If the TV series Grumpy Old Men ever were to consider a hip-hop special – and it really should – they would have to start by inviting Public Enemy's Chuck D to contribute. That weary, vociferous flag-bearer for politicised hip-hop would swiftly be joined by 39-year-old DJ Shadow, a man with carefully tended jawline stubble, now playing the first of three sellout nights in a converted London railway arch.
Shadow is the Californian hip-hop auteur made legendary by his 1996 debut, Endtroducing…, an instrumental work constructed entirely from samples. Its sombre lushness still resonates today, despite having spawned entire furniture showrooms of coffee-table imitators. Now, there's even a band called Introducing who play every note of Endtroducing… on live instruments.
Tonight, Shadow is earnest and amiable. He offers a few words about doing the best possible show he can, before being swallowed up by a large spherical DJ pod. He spends much of the gig hidden inside this supersize golf ball, which serves as a 3-D screen for retina-popping projections. You just have to assume this perfectionist workaholic is not just pressing "play" and kicking back in there. At one point, the pod turns into the Death Star. At another, we see Simon Cowell's head explode. This "Shadowsphere" is Josh Davis's equivalent of Deadmau5's mouse helmet (a way of visually jazzing up DJ sets) and it really is rather nifty.
Having created a classic in Endtroducing…, Shadow has since struggled to match it to the satisfaction of fans and critics. A pair of albums and numerous collaborations (with UNKLE, Cut Chemist and others) have come and gone. Album number four – The Less You Know, the Better – drops in a fortnight. Shadow plays relatively little of it tonight, spliced into a dazzling DJ set that is – eventually – revealed as actually happening.
The orb has a tent flap, and every now and again you can see Shadow busily mixing and whacking drum pads while intergalactic warfare is breaking out around him. Early on, his blizzards of scratching resolve into the metal riffola of a new track, "Border Crossing". Later, "I Gotta Rokk" builds to a punishing peak which gleefully references dubstep and electro.
From its title on in, though, The Less You Know, the Better has been borne along on a wave of passive-aggressive prickliness. The album's pre-release campaign has featured cute cartoons of gadgets – smartphones and computers – sneering at single releases and subverting Shadow's website.
On his blog and in interviews, Shadow has grouchily attacked file-sharing and free downloads (it devalues music), as well as trolling (it debases musical discourse). In an age where fealty to the incontrovertible fabness of the internet is pretty much compulsory, this is an iffy course of action. It risks lumping Shadow with Metallica (greed-heads who hate file-sharing) rather than his former collaborator Thom Yorke of Radiohead (zeitgeist-defining honesty boxers).
And yet – like disturbing amounts of the mithering of Grumpy Old Men – Shadow does have a point. The anonymity of the internet does encourage kneejerk sneering. Artists do deserve to be compensated for their creations. You could almost argue that the intricate sonic needlepoint in which Shadow specialises might be priced like the best lace.
Live, though, Shadow really earns his money, and enduring respect. In an hour and a half, great swathes of his catalogue whip past, most often revised or deconstructed. The iconic themes from Endtroducing… – like "Stem/ Long Stem" or "Organ Donor" – send the crowd into spasms of fond recognition, of course. But there are great, joyous passages of old school hip-hop here – scratching, samples, raps, ancient breaks – updated as restless but sentient club music with mighty drum'n'bass shakedowns. It's immersive; crucially, it's fun.
The Less You Know, the Better is enthralling in places, too – on "Tedium" and "Run for Your Life" – if marred by too many guitar incursions. It is not, one suspects, the album likely to return this disgruntled elder statesman of hip-hop to his place at the front of the pack. If only Shadow could make an album as ground-breaking and emotionally intelligent as Endtroducing…, he would prove his argument – that music has value, and that his music in particular has serious worth – and, in the process, get paid in full.