time I got to college, De La Soul Is Dead was already my favorite album, Dr. Dre was already cemented as a legend to me.
My crew at Morehouse College was made up of several folks from Washington, D.C., my boy from back home in Alabama, the homie from Dover, Delaware by way of Trenton, N.J., and a crew of cats from Baton Rouge, La. We rolled pretty deep once you included our Spelman College contingent. One of those cats from Baton Rouge, though, was a hip-hop and music head like I’d never met. I grew up in a musical house but his level of musical knowledge was about 100 levels above me. Even though he was from the South, he was an East Coast head and put me up on so much East Coast music (M.O.P. was then and is still one of his favorite groups). But what he really did for me was to put me up on samples and sampling.
See, I understood that a lot of the music I loved was built on other, often older songs, but I didn’t have an appreciation for truly searching out the songs I’d see in the liner notes. Crate-digging was not something I knew much about. Adrian changed all that. Adrian not only knew who sampled what, he introduced me to a lot of the original samples. I fell in love with the art of sampling, both finding and repurposing them. My music collection grew exponentially in college and that’s mostly because of him. I owe him a thanks for opening up my hip hop knowledge. I’ll make that call soon.
Because of that new love and deeper understanding of sampling, one of the biggest contributions Adrian made to my life was in the form of an album that would literally change the way I listened to music—and hip-hop, in particular. I don’t know exactly why or how he introduced me to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. album but he most certainly was the one who did. We were probably talking about music, our custom all throughout college—a tradition that lives through today—and he probably asked if I’d heard of DJ Shadow and my answer was definitely “no.”
While I vividly remember the circumstances, what I do know is that when I listened to this album, the way I saw music changed. Released in 1996 on the famed alternative hip-hop and turntablism-heavy label, Mo’Wax, Endtroducing….. is a clinic in sampling with DJ Shadow as the surgeon, chopping up samples, layering things and ultimately creating beautiful works of art with sometimes half-a-second chops of older records. Funny enough, and as a retrospective aside, it makes sense that De La Soul Is Dead is one of my favorite hip-hop records because Prince Paul is a producer who layered and layered samples until he created new pieces of art built upon many, many other parts.
One song in particular on Endtroducing….. really impacted me. It’s the opening song on the album after the intro, “Building Steam With a Grain Of Salt.” I cannot stress how beautiful I find this record to be. The haunting piano riff alone had me at hello and still feels brand new to me every time I hear it. What it really did, though, was make me realize what hip-hop could be. Before that album and song, in particular, I viewed hip-hop from a typical song format lens. A few 16s and a hook (or scratched hook most likely at that point). But Endtroducing….. brought me to instrumental hip-hop that had me visualizing samples in a different fashion. It was a sound I didn’t even know I needed that suddenly I couldn’t live without.
From there I searched out every hip-hop instrumental release I could find, treating this new (to me) alternative hip hop as a treasure I couldn’t get enough of. I’ve always been a beat person; I understand that lyrics are a cornerstone of hip-hop. But if the music didn’t get me, the lyrics were useless; a hot 16 over a trash beat was still trash to me. And because I love jazz, and in particular, the fusion era, I could and can listen to instrumental music forever. It’s part of why Dilla’s Donuts is one of my favorite hip-hop records. It’s just beautiful hip-hop storytelling told through sampling.
There was probably a yearlong stretch where I listened to “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” every day. It’s been a while since I’ve done that but the impact it had on my musical life, and life in general, has been felt since then. Even when I attempted my career as a music producer, I leaned more heavily into the DJ Shadow alternative hip-hop sound when trying to create an album. I love chopping up samples, but layering drums and samples and creating art was my goal. And I owe that all to an album I was introduced to in the late ‘90s in college by one of my best friends who might not even realize he changed the way I listened to hip hop. The homie is appreciated more than he knows.
As is, DJ Shadow “endtroduced” me to the version of my hip-hop self that I would become for the rest of my life.