For someone so visible, DJ Spooky is surprisingly elusive. The man is a musician, a turntablist, a journalist, a visual artist, an upright bassist, and a university lecturer to name just a few of his hats. His theories on music have surfaced, at one time or another, in almost every journal of popular culture you can image, both online and in print. He’s credited with inventing a genre of music all his own, illbient, which mixes all the best and strangest aspects of hip-hop, scratching, and electronica. All things considered, the albums and musical performances that he generates each year seem almost like an afterthought. Except for the fact that they’re so good. Spooky reinvents his own work each time he releases music. From that point of view, he’s an artist in the truest sense of the word.
So why is a man who spends so much time creating and participating in public discourse so elusive? Well, for starters, it might have something to do with his common use of words like discourse. When Spooky writes about how he feels about the current state of electronica, hip-hop, or anything for that matter, he’s not afraid to put his French Literature and Philosophy degrees to work. At times he comes off as stuffy and overly intellectual. But he’s also electronic/hip-hop’s best ambassador to the intelligentsia of the world. Exposure to the academy means more credibility for popular music in general. DJ Spooky’s music is known for being a little bit on the cerebral side too. Not that this is a bad thing either. But in an art form where easy categorization and digestion is imperative to popular success, Spooky’s work is hard to pin down and even harder to absorb.
DJ Spooky, who was born as Paul Miller, grew up in the hardcore punk scene of Washington, DC, an experience that would heavily influence his later musical output. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, he moved to New York City where he wrote ad copy and science fiction. After helping to found the Soundlab Collective in the early nineties, and releasing a series of EP’s, he signed with the label Asphodel, and released Songs of a Dead Dreamer. The album included a clubland hit that allowed Spooky some notoriety, and he was off and running from there.
Spooky used the album to express his interest in Musique Concrète, a form pioneered by French radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer that stressed the patchwork of various sounds and tape fragments that have been altered in pitch and length. Using a series of everyday city sounds and old film loops, cut over unusual percussive samples, Spooky created a mood as much as he did music. During this period his work ran the gamut from visual art and commentary, to a teaching position at the European Graduate School. He also formally dubbed his updated version of Musique Concrète “illbient”, since it combined hip-hop with the aural pastiche that Schaeffer pioneered. It’s an obvious reference to electronic ambient music, and hip-hop slang for something wonderful. The name fits what he does rather well. Spooky designed his darker, moody soundscapes to bring people together. As opposed to techno which he saw as elitist.
After releasing a series of albums that significantly evolved his sound, including the soundtrack to the film Slam, Spooky hooked up with avant-garde jazz pianist Matthew Shipp. Shipp and Spooky created and released the atmospheric album Optometry in 2002, with the help of jazz players William Parker, Guillermo Barreto Brown, Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Billy Martin, Joe McPhee, Carl Hancock Rux, and a flurry of others. Spooky calls Optometry “jazz for the genre splice generation”. It is this album that provides the grist for Spooky’s current release: Dubtometry.
As the name implies, the album is something of a remix of Optometry with a little bit of dub thrown in. As it so happens, the name is misleading since the amount of dub present is almost incidental. Lee “Scratch” Perry makes an appearance on several tracks, and Mad Professor wraps his soundboard around a song or two, but it is mostly the evolution of illbient that the listener is treated to. Spooky is quoted as saying that he sees electronic music as “the folk music of the 21st century.” Considering his homegrown method of creating new sounds, and his reputation for putting on one-man shows that are as much educational experiences as they are concerts, he’s living right up to his beliefs.
While it’s convenient to address songs on Dubtometry by their vague track names, the album isn’t about individual, isolated recordings with specific beginnings and endings. Instead, most of the work here flows together into a giant sound collage. From a distance, there seem to be blurred lines between one section of the album and another. But when you listen close, these boundaries disappear completely. Listening too closely to Spooky’s work is fun, but when you do it, you lose the point of the music as a whole. Sort of like walking in front of a Chuck Close print and trying to see the face for the tiny pictures.
What the album does begin with is the unmistakable sound of Lee “Scratch” Perry mixing up some rub-a-dub. The album lives up to its dub-ious namesake on this one, stirring up a nice jumble of dub, ambient sounds, and vocal samples. Spooky chose his partners carefully on this album. What most of them seem to have in common, including Perry, Mad Professor, and Negativeland, is an infatuation for pushing the sound barrier—specifically as it relates to our qualification for what is music and what is noise. If there are modern purveyors of the Musique Concrète, they are the guest stars that you see on this album.
Spooky builds on his theme with “That Subliminal Kid vs. The Last Mohican”, which partners him with French trip-hop artist DJ Goo, a.k.a. Le Gooster. City sounds and a jazzy backbeat morph into a submarine rhythm bouncing over zipper-pulling scratches. The music is dramatic in a cinematic way. Spooky relies on his samples and splices to achieve mood as much as rhythm. Listening to each carefully carved loop, in the context of all the piece’s movement, Spooky’s message is clear. What’s so interesting is the sheer number of things he’s trying to say in each track.
Spooky arrives at his first real peak with “Optometrix”, a track that begins with a funky electronic bass with orchestral strings spinning in the background, almost lulling you into a meditative state. Then, he drops J-Live’s MC flow into the middle of the progression as a thing of beauty. This is a real high-point on the album. If there’s any doubt that he’s a hip-hop turntablist, this track will remind you. The aural ideas he plays with here are transplanted and developed throughout the rest of the album. DJ Goo, Mad Professor, Negativeland, and Animal Crackers all get their chance to lend their perspective on the original idea. One gets the sense that Spooky could have an infinite number of artists come to his studio and offer an infinite number of takes on what he, Shipp, and company released last year. But these artists were selected for a very specific reason. They’re all specialists in cutting and pasting, then rearranging.
DJ Spooky is the kind of artist that makes you wonder what he’ll do next, rather than when he’ll do it. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if he devoted the next ten years to cutting and pasting previously released work into completely new compositions, as this album seems to be. But unlike many artists currently recording, particularly in hip-hop, there’s no doubt that Spooky won’t rest on his laurels. Given his prolific creativity, and tremendous drive, that would eliminate the entire point from why he invents in the first place. Like most artists, commentary on the world is his specialty. Unlike many of his peers, he has something to say that you haven’t heard before.