DJ Spooky: Dubtometry

Ari Levenfeld

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.

DJ Spooky


Label: Thirsty Ear
US Release Date: 2003-03-18
UK Release Date: 2003-04-21

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.