DJ Spooky turns the tables at workshop

The title given to the session was “DJ Workshop,” though it might have been labeled more appropriately, “Deconstructionism and the Science of Turntableism.” Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, puts the “ism” in turntableism, gleefully augmenting the DJ standard of “two turntables and a microphone” with theories on Hegelian dialectics along with reflections on the post-modern condition. What was initially intended to be a hands-on workshop with the New York City-based DJ gradually transformed into an unexpected but welcome artist’s lecture that blended hip-hop and the pretension of academia into an impressive display of originality, creativity, intellectual humor and “sublime” beats.

Miller started off by mentioning a few names that have become rather commonplace in his conceptualization of hip-hop: Chuck D, Jacques Derrida, Grandmaster Flash, Roland Barthes, KRS One and, of course, Hegel.

The placement of rap artists alongside modern philosophers and literary theorists is nothing anomalous to the DJ; it is his goal, he says, to eliminate, or at least attempt to dissolve, the distinct and inhibitive border between the perceptions of high and low culture – a theme that continually surfaced throughout his hour and a half pseudo-lecture.

“Hip-hop,” he said, is about “each person telling their story, claiming their narrative,” and DJ-ing places this quest for a narrative in an environment comprised of mass media and pop culture. For Miller, the re-mix is an effective method of popularizing art, creating multi-media theatre and, in a sense, reworking our definitions of culture. It involves breaking down all the pieces that make up our lives and reassembling them in collage-like form, which is perhaps why he is so obsessed with deconstruction.

The first piece he played was an irreverent two-minute remix of President Bush’s State of the Union address. Highly humorous, the re-edited video and sound footage displayed Bush proclaiming, “we will embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed,” followed by footage of a roaring ovation from the crowd.

Shortly thereafter, he passed out copies of a DJ Spooky sticker, claiming that it was simply a remix of the United Nations logo.

Following in the vein of the anti-Bush sentiments of the State of the Union re-mix, Miller showed a more serious, short video clip of the famous spoken-word poet, Saul Williams, reading “Not In Our Name.” The title of Williams’ poem served as the catch phrase for a burgeoning anti-war movement. He used the stark, uncut footage first in order to show the source material for his audio remix, which he then played. In the remix, Williams’s passionate verbal explosions flow seamlessly over a dark, pounding beat.

As a way to demonstrate the obliteration of the high/low culture separation, Miller stepped up to the turntables with an unexpected juxtaposition of vinyl: Killah Priest and W.H. Auden reading the poetry of W.B. Yeats. As Miller scratched and mixed the guttural, droning voice over the hip-hop beat, he gradually began inserting bits of Killah Priest’s rhymes with the 20th century poet.

The weaving of the two served as a perfect example of the “mythology and culture that both provide.” After he was finished, he bashfully declared, “I guess that gives you an idea about why I like deconstruction.”

Perhaps his most impressive exhibition was a video for the song “Ibid, desmarches, ibid,” off his most recent CD, Optometry. The song itself is an artificial construction of more than 200 jazz samples, ranging from bass lines and drum solos to sonorous horns. Miller managed to sort through the samples and fuse them into an amazing patchwork that sounds like live jazz in its futurity.

Using the combined ambience of jazz and modern culture, Miller created a visual remix as well, editing archival footage of the NYC skyline, factory workers and streets teeming with cars and people, as well as old cartoons, to make a “visual poem of 1950s New York” After spending three months researching and editing (not including the time it took him to create the song), Miller produced an overwhelming and uncanny vision of urban life synchronized with the rhythms of re-mixed jazz, a perfect finale for an artist who emerges with creation against the deconstructive trajectory of our modern condition.

As artist-in-residence at Mass MoCA and guest artist for Stalwart Originality 2003, Miller will be on campus for the next few weeks and will be performing as DJ Spooky on Friday night with “Re-Birth of a Nation.” Miller has taken “Birth of a Nation,” the dually racist and influential 1915 film by D.W. Griffith and has given it a new score along with a new vision.