By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
IF ONLY DJ Spooky could put his blurry beats where his big mouth is. In the self-penned liner notes to his 1996 debut, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Spooky (a.k.a. Paul D. Miller/a.k.a. That Subliminal Kid) prognosticated: "It is through the mix and all it entails--the reconfiguration of ethnic, national, and sexual identity--that humanity will, hopefully, move into another era of social evolution." From the start, Spooky has been famous for spouting silly hyperbole, but the scenario he poses is worth pondering: Can DJs save the world? Or, to put it more realistically, can they redefine pop music?
Spooky, for one, can't fulfill his prophecy: He's almost always at his most engaging while springing through the jungle gym of theory. He's perhaps the snootiest person ever to slam a set of turntables, an absent-minded aesthete who honestly believes that post-structuralist theory can invigorate hip hop. At his worst, he's a clown in philosopher's clothing, an artist whose quest for knowledge continually saps his skills.
Before the release of Dreamer, early reports on Spooky identified him as a key figure in the NYC illbient scene, a movement of post-B-Boys whose abstract sound collages recast hip hop as depersonalized, undanceable ambient music. Since then, the noisy subgenre has pretty much expired--which was predictable, since the "scene" (with the exception of a few DJs whose work quickly transcended it) consisted of little more than well-off Lower East Side kids who made noise because they didn't have the skills to cut breakbeats. Still, Songs of a Dead Dreamer is, on occasion, an ill communication--a murky vortex of chaos, clatter, and clutter.
Riddim Warfare, Spooky's major-label debut, veers between uninspired and awe-inspiring. He plays scratch-pad traffic controller on "Synchronic Disjecta," building up an ominous groove as he engineers frightening mid-mix collisions. In contrast, the album's short, aimless snippets ("Pandemonium," "It's Not Nice to Lose Your Mind," etc.) sound like false starts. The album's centerpiece is "Polyphony of One," which opens with a litany of Situationist-inspired airport announcements ("Ethnic digestion tabernacles...heightened insensitivity vehicles...erotic invisible empires") and then launches into a barrage of explosive space-funk, propelled by Spooky's impressively fluid upright bass playing. It's Spooky's all-star guests who spoil the party. Despite an impressive lineup of underground luminaries, from the hip-hop stars Kool Keith and Sir Menelik to fringe-dwelling elder statesmen Thurston Moore and Arto Lindsay, Spooky's guests sound uninspired and confused.
The DJ makes his best music when he quits playing the scenester snob and divorces himself from both society and commerce: His mix tapes are much better than anything he's released commercially. The medium somehow allows him to marry his soft-boiled theory and real-time talent in a format that's as invigorating as it is frustrating. Invigorating because they're mind-blowing. Frustrating because they're so obscure even the curious will probably never hear them. Which might be how the subliminal scenester likes it.