DJ Spooky: Waxing Philosophic

January 16th, 2002 | Category: Essays

DJ SpookyI don’t wanna throw the word around here, but Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid is a postmodern-day Renaissance man. He’s known for many things: music, art, theory, teaching, writing, lecturing… I know him as a friend, so that’s where this is all coming from.

I first met Paul kinda by accident. I was leaving the Meat Beat Manifesto tour bus after an interview with Jack Dangers in Seattle in the fall of 1996. As I was finding my way to the front of the bus from Jack’s room in the back, I nodded at this guy sitting at the dining-area table, his twisty dreads hanging around his face.

“What’s up,” he said as I squeezed by. I responded in kind and moved on. When I got outside, I realized that the friendly guy with dreadlocks was DJ Spooky.

I got in touch with him a few weeks later and introduced myself. Finding ourselves with many common interests, we’ve been corresponding ever since. Recently, we’ve been working together on launching a magazine called 21C.

I last hung out with Paul in L.A. this February, where he was lecturing at the University of Southern California’s Art in Motion series. Since then, he’s been back on the Left Coast twice: once to act as a judge for the Webby Awards in San Francisco and once to remix Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle film for the Seattle International Film Festival. He’s also taught classes at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, toured Europe DJing and even spent a little time at home in New York City. He’s written for countless magazines, is working on two books and is starting up his own record label (Synchronic Records), not to mention the magazine. By the time you read this, he’ll be touring the US in support of his latest record (Modern Mantra on Shadow records). How does Paul keep all of this straight? How does he make it in the mix? He’ll tell you it’s all about flow. Paul seems to see the world and everything in it as dynamical systems: constantly changing and evolving. And he becomes a dynamical system himself, flowing through them all. In an interview we did last year, he described his work this way:

Think of my style of DJing as a kind of memetic contagion, a thought storm brought about by my annoyance and frustration with almost all the conventional forms of race, culture, and class hierarchies. Hip-hop is a vehicle for that, and so are almost all forms of electronic music. Again — it’s all about morphology of structure — how things can move from one medium to another. Culture in this milieu acts kind of like what Derrida describes in his infamous essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’: ‘science and magic, the passage between life and death, the supplement to evil and to lack… the difference between signifier and signified is no doubt the governing pattern…. in being inaugurated in this manner, philosophy and dialectics are determined in the act of determining their OTHER…’ Dialectical triangulation — language become its own form of digital code… check the theater of the rhyme as it unfolds in time… the whole literary/arts angle in America is so fucked up and conflicted, the only way to maintain a ‘stay of execution’ on your artwork and cultural production if you are a progressive African American in this day and age is to constantly innovate and change your mode of production.

Waxing philosophic aside, Paul is true to his words. His “mode of production” changes constantly. He multi-tasks in many realms simultaneously and he’s always on the go: I’ve gotten email from him from airplanes and phone calls from taxi cabs — often over or in streets of different countries and often within days of each other. I don’t know how he finds time to make music.

His latest mix, Modern Mantra represents a comprehensive look at the history Instinct/Shadow Records. Paul was given access to their entire catalog to pilfer as he pleased. “Everyone on this mix has had a great impact on the electronic music scene in one way or another,” he says in the press release, “and it was a pleasure to go through the Instinct/Shadow records archive and remember so many progressive and inspirational tunes.”

I mentioned to him recently that I’d gotten his newest record.

“What do you think?” he asked.

I said,” There’s a lot going on there…”

“That was the idea, to get a lot of different trajectories going…” he replied.

The record is a lot like the man: They both have a gang of things going on and they both find their flow in the mix.

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