Plugged in…All the time…and surfing the wave of cultural diffusion
A little background information…
Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky was born in 1970 in Washington DC, to academic parents. Following his college years spent amidst the ‘whispering pines’ of Bowdoin College, Main, and having picked up degrees in French literature and philosophy, Spooky began writing science fiction. In the mid-nineties he began his recording career with a series of singles and the ’96 album, ‘Songs of a Dead Dreamer’.
Described as a fusion between electronica and hip hop, it marked the beginning of a prolific career which, apart from a not inconsiderable output as a recording artist would include, composer of film scores, author/editor, multimedia/performance artist, producer, professor of music and political activist. Oh yeah, and did I mention that he’s partial to doing a bit of DJ-ing on the side.
If anything characterises his output to date it would seem, at least on the surface, to be its diversity. That much, at least, is true of the wide range of people whom he has chosen to collaborate and work with. Everyone from avant-jazz collectives, to Dave Lombardo of Slayer, to most recently Yoko Ono. If there is an over-riding philosophy behind everything that Spooky does and which allows him to move and shift effortlessly within and between one area and another it is the idea of collage. The idea of mixing and juxtaposing given materials, sounds, cultures and disciplines to create something new. Indeed, you could think of his entire professional persona as a kind of collage, with all the fragments going to make the whole.
When we met at the Philharmonie we managed to have a few words in between a very officious waitress taking orders and Spooky checking his emails on his palm-top. Always connected, you couldn’t help but feel that if he himself had a USB port you could plug the guy in and he’d download you a finished article whilst polishing off his salad. Unfortunately, he didn’t, and anyway I’m analog, so we did it the old-fashioned way.
We started by talking a little about the ‘New York is Now’ project, a video portrait which uses found footage and jazz music to create a vision of the city ‘as a structure made of many rhythms, some local, some global, – all syncopated to a collage based aesthetic.’
We took the scenic route.
‘It was a project I did for the Venice biennial. That was a project where I went to Angola in West Africa for six weeks. It was amazing because they were soviet Africa and the U.S. had tried to assassinate and destabilise and destroy a lot of the leaders in that region. At one point Fidel Castro had thirty thousand Cubans in the middle of Angola fighting U.S. sponsored warlords. The U.S. you know, we know how to pick ‘em. We always sponsor some twisted tyrant or dictator or something.
So anyway, to make a long story short, I wanted to go down to this country and check it out. They had an art event called the Luanda Triennial. So I ended up hanging out in Angola for four to six weeks, something like that. It was amazing because I got a chance to really see how Africa responds to all these different situations.
So for example, they’ve got gold, oil and diamonds. So now there’s thirty thousand Chinese in the middle of downtown Luanda, which you would never guess. The Chinese are there because of the oil. Or there’s a lot of Swedish because of the Ericsson company. They’ve discovered this new metal that allows you to have a weird cell phone.
But anyway, I spent time there and checked out African rhythms, because I was very curious about… If you look at Brazil… Brazil is basically a lot of Angolan music because the Portuguese took the slaves from Angola and took them to Brazil. So if you go to Bahia in the north of Brazil, or if you go to Sao Paulo or Rio, a lot of the main styles there, you could take the exact same style and you would be in Luanda. There’s even a martial arts style called Capoeira, it’s like the west African martial arts form. It’s like a dancing and fighting movement. I’ve been to Africa a couple of times before. Mainly Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Egypt. For this project for the Venice Biennial, I recorded a lot of what I was doing when I was in Angola, and then used it at the opening of the Venice Biennial.’
Visually, (for the New York is Now project) the idea is to apply DJ techniques to film. So I found a lot of early ‘art’ films, and remixed them. I applied sampling, cut and scratch all that kinda stuff. This year I have my first film coming out in November, so I did the Venice Biennial project as a kind of first step. It was a really beautiful opening. We had thousands of people come out for the Biennial opening. All sorts of people from all over the world were hanging out.
A lot of the ’Art World’ types got a chance to see that DJ-ing isn’t just music, it’s about collage and it’s about certain kinds of historical art forms that have migrated to digital media.’
And it’s that last idea which forms the bigger picture of what DJ Spooky is about.
I started out mainly as a writer and artist and DJ-ing was meant to be a hobby, but the art world being what it is, DJ-ing was very lucrative (chuckles), and it was low stress. You could just show up. I produced my own tracks and I made my own rhythms and beats. In the mid-nineties, there was me, DJ Shadow, DJ Crush, Coldcut was a little bit earlier than everybody… but we all started dropping more instrumental hip hop albums and we started getting a lot of attention. It just took off in its own way. I’ve played with lyrics and vocals. But for my albums, a lot of the time, they’re instrumental.
Curious, you might think, given that Miller is also a writer. DJ Spooky has, of course, also been heavily involved in mixing, remixing and producing other peoples work. The eclectic list includes amongst many others, Korn, Nick Cave and the aforementioned Yoko Ono. I was curious to know how these relationships came about. Did these people, generally, seek him out?
Yeah, pretty much. People either call up or they send an email to the website saying ’We’d like you to do a remix’. I’ve worked with all sorts of people. I’ve done film soundtracks; I’ve worked with string quartets. My new album is with Kronos quartet. They’re an amazing string ensemble and they’re doing the sound track for my film. The whole film is ‘remix-able’. The motto for the project is ‘Director as DJ’. You can choose any scene in the film and remix it, and Kronos play all these string arrangements so you can take say, some kind of Russian string sounds and mix it with dancehall reggae or hip hop. It’s a long story. It’s a lot of editing; you stay at the computer for hours.
I suggest that Yoko isn’t someone who, to put it mildly, has enjoyed very favourable reviews lately.
No. Yoko, she broke up The Beatles c’mon! (laughs). Her new album’s slammin’. She’s seventy years old and she’s funky! I did her first hip hop tracks. She’s an old friend. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth played guitar on the track. My style is never one style. I think every DJ, to keep their ears fresh, really should listen to many styles. The problem about hip hop or house or techno is people just get into one thing. I listen to Hong Kong film soundtracks. I listen to Brazilian funk. I listen to crazy sounds from Angola, Egypt… I think a good artist, period, not just DJ not just producer, should keep their mind open. The problem with American music is that it’s an ignorant culture. I’ll say it straight out. People just listen to pop radio or MTV and think that’s the world. I really think that it’s a problem, that people take the easy route. They don’t do research, they just listen to what everybody always says is popular. I think it’s incredibly important to say that ‘it’s a big world’ y’know. Why not check out all sorts of styles? Even though it’s easy, people still just listen to just their main, one style. I couldn’t listen to normal hip hop all day, every day. I would be bored out of my mind. But there’s some great music coming out of India, out of Japan, out of Luxembourg, Switzerland, wherever…
Keep it fun.
In a interview relating to the piece, Miller said that he constructed the persona ‘DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid‘, to give him his full title, as a conceptual art project. As the project developed he came to see it as the opportunity for what he describes as “coding a generative syntax for new languages of creativity.” I felt this might require a little clarification. For myself, you understand.
Let’s put it this way. Beats and rhythms are about permutation. Every culture on the planet has some kind of relationship to a drum. Whether it’s Irish bodhrans, Swiss guys playing on the mountains. Who knows? But with sampling and electronic music, what ended up happening was that all those traditions became the archive. If you go back to the origins of hip hop and house music and techno, everybody was sampling old records because that was all they had. Then drum machines really kicked in and then the software kicked in, and people had a lot more options. I remember in the mid-nineties I made my first album with an Akai 3000 sampler, and it was a big deal to have 32 megabytes of memory. Now, my film is five gigabytes or eight gigabytes, I mean it’s ridiculous. The reason I was talking about this idea of ‘new languages’ is to simply say that sampling has opened all these different doors into how people think about rhythm. The main problem about music right now, is that it’s all 4/4 beats. I’m surprised that people are not more playful with rhythm. But to cut a long story short, collage means that anything goes.
In his critical book on modern art, ‘The Painted Word’, the journalist, author Tom Wolfe once illustrated the idea of conceptual art by recounting, more or less, the following story; A penniless artist goes into a café and sits at the bar with a glass of water. In a moment of inspiration he has an idea for a truly original work of art. He grabs a napkin, dabs his finger in the glass of water and documents the idea. He then keels over and dies. The water evaporates. Is this a great work of art? He asks. A conceptualist would argue that it is. For in conceptualism the idea is hero and the object, zero. I was interested to know if DJ Spooky had read the book/heard the story and in what way had his own work embraced conceptualism thus defined.
No, but that’s a great title. Ideas are the currency of the twenty first century. If you look back at the twentieth century, you had mass culture , the production of mass objects, mass everything. The model T Ford car, the first wave of computers, and so on. The twenty first century is about mass customisation. You can change and transform almost any tiny bit of software information. You can make a software building, you can make the building a symphony, you can make the symphony a satellite or a cell phone. The concept for a lot of this comes from the point of viewing it as the language of creativity. How you put together a language is by building blocks of meaning. So rhythm for me, is just one layer and so is sequencing, and how you put together the, for lack of a better word, linear or non-linear quality of a piece.
You are looking at analog versus digital, cause the twentieth century was analog and most of the music that most people hear is from recordings that were done with analog and not digital processes. At this point my laptop is my studio. I can make art pieces with it, I’ve done movies on it, I’ve done sound pieces. I did a home mini-studio session in Angola, working on the film. This is just the beginning. Within the next ten years as memory gets cheaper, you’re gonna be having cell phone movies or iPod symphonies. Miniaturisation and the ability to interact with software are really gonna open up, literally, the entire creative process to making an entire world culture. One where the older forms from any culture or race; India, Africa, Asia, everybody’s gonna be able to exchange, and probably will exchange, because who wants to hear the same stuff over and over.
This ties in with another of Millers ideas, though to be fair it’s hardly original, that with the advent of cheap hardware and the ubiquitous presence of the internet, the end of big media is at hand. Is it time to put the pennies on the eyes of all those mega news organisations? I mean shucks, it just seems like yesterday that they got to go 24/7.
Well, I mean, it’s the Youtube generation at this point. How much people are getting from the news in the U.S. is a joke. A lot of Americans don’t even know where Iraq is, never mind what’s going on there. It’s the most televised war in human history and nobody has any idea where it is. It’s a real problem with the U.S.
The bulk of the population doesn’t have a passport and doesn’t even travel. I mean Bush is from one of the wealthiest families in the U.S. and before he was president, he’d only left the country maybe twice, and one of those times was to go to Mexico to get a taco. America’s really fucked up, but anyway I travel a lot and I want that to be part of my artwork, and not just be an ignorant American listening to Brittany Spears.
Given that the technology allows more people to do more things, and presupposing an even passing familiarity with Youtube or mySpace, you’d have to ask yourself is it necessarily going to be any better?
That doesn’t mean that every track you hear is a good track either, with music, or that every symphony you hear is a good symphony, or every book is a good book. It just means that, I think, democratisation of culture is what technology really leads to. Because on the one hand, anybody can create, but that doesn’t mean that you’re gonna listen to everything or read every book. I mean, you could basically say that ninety per cent of everything out there is shit. I don’t read every tabloid newspaper, I don’t read every newspaper. I don’t read every website. You can’t. But with whatever your focus is or whatever style you’re into, you’ll probably be able to find enough information that gives you emotional and intellectual satisfaction. Playlists, blogs, all that stuff is about people trying to surf this huge amount of information. DJ’s, we’re surfers already, cause we’re already riding this huge volume of music, trying to check out all the different styles and pull good styles out of the crap. DJ’s, we’re quality control!
An invitation to select tracks for a compilation album from the archives of Jamaican label Trojan (In Fine Style: DJ Spooky Presents 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records), presented Miller with another opportunity to exercise his quality control faculties. The expression, ‘like a kid in a candy store’ came to mind.
Jamaica. My name for it is ‘The Loudest Island in the World’. They crank out so much music, I have no idea how they do it because it’s a small island. It’s been hugely influential. It was amazing to go thorough their archives because they have so many artists like, Bob Marley, Lee Scratch Perry, Barrington Levy, Michael Rose from Black Uhuru. All these guy did at least one or two songs with Trojan records over the last forty years. They were the Jamaican version of Motown or Def Jam, a label that was hugely influential. Anyway, they gave me access to their archive and I could pick any songs from it. I thought, damn, I don’t even know where to start, ‘cause there was so much. But it was beautiful. I got a chance to listen to a lot of old Jamaican 45’s.
The next person in the series was Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist from Radiohead, he (also) did selections from Trojan, and the next one up is Fat Boy Slim. They’re making a series.
Miller‘s book, ‘Rhythm Science’ published in 2004, has been described as a kind of manifesto for many of the ideas he was developing and I wondered if the kind of people who where going to read it and see his installations, the so-called high art, might not have listened to hip hop or that sort of music before.
The whole division of high and low culture and all that, is a real problem because a lot of people from differing scenes might not be literate in the other culture. So how can somebody from a university say that this (hip hop) is low culture or primitive, if they can’t even understand it? Or how can somebody from a hip hop or electronic background dis classical or academic music which they don‘t understand? And each one becomes reactionary. I like a lot of styles. I just think the whole thing of the playlist on the iPod has changed and destabilised everybody’s categories. It’s very rare that you like an entire album. You might like one or two songs. You put that on a list and you make a totally different style. You put that on the iPod and put it into shuffle and it’ll change everybody’s albums. I make music now that’s respecting the playlist mentality. It’s about going away from albums back to the single. It’s the same thing with my books and the same thing with my film. It’s about the selection of fragments. So my texts, you can read them as an entire book or you can read just one fragment.
To come full circle, I was curious to know what it had been like growing up in Washington DC| and how this had affected his worldview and work.
DC is an imperial capital. It’s got all the paradoxes of American culture, the twistedness, the celebration of violence. My dad was Dean of Harvard University Law School, my mother was an academic as well, so I grew up in a house of professors basically. We travelled a lot. We used to go to Jamaica every summer and we also travelled to Europe and Africa… So I didn’t grow up in a normal American way. For that, I can only thank my mother. She was like…‘You can’t grow up in a normal American environment’. She refused to let that happen.
Miller seems also to be following the family tradition, and is himself a professor of music mediated art at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.
It’s fun. I like ideas. I like talking about ideas with artists, to writers, to people who are into culture. Saas is in the middle of the remote Swiss alps and I like the idea of just taking a break from all the music and art and stuff… and the people who teach there are amazing. I’m usually there for about two weeks in the summer.
DJ Spooky or Paul Miller for that matter shows no sign of slowing down. In finishing, he mentions a new movie which he’s working on and also a new book to which he has contributed and edited, Sound Unbound. It is a collection of writings in the fields of sound art, digital media, and contemporary composition including contributions by numerous luminaries, amongst them Brian Eno, Chuck D, Steve Reich and Moby.