Getting Subliminal with DJ Spooky
I first discovered the sounds of Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky in 1996, when I picked up a CD compilation at the Liquid Sky store in lower Manhattan. The "Rave" scene was at its peak, and as a young Hip-Step “junglist,” I was digging on a certain buzz circulating in NYC at the time. Liquid Sky was named after a sci-fi movie from the early 80s. The film was equal parts cool and disturbing … and that also sums up many of the things I saw at the raves in the latter half of the 90s. There was an intergalactic, out-of-this-world vibe during that time, and Spooky's music became for me, a reference point able to guide through much of it.
From that first compilation, I went on to discover his Songs of a Dead Dreamer LP. The patterned noises were fittingly called “Illbient” music, and that's just how it sounded to me: ambient music with a Hip-Hop sensibility for sampled drum loops and a floating sense of dense dub riddims. There was also something else about Spooky’s work that made itself clear to me. The liner notes to Dead Dreamer contained quotes from Marshall McLuhan, Deleuze and Guattari, and a few sentences from a book titled A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
From then on, I became very interested in whatever Spooky would drop.
What I like best about where Spooky has gone is the same thing about his art that I dug from the start. His creative approach and philosophical wanderings embody the B-Boy method of transcendental style, and his B-Boy expressions are grounded in a solid education in the Art of Sound.
* * *
I caught up with DJ Spooky for an interview in Tribeca on June 23rd, 2008 – the day after George Carlin passed on.
PRop! One of your recent projects was as editor of anessay anthology, Sound Unbound,with an accompanying mix CD. How did this project come about?
Spooky: Everything I do is always a collection of fragments. The project was meant to be a survey of different kinds of practices of sampling. Then it expanded into the idea that culture itself is always made of fragments anyway, and nothing is ever really solidly whole. So I realized whenI was getting everything together I should expand the idea to think about Culture, Technology, and Art because those are the driving forces of early 21st-century life.
The book expanded from sampling essays, to getting more and more people to contribute from a lot of different view points, so that the book itself was like a mixtape. Then I realized I needed to have some sound and video for it, and I ended up just going through my record collection of artists’ spoken words, so the CD in the back of the book has crazy rare recordings from people like Gertrude Stein, Iggy Pop, James Joyce. The CD itself is a collage, and so is the book.
One essay I found fascinating was "Fear of a Muslim Planet: Hip-Hop's Hidden History" by Naeem Mohaiemen. How did you get this article for the book?
Naeem is based in Bangledesh. The book was about getting people from all over to contribute, and in compiling I saw that I didn't have as many people from Muslim cultures and Asia as I'd like, so I ended up getting Naeem. One day over a cup of coffee, I told him I was putting this book together and asked him if he wanted to flip an essay about Muslim stuff, because he is very into the conceptual frame around Islam. Two weeks later I received an email from him, and I was like “Yo, this is slamming!”
Nobody else in the book had touched on the Muslim connection to Hip-Hop, which I thought was really interesting. I think his piece, Bruce Sterling's piece, Jonathan Lethem's piece, they are articles that just pull you into the mentality of what cross-cultural stuff is about. Asian, Black, White, Latino – we are all getting more and more into this collage culture. And Islam is actually the fastest growing religion in the world right now. In the beginning of the whole Afghan war, they found a white kid named John Walker whose dad was a Republican lawyer. And this guy was carrying an AK-47, walking around Afghanistan. That tells you that there are a lot of different people you wouldn't expect getting into Islam. I found Erik Davis's piece on Dub, “Roots and Wires,” really interesting as well.
What does Davis get into in that article?
Erik Davis does a lot of really interesting stuff around electronic music's polyrhythm origins. So he did a study of Dub from a psychedelic viewpoint, how Jamaica had influenced a lot of other styles of music. Through not only the drugs consumed, but also through the way the people responded to the psychology of minimalism. Just a bass and drum. Why did music in Jamaica all of a sudden go to that? In England they were adding more guitars. In the late 60's the guitar was really the instrument in England, with the psychedelic scene like Pink Floyd was involved with. In Jamaica, bass became the lead instrument.
So his essay explores this really interesting dynamic. I don't want to break it down too much 'cause I want you to check out the essay. But he puts it out there as a form of African minimalism and the way percussion entered the European and American narrative through the slave trade, in what Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic.”
So the slave trade really was about the collision of many cultures on many different levels, because on one hand you have people who don't speak the same language at all being put into boats and being shipped over here and told to work. Then they sing songs and gospel just to get themthrough the day, which is really deep. Right now we are in a very alienated culture – and I'm not saying slavery wasn't alienating. What I'm saying is that it gave people a sense of cohesive community. Today we are probably inthe most fragmented culture in human history, and getting more so every day.
Again, with the book, I just kept a very broad arc. So from Islam to Dub to Brian Eno's essay on the history of bells. He wrote a very interesting essay on how bells were used to keep time in Europe. The church would ring the bells at certain times throughout the day as a marker for people, and this provided the rhythm of the day. He traces it to the idea of 4/4 rhythm and a bunch of other stuff coming out of the history of European Middle Ages culture.
Speaking of Brian Eno, he is considered the father of ambient music. In the mid-to-late 90's you were a part of a scene out here in New York City called Illbient music. In the rave documentary Better LivingThrough Circuitry, you describe Illbient music as some sort of mash-up – as if Brian Eno came to NYC and got stuck in the subway during rush hour. How did that scene take form and shape, and what outgrowth came from it?
I was living in this crazy space on Avenue B and 2nd Street called the Junkyard. I started throwing wild parties there and invited DJ Olive to come and spin at some of them. I would always say “That's ill” about a lot of stuff. At that time, to really get away from normal music, we would combine alot of sounds. So the party essentially evolved because I would invite a lot of DJs from different scenes to come and play. Olive got it in his head that he started it, and there is this whole back and forth of who really started it.
The Illbeint scene was meant to be where there were no boundaries between the styles. I thought it was really all about breaking down boundaries: racial, psychological, rhythm patterns, you name it. It was meantto be a conversation of different cultures. And as usual, this happens with rock and other forms of music. Some view it through the lens of a white appropriation of music. And I was like, “Yo we are way past that. It's all about evolution.” It has been ten years plus since that scene, at this point.
Sound Unbound is a similar style. I was thinking, How diverse can I make this? I want to hear what Muslims say about Hip-Hop. I want to see what Ron Eglash will say about Noise. I want see what somebody likeBrian will say about bells. Because I am curious. So everybody in the book was encouraged to be independent and do their own thing. So everyone turned in some really different essays.
One way I heard you describe the book was as a “globalization of sound.” There is certain connotations connected to this word,' but the type of globalization you seem to be talking about is as a sample culture where sound and identity are continually in flux. Where do you see consciousness within this framework?
Well consciousness is all about perception, and in that case you have internal and external. And you also have the idea of how belief systems get put into context. That is what I think is going on right now. Thereare a lot of people looking at the Internet, and they are looking at what has been going on in politics for the last 8 years, and realizing that there is a tremendous amount of initiatives that they didn't even know about, let alone were able to influence. So in that sense they are unconscious.
But on the otherside of the spectrum, I'd say you also have been seeing a huge rise of global perspectives and global movements, connections between radically differentscenes and genres, so you are seeing more and more consciousness. But on the planet, I think at least globally speaking right now, culture is so fractured that one of the few things connecting everybody is the sense of uncertainty about the future.
I don't understand why a lot of people can't literally rise up and say the war in Iraq is a tragedy of mass proportions, or that gas prices are being fixed so that certain groups of people can make a lot more money off of anxiety and fear. As a matter of fact, they make more money off of anxiety and fear. Why people can't just step back and say I don't want to live this way. It's because people are conditioned by the system. The system is not about nation-states or governments, it's much more about economics. And economics conditions how people's perspectives and consciousness are formed, and how they also think of themselves as participating in a society that is completely alienated and driven by, for lack of a better word, a death urge.
I worry abut our species getting out of this century, let alone the next two or three centuries. We're just really messing things up on a massive, massive scale.
You recently remixed D.W. Griffith's 1915 film TheBirth of a Nation, which remains controversial for its white supremacist message. In your version The Re-birth of a Nation, you deconstruct the propaganda techniques within Griffith's film. This is a very cool notion, how the art of remixing can de-construct and re-construct perception. Can you break down the science on this film a bit?
A lot of my projects are about looking at the idea of identity and the construction of self. I literally use the term construction, because we can pick and choose the reality around us on a certain level through the media we absorb, the text, we read, and the music we listen to. It's about selection. The problem is that so many people are bombarded with this mind-numbing, threatening system of culture we call the “culture industry.”
Also people are forced to think that they have to work everyday. In fact, the whole idea of the credit system and credit cards and rent and everything is geared to make you feel like you are on a gerbil wheel just running constantly, so you don't have time to think. You are just try ingto grind and get everything locked in place so you can just survive. And if you are out of that system, you are just out.
With credit, think of it like Share-cropping, after the Civil War they instituted the policy where freed blacks were told, “Well you guys just won the Civil War, but this is really about business. You now have to pay rent instead of being a slave. So we are going to let you work on some land, you give us themoney earned, and we'll just call it even.” And so a lot of people got suckered into this system known as share-cropping. What about your modern credit cards or your modern credit system? I see it as global share-cropping.
I always chuckle when people think slavery was just about Black culture. I'm like, not really – there's actually a much more deeply structured relationship to economics and race, and with how the notion ofAmerican Whiteness is constructed too. When my European friends come here, they are like, “Hey I'm Czech. I'm German. I'm Scottish.” And then after they are in America for a while, they just say, “I'm White.” They have been reconstructed on a certain level by this kind of American identity system.
Re-birth of a Nation was meant to look at that idea, and how film had been used throughout the century to condition people with expectations of race and the construction of identity. It was fun, like looking at the DNA of American cinema, and thinking about how we remix this DNA to give people another perception of how race can be viewed.
Obama to me is a great example of post-racial identity. He can still be viewed as black, but he is also more than that. If you are black, you have to prove that you are black all the time. Asians and other ethnic groups don't really have to walk around proving what they are all the time. But black culture sometime stresses the question “Are you Black enough?' I think that's total shit.
I like the idea of a progressive humanist approach to living on the planet, where you relate to your fellow person. I don't care about race that much anymore. So Birth of a Nationwas used to make everyone think “You're white, you're black. You are against this person because of their racial makeup.” So I see it much more about economics right now than anything else. Business culture is huge. As the 21stcentury progresses, we are going to see a lot of change in racial politics based less on color of skin, but more so on the economic strata you exist in.
From the beginning of your recording career with Songs of a Dead Dreamer – where you had these notions of identity represented in the liner notes with quotes from people like McLuhan, Deluze and Guaterri – to your “Re-Construction” collaboration track you did with Organized Konfusion on Riddim Warfare, the question of identity seems to be an a repeating pattern of exploration within your philosophy. How relevant is all this in juxtaposition with remix culture?
Well, “remixes” mean: You have one version, I have another version, and I'm going to make another version. It is totally irreverent to theidea of something being pure. So what it says is, anything goes. And that's thewhole mash-up perspective. I just think that people need to realize how much mash-up is really just a reflection of how we think. And that means that it's all collage.
So we are pulling fragments from every source around us. I hear the sound of a jet going by, the sound of these trucks, the sound of the taxis, the women chatting. I can make a track out of just this moment in time. Or for that matter, the water that just fell sprinkling in the air, figure out the rhythm of that, and make a beat out of it. Why is everything in 4/4 rhythm?– which bores me actually. All of these things are just questions I pose in my books, whether it is Sound Unbound or Rhythm Science, as a new form of literacy. Which means asking questions as a way of becoming much more awareof the world around you, seeing the world as a text.
And there is some funny stuff with The Matrix, which is pretty much one of my favorite films. And this movie a by French filmmaker where the characters are caught in a loop and they don't even know it, and they just keep repeating the same lines to the people around them and they don't even know it. And so this bizarre repetition ensues. It's a weird great movie from the late 60s.
Sounds like Existenz.
Yeah, I liked Existenz. And also THX 1138, George Lucas's first film.
I was just thinking about movie that last night. It seems like the most sampled movie I've ever heard in electronic music. Nine Inch Nails samples from it a bunch. DJ Shadow samples it.
Yeah, well I think THX 1138 really speaks to this conditioned culture that we are in. Totalitarianism. There is a very famous phrase from Goethe where he says, “No one will imagine they are more free than those who don't know that they are enslaved.” So people feel that that they are free, but they are actually locked into a very rigorous system of servitude, i.e. share-cropping. I'm always a fan of saying that anything and everything can be remixed: the world, reality, atomic particles, DNA, you name it. The books are really about just speaking about history and saying that it is all going to be permutation, and that nobody really owns the past. The past is a record collection.
So I went down to Antartica recently and shot a film about the sound of ice, and looking at the environment itself as a record. It is arecord, it's a document, it's a text. And people man, we are a strange species walking around on this planet. We build cities, but so do termites and so do ants. If we mess up, I'm sure within a couple of centuries there will come another species with intelligence too.
That Goethe quote reminds me of Giambattista Vico. We seem to be in an age of Mythic Intelligence, where more and more people are grasping the ability of thinking about time in a mytheo-poetic sense. When Philip K. Dick spoke about his experience of seeing the Roman Empire time of 70 AD transposed upon his everyday life in the 1970s, where he was seeing two time places atonce – to me that is tapping into a mythic intelligence.
In your book Rhythm Science, you quote from Vico's The New Science, speaking about the physics of man and how cultures are passed down through myths and how important the use of song is in this endeavor. This is where I see your work as most important, as well as Douglas Rushkoff and a few other people. Y’all might be providing how-to type books for grasping this mythic intelligence.
Where do you think we right now in the myths that we're telling ourselves?
That's why I liked having Cory Doctorow write the introduction to Sound Unbound. He's one of my favorite current science fiction writers. It feels like we are getting more and more science fictional rather than anything else. But science fiction in the 20th century was about myths in the industrial future, and we are moving more and more post-industrial today. I think cars and oil are going to be totally obsolete relatively soon. We don't need gas-powered cars. It's a myth that we do. The electric car could have been just as good as the normal car,with a lot less pollution, but the industrialists made people feel like they needed to have the city in such a way that we needed cars to get around. People used to ride bicycles everywhere constantly, and that's coming back again in Europe, and in the US slowly.
Basically, anything can be changed. Myths are our way of saying we have an educational process, we have a tribal impulse where your nation-state can be a small group of people or it could be a million people, or hundreds of millions. But you’re looking at the nation-state as an operating system, or any interaction between people as an operating system – and I don't mean as in a computer system. I mean a system that allows information to be exchanged and allows people to create meaning.
So I am much more a fan of artists like Giambatista Vico orwriters like Herbert Marcuse, who wrote One-Dimensional Man. Or even more recent stuff like Michael Hardt andAntonio Negri who wrote Empire, abook that states that the production of subjectivity is something that modern economies are all about. The entertainment complex is bigger than anything else going, including weapons. People spend more money to escape from themselves every day.
I view my books as a manifesto about claiming cultural production processes and about claiming a sense of agency. So getting people from all these radically different ethnic groups, walks of life, classes, and so on, to contribute to the book – it was a pain in the ass in a lot of ways, but it was worth it. I would probably have had a much easier time if I went to all the same style of people and said, “Everyone just give me the same essay, and we'll just put a different title on each one.” Getting 36 radically different people to turn in essays was like herding quantum cats.
In putting the book together I actually learned more about the law in terms of sample clearance than in any other CD I've ever done. As amatter of fact, we actually ended up getting the legal counsel to Google contribute an essay. Daphne Keller is a specialist in links, and is like a mega-hardcore super rockstar lawyer. She wrote an essay called “Musican as Thief” about links and music, which was very interesting. Who owns links and what not.
Google is fascinating to me because they seem to be able to squeeze money out of the air. They are making billions of dollars just off ofyour search. I like looking at stuff like that. They are a very 21st-century company.
Any final words on where you hope the book will lead you,or what will be the next stage for your future projects?
Yeah, there is this book, Sound Unbound, and there is my Antartica project, which is a film that's going to be touring mainly in large opera houses. That is the rest of this year, and I'm done. Next year, I am going to do another book but one with a lot of pictures. Not one with 36 essays. It's a kind of book that even George Bush can read. It's going to be about ice. It will be a picture book about all the different kinds of Ice, the ways ice melts. Antartica is melting. What makes ice become ice? The geometric, atomic, and molecular structure of ice. Everything about ice, but visually presented.
Are you going to do a CD with that too?
Yeah, but everything on the CD and my film is from thesounds of ice. I am into projects. I will wake up two weeks from now and think of another project for next year. I've been thinking about what it means to be alone in a world where we are so involved with other people. I'm actually thinking of next year going for a long hike through India, in the North where a lot of the tea is grown. Tea was one of the first systems of plantations. I'm going to hike through these regions and take notes. But that wouldn't be until late next year. I'm always thinking 7 to 12 months ahead for projects. On the reality of everyday, the next step is always how do you make money and make a living.
I love wild shit, but you still have to get up in the morning and get shit done. That's just the world we live in right now.
Indeed. Thank you, man!