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Theme of the Drunken Sailor
Polyphony of One
Peace in Zaire
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A theory: DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid dreams when he's awake, and the dreams become his creations. That would explain why he requires only four hours of sleep, and where he gets the time for all his projects, and the borderless, liquid quality of his music. It just doesn't explain the dream-art process. Luckily, he's good at that himself.
Paul D. Miller to his art curators, his magazine editors and his book publishers, Spooky is still best known as Spooky, riding his ectoplasmic sound-manipulation talent through wide ranges of the musical badlands. As a DJ, he hosted a series of free New York parties that ran multiple streams of world culture together, and he's lent his peculiar turntable dankness to a number of other artists' tracks. As a studio magician, he has refried odds and ends of his city's underground scene on Knitting Factory Works' 1995 Necropolis: The Dialogic Project, and remixed his way into the wider culture via, among other selections, a version of Metallica's “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on the Spawn soundtrack. He composed the score for last year's award-raking hip-hop documentary Slam. He has just released his third Asphodel recording, Riddim Warfare. And he's currently in the grip of an ambitious tour schedule with, for a change, a band. (Backing his own scratchwork, knob freaking, bass plucking, guitar noise and thumb piano are drummer Jojo Mayer, DJ Wiz, keyboardist Dan Yashiv and MC SCAMP.) Makes you tired just thinking about it all.
So what drives the man's machine? DJ Spooky's connection with phonograph records runs deep – past the musical into the personal and emotional. The collection left by his father, who died when Paul was 3 years old, offered him a way of reconstructing a man he would never really know, and the experience has continued to influence the way he looks at the relatively young recording art's legacy.
“You can remix and reincarnate the voices of the dead, where they become kind of a chorus backdrop for the living,” says Spooky, dragged away from his shaving kit for a phone interview early in the tour. “That's a pretty intense conceptual thing: The voices of the dead will be with you as fragments of sound forever.”
Less directly, literature acts the same way, an advantage Spooky has milked to the full; he's always read piles of books, and he borrowed the Subliminal Kid tag from a William S. Burroughs word-gangster character whose tape-recording activities echo the found-music work of John Cage.
“My two heroes are Cage and Sun Ra. Sun Ra viewed jazz as a mythological process, as a medium for people to remix their own psychology.”
Spooky also references Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind windman and conceptual innovator who could play up to four saxophones simultaneously. (The Kid has company: Kirk's art, once considered marginal, is receiving a deserved re-evaluation thanks to extensive reissues by 32 Jazz and Rhino.)
“He had all those streams of information coming out at once. He was the first jazz player to deal with that density – different styles and flows.”
That sounds like a diagram for today's improvisational electronic music, whose links to the jazz tradition get clearer every day. Spooky isn't the first DJ to sequence and layer disparate elements spontaneously, he's just one of the most knowledgeable and distinctive. Though he has roots in hip-hop and ambient – “illbient” was the coin back in '95 – his sound resists both definitions. His beats don't pound like fists, they slosh like sex. The raps are just an occasional ingredient, and rarely indulge in street polemics. And his loops and counterrhythmic noises don't promote the ambient goals of peace or relaxation, exactly; the effect is more . . . subliminal. You feel like a conspirator in change.
“Everyone who has a thought process is a revolutionary, is always dealing with change. Marxist revolution and the overthrow of the state are really old news. Human beings collectively engage in continuous changes of their environment, whether or not they know this on a conscious level. Turntables are a way of building bridges between different times and cultures – sampling a Balinese record, flipping that into a beat from a Stax record from 1960. That's far more subversive than saying, hey, y'know, we gotta go kill Whitey, or blow the president away. If you've got people dealing with different cultures, that's the whole ball game – making people realize they have a lot in common.”
Spooky is an idealist for sure, with no plans to dilute his essence in the pop marketplace.
“You can be an underground phenomenon and still make a pretty solid living. I like the idea of being able to create, and maintain mental peace, and get my stuff out into the world without all the extra pathology and bizarre energy of the mainstream.”
He can do all that. On the one hand, he likes to crawl away and get weird with his sounds. On the other, he owns the interpersonal grease to advance his cause: He speaks a number of languages, and even got brief training as a diplomat.
“I turned to the State Department for a quick second one summer while I was in college, but it was, like, 'This is ridiculous.' I switched to philosophy and French lit.”
Once exposed to the Spooky atmosphere, people sense there's something different about him. Some plug in, some are vibed off. Obviously he's way too intelligent, but it's more than that. Check his titles: Necropolis, Songs of a Dead Dreamer. It's like he has crossed over, in some way.
“When I was a kid, we had a family picnic, and I walked next to the river and fell in. I was looking up through the water, and I could see my sister, and she was laughing – she thought I was trying to play a game. One of my hands could reach above the water, but my head and other parts of my body were caught. I felt the air leaving my lungs and started . . . just to float a little bit. And that sense of floating – I guess it's never really left me.”
DJ Spooky and the Universal Robot Band perform, along with Mexico City hip-hoppers Plastilina Mosh and multimedia assailant Gardner Post of Emergency Broadcast Network, at the Hollywood Athletic Club on Halloween, Saturday, October 31.