Ghost Story

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

New York City-based Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, is a name-dropper of a very high-flown sort. He seems congenitally incapable of talking about the influences on his challenging experimental hip-hop without mentioning Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, a pair of eighteenth-century German philosophers who weren't exactly known for their phat beats. Likewise, questions about the denunciations he's received from certain regressive members of the press prompt him to mention the backlash that struck Martin Luther after he nailed 95 theses on indulgences on the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517. And even when he's talking about someone of a far less esoteric stripe--like, for instance, Rob Zombie--he finds a way to intellectualize the reference. "Rob Zombie just did this huge tour with unbelievable lights and skulls everywhere that he drew himself," he says. "And even though that's ultra-wild to me, I understand where he's coming from. He used to watch TV all the time, and so he uses that perspective to help him go off on the psychology of media saturation."

In other words, Miller is not your average pop star--and yet, on a certain level, he'd like to be. His music is concerned with destroying boundaries, ignoring the status quo and going where no DJ has gone before, but he has no interest in being an artistic martyr. He's thrilled that Riddim Warfare, the mind-expanding CD he released last year, has the support of a major label (Outpost Recordings), and he's on the road in an effort to sell as many copies of it as possible. Moreover, he sees no reason to apologize for embracing capitalism. "I'm very aware that this is a corporate culture," he points out. "But people who want to complain because I'm wearing tennis shoes right now that are made by Nike are just being ridiculous. It's like, go weave your own shoes out of grass and wear clothes made out of leaves and act like you're Adam and Eve and you're in the Garden of Eden if you want. But the rest of us live in the real world."

Globalism is a big part of Miller's approach. He's fascinated by the stunning variety of stimuli zooming through the ether these days and by the bizarre hybrids that result from the collisions that are taking place there with increasing frequency. What seems like information overload to many is beautiful to him, and from this anarchy he sees emerging a new language that will allow individuals shaped by very different experiences to communicate and connect. And while he's not so immodest as to claim that his recordings might conceivably form the building blocks for this evolving vernacular, he feels that his sound is illustrative of the process as a whole.

"Think of the world as a record store, where every kind of music is in it, and everyone's in the store, just checking it out," he says. "I see my music as taking that store, throwing it up in the air, grabbing some beats before they hit the ground and seeing what emerges from the data cloud. And that's just one system. Culture's like that, too--like a deck of cards. You shuffle that deck, mix things up, and hopefully you can get the best thing out of it."

The seeds of Miller's musical values were planted in Washington, D.C., where he grew up loving both punk rock and the go-go music that flourished in the nation's capital during the early Eighties. But it wasn't until he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine that he began shaping his fondness for sonic diversity into an all-encompassing worldview. Although he majored in French literature and (you guessed it) philosophy at Bowdoin, he also listened to an awful lot of hip-hop--and when he was given a chance to spin some of his favorites on the campus radio station, he leapt at it. However, his program--Dr. Seuss's Eclectic Jungle, which debuted in 1988--wasn't simply an hour or two of fresh jams. In a primitive permutation on his current methodology, Miller turned the songs inside out until they were all but unrecognizable. Such shenanigans didn't always endear Miller to dudes who just wanted to hear some LL Cool J, but he didn't care. This self-described "record nerd gone wrong" had found his voice, and he was determined that it be heard. So he packed up his vinyl and headed to New York City, whose underground scene he couldn't boost any more energetically if he were on Rudolph Giuliani's payroll.

"New York still has some big divisions between music zones, but in the rest of America, forget it; they're, like, five years behind," he says. "Whenever I'm somewhere other than New York, I'll get crowds with a lot of one kind of people--college students or whatever. But when I'm in New York, in my own space, the crowds are very mixed race-wise and age-wise, because New York is the culture of deejaying in general. Some people think London is, but don't be fooled; London follows New York. And every night, there are parties with radically different themes within twenty blocks of here--rock crews and hip-hop crews and techno and jungle and whatever. I can hop in a cab and go to five totally different parties in one night. But in the rest of the country, it's another ballgame--and that's too bad."

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."

Miller is appearing as part of a package tour headlined by Everclear, an act whose music could hardly be more different from his, for much the same reason--to perform in front of audiences that might otherwise not get the opportunity to hear him. And if that wins him the ridicule of the art-for-art's-sake crowd, so be it. "To me, a lot of experimental culture is kind of self-indulgent right now," he says. "It's like narrow-band transmission versus wide-band. One hits more people, whereas the other one tries to be more focused, but not that many people get the message. And I want people to get the message."

Sno-Core Tour '99, featuring Everclear, Soul Coughing, Redman and DJ Spooky. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 20, Mammoth Events Center, 1510 Clarkson Street, $25, 303-860-1333.

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