The Spatial Engineer of the Invisible City
He Is Everywhere. He Is Unavoidable. He Is Tha' Subliminal Kid.
By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 2, 2001
"Gimme two records and I'll make you a universe," DJ Spooky writes in the liner notes of his 1996 Songs of a Dead Dreamer. It's both a challenge to the listener (what two records? 12"s or LPs? What about CDs?) and a boastful offer from DJ culture's most notorious renaissance spinthrift.
As the coiner of the phrase "illbient" -- and the chief and most recognized member of that smallish subset of electronic music -- Spooky, née Paul D. Miller, 30, has in the past decade produced some of the most innovative and invigorating fringe music out there. Mixing found beats with sampled grooves, tape loops, and a general everything-and-the-kitchen-sink policy, Spooky's "sound sculptures" are as much postmodern meta-funk as they are hip-hop songs. His music -- obscure, beat-laden, impossibly dense at times -- is the aural equivalent of bad Bill Burroughs' cut 'n' paste constructs, only funkier. Songs of a Dead Dreamer name-checks everyone from Thomas Edison's sampling pal Lionel Mapleson to Gertrude Stein, from Francis Bacon to Plato. Less a musician in the accepted sense than a cultural semiotician masquerading under the guise of the hippest of hoppers, Spooky (aka "Tha' Tactical Application," "Tha' Ontological Assasssin," "Tha' Semiological Terrorist," ad infinitum) fuses sound, image, and a sprawling body of postmodern critique that -- despite its occasional impenetrability -- makes for one of the most enlightened cultural arguments around.
This sort of widespread, all-engulfing mental mindstorm can be off-putting to those out of the loop. When I asked a few beaty friends their opinions on Spooky, four out of four evinced a love of the guy's music, but there was obvious confusion over his message. That Spooky is often regarded in today's mass-marketing, target-demo cultural wash as a hyper-intellectualized sonic misfit is understandable. The seemingly mainstream DJ and rave culture is apt to wrinkle their sweat-bedecked brows when someone drops something like, "My work highlights the tenuous relationship of a youth culture based on rapid change, i.e. extreme cultural velocity, a paradigm in which what Lucy Lippard called 'the dematerialized art object' holds sway -- to the static art object of the traditional European museum structure."
Will the real DJ Chomsky please step up?
Pre-Spooky, Paul D. Miller, grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a Howard University professor and a mom who ran an "international fabric store." His father's record collection may have primed his avant-garde taste, but it was his own time spent in academe that retooled and streamlined his remarkably questing mind. His dual degrees in philosophy and French literature are notoriously apparent in his work today, as is a post-graduate period spent soaking up everything available from the intelligentsia in France. After that it was back to the States, to New York City in particular, where Miller formed the SoundLab Collective alongside other illbient tricksters Byzar and SubDub, and got to work on "being the spatial engineer of the invisible city."
His collaborations and remix work -- with Kool Keith, Wu-Tang's Killah Priest, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and NYC neighbor/indie icon Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth -- are just the tip of the iceberg of his current output. There's the apparently long-in-coming novel: "I don't want to talk about it because then everyone's gonna say, man, when is he gonna finish that?" Relenting, he adds, "It's a hobby, it's a project that I'm working on at my own leisurely pace, you know? There's two books really. One is science fiction, about DJ culture, memory viruses, and stuff like that, and the other is a sort of literary critique of intellectual property issues." Then there's his various magazine articles and essays, published both on his extensive Web site (www.djspooky.com) and in venues such as The Village Voice, The Source, ArtForum, Raygun, and piles more. Have I mentioned the artwork? Confining himself to no single medium, Spooky's visual work has appeared at the Whitney Biennial, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and, it goes without saying, many others.
He is everywhere. He is unavoidable. He is Tha' Subliminal Kid.
Most of all these days it seems Spooky is focusing on what he calls "cultural entropy," the destruction of known cultural signifiers lost in the cavalcade of both onrushing technology and a society more and more defined not by the natural world but by the entirely unnatural marriage of marketing forces and the rampant corporatization of youth culture. This is the kind of thing Spooky will discuss when he shares the stage with Freenet creator Ian Clarke at their SXSW Interactive keynote address on Monday, March 12.
"The Internet is very much a global consolidation of culture at a much more rapid rate," he explains. "Pretty much more than anything in human history except maybe viruses. [At SXSW] I'm going to be talking about how the culture is shifting and giving some different examples of that. It'll be partially a critique of the inevitability of Net culture in general and then showing how that affects industrial culture in a post-industrial way.
"Say, for example, in Mexico, where they have all these maquiladora sort of stuff where the American factories through NAFTA are hiring people on the cheap. On the other hand in China you get people creating products and then shipping them to Mexico and then to here. And that's just for physical stuff.
"Then you have the software angle, with Eastern Europe kicking out wild stuff, you have hackers in Finland, you got Japanese phone kids. (And when I say phone kids, I mean phreakers.) The whole thing is just so complexly linked. The Matrix was just the tip of the iceberg. I kind of like using movies as a metaphor. I see the pendulum swinging between The Blair Witch Project and The Matrix."
Asked about the commodification of urban hip-hop culture by the white middle class -- I'm thinking of the suddenly Grammy-happy Eminem, but this could just as easily apply to frat-ragers Limp Bizkit -- Spooky says, "It's inevitable. To be against that is like saying you're against Elvis, or you're against ocean currents. It's just how the equation works it out. And these are all variables in the culture. People see person X doing something, and then five years later, they might want to do it themselves. It doesn't matter, and it can't be stopped. I think it's fine.
"But I have to admit that it's fascinating that [Eminem] can quote-unquote get away with it as an artistic thing. You know? If you saw Dr. Dre or Luke from 2 Live Crew saying [similar things], they'd be crucified 'til the sky falls.
"Part of that is racial, part of it is kind of the expectation of the decadent American culture. I think it's much easier for whites to accept another white saying this kind of stuff than for someone else, whether it's an African-American, an Hispanic, a European, or whoever. It's so the judges can view it from the context of the familiar. I definitely think that if you had someone saying 'I'm going to dismember my mother and cut off her head,' you know, way back when heavy metal cats caught stress for similar things, but that was a little different. You can't compare, really. It's just a whole different thing at this point."
Returning to the notion of cultural obliteration via Doug Rushkoff's sly "Them," Spooky name-checks the great ad-deconstruction periodical AdBusters. The issue he's talking about features a poll in which participants were asked to identify seemingly obvious objects in nature vs. corporate logos: "They ended up polling about 2,000 people, and they found that fewer than 10% of them could tell more than 10 plant species by name, but 100% could name a corporate logo, again by name. And what that means is that the natural environment has been completely displaced in human mythology. It's like this artificial landscape of corporate culture, software, and information routes."
Your DJ or your cultural semiotics prof? Who says he can't be both?
This consternation of whether or not you're going to "get" DJ Spooky, on his own terms or anyone else's, is something that the artist is clearly aware of, and he signs off with this caveat: "All I can say is, yeah, I'm definitely into theory and stuff, but I still have a sense of humor. I'm just flipping things and having a good time. I don't want people to think it's too dry or academic or whatever. We still rock the party and just keep things fun."
DJ Spooky appears with Ian Clarke for a SXSW Interactive keynote conversation on Monday, March 12, 10am.