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FW Weekly License to Illbient

From breakfast cereal to esoteric art, DK Spooky speaks the language.

By Chris Hoover

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  Speaking with DJ Spooky can be somewhat, um, eerie. With much rhetorical dexterity, the 27-year-old conceptual artist pieces together an expressionist, verbal collage with its moments of convoluted brilliance and actual meaning left to interpretation.

"My original name was DJ Cap'n Crunch," says Paul Miller, nowadays better known as DJ Spooky and credited with founding the "illbient" scene - an electronica sub-genre known for its fusion of hip hop, ambient, dub and drum 'n' bass bits. Upon returning home from a party one morning, Miller came across a television commercial on which an argument between cartoon cereal pitchmen Franken-berry and Booberry was in full swing until Count Chocula was called in to arbitrate.

"These kinds of cultural resonance are hilarious. When you look at 20th century modernist versus post-modernist traditions, there are so many of these elements around us that children absorb," Miller says. "So, my being 'DJ' was a pun on all that."

Though seemingly lighthearted and facetious, the New York-based deejay is nauseatingly cerebral, not to mention utterly ambitious, particularly in his quest to bring about "an environment, not just a passive consumer spectacle" through all of his work. That means Miller wants his artistic projects to become a virtual setting, where people can interact with them rather than simply view them. "At the moment, I'm so ultra-swamped. I can't breathe," he says. Yes, indeed. Here's a list of some of his professional accomplishments: He edits a virtual digital media magazine, Artbyte Online; his art works have been featured at Annina Nosei Gallery and the Whitney Museum in New York City; he is a writer with two novels in the making, in addition to his frequent contributions to various publications; he has played with Stereolab, Meat Beat Manifesto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and he has re-mixed songs for Metallica, Nick Cave and Sublime. Most recently, along with Coldcut and Japan's UFO, Miller has been selected to launch Absolut Vodka's online visual music campaign, Absolut DJ, where visitors can create their own music by choosing and linking symbolic images that signify different sounds. Thereby, the user forms a kind of cross-sensory metaphor.

"[It's] similar to the notion of the sound object," Miller says. "Look at the progression of this whole century, whether it's Edison making a wax cylinder at the turn of the century, or Duchamp's use of the bicycle wheel in a gallery/museum context, or Warhol's repetition of the soup can. In a certain sense, the deejay culture has absorbed a lot of what these people were talking about. We're seeing the end results of these avant-garde movements, a kind of an extension of these weird, initial discussions."

Essentially, Absolut's project is carrying out what many of these artists and creators were striving to accomplish in the earlier parts of the century: giving a physical form to sound, a sensory perception that is intangible.

Coming from a prominent family in Washington, D.C., (his father was a dean at Howard University Law School and defended the Black Panthers in the '60s) that encouraged self-expression, whether through heated debates or literary gatherings held in their own home, Miller has accrued both bookish sensibilities as well as street smarts; and his perspective is rooted in this apparent conflict.

"I consider myself to be the reflection of my environment. You've got to remember D.C. is a) a very segregated city, b) lots of really twisted energy arise from both the federal government and the actual population," Miller says. "Fifty percent of D.C.'s African American males between the ages of 18 and 35 are either in jail or on parole. So, here we have two, radically different views of reality inhabiting the same geographic space. Music is usually a reflection of social reality. I like this idea of cultural entropy; this is the core theme [of my work]."

Educated at Bowdoin College in philosophy and French literature, Miller is at complete ease talking about Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as he is of Chuck D and KRS-One. He glides between abstract post-structuralist ideas and underlying issues of contemporary pop culture, two subjects that prompted him to make music.

"I was always intrigued by how urban culture had absorbed on an unconscious level." Miller says. "But with my professors it was always a problem. To them, it was always an issue of how urban culture can't be philosophy. The next thing you know, I was saying, 'You know what? I will prove that it can.' "

That determination led to the advent of Dr. Seuss' Eclectic Jungle, a "generally bugged out" radio show on which Miller mixed everything from spoken word facts to bootleg recordings of pirate transmissions and frequencies. In another witty gesture, he would find records that featured samples and mix them with the original tracks from which those samples actually came.

"It's fascinating how sampling makes memories of songs become relevant again. That's what I found so amazing about deejay culture," he says. "For me, sampling is like a notion of cultural reconstruction, finding meaning in your own milieu rather than always looking around."

This is the sort of situation that DJ Spooky deals with in his major label debut, Riddim Warfare. Released in late September, the album features Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Ben Neill, Killah Priest, and Japanese artist Mariko Mori who appropriates an old Buddhist mantra sung in a 2000-year-old Japanese dialect.

"I call it a theater of voices," Miller describes his latest release. "My first album, Songs of a Dead Dreamer was totally refiguring what people's expectations were about music and voices and how all of that was malleable.

"When you deal with this cultural flux situation, everything can be reconfigured, changed, altered, gene-spliced, you name it. We live in a time where all this kind of stuff is pastiche-oriented," Miller says.

With such disjointed, hyper-culture bricks, DJ Spooky is building his own lofty, post-modernist Tower of Babel. "Music becomes just another syntax of how people construct their own cultural languages."

Better get an interpreter first.

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