Ghost Story

DJ Spooky is writing one of hip-hop's most mesmerizing chapters.

In short order, Miller--who became known as both DJ Spooky and (in a nod to William Burroughs) That Subliminal Kid--and a handful of fellow abstractionists began promoting multi-media loft parties centered around his musical gymnastics. Tastemakers were awed, and by the mid-Nineties, Miller was being hailed as the father of illbient, a subgenre made up of equal parts hip-hop and ambient music that's virtually defined by Songs of a Dead Dreamer, his 1996 full-length debut for the influential independent imprint Asphodel. Overflowing with futuristic space racket, electronic rhythms and slices of hip-hop, jazz and dub, the disc is less sweeping and grandiose than Endtroducing..., a DJ Shadow album from the same period that's frequently compared to it, but it makes a strong impression anyhow. If Stanley Kubrick ever decides to make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, he should get Miller on the phone immediately.

The notions underpinning Miller's music on Dead Dreamer are weighty--he calls the disc "a critique of the human voice disappearing in the machinery of electronic culture"--and the liner notes he penned spell out his ambitions in incredible detail. Such verbosity comes naturally to him: He's written for a slew of prominent publications, including Art Byte, Art Forum, The Source and Rap Pages, and says, "I'm mainly a writer and an artist, and to me, my music is an extension of my writing." He adds, "I always like to put a historical continuum behind what I write. I think you need to deal with music in a total context, not just go, 'A new album came out. Hey, great.' It's important that you try as much as possible to give the full context of what's going on in the music."

Had Miller attempted something like this for the booklet that accompanies Riddim Warfare, it would have been too hefty to fit into the jewel box. Whereas Dead Dreamer seldom strays beyond its sci-fi setting, its successor broadens Miller's scope considerably. "Pandemonium" opens the disc with a collage of voices and noises that lead inexorably to "Synchronic Disjecta," a track in which the groove is every bit as crucial as the prominent effects that are layered over it, and "Object Unknown," a song featuring guest rapper Kool Keith in which Miller drops the analysis for a few minutes and gets genuinely funky. Throughout the eighteen cuts that follow, Miller strikes a deft balance between envelope-pushing à la "Quilombo Ex Optico," a Brazilian excursion guest-starring guitarist Arto Lindsay, and accessible entertainments like "Degree Zero," delivered by Killah Priest. Less a compromise than a blossoming of potential, Riddim Warfare manages to be thought-provoking and visceral at precisely the same time--and if it breaks some rules along the way, who cares?

Plenty of folks, as it turns out. Although Riddim Warfare wound up on scores of lists touting 1998's finest platters, it also raised the ire of hip-hop conservatives, who apparently feel that tinkering with the form is a sign of disrespect, and scribes who suspect that Miller is too smart for his own good. As a critic himself, Miller doesn't mind that some folks aren't fans, but what has caught him off guard is the vehemence of their objections. "I get hardcore rage," he says. "Obviously, I'm striking some kind of deep nerve. The common theme is bitterness. When they write an article, it's really bitter--and it makes me realize what was going through their minds all along. I mean, until recently, the mainstream media types didn't normally cover experimental music or electronic music or hip-hop music at all. And it's like there's a resentment that they weren't the ones to officially decide that this music is now acceptable--that it's now okay to write about the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers or something. And then there are these critics who say they love hip-hop and urban culture but just started writing about it last year, when alternative rock and all that kind of stuff went out the window.

"There's no way they can stop it, though," he goes on. "It's like the Internet. There are a couple of theories that say online, the Internet treats censorship as a damaged area, and the information just flows around it. Isn't that interesting? If people try to censor certain Web sites, other Web sites tend to pop up with better information."

Cyber metaphors come readily to Miller, who recently designed an elaborate site for the makers of Absolut Vodka (www.absolutdj.com). He also continues to write advertising copy, which he started doing shortly after moving to New York in order to put food on the table--but now appreciates on a more subversive level. "You come up with a phrase, and then you see it on billboards all over the place," he notes. "It's like tagging." He scoffs at detractors who feel that this pursuit somehow besmirches his integrity: "These people really have no idea what urban culture is about. In indie rock, they're like, 'Oh, no, you're not supposed to be in ads.' But it's the exact opposite of that in hip-hop. They go out of their way to do it, because they know a lot of people will see it."

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