There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
We live in a hyperactive society, in which the speed of cultural change outpaces our minds’ ability to adapt to the tumult. All the 20th-century arts—visual, written, musical—have mutated at such a rapid pace that standardized criteria by which to judge them are unclear—but that hasn’t stopped any of us from trying. So perhaps multiple personality disorder is this generation’s most apt metaphor—and, metaphorically, the music world’s latest ally. It’s not unusual to find electronic artists using numerous monikers to record music in several different genres. Diverse personas that can be summoned at will to create different soundscapes reflect our increasingly fractured society. One former Washingtonian, 21st-century schizoid man DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, addresses postmodernity with abstract musical creations he calls “post-symbolic mood sculpture.”
The 25-year-old Spooky (né Paul D. Miller) is currently making waves of tsunamic proportions in the N.Y.C. underground, where his theories on DJ culture place him at the forefront of his field. Spooky, who has degrees in philosophy and French literature from Bowdoin College, takes his main DJ name from a mix of high/hip and low/kitsch culture; the Subliminal Kid is a character in William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express, and Spooky is from the saying of cereal star Count Chocula (“It’s spooky…”). But in keeping with his notions of the fracturing of the psyche seen by this generation, Spooky goes by other nicknames as well, such as “The Alphanumeric Bandit,” “The Ontological Assassin,” and “Abstract Massive.” Spooky sees African-Americans’ adopting different personas through DJ and MC names as a manifestation of their attempts to find an identity in the face of structural racism. To Spooky, however, persona is more than the public manifestation of the self; “per-sona,” he says, is “that through which sound enters.”
Spooky’s “per-sona” is heard on two recent releases: Necropolis: The Dialogic Project, a mix record comprised of tracks by artists he features in his Abstrakt traveling club night, and his “proper” album, Songs of a Dead Dreamer. But they are both his records. Like hiphop’s progenitors, Spooky is a recombinant archivist, taking the genetic material of others’ songs and splicing them together in his lab with a mix board, turntables, and effects processors. In Spooky’s war on identity politics, there is no ownership of sounds or ideas; he’s as free to borrow from others as they are from him.
Necropolis and Dreamer both swim in dub currents so deep and strong that they often threaten to pull the “songs” under (Spooky bristles at calling his pieces songs). The egalitarian ideals of modern dub, in which no one sound is more important than another, give both albums a sense of hallucinogenic weightlessness. Even the deep beats of jungle and heavy hiphop are given a floating quality by their place in Spooky’s mix. And because the albums syntactically combine every style of urban head music (jungle, triphop, ambient, dub) there is no one mood sustained throughout the CDs. Spooky believes his music and mixes should flow like the fluctuating rhythms of life. In Dreamer’s liner notes he writes, “Gimme two records and I’ll make you a universe.”
The liner notes for both albums are taken from Spooky’s treatise, Flow My Blood the DJ Said, a dense collage (natch) of philosophical theories. His writings encompass all the “post-” philosophies (modernism, structuralism, rock), science fiction, and anything else that envisions electro-modern culture as turbulent, rushing flux. He quotes Susan Sontag and Toni Morrison next to French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose concepts of horizontal thought directly relate to Spooky’s dub methodology. (The Frenchmen describe the structure of thought as analogous to that of a rhizomatous plant, which grows laterally rather than vertically via a complex network of stems.) Spooky also embodies what Italian semiologist Omar Calabrese calls “neo-baroque” sensibilities, which are characterized by polydimensionality, frantic rhythms, instability, and change. But Spooky’s gift is to make all these rarefied theories into something tangible through his compositions and mixes. Lesser artists have reeled off a dense dialectic, only to then produce sounds entirely uninteresting to all but the devoutly bookish and theoretically minded. And after all, it’s still human beings who are listening to all this machine music.
It’s remarkable how close in style Dreamer is to Necropolis despite one being an original recording and one being a compilation of other artists’ work. Both sound like mix tapes. And regardless of Spooky’s acceptance and celebration of chaos, there is a discernable order to these records. Both albums are bookended with tracks called “Intro” and “Outro.” Both discs begin with spacey effects and build to include beats and bass lines, which then drop in and out of the mix. And even the albums’ jungle tracks—DJ Soulslinger’s “Abducted (UFO Mix)” on Necropolis and “High Density” on Dreamer—appear toward the ends of the CDs. So despite even Spooky’s spurning of obvious hierarchies, he follows an internal logic that builds vertically rather than horizontally. Necropolis is perhaps the more abstract of the two records, but both will have you wondering whether you should chill out or rev up.
In addition to being a mixologist, Spooky is a painter, whose free-form works, like his music, signify fluid movement. And as musical compositions like “The Vengeance of Galaxy 5” and “The Terran Invasion of Alpha Cantauri Year 2794” on Dreamer suggest, a science fiction writer. When he’s not writing, painting, or mixing, he creates noise sculptures, such as a bicycle with a rear-wheel turntable—when you pedal, three needles scream across a record. This Renaissance man for the next millennium could be viewed as perpetrating an elaborate, self-serving hoax were he not so self-aware. Spooky is cognizant of his role as both student of philosophy and offspring of pop culture. It often seems like he’s thinking out loud, but it appears more courageous than brash because of his obvious excitement about life; another one of his nicknames is the Optimist. And unlike with some philosophers, there is no cognitive dissonance between Spooky’s theories and his way of living. He says his life is like one big video game. And Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Necropolis: The Dialogic Process are the soundtracks.CP