At the Middle East
D.J. Spooky is an experimental artist who calls his bizzarre mixes "objectiles" (objects + projectiles). A philosophy and French literature major, he exhibits a seemingly unhealthy fascination with obscure theorists, playing off them to explain his own work and DJdom in general. Catching up with the man at the Middle East, we explore the recombinancy of everyday life.
THC: What's the theoretical basis behind your music?
Spooky: There's a whole sense of what, to me at least, is the late-twentieth-century culture. We've been seeing an aesthetic of what I call recombinant. Whether you're dealing with the visual, photography, sculpture, painting, you name it. But the appropriation an reminding of different elements has been in everything from Duchamp's early work, to Picasso, to John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch. Sampling is an extension of that tradition, but on another level it's what's been going on in African-American culture from mainly a jazz side of things.
So here we are in 1998, two years before the 21st century, and you realize that here you have something that's a part of the aesthetic of pretty much everything you're dealing with, whether you're watching TV, switching dials on the radio or even just pressing play on your home stereo. There's always series of hyperediting with a sort of coalescing going on. So to me DJ-ing is the grass roots inherent of all this kind of stuff, but it's become the equivalent of folk music. Electronic folk music.
THC: Your music is very grounded in African-American culture. But you're not trying to tailor it to just African-Americans, right?
Spooky: No, I think this music is open to a whole domain of whoever listens to music in general. I try as much as possible to leave an open text. In the '60s there was a guy named Alain Robbe-Grillet, a writer who developed what he called the unbound novel, a kind of idea where the theme, the story, is kind of series of interlocking loops and repetitions. The people who actually listen to hip-hop, dance music, techno, salsa, you name it, everything is so much more diverse than the corporations would have you think or the radio. Most people listen to a wide variety of music, whether they're black, white or Asian. It just gets to a point where sampling culture, especially in my own work, I usually try to have the music act as a metaphor for plurality in general. And the music acts as a hypothetical space for all these different cultures of North America. I'm from New York. I live in Chinatown. You turn left the signs are in Hebrew, you turn right they're in Chinese, you go straight, they're in Spanish. And these are all cultures I'm into and I respect them. It's the whole situation of urban placement. We're all in this one area just doing our thing, and on another level it's just like if you can't deal with plurality, then sampling just becomes an empty gesture. Anyone can sample anything you can turn of the radio and take whatever from the radio, but if you can't deal with the actual people, that doesn't really open up the narrative that much. So it has to be about multicultural sampling as a reflection of that.
THC: Would you prefer to have everyone interpret your music in their own way, or to have people understand specifically what you're trying to do?
Spooky: If they interpret it in their on way, that would be the first step because in a certain sense, the understanding would then become pre-linguistic. It means they're interested enough to scratch. Most of my records are made for other people to use in their own mixes. Again, the hole sense of creating DJ tools and putting them out so people can reference them in their-own ways.
THC: You spend a lot of time on writing out liner notes to theoretically explain what your music is all about. So do you care whether people understand exactly what you're trying to do?
Spooky: I think it's an issue that the artist usually gives up control of the matter once the music goes out or once a critic goes by the gallery. They become the interpreter of the aesthetic. And to me what I'm doing is dealing with the notion of a conceptual framework where narrative itself becomes an ambiguous and amorphous place. Your music, who created it, who owns it, who distributes it?
THC: It just seems paradoxical because you're saying that anyone can interpret it in their own way, and then you're telling them how to interpret it.
Spooky: Not really, they can use the music without reading the liner notes. They can read the liner notes without even pressing play on the stereo. There's so many different ways you can go about this. My whole music is just to say that there are so many routes and permutations available that most of the formulas most of the people use to acquire their own specific genre, whether it be hip hop or ambient of jungle or whatever, it's just the plurality of what all of this represents is what I'm trying to create a forum for. This album, Riddim Warfare, for example, There's such a wide variety of people on it. You have Julia Scher who helps run MIT's media department, she has a spoken word piece. Or Mariko Mori who is a really major Japanese artist at the moment. All of these people, the vocalists, I asked them what do they feel like living in the late twentieth-century, media saturation, electronically-accelerated culture, etc etc. And so each person came back at me with all this kind of wild stuff. I mean Mariko came back with a Buddhist mantra psalm of a two thousand-year-old Japanese dialect. Or Julia Scher came back with a spoken word piece about engineering for the environment. So to make a long story short, you can have Julia Scher from MIT sharing a space with someone from Wu-Tang Clan, or Mariko Mori, a conceptual artist singing a Buddhist mantra, skipping to Kool Keith talking about being a schizophrenic. This is the theater of voices. On another level, it's entirely virtual. None of these people interacted with one another; they interacted with these beats and fragments of sound I put together. So it's totally conceptual about presence and absence. So whether or not I write my liner notes to the music, there's many ways of taking a record apart. If you ever watch someone scratching, they can take a record apart just by breaking it down. That's what I'd like people to think about when they hear the music.
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