By Jim Schutze
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DJ Spooky chooses his words methodically, with the same kind of care he uses to pick samples for his deeply atmospheric hip-hop records. Posed with a question, the young man also known as Paul Miller leans back in an old wooden office chair and slowly rakes his hands over a pair of baggy cargo pants. His thoughts fill his smooth brow with a network of craggy lines.
When he finally answers, Spooky talks like a homeboy on Jeopardy, his laid-back delivery betraying his D.C. roots, an apartment in Brooklyn, and, most obviously, a double degree in philosophy and French literature. In between the slang, he hits on the topics he's most knowledgeable about: history, philosophy, art, and music. It's the last topic he's here to discuss, but it's his grand ideas about the humanities that he uses to assemble sound collages that have earned him notoriety as, depending on whom you ask, a genius or a fraud.
Spooky is America's most eclectic DJ. Over the past eight years, he's redefined DJ culture by tweaking the foundations of the music and developing theories about the way it's made. A typical soundscape switches between the traditional (hip-hop beats, drum 'n' bass patterns, rhymes) and the completely abstract (simple minimalist drones, obnoxious squelches). To Spooky, DJ culture is a metaphor for the dissemination of information in our society, the constant bombardment of sound from the technological developments that constantly compete for attention. From music to just plain noise, Spooky seeks to capture it all, assimilate it, and hurl it back at listeners in an entirely different way.
Detractors say Spooky goes too far with the abstractions and label much of his earlier music as the overly complex ramblings of a turntable theorist. They say the theory gets in the way of the groove. Spooky, for his part, believes theory and art are inextricably linked. "There's theory behind everything," he says. "Any DJ will tell you that they have ideas behind their mixes. We are not just jukeboxes. To me, when people say DJ'ing should just be about music, they simply don't get it."
On his 1996 full-length debut, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, DJ Spooky began experimenting with time, form, narrative, and style. The 16-track album opens with two different sirens that repeatedly stretch and contract, then slowly merge into an eerie, wavering violin. These first two tracks are the musical equivalent of witnessing a car accident: disembodied voices echo; sirens reverse their Doppler effect; everything seems to go in horrible slow motion. To an unsophisticated listener it might sound like noise, but that sonic pastiche is actually the foundation of Spooky's experimentation. "Songs of a Dead Dreamer was a narrative of samples," says Spooky. "I played with the signifiers that people try to figure out as music."
One of the normal signifiers that gives music a recognizable flow is time signature. Spooky, who used to experiment with different sounds as a DJ at his college radio station and then later as the organizer of a series of New York parties called "Soundlab," manipulates time to change one style completely into another. "I'll take classical and time-stretch it to some wild bass shit, then turn that into dub," he says. "Or I'll take dub and turn it into a form of classical where certain abstract sounds I add become the strings. It's what I call 'sample theater.'"
Spooky considers mixing a way to form new environments from the information that makes up our current surroundings. (For example, a video game sample, from Space Invaders, lurks underneath the sonic palette of his most recent record, the brand-new Riddim Warfare.) What are everyday disturbances to some are musical gems to Spooky. In "Anansi Abstrakt" from Dead Dreamer, he uses a looped car alarm to provide the song's foundation. Although a bass line eventually joins the alarm, it's the familiar honking that gives the track its flow. More to the point, it's the familiarity of Spooky's samples that makes them so endearing.
"Every artist is a dynamic reflection of their environment," Spooky says. "Ideas are disseminated from surroundings. It's therefore important to look back into the reality you come from. To me, the environment of the late 20th century is electronic media stimulation. There's all this mad shit going on all at once--TV, Internet, advertising, cultures. That's why my music sounds like this mad type of chaos."
Spooky continues his explorations with his fourth full-length, Riddim Warfare. But instead of focusing on samples entirely, his latest theatrical experiment examines voice as narrative. (His next project, remixing Riddim Warfare with audio pranksters Negativland, will likely be more sample-heavy.) Spooky, who has already collaborated with a zillion other musicians, picked the contributors--rappers Kool Keith, Sir Menelik, and Organized Konfusion, and spoken-word artists Mariko Mori and Julia Scher--for their cultural backgrounds and their styles of abstract delivery. Riddim Warfare is Spooky talking about life in a technological world with a global voice. The particular storytellers represent the world's cultural diversity--India, Africa, Asia, and New York.
Through them, Spooky furthers the idea of expanding musical horizons through diversification. "Twilight Fugue" starts with a simple sitar-like three-note sample while Mori calmly, almost whispering, delivers a traditional Buddhist mantra that slowly fades into a quick 10 seconds of guitar funk. This blend is what Spooky is all about, melding both cultures and sound into music.