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Mixing, Not Mincing his Words

Photo: Jon Reid

Image and text source: Fairfax Digital

Originally published on February 4, 2005
Socially and culturally aware, this DJ is the harbinger of change, writes Ashley Crawford.

He travels to Trinidad and Istanbul, Paris and Jakarta, Moscow and New Orleans. He hangs out with Yoko Ono, Merce Cunningham, Sonic Youth and Wu-Tang Clan. He tosses off cultural references from James Joyce to Gertrude Stein, Jean Baudrillard to Mikhail Bakhtin, and he writes for a range of journals and magazines from Artforum to The Village Voice.

He is in Australia to promote his new book, Rhythm Science (published by the prestigious MIT Press) – a meditation on the “flow of patterns in sound and culture”, and he has just screened Rebirth of a Nation, his re-mix of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film classic, Birth of a Nation, at the Sydney Festival.

Indeed, Paul Miller – aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid – is not your average DJ.

Miller never even set out to be a DJ. The Spooky project began as a work of conceptual art, a means of “coding a generative syntax for new languages of creativity”. The Spooky moniker hailed from what he thought of as the “eerie” sound of the music he was entranced by – hip-hop, techno and ambient. And the “Subliminal Kid” is taken from a William S. Burrough’s novel.

The American cultural critic and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling described Miller’s Rhythm Science as a manifesto for a “culture created by those who can remix, and by technologies that enable anyone to remix. Rhythm Science is science; it is art; it is the story of how freedom would build better science and art”.

For the New York-based Miller all is up for grabs. Language is overdue for a serious remix, he says, using the example of Marx’s famous phrase: “All that is solid melts into air.”

“The remix of that for me would be, ‘All that was solid becomes software,’ ” he says. “The word play is the bridge. From the Beats of the 1950s (to) the ‘beats’ of the rhythms of the 21st century.”

Miller’s stance is reliant on new technologies, but he sees his position rooted in a well-established trajectory. “I guess the whole literary scene of the 20th century avant-garde, Joyce, Kerouac, Burroughs, Baraka, Gertrude Stein – to name a few – were trying to come to grips with the concept of multiplicity,” he says. “How do you have a complex story going on in several contexts simultaneously?”

Not surprisingly, as a writer for more mainstream publications such as The Village Voice, Miller has had the odd clash with editors over his approach to language.

He has long argued for a written language that is both more complex and more relevant to an African-American sensibility. “I’m a big fan of the Afro-Caribbean philosopher of language Edouard Glissant. His theme is that the idea of ‘creolisation’ advances the complexity of any language structures it engages.

‘I guess you could say it’s all the British Empire’s fault: some of the most interesting evolutions of language are coming from places like India, Jamaica, Kenya or Australia rather than London. I’m just creating a sonic parallel with DJ culture. Creolisation is the same as when I take a bhangra beat from Bombay, and mix it with oh, I don’t know, Method Man from Wu-Tang Clan, and edit in a speech from G. W. Bush on the benefits of ‘liberty’ – irony as a post-modern effect. It’s a post-colonial world bro, get used to it.

“DJ’ing is basically a fun thing. It was . . . meant to be a conceptual art project that was meant to provoke – and it did! It was a kind of analysis of what happens when sampling becomes an artform.

“I never thought I’d be DJ’ing around the world. Basically, I threw rent parties in NYC as art events and happenings, and they became popular. DJ’ing just happened to parallel the info-culture production process. Globalisation was a forerunner for this kind of trans-world musical express, but the fun part was seeing ideas I wrote about in New York City pop up in places like, oh, I don’t know, Zagreb or Tasmania.”

Miller’s re-mix of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was a response to what he viewed as a flawed US election that saw George Bush returned to power. The division of the “red states” and the “blue states”, parallels the original conditions that triggered the American Civil War, he says.

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