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Mixing Metaphors

DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid/Songs of a Dead Dreamer (Asphodel)/ Mecropolis: The Dialogic Project (Knitting Factory Works)


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DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid

Songs of a Dead Dreamer


Necropolis: The Dialogic Project

(Knitting Factory Works)

By Peter Margasak

When hip-hop broke, it broke ground in many ways, not the least of which was that it elevated a primarily technical job--spinning records--into an art form. A club DJ's mission was merely to keep the disco flowing seamlessly, but on the street Grandmaster Flash and his ilk were building and painting musical sets for the urban drama of rap. As hip-hop bred into modern dance forms like house, techno, and drum 'n' bass, the role of the DJ evolved as well. New turntable wizards like DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, and DJ Q-Bert have made the cutting, scratching, mixing, and cross-fading the focus of their work, not someone else's backdrop, and the incitement of dance-floor activity is no longer a primary goal.

New York's DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, who makes his Chicago debut Saturday at the Double Door, has pushed the redefinition of the DJ to the extreme. Much as garbagemen became "sanitation engineers," in Spooky's world DJs have become "recombiners" and "custodians of aural history." In a recent magazine interview he went so far as to proclaim: "We're really talking about the migration of human values toward the electronic age, and there's nobody better equipped to do that than the DJ at this point." This self-appointed savior of modern music has spearheaded the ascendance of New York's "illbient" scene (the term was coined by DJ Olive in response to a characteristically twisted Spooky set), which has managed to push sound art into the realm of nightlife.

Illbient, of course, comes from ambient. It can be traced to the "chill-out rooms" that cropped up at English raves, where after a long night of dancing to the nonstop rhythmic attack of hardcore techno, the ecstasy gobblers could take a load off, sip a smart drink, and drool to clouds of largely electronic, borderless sound. While a few innovative artists like the Orb and Aphex Twin developed out of that context, most of it sounded like New Age twaddle designed for isolation tanks. When the idea made its way to New York, its proponents ditched the traditional dance-floor workout and concentrated on making the music more substantial.

A listener can lose himself in illbient as easily as in ambient, but if he'd rather pay attention there's lots to hear. Though illbient is far removed from hip-hop and club culture despite sharing its tools and vocabulary, the rhythms of hip-hop and drum 'n' bass, as well as snaking dub bass lines, leave tracks all over the dense soundscapes. The haunting flutter of Carnatic flute or skating-rink organ might overlap electronic squelches, forlorn strings, or glowing vibraphone, and Spooky might further distend these strange juxtapositions by manipulating turntable speed and direction.

The scene has grown quickly and a legion of DJs has been joined by a smattering of real musicians, from former Hugo Largo violinist Hahn Rowe to former La Monte Young associate and trumpeter Ben Neill, but the key figure of the scene is still undeniably Spooky. Born 26 years ago as Paul Miller, Spooky swiped his moniker from a character in William Burroughs's Nova Express. He's an energetic, charismatic scene-maker who also fancies himself a writer, a theoretician, and an artist, but while his DJ skills are beyond reproach, his attempts at the other vocations have produced inconsistent results.

Spooky's prose is splattered across pages of his CD booklets. He studied French literature and philosophy at Bowdoin College in Maine, so it's not surprising that he frequently references heavy French thinkers like Lacan, Deleuze, and Guattari in his rambling essays, or, as he calls them, "recombinant texts." I've got a prize for you if you can explain this foofaraw, taken from the liner notes of Necropolis: The Dialogic Project, a rich survey of the New York scene mixed by Spooky: "Autonomous zones are interstitial, they inhabit the in-between of socially significant constellations, they are where our bodies in the world but between identities go: liminal sites of syncretic orthodoxy."

He calls cassettes "electromagnetic canvases" and songs "electronic hybrids." Elsewhere he writes, "The hiss and pops, distortion and feedback, strange silences that pop up from nowhere, scratchy record noises etc. are all signifiers of a construction zone of sound seeking sensibility." For all that, in a nostalgic piece about New York's club scene in a recent issue of the New Yorker a skeptical Hilton Als quotes one Spooky fan as saying, "The records he plays are about the confusion we all experience as neither men nor women in a totally fucked technological age. That's what his music is meant to be--it's meant to sound like nothing."

The most appealing of the ideas behind Spooky's theoretical yammering is essentially a classic pomo position: while the many records from which he constructs his work come from disparate backgrounds--racial, social, functional--through his interpretive mixing they become new. Unfortunately Spooky is such a slave to technology, convinced that more primitive modes of expression--including people playing real musical instruments--are all but obsolete, that he encourages further ascendance of a destructive global culture. He should be careful what he wishes for--without real musicians, most of the records he uses wouldn't exist.

Luckily, if we just listen to the music we can ignore his cluttered thinking. Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and to a lesser extent Necropolis, envisions a world where sound is paramount. Spooky writes, "The style a DJ uses is their imprimatur, their way of appropriating the psychological environment that the people that made the records put into their mix, and sharing it with those who attend the performance," but I find it difficult to differentiate between many of the turntable-only illbient acts. But the musical distinctions between Byzar, Sub Dub, We, and Naut Humon, among others, seem less vital than the continuities in their often gorgeously amorphous constructions. Illbient is meant to flow in a constantly shifting liquid mass that ends only when the club closes or the CD runs out of space.

Spooky's earlier work, including a pair of contributions to Bill Laswell's Valis I: Destruction of Syntax compilation, sounded like sloppy free-form radio collage, which is after all the foundation of his work. On Songs the undulating layers are in constant but loosely organized flux. During "Phase Interlude" unidentifiable sounds swirl and double over into themselves before fading into another stream of elusive sound, while at the bottom a murky rhythm trudges forward. Some pieces, like "Galactic Funk (Tau Ceti mix)," opt for a fixed beat, but in the foreground the textures, rhythmic accents, and melodic fragments continue to shuffle impatiently.

Illbient certainly has achieved something by expanding musical horizons, mixing the latest dance grooves with obscure ethnic musics--we'll bypass the question of whether listeners are genuinely interested or are simply making the scene--but the imperialist tilt of Spooky's thinking is regrettable. While it's a nice antidote to the ever-stratifying music biz, this strain doesn't represent the future of music; its world-in-a-blender simplicity ignores too many living traditions and too many impenetrable cultural factors. While electronic music is here to stay, it is unlikely that it will totally eradicate more traditional music-making, and if it were to do so, the variety that Spooky draws upon would be irretrievably lost. The real relevance of Spooky and his pals is that they've made music fluid and shapeless enough to fill in the cracks between traditions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of DJ Spooky by Jill Greenberg.

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