That Subliminal Kid,” yeah right: you can’t sneeze in New York without getting DJ Spooky wet. Paul D. Miller is pretty overt about being every where, writing, remixing, recording, accompanying, collaborating, and tagging along in every possible setting, leaving a bread-crumb trail of semiotic babble everywhere he goes. As a remixer and track maker, Miller has a finite set of tricks, but they work for him: stretching a source recording out into gauze, overlaying subspace whooshes and vinyl-noise snow and maybe a heavy bassline, then drenching the whole thing with cavernous echo.
It’s when he tries to pass himself off as a multifarious trickster, interrupting himself with his own exegesis, that he gets into trouble. “It’s like a physics of presence, but with rhythm,” he quasi-explains on the new Riddim Warfare. “This is music made from fragments of the world.” As opposed to what? Spooky’s redefined DJ from “spinner of records” to “coordinator of sound sources” in part because he’s not that great in the turntablist sense—he doesn’t really have skillz-with-a-Z. At the Irving Plaza debut of his Universal Robot Band October 5, he brought along someone else (the fine DJ Wiz of the Steelworkers) to do most of the actual turntable work. Miller played bass for a while, then brought on some rappers and stalked around the stage with them—let’s just say MC Spooky isn’t the name on the marquee for a reason. (The show was preceded by a press conference for Absolut’s new DJ-based Web site, on which Spooky has a little piece; asked why he was shilling for a vodka company, he men tioned Warhol and Picasso, declaring “advertising is a core thing of urban reality.”)
In the spirit of Miller’s love for science fiction (his long-promised theory text Flow My Blood, the DJ Said and his long-promised SF novel about a DJ should be done, oh, any time now), here’s a little remix, courtesy Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”:
They used live drums. They used keyboards. They used singers. They used multiple decks. They used drum ‘n’ bass. They used Sussan Deyhim. They used feedback. They used Stockhausen. They used guest DJs. They used stand-up bass. They used tablas. They used rappers. They used David Hume, but he didn’t help much. They used a cello. They used Jimi Hendrix records. They used random noise.
And what do you know: they were awful. You can throw a dozen ideas at an audience at once, but unless they’re both interesting and compatible, it won’t do much good; and if a few moments actually caught the kind of pan-stylistic time-suspension they were trying for, well, a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Then there’s the name-dropping issue. Drawing analogies to historical precedents is not, in itself, evidence of artistic validity, or a form of artistic expression. Doing it to analyze your own work, especially from the stage, is a bad idea. While we’re at it, twiddling knobs with an intense and serious expression while a recording unspools is dorky. Back-announcing it as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros compositions is worse, especially if you proceed to explain to your rapidly dwindling audience who Oliveros is—in this context they either know already or they’re not going to care. Reading a Phyllis Wheatley poem by way of an encore, preceded by an explanation of who she was, is eight kinds of condescending.
Thankfully, Riddim Warfare isn’t nearly as prétentieux. The disc is mostly Spooky’s lateral move into hip-hop beats, with guest shots from some swell MCs: Kool Keith and Sir Menelik on the swaggering, word-drunk single “Object Unknown,” Killah Priest and members of Organized Konfusion elsewhere. It’s also a showcase for Spooky’s bass playing, which has developed the spacy stateliness and unpredictability 1996’s “Galactic Funk” pointed toward. When he lets a groove roll for more than a minute or two, his bass constructions can get deep and unnerving, acting like a magnetic bottle around the low-level chaos in the mix.
But the specter of didacticism is always nearby. Layering the same half-speed drums against whooshy sound effects, some Dvorák, and perfunctory Thurston Moore guitar noise, then calling it “Dialectical Transformation I,” “II,” and “III” is supposed to demonstrate what, exactly? That everything tastes better when it’s sitting on a break beat? That you can mix ‘n’ match genre signifiers and the world won’t explode? That it’s all, like, music? Too much of Riddim Warfare is supposed to be good for you: treating hiphop and drum ‘n’ bass as merit badges; foregoing pleasure in favor of trying to show off how much you can fit into the mix. Reconstruction, recombination, and collage are tools, not goals, and eclecticism itself doesn’t mean a damn thing.