DJ Spooky

[21 August 2002]

By Shan Fowler

The tactic for judging movies was long ago boiled down to three or possibly four main criteria: the story, the acting, the directing and the cinematography. We don’t often worry about how the sets look, or how it sounds, or even how it’s lit because the behind-the-scenes crews are so reliable. Yet, when the sound is muffled, or a boom mic pops into the frame, or the mouths on the screen don’t perfectly match the voices coming out of the speakers, then it’s all we can do to notice anything else about the movie.

You’d think such behind-the-scenes minutiae wouldn’t be a huge concern at a DJ show. Yeah, you might hear some static from the record or the occasional skip, but that comes with the territory. And yeah, maybe the lights aren’t always as frenetic as you’d like them, but the improvisational element is what keeps you guessing, right? Maybe so, but when your DJ program goes beyond these standards, you’d better make darn sure you work out all the ticks before you take that show on the road.

DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller), bless his musician-as-revolutionary heart, is a sharp guy who brings a lot to the table. He’s a writer, he’s an experimental filmmaker, he’s an upright bassist, he’s a teacher. Oh, and he’s a DJ with a penchant for futuristic breaks that merge dub, jazz, hip-hop and all manner of sci-fi soundscapes. He is not, however, everything all at once, though it’s not for a lack of trying.

Spooky introduced himself to the Brooklyn crowd at North Six in his usual manner of late, explaining in so many words that he was there to teach and rock bodies, that he was trying to give his way-after-midnight audience a glimpse of the future of music as well as treat them to an abstract history lesson of repression and revolutions. “This is what I like to call ‘two turntables and a laptop,’” he offered. He then started a visual countdown on said laptop (which was projected onto the screen behind him) that synced up nicely with the thunderous roll coming through his turntables.

Much of what Spooky did was in sync, but much of how he did it was in the way. Throughout the set, he ran back and forth from turntables to laptop, setting off a wicked break here while double-clicking onto a video there, or blending his digital loops there while scratching his analog loops here. It was an inspired combination: Missy Elliott gone illbient while images of the Reichstag and Mayday in Soviet Russia lit up the screen; or frenetic drum ‘n’ bass serving as the soundtrack to a freakish fast-cut of Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, Osama bin Laden, Sesame Street’s Bert, the Pentagon and a warplane. Spooky also messed with images from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, scenes from the Quebec riots and a plethora of other cuts that left little doubt as to the origin of his nickname—“That Subliminal Kid”—or his oft-cited affinity for communication genius/visionary/nutbag Marshall McLuhan. Spooky is an intellectual, and a very capable one at that.

Like many intellectuals, Spooky wants to do everything. So, rather than having the video loops simply cued up, we had to also see that he was the one pressing the “play” button on his I-Book. Or when he rushed back to his turntables just in time to cut in a slightly-off sample, you had to know that he was really trying to get there in time. It came across not as an endearing DIY stance, but as only-child selfishness: either he’s paranoid that other people might screw it up or he just wants to have all the fun himself. That feeling certainly came out as freestyle rhymer Napolean Solo came out to offer some disjointed lines over Spooky’s difficult backing. Later, when both an alto and soprano saxophonist came out and blew like Coltrane, it was only for a couple of minutes apiece. Meantime, Spooky bounced between his turntables and his laptop and his upright bass. The avant-jazz was a great change of pace, but what was the point of doing it at all if he only planned to devote five minutes to it? That’s Spooky’s true problem: it’s not that he isn’t good at what he does, it’s that he’s good at so many aspects of what he does that he has a tough time narrowing it down, so rather than getting a great avant-jazz set, or a great performance art piece, or a great set of music, or even a great lecture, we get mediocre renditions of all of them.

Warm-up act Ming & FS rarely suffered from such information overload. The New York natives had their own crowded agenda, but they seemed much more willing and able to keep the party going through the changes. Hip hop from the usual suspects like Notorious B.I.G. and Dr. Dre mixed smoothly with underground favorites before the crowd was blasted into drum ‘n’ bass mode with a blistering version of “Get Ur Freak On.” Ming and FS got funky with their own guitar and bass work over a housey Sade track before bringing the house down with a Roni Size-esque remaking of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” The only slightly political moment came during a drum ‘n’ bassification of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” during which FS said “This shit is relevant to what’s happening right now,” an unintended double-entendre which could have pertained to current events in the Mid-East and Asia but also could have pointed to the smash success of MTV’s “The Osbournes.” Regardless of what was meant, bodies never stopped rocking—a lesson Spooky could have learned from his openers.

DJ Spinna, was much more concerned with merging every kind of beat than doing just hip hop and drum ‘n’ bass like Ming & FS or doing beats and beyond like DJ Spooky, and though he started off with a supersmooth rotation through countless different albums with different vibes, he eventually settled into a more consistent bounce between latin rhythms and classic funk before the five-minute warning from the show’s promoter forced him to fade out.

Early-early openers Dalek, a hip-hopocalypse trio from Newark, N.J., set things off on an angry, cacophonous note with a sampler, turntablist who scratched with his hand on the stylus rather than on the record, and an MC who seemed angry for having to do his thing in front of an audience, though the audience didn’t seem too angry to have his powerful and stylish rhyming in front of them.

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