DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid: Celestial Mechanix: The Blue Series Mastermix

[11 July 2004]

By Tim O'Neil

Electronic music is the music of possibility, the event horizon wherein sound can be crushed into an infinite variety of malleable and endlessly elastic portions. Far from the mere marketing failure represented by the ersatz “electronica” revolution, electronic music embraces the endlessly unfolding and unreservedly optimistic promise of the future into a living and breathing musical actuality.

There are three main elements that comprise the foundation of electronic music. The first element was the acceptance of electronic, artificial and nontraditional musical instruments, and the second was the establishment of the recording studio as a separate and distinct part of the recording process—as an instrument in and of itself. While there is considerable overlap between these two elements—the second would have been impossible without the first—the third is perhaps the most crucial of all, and it is at the third foundation of electronic music where we find the talent of Paul Miller, AKA DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.

The third foundation is, simply put, the invention of sampling. Dating back many decades in the realm of avant-garde composition, the advent of sampling as a tool for pop music was the final spark that enabled electronic music to constitute itself as a powerful, multi-generic force inside the music world. Once it was accepted that bits and pieces of recorded or found sound could be manipulated manually, either by using a direct drive turntable or the production studio, in order to create new compositions, the entire concept of recorded music was permanently altered. Once this genie was loosed, it became impossible to hide the fact that present and future generations would never again understand music in the same manner of their forefathers’ generations. Music is now a uniquely elastic entity, and far from an abstract, postmodern notion, it is an idea that can be instantly grasped by any 12-year-old with Cool Edit Pro and an iPod.

But DJ Spooky is operating on planes many orders of magnitude removed from the level of your hypothetical 12-year-old. Celestial Mechanix contains much more on two small plastic discs than any one listener could grok in a dozen listenings. The album is ostensibly a remix project, an opportunity for DJ Spooky to dive into Thirsty Ear’s catalog of Blue Series jazz albums and have his way with the toys therein. But there’s so much more here than merely a few jazz remixes. DJ Spooky is at the absolute peak of his game and what he has given us here is nothing less than a guided tour for the State of the Art of Future Jazz circa 2004.

There are two kinds of mix CDs. The first, and most prevalent kind, is the garden variety DJ mix, featuring a number of tracks mixed by a DJ in a fairly straightforward and, hopefully, interesting manner. The second and far less common type of DJ mix is something that more resembles a freeform collage. These are discs that exploit the uniquely elastic nature of modern sound manipulation in order to invent something truly unique, a new composition that is greater than the sum of its disparate parts. Coldcut’s legendary 70 Minutes of Madness, Richie Hawtin’s Decks, EFX & 909 and DE9: Closer To The Edit mixes, and DJ Assault’s manic Off The Chain For The Y2K are all examples of this second type. DJ Spooky’s 2001 installment in Six Degree’s Under the Influence series is another example of this type of mix CD, and with Celestial Mechanix he has effected another signature triumph in this micro-genre.

Celestial Mechanix is composed of two discs. The first unmixed disc is composed of eleven remixes DJ Spooky created specifically for this project. The second disc features these eleven tracks, and 24 additional songs, in a continuous 79-minute “Mastermix”. Its almost impossible to tell where one mix begins and another ends, because elements are constantly being shifted and shaken, mixed and dissolved into and out of each other at a rapid rate. For most DJs, mixing is a rhythmic operation, consisting of matching beats and synching basslines. There are numerous instances throughout the mix when Spooky blends melodic elements instead of rhythmic patterns, and the result is at times not unlike something Sun Ra could have composed (as when he mixes from DJ Wally’s remix of Meat Beat Manifesto’s “Travelogue II” into his own remix of Spring Heel Jack’s “Nommos Ascending”).

Other times, as with his remix of David S. Ware’s “Ananda Rotation”, Spooky simply cuts his moorings and advances into the free-jazz fusion territory occupied by modern IDM artists such as Amon Tobin and Squarepusher (to say nothing, of course, of fusion originators such as the 1970s Miles Davis and late-era Coltrane). His periodic use of MCs such as the underrated Carl Hancock Rux and El-P is also interesting, representing as they do the leftmost extremity of the modern hop-hop organism. The amelodic and abstract nature of their rhymes also bring the electronic music paradigm full circle, from the alternate instrumentation and composition at the heart of hip-hop and dance music and back to the alternate vocalization that bridges the gap between traditional singing and rapping. From the Jamaican dancehall MCs toasting their party audiences to modern backpack MCs of the Def Jux persuasion, the art of rapping is as much a part of the postmodern musical revolution as synthesizers and Technics turntables.

There’s just too much stuff here, too much diverse and interesting music to digest in one or two or six sittings. Anyone interested in the cutting edge of jazz in 2004, anyone who wants to understand how the jazz idiom has mutated into the world of electronic music, and anyone with even a dilettante’s interest in the art of DJing, needs to own a copy of this album. It’s as simple as that.

At their roots, electronic music and hip-hop are the same thing, and the art of the DJ is essential to understanding the genetic code of either. By taking a pile full of modern jazz records as his raw material, DJ Spooky has assembled the syllabus for a frighteningly intense post-graduate seminar in the field of sonic manipulation.

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