Walking into the main room at the Academy tonight, there was one thing that seemed out of the ordinary – the 8ft white sphere sitting in the middle of the stage – but more of that later. The first act is local recently-evolved act Tiger Mendoza. We are greeted with two guys, one playing laptop and one playing guitar, both wearing slightly disturbing tiger masks. The sound produced is a kind of dub step beat and bass line with sampled vocals and huge Nu-Metal-esque guitar chords/riffs. At times continuing noise sound like My Bloody Valentine with a modern electro beat underneath, and at others the pulsating synths take over and the guitar seems superfluous. I think if the laptop elements had been added to a full band setup in the vein of Deftones, then there could have been something really interesting, but it was just a bit limited as was. However, come the end of their set they sampled DJ Shadow and brought on a singer to put lyrics of Everything But The Girl’s ‘I Miss You’ over the top. I will not voice my feelings about this matter fully here, but suffice to say I was NOT impressed.
After that comes New York two piece The Knocks, who within electronic based music could not be more different. Their slick house-derived beats, polished synths and soulful pop vocals leave me feeling something I have never felt before – the compulsion to dance. If you were trying to pin down their sound I would say it’s kind of Justice via Brooklyn today and Chicago twenty years ago. The majority of their set flows at a standard pop tempo, though the one track that is slower feels lost and a a tad like filler. Nonetheless, if clubbing was really like this at 3am on Friday night (as we are all encouraged to believe it is by the band) then perhaps I could be enticed – shame reality is slightly askew from that vision.
Then, after a short break (enabled by the pre-built ‘Shadowsphere’) the lights go down and a humble American man in a beanie comes on stage, picks up a mic from the floor and address the crowd. This is DJ Shadow not a self-glorifying hip-hop megastar, not a solo artist accompanied by a ‘posse’, but one guy with a hug passion for the job he gets to do every day. When he gets into the sphere the room erupts, from the beginning of the set the the last fade out the audience with blown away with the sheer density of material and at the same time the clarity and subtlety of the presentation.
Lots of favourites are used throughout the set, samples from ‘Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt’, ‘Walkie Talkie’, and new tracks like ‘Border Crossing’ and ‘I Gotta Rokk’ are mixed in; But this is not someone pressing play on recordings of songs – as we see when the sphere spins, and here all the way through – he is really putting in a huge effort there’s any number of gadgets, decks, mixers, live drum pads (on which we get a proper rock ‘n’ roll solo), computers and fx units. A lot of the songs are recognisable, but are re-imagined, reinterpreted and sometimes combined overlapped. Many of the hits have new beats, and tiny vocals samples are reused across several songs to add a orchestral sense of movement and cohesion to this amazing hip-hop set.
I should at least for a moment explore the visuals. Watching someone press buttons and scratch records isn’t necessarily the most entertaining experience for 90 minutes, not matter how good the music (it is phenomenal), and Shadow knows this. The show he has created is astounding, both the sphere and the back wall are projection surfaces that are used to show a vast variety of kinetic and engaging animations; from the sphere becoming the Death Star, to a basketball to showing retro TV screens with Shadow himself live one them, to almost anything else you can think of. During the piano-based encore the sphere becomes a snow globe and is carried through horror film corridors by a hand on the rear screen. At times the audience laughs with the animation or just screams in awe at what has been achieved.
DJ Shadow is a veteran of the the hip-hop scene, from his amazing turntabalism, to his penchant for hunting out samples of 45s, to the collaborators he gets to appear; he is part of the fabric of modern hip-hop. But this performance shows he is still on top of his game and has no intention of stopping. Everyone in the room was engulfed by the experience and blown away by the beats. If you don’t know his work, please go and buy Entroducing… you’ll be glad you did. Then go see him live. Many times.