DJ Spooky is a tricky guy to deal with. This past summer, he gave my friend at The Village Voice a pretty rough time in an interview, just as he gives every interviewer a pretty rough time. For example:
Q: Anything you’re currently itching to remix?
A: The crazy place we all (or most of us at least) inhabit: reality.
Huh? The guy is archetypically pseudo-intellectual.
Which is frustrating, because when he’s on, he’s on. Case in point: his take on the Coup’s “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”. Boots Riley spits fire and brimstone over a beat that sounds like Stereolab mixed with KRS-One, and every second of its five minutes is viciously entertaining. But for every moment of nuanced wordplay and subtle musical virtuosity on Spooky’s 2009 effort, The Secret Song — and there aren’t many — there’s a steaming pile of b.s. to unquestionably overpower any strength.
Take his instrumental re-mix of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”, for instance, which cops Jimmy Page’s guitar riff, makes it sound weak and poorly produced (how is that even possible?), and then overdubs some dramatic string arrangements on top. That Subliminal Kid? Are you serious? There are times where DJ Spooky can be so stupidly obvious that his second moniker (why does he need two?) is nothing short of criminal. All The Secret Song proves is that the man’s pretentiousness overshadows his talent.
Why anyone needs to hear the two minutes of dissonant flute arrangements on “Measure by Measure” is beyond me, but the song mutates into just about the most superfluous track of 2009 when George W. Bush’s voice is overdubbed on top. “It’s true this crisis included failure,” Bush says, talking about the free enterprise financial system, but he might as well be talking about The Secret Song. Sampling a George W. Bush speech in 2009 is the cleverest thing DJ Spooky could come up? With so much wrong in the world, with so much relevant to right now, why pick on a has-been?
It’s probably because DJ Spooky is one himself. For a minute there, you couldn’t piss without spraying on Spooky’s shoes. He was everywhere in New York, remixing, DJing, recording, collaborating, all the while discussing the Semiotics of Hip-Hop (ew…), but still worthily mixing genres and unabashedly experimenting. That was the ’90s. He was sampling Dvorak and Thurston Moore and it was impressive. 10 years later he’s, well, still sampling Dvorak and Thurston Moore. On “Known Unknowns”, he uses Moore’s scratchy guitar to complement Mike Ladd’s voice. It’s fine, one of the better cuts on the album, but at this point in the game, who cares? What was intriguing and experimental before is now old news, and not even that compelling of a listen.
This album creates too many questions without providing any answers. The frustration of listening to it is on par with the frustration of reading one of DJ Spooky’s head-scratching interviews. With all of his intellectual jargon, he wants us to ask questions, to stroke our chins and say, “Woah, how did he come up with that?” That question arises over the course of this album’s 80-minute running time, but it’s overshadowed by the even more important question: Why is The Secret Song so boring? DJ Spooky spends 80 minutes ignoring the question, avoiding the answer.