Pop: DJ Shadow, Koko, London NW1

Josh Davis veers from awesome to tedious. What price some raucous fun?

DJ Shadow
Koko, London NW1

With every new season, it seems, comes another variant of hip hop. We've done crunk, hip hop's shouty, drunken, Southern cousin. We've had reggaeton, the Puerto Rican version, which, regrettably, remained a localised fad, as did the triple-X rated minimalism of Baltimore Bounce. Now there's a new, crude reduction of breakbeats and boasting called hyphy (pronounced 'high-fee'), a San Francisco Bay Area craze. Obsessed by dangerous car games, its own slang and showing off, it's not the sort of hip hop you would associate with DJ Shadow, premier artisan of mood.

The Bay Area native became a minor celebrity when he released his debut album Endtroducing in 1996. Painstakingly assembled from samples, Endtroducing eschewed hooks and raps for a lush, brooding instrumental style that had more in common with film soundtracks than block party music. Shadow's reputation for high-end melancholic menace remained throughout his collaboration with UNKLE (the mixed bag that was 1998's Psyence Fiction) and his second, so-so LP, The Private Press (2002).

But for his long-awaited third album, due out later this month, Shadow has borrowed great swaths of hyphy's stark 'n' raucous style. The Outsider features guest raps from Keak Da Sneak and E-40, two of hyphy's more notorious proponents. There has been some unrest on the djshadow.com message board and elsewhere. How could he? Shadow is so ... elegant. Hyphy is just ... crass.

So it's with some excitement that you arrive at Shadow's first London date for four years. Endtroducing remains a masterpiece, but it has cast a long shadow over Shadow. A little raucous rump-shaking could provide the rejuvenation - both commercial and stylistic - that Shadow, aka Josh Davis, needs.

Disappointingly, neither E-40 or Keak Da Sneak has made the journey over the Atlantic to rap alongside Davis, who bobs and weaves behind a nicely lit table of decks and gear, tellingly, laptop-free. Shadow has brought a slightly different party, led by rapper Lateef the Truth Speaker, a guest on both The Private Press and The Outsider. So while the longed-for outbreak of hyphy in north London fails to materialise, the climax of Shadow's show is still more fun than you would have otherwise dared hope.

The beats are fat, the bass booming and Lateef, the son of two Black Panthers, proves to be the kind of charismatic master sergeant whose troops would follow him unquestioningly into carnage. As a version of 'Enuff', off the new album, morphs into a version of 'Mashin' on the Motorway', off the last album, Shadow's rolling rhythms take in everything from drum'n'bass to techno to grime. Dextrous and raucous, a few more passages like this would have made the evening an unqualified success, matching Shadow's brooding segments with up-to-the-minute hip hop fun.

Instead, we have dour, dire Chris James from British no-mark support band Stateless singing on two tracks that recall the worst of Psyence Fiction. Despite distancing himself from James Lavelle and the UNKLE set-up, Shadow has kept Psyence Fiction's innovation of grafting unsuitable vocalists on to his instrumental productions. And while, say, Christina Carter, of obscure weird folkists Charalambides, provides an interesting match on the new album, Chris James proves to be a noisome, bargain-basement version of Coldplay's Chris Martin. Happily, Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian, another new album guest, is probably too famous now to make it to a club show for a sing-song.

Alone, DJ Shadow veers between awe-inspiring and faintly tedious. His encore is a captivating weave through 'Triplicate', the most Endtroducing moment of the new album, and Endtroducing's 'What Does Your Soul Look Like'. It's at times like this, when new and familiar swap places osmotically, that you quail a little before his enduring prowess. And yet there is ample time for your mind to wander during nearly two hours of DJ-ing with visuals. Where heavy metal gives you whiplash from head-banging, Shadow's default mode carries with it risks of repetitive strain injury from all the intense nodding.

Davis is a personable guy, unlike many hip hoppers, who tend to take themselves rather too seriously onstage, but his introductory chats break the spell of his music rather than enhancing it.

But is it to be spell-casting or fun? Ten years after Endtroducing, Shadow seems caught, inconclusively, between his sombre, instrumental comfort zone and straight-up hip hop. It'll be interesting to see what wins out in the end.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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