Music News

Consumer Aborts

Open up the May/June 2003 issue of Adbusters and you'll find a cardboard-sleeved CD glued to the inside of one of the pages. Its presence isn't blazoned across the cover as an incentive to buy the magazine; it's not tagged with a magnetic strip to prevent sticky-fingered browsers from lifting it. It's titled Live Without Dead Time, and when you turn over the stark black-and-white envelope and squint at the hand-scrawled credits, you'll find it just so happens to be the new DJ Spooky album.

DJ Spooky, born Paul D. Miller, is the New York-based artist/writer/turntablist known for coining the term "illbient," a form of electronic music that bridges -- or rather refuses to acknowledge -- the gap between hip-hop and musique concrète. Samples and scratches are assembled into dense architectures of darkness and abstraction. John Cage and Kool Herc co-exist on the same set of decks, laced together by concept and cross-fader. As much of a vague manifesto as it is a style, illbient embraces the sounds and philosophies of jazz, R&B, techno, industrial, punk -- just about anything that can serve as raw stuff to be manipulated and recontextualized.

Spooky, accordingly, is also a champion of the mix. Two of his previous releases, 2001's Under the Influence and last year's Modern Mantra, are mix CDs, disc-length streams of songs and samples that flow from start to finish without pause. The end result balances the fluidity and improvisation of a live DJ set with the meticulous hard-wiring of a digitally produced studio album.

Live Without Dead Time is a mix CD, too. Its 31 tracks are jammed together with jazzy interludes and seamlessly interlocked rhythms. Spooky's choice of artists is as eclectic as his original compositions: Saul Williams's poetic soapboxing segues into the goofball noise collation of Negativland. Ani Difranco's chilling "Coming Up" decays into a drone of Muslim chants. Fugazi and illyB swap beats. Dub thumb-wrestles with funk. Spooky wields his mouse like a conductor's wand, building freestyle and spoken-word snippets to crescendos as the whole mess coalesces into a dizzying, dazzling collage. In fact, besides blurring the lines between songs, Dead Time blurs the line between "original" and "sampled" music, casting the DJ as a true composer rather than a mere selector.

Now is a particularly interesting time for Dead Time's release. On May 19, the California software company Roxio announced its acquisition of Napster, the online music file-sharing service that courted rabid controversy during its three-year existence. Started in 1999 by college student Shawn Fanning, Napster was iced in 2001 after the Recording Industry Association of America took Fanning to court, saying that downloading and burning songs for free off the Internet was the same as stealing a disc off a store shelf. The case churned up many deeper debates among musicians, consumers and industry types: Does music exist outside of the format it's reproduced on? What, exactly, is the definition of intellectual, as opposed to material, property? Does copying music off the Net really lead to a drop in record sales, or is it the equivalent of trying on a shirt before you buy it?

But the most dramatic question was put succinctly by music-industry analyst Aram Sinnreich: "How can a half a billion downloaders be wrong?" In a recent poll, a staggering 97% of those asked associated Napster with online music -- surely a higher percentage than those who know the name of our vice president. Ad execs slit throats for that kind of brand recognition. Roxio's plan, then, is to take the ailing, pay-to-download music service Pressplay, which it recently bought from Sony/Universal, and slap the Napster name on it -- kind of Roxio's own version of sampling and mixing.

The "legitimization" of Napster -- as well as the co-opting of its renegade image -- is the type of corporate bait-and-switch that Adbusters has in its crosshairs. A magazine with a distinct situationist slant, its guerrilla graphics turn parody into protest, taking the aesthetic commodification of popular culture and turning it back in on itself -- actually, the same theory behind DJ Spooky's methodology. Where Adbusters takes phrases like "shock and awe" and "linear thinking" and projects them onto images of crass consumption, Spooky layers Coldcut's thick, digital riffs over the dollar-mongering, "patriotic" speech of George W. Bush. In both cases, the goal is clear: Rip the signifiers out of the semiotics of commerce.

Spooky's political bent is inherent in his music. In an ersatz democracy that alienates its culture from its people, he's a liberator, a hip-hop Robin Hood. At a time when burning mix CDs is taking on an increasing air of criminality, he's clicking and dragging the mix CD into the realm of high art. But it's not just the way he makes music that's so political; it's the form he allows it to take. Like his oft-sampled hero Marshall McLuhan, Spooky is aware of the medium as the message. Dead Time isn't an advertisement. It isn't a sales gimmick or a toy at the bottom of a box of cereal. It blends into its environment. It doesn't even come in a conventional CD package, though it does come with a booklet of sorts, a page of the magazine printed with the song list that the reader is instructed to "Rip. Fold. Insert."

Of course, the title Live Without Dead Time could be read two ways, with the word Live acting as either an adjective or a verb. In the first sense, it sounds like just another reference to Spooky's own formidable skills as a non-stop mixologist, as an artist who bows down before the altar of uninterrupted flow. But in the second sense, it reads like a command, perhaps even a commandment. "Live without dead time," he seems to be ordering all of us who buy too much stuff and then sit around all day licking the wrappers clean. "Cram every second with sound, with movement, with color, with reflections of the world around you. With life."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller