DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid
Under the Influence
Gold Teeth Thief
"Give me two records and I'll make you a universe," wrote Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, in the liner notes to his 1996 album, Songs of a Dead Dreamer. It's a great quote--and a tall order. It's tough enough for a DJ just to create momentary unities, much less a universe. Any monkey can play two records at once, but to enact a dialogue between them, demonstrating their underlying affinities, juxtaposing their differences, and matching the beats so they sound like one seamless piece--even if you've got a lot of records and know them all inside and out, that's challenge enough.
It's one thing to pick records with a similar feel: the Incredible Bongo Band's funky "Apache," Cut La Roc's skanking, laddish "Post Punk Progression," and CLS's proto-rave "Can You Feel It?" are united by an uproarious, mad-for-pleasure spirit and, more important, similar beats-per-minute counts, which is why Fatboy Slim spun them all on his benchmark mix CD On the Floor at the Boutique. It's quite another business to muster the imagination to pull together records that weren't intended for dancing to in the first place, with wildly different tempos and instrumentation.
Spooky's a gifted self-promoter--he's probably the most famous-for-being-famous person in postdance culture--but he's never done justice to the aesthetic he articulated so well on paper. His production work has been scattershot; like his most obvious forebear, Bill Laswell (both play bass, both are highly prolific, both tend to make music that reads better than it sounds), he's at his best when he focuses instead of sprawling, as on 1998's almost poppy Riddim Warfare. None of the three live performances I've seen--one with a band in support of that record and twice on the decks--has lived up to the hype, and neither does his most recent release, the mix CD Under the Influence, issued in September by the San Francisco global-dance indie Six Degrees.
The ideal DJ-mix CD features artists you've never heard of and music you want to hear again and again. But Under the Influence's track listing is far more impressive than the music. The set is certainly eclectic, ping-ponging from hip-hop to dub to noise-rock to electro-funk, and it's occasionally effective: Spooky flawlessly replacing the dub trifle "Live Jam" (credited to DJ Spooky vs. Carl Craig's Innerzone Orchestra) with the 70s funk pastiche of DJ Logic's "Michelle," or foreshadowing the inclusion of Saul Williams's "Twice the First Time" by stringing its vocal hook ("I will not rhyme over tracks / Niggers on the chain gang used to do that way back") through the track before it, Singe et Verb's "Hover Dub."
But mostly the variety feels forced. Spooky's choices--including obscure tracks by Sonic Youth and Moby--seem designed to show us what a well-versed and open-minded guy he is rather than how great the music is. He's obviously not trying to maintain a mood, but many of the segues are pointlessly jarring. Extreme contrast can work if you're moving a song out of its normal context to throw it into relief: when Jeff Mills jumps from the hard minimal techno he's been spinning for most of 1996's Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo into Rythim Is Rythim's emotive "String of Life," it's like the dawning of the dawn after a long, dark, exciting night. But when Spooky jumps from "Twice the First Time" to an instrumental from one of Sonic Youth's experimental EPs to After Echo's "Sensi Dub," the effect is merely slapdash.
A record that comes much closer to achieving Spooky's lofty goals is Gold Teeth Thief, a mix CD by Jace Clayton, aka DJ /Rupture, a former member of the Toneburst Collective, a Boston experimental drum 'n' bass crew. Now based in Madrid, he brings to his beat science a background in North African musicology, which he's studied on his own for the past five years. His tracks frequently wed keening Arabic melodies to hard, overdriven drum 'n' bass beats, with a directness lacking in similar fusions by Talvin Singh or the Asian Dub Foundation.
Gold Teeth Thief (which is available in stores and downloadable in its entirety from Clayton's Web site, www.negrophonic.com) is a staggeringly well-plotted mix. It doesn't just parade genres randomly past your ears--it coaxes them together tail-in-trunk, like trained elephants. The opening sequence, for instance, sets Nas's "Oochie Wallie" percolating through Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On." The curlicued trilling of those Peking Opera-ish flutes dovetails with Missy's deep tabla beat, then continues behind Jamaican toaster Bling Dawg's "Risen to the Top"--raga meets ragga, how cute. The combo is then ambushed by the gunshot effects and overdriven breakbeats of DJ Scud's "Badman Time," in an analogue to the way jungle as a style hijacked hip-hop's beats and Jamaican slang.
The whole disc moves like that. It sandwiches a 1961 piece for soprano voice and magnetic tape by 20th-century composer Luciano Berio between a pounding gabber track by Kid606 and art techno by Venetian Snares, connecting old and new modes of electronic composition. "Duende," an atmospheric dub track Clayton made under the name Nettle, evokes the "jungle" where Captain Willard hunted down Colonel Kurtz; it's followed by the Jamaican-influenced "Cop Shot," by New York hip-hoppers Dead Prez, and war in the jungle morphs into war in the urban jungle.
And though the mix was finished before September 11, its emphasis on Arabic sounds is doubly resonant now. Djivan Gasparyan's "Dle Yaman," a meditative instrumental played on an Armenian flute called the duduk, nestles into Funksorung's ghostly mix of the Wu-Tang Clan's "Reunited," whose tense feel is blown apart by the breakbeat shitstorm from an untitled Nettle track. And in the CD's final sequence, "The Taliban," a track by Muslimgauze, aka the late British Palestinian sympathizer Bryn Jones, is followed up hard by "Homeless," one of Paul Simon's collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and a gorgeous live cut by singer Miriam Makeba, who spent 30 years in exile from segregated South Africa. DJ /Rupture may not have created a universe with his records, but far more than Spooky, he's managed to give the globe a good spin.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jace Clayton.