Remixing the Future: DJ Spooky
No one quite knows what to make of Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.
By David Hershkovits
With the release of Riddim Warfare (Outpost/Geffen), he turns it up another notch, putting his Spooky Text(e) skills to the test as he intermixes the worlds of free jazz and electronic music with hip-hop and drum 'n' bass. Working with headz like Kool Keith, Killah Priest of Wu-Tang, Organized Konfusion and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Miller has employed his vast musical vocabulary to unleash an ill-bient mix that will make waves on all fronts something no other African-American mutant born of punk, hip-hop, dub, the computer age and French thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari has been able to do. Cutting a subliminal path through the underground and into the cerebral cortex of pop, he stands today as a cultural signifier with a record that could catapult him into mass consciousness.
To those who've stood by him since the early days an unlikely group that includes both the loosely linked downtown digital crew that gathers under the umbrella of Cultural Alchemy and its spin-off projects Soundlab and Abstrakt, and 80's art stars like Julian Schnabel-Spooky's recognition is deserved. His promise is not as obvious to others, to whom he remains a pretentious upstart-among them the recording artist Tricky, the Village Voice's Robert Christgau and other music writers late to recognize the potential of electronica as a new musical form and as an elixir bringing new life to rock and hip-hop.
A visit to his cavernous new space in upper Chelsea sheds some light on his spartan dedication. A bed, a desk and bookshelves lined with arcane tomes with titles such as Escape Velocity, Cosmopolis, The Stochastic Man, A User's Guide to the Millennium and From Grunts to Gigabytes are all the self-styled nomad needs for now. Recombinant artworks made mostly of found materials are neatly arrayed on the walls, and a boom box sends forth ambient sounds. Shorn of his dreadlocks, Spooky looks more approachable, accessible, like the music on his new album.
Paul Miller was raised in Washington, D.C., by cultural activist parents. His father, who died when he was three, was a dean of the Howard University Law School. Miller often traveled with his mom to Africa in search of fabrics for her store-cum-salon, Toast & Strawberries, where readings, performances and fashion shows by a multi-cultural cast of Africans, African-Americans, whites and others were the norm. "One thing I always bring up," he says, "is that I grew up in an environment where I was dealing with multicultural stuff from the beginning. I never was just a normal American. America has a lot of problems with different ethnic mixtures and stuff. My neighborhood was one of the most racially mixed in the country." Miller attended Woodrow Wilson High School, birthplace of seminal bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat. "You'd go to a show and Minor Threat played and Trouble Funk played and then a dub band played. It wasn't until I got to New York that I realized how segregated the rock band scene was from the hip-hop scene, or the hip-hop scene from the techno scene," he says.
Miller's classmates looked at him as some kind of alien. "Oh, they thought I was nuts," he says. "I'm very mellow, but for some reason I strike wild energy out of people. Some people go crazy." "After a while he has an alienating effect on people," says writer Greg Tate, a friend and major Spooky advocate who met Miller when he was an aspiring music critic interning at the Voice at age 19.
Spooky is sensitive to weird energy and mentions it often. "I try to have a basic humanism and just be chill, but it's amazing," he says. "I've gotten ultrabizarre energy from people that is pathological. That's why, in the last couple of months, I come home and just chill, try and get it out of the system. Music became psychotherapy for me after a while, just dealing with New York pathology."
Tate remembers looking at the young intern and pronouncing: "There's the future." "I had a sense he was going to be a major player in the evolution of black culture in the next century," says Tate, who was impressed by the "range of intelligence and musical knowledge" Miller displayed. "He was attempting a complicated synthesis. There are not too many people trying to make links."
Approval, however, was far from universal. "A lot of people didn't get it," says Tate. "They thought he was an annoyingly highbrow kind of kid." Yet he recognized in Miller "a wide-ranging curiosity and intellect I'd seen in other people who were close to me who were misunderstood and were eventually recognized. Bob Thompson, Basquiat, Jimi Hendrix.... As soon as a black person exhibits ambition, people slap him down."
Tate was there when Paul Miller opted to adapt the persona of DJ Spooky. "Paul was the first black thinker to recognize the avant-garde potential of the DJ to historically connect electronic music with the African-American diaspora, dub and free jazz," says Tate.
As a hard-core member of the cyber community plugged into a global network of new-music promoters, Spooky travels everywhere from Tokyo to the South American rain forest, staying in touch via e-mail. He's certainly come a long way from his days living in the bowels of the Gas Station, a onetime East Village art space sculpture garden run amok, which has since been displaced by an apartment building. Assuming the role of house DJ, Spooky became the center of a scene that's just coming into its own on the New York musical-digital-artistic landscape.
"That was a crucial time," says Spooky. "I was feeling like my music would never work or my writing was too weird. I'd gone through the Voice and Artforum for a while, and I hated dealing with those people. They would never cover urban youth culture, dance music or electronic music, until it became trendy last year." It was then that he met Julian Schnabel, who was working on his movie, Basquiat. "I was living in the Gas Station, which was this junkyard, and he was like, You shouldn't be living there.' He helped, basically putting me up in a penthouse at the Chelsea [Hotel] to work on an essay for Schnabel's upcoming show.'Get your head together and get the essay done and let's talk about the movie later,' he said."
It worked. Miller finished the essay, had a one-man show open at Annina Nosei Gallery (where Basquiat used to show) and in 1996 released Songs of the Dreamer (Asphodel). "That was not meant for pop culture at all," he says of the record. "I thought it was going to be a low-key conceptual art project, but it actually sold a decent amount." The Jean-Michel Basquiat comparison resounds. A young black man in the art world whose work is infused with musical and historical references cannot help but be likened to the brilliant painter who died tragically of a heroin overdose at an early age.
"Basquiat was the first visual painter-remixologist. He could take any phrase, quote, image, put it in the mixed tape of his canvases and arrive at a new turntable mode," says Miller. "That's deeply important, but of course the art world can't get that because they're still dealing with Clement Greenberg's notion of modernism and all that stuff. Most of the critics in the art world have their heads so far up their ass that they wouldn't know flavor from milk of magnesia. It saddens me that Basquiat internalized the pathology of what was going on. At the end of the day, he saw no route out of that tunnel. The white art world has deep pathologies going on in terms of color, especially with African-American men. And the African-Americans, when they saw someone become successful, flipped out. He was getting attacked by all of them. I feel like mainly I'm a conceptual artist who finds mass culture far more interesting and important than what's going on in the art world these days."
Artist Sandro Chia thinks that the art world needs Paul Miller more than he needs the art world. An 80's artist who's successful enough to own an entire floor in the block-long building where Miller's crib is under construction, Chia met the DJ (who's now his chess partner) through his 14-year-old son, a graffiti artist Miller had befriended. "I couldn't see him specializing in one discipline," says Chia. "He has a nomadic position in our culture. It is his personality to take the best of all the media and turn it into his own expression. Whatever he produces is extremely meaningful. I hope for the art world that he would be included in the present or the future. The art world needs it."
Spooky's notoriety and international touring has brought him to the attention of a wide range of artists, which has led to remixing work for bands like Metallica and Korn, concerts with Ryuichi Sakamoto and the electronic composer Iannis Xenakis, and, most recently, the soundtrack for Condo Painting, about 80's art star George Condo. The Condo connection is also a link to William Burroughs, sire of "that Subliminal Kid" and collaborator with Condo on a series of paintings. Condo was first turned on to Spooky by his friend Jon Sidel, an L.A. rock 'n' roll restaurateur with an A&R gig at Outpost. (He has since moved on to Interscope.) "I immediately recognized what he was doing with art and electronic music," says Condo. "Imagery and sound came together. He's the only artist out there making sound paintings. He's found a way to produce hologrammatic images with sound." And it's all done through the DJ medium. In the last 10 years of pop music, perhaps nothing is more surprising than the rise of the DJ as auteur. Once someone who played other people's records exclusively, today's DJ cuts and mixes like a movie director to create something new out of bits and pieces. "To me, a DJ is par excellence the late-20th-century information filter," Spooky says. "DJing and the Internet are the two main metaphors for late-20th-century information culture."
As the Johnny Appleseed of the illbient music scene's New York faction, Spooky was instrumental in the birth of the community of music and art nerds who combined the elements of Happenings, electronica, hip-hop, dub and other musical flavors into an identifiable sound-a sound now turning into thesoundtrack of millennial night fever. Because no megaclub would hire them (since they would probably clear the dance floor), they started their own parties and events.
"As a nomad, he was everywhere," remembers Howard Goldkrand, fellow pomo theoretician and orchestrator of Cultural Alchemy activities in New York and around the world-with Alec Empire's scene in Berlin, Kineshi's scene in Tokyo or Talvin Singh's scene in Bombay and London. "The issue for us at the Gas Station in '93-'94 was to create our own platform," Goldkrand says. Then Matt E. Silver was assigned the task of booking the second stage at the Woodstock reunion concert in '94. "We opened the second stage at midnight wearing suits made of bubble wrap. Paul later had us burn up the turntables as he played Jimi Hendrix. It was the first time we knew that we were taking up space in the industry."
Spooky's love-hate relationship with NYC continues. "The weird thing is the New York promoters and the New York establishment club scene won't let the local flavor get out. It's really wild, because the rest of the world is looking to New York, but New York is trying to kill itself off. To me, Giuliani and local club-scene establishments are pretty much the same thing. There's not that big a difference: They're both control freaks and retro."
But Miller is preparing to take the New York flavor to the world. One day I visit the studio, where a crazy combo is cooking: Miller on stand-up bass and turntables, JoJo Mayer on drums, Dan Yashiv on keyboards, S.C.A.M.P. of the Queens-based Bassline Massv crew rapping and DJWiz of the Steelworkers on turntables. Not content to be only a DJ, Miller has put together a band and is taking the show on the road. "The set will evolve, implode and remix itself throughout the tour. I will never play the exact same set over and over and over," he says. Another persona to wrap around the enigma of Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. He grabs the mic and begins strutting across the stage like...a rapper. H