DJ Spooky’s hip-hop splices, dices music and images

[22 October 2007]

By Otis R. Taylor Jr.

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

COLUMBIA, S.C.—If hip-hop is the CNN of urban culture, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D has said, then Paul Miller is the genre’s revered global correspondent.

“In hip-hop, it’s the way your words connect,” Miller said. “A haiku can take you around the world in a phrase.”

Miller, the DJ prominently known as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, has suggested that DJ-ing—at least his specialty brand of slicing and mixing sound and images—is representative of globalization.

Miller, who will speak at the University of South Carolina School of Music on Oct. 26 and spin at the Columbia Museum of Art’s Halloween party later that evening, is appearing as part of the museum’s “American Music Series.”

Miller, also a conceptual artist and writer, will lecture from his book, “Rhythm Science,” which examines what he calls the “politics of perception”—the way information is delivered and filtered.

“We live in a time where everything from Katrina to Iraq has its own press release,” he said. “The whole vibe is trying to cut through a lot of issues we’re dealing with.”

When searching for entertainment and information through newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet, people are a lot like DJs.

Personalizing information and remixing it for blogs, videos and MySpace and Facebook pages is essentially what DJs do with music samples: pull the best out—or what one perceives is the best—and leave the rest.

In performances, Miller takes this a step further with the use of visuals to accompany his lush and sometimes brittle soundscapes. The relationship between sound and art, at least for Miller, connects everything and everyone on a global scale.

“I’ve tried to get (the idea) out as more than just an American thing,” Miller said. “Globalization is having people think another world is possible.”

Miller’s ideas and theories are without boundaries.

In 2004, the American premiere of Miller’s “Rebirth of a Nation”—a visual and audio evaluation of D.W. Griffith’s controversial film classic, “The Birth of a Nation”—at the Spoleto festival was an interesting concept that was tepidly displayed.

Miller, who mixed images and music live, used a three-screen set—a larger main screen and two smaller ones on either side—to work new, digitally inserted images against the 1915 black-and-white film.

The collaged house floor plans, flow charts and assorted shapes sometimes looked like nothing more than an architectural design program, and it did nothing to hide the original film’s ugliness, which depicted the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Still, it was an inventive performance, and that’s why Miller has had media art pieces at the Whitney Biennial and The Venice Biennale for Architecture.

Sometimes lost in the images, though, is Miller’s crisp production. The way he breaks songs apart—and puts them back together—is daring and fluid. But the image sequences colliding with the sampled parts of songs is part of Miller’s larger communication theory.

“I’m really fascinated with globalization,” said Miller, who has been mixing music from different continents, including using eclectic African music in hip-hop mixes.

The rise of DJs such as Girl Talk (who puts disparate artists like Nas and Pixies in caffeine-laced mixes), Dan Deacon, Diplo and Mark Ronson has put DJs into a spotlight glare not seen since the mid-1990s, when house and other rave music was popular.

Miller, like the DJs above, cuts and pastes together the things—songs, videos, press releases—that are now.

“This is everyday life,” Miller said. “DJ-ing is as much a part of (globalization) as a presidential election.

“That’s the way I think DJ-ing has influenced everyone.”

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