DJ Spooky is no stranger to the vitriolic criticism from the electronic music underground. As a postmodernist writer, free-style journalist, DJ and music producer, he stands at an awkward crossroad between academic experimentalism and anti-establishment urban club culture — two factions of electronic music that rarely intersect.
Over three years and more than a dozen releases, Spooky (aka Paul Miller, of New York via Maine and Washington) has gone highbrow on collaborations with avant-gardists like Ryiuchi Sakamoto and Philip Glass, and then stepped down into the underground with hip-hop icons like Kool Keith and Organized Konfusion. His rambling essays on DJ culture and electronic music are fleshed out with references citing 20th century intelligentsia — Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Langston Hughes, Marcel Proust, Richard Wright and so on — and have appeared in publications such as Artforum, the Source, Paper and the Village Voice. But although Spooky’s theories are sometimes insightful and rendered with sincerity, the hardcore electronic underground often accuses him of riding on teacher’s pet pretension and neglecting to lay down the fat beats.
His newest project, the remix record “Subliminal Minded: The EP,” won’t clear up the street-cred that the underground mercilessly demands, but some of the tracks are expertly rendered. The album is a collection of brilliantly executed remixes from last year’s “Riddim Warfare,” Spooky’s first complete venture into the hip-hop, dub and jungle structures of dance music.
Here Spooky brings in an exceptional crew of knob-twiddling assistants, including Prince Poetry and Pharoah Monch (formerly of Organized Konfusion), The Dub Pistols, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, drum ‘n’ bass producer DJ Wally, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Karsh Kale, a tabla player and turn-tablist with Asian underground supporter Talvin Singh. Even the harshest Spooky critic will be hard pressed to find fault with this project. He’s remixed beyond recognition and sent into a more ruggedly musical terrain.
The Spooky-style concoctions of melodic dissonance and uneven beat structures are mostly absent in this more straight-ahead dance music journey. The album immediately launches into a mystical hip-hop realm with Prince Poetry and Pharaoh Monch’s version of “Rekonstruction,” a psychedelic fusion of wickedly pumping bass, hectic beats and perfectly ferocious MCing. DJ Wally’s take on “Peace in Zaire” rocks into a jagged jungle rhythm, laden with thick, warped keyboards and an ominous, hollow percussion. The Dub Pistols, for their part, shed an entirely different light on “Peace in Zaire” with a hard-rocking ska-flavored reworking — the result is innovative, making it one of the album’s finest tracks. Karsh Kale inserts a sinuous, jungle/tabla rhythm into “Futureproof in Zaire,” and keeps the emotion raw and melancholic with uneasy bass lines and somber chanting samples. Between each track Spooky adds his tripped-out touch with brief ambient-toned abstractions and experimental tweaks.
Perhaps “Subliminal Minded” partially reflects Spooky’s desire to find acceptance in the underground. By handing his work over to a broad cross-section of electronic music producers, he is able to go beyond his own reputation and reach his remixer’s fans. Or maybe he’s transfixed simply by the weird irony of the record, which speaks to the strangeness of sample culture. With a remix that more or less betters what was essentially a remix to begin with, Spooky has gone beyond a now-tired debate in musical aesthetics. Here, samples are certainly more interesting, moved even further away from their original source.