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Ghost Story

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."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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