Dj Spooky: It's all Jazz

An Interview on Sound and Media Literacy

The lecture series "Intertwinedness", organized by Margarete Jahrmann and Christa Schneebauer in Linz/Austria, is dedicated to the contemporary discourse of net-culture. The orgnizers showed persistence by including DJ-culture (with its proceedings in sampling, non-copyright and raising experience in audiac), for these are the creative approaches in a transdisciplinary interpretation of medial realities of life. Oneof the most radical examples of frontier crossing between art, media theory and urban DJ youth culture is Paul D. Miller from New York, a.k.a. DJ Spooky 'that Subliminal Kid'. In the first place, Spooky is seen as one of the world's most famous DJs; he also is a writer and acts as a performance-artist. This interview took place after his performance at the AEC (April 21st).

"Boom, there it is. Sound and signification. Sound as social text. Sound as bearer of social memory. Who's there?" DJ Spooky: Dark Carnival

You demonstrated that different albums from different decades use the same drumbeat, and to you, DJ-ing is some kind of a recognition and recombination of patterns. On the other hand, you also say that you use every possible musical style and mix it up in a wild and chaotic manner. Do you intend to show a certain development in music or are you creating something totally new?

Spooky: My style is that of migration between different influences. What comes out, is this strange, chaotic sound that I love. Most DJs work very clean, I mean that's okay, but that's not what I'm doing. With my kind of DJing, which consists mainly of wild cut-ups and scratches, I try to overcome cultural barriers. In the USA, for example, racial barriers are still very present, in Europe, I guess, too. The easiest way to establish a dialogical way of give-and-take is mixing. The generation of Afro-Americans, to which I belong, slowly starts to overcome these barriers of frustration. Take Puff Daddy, for example, whose music I appreciate very much: There is no more integrative figure than him, because he uses so many different styles. He is sampling Led Zeppelin, Reggae, whatever. As well in the economic as in the psycho-social field a new sense of equality, meaning coexistence, is established. Some decades ago, Elvis would visit a blues-pub, listen to that sound, steal it and then sell it as his own work - the present development counterfeits that.

Your book (Flood My Blood the DJ Said) deals with intellectual property and copyright, which is definitely a hot topic in the era of digital media. How do you as a DJ cope with that?

Spooky: There is a difference between appropriation and quotation. To quote means to say: "I like this piece of music from this musician, and that's why I'm using it." This is a hommage. Appropriation means eradication of the names of others. I don't want to do this. Pop culture as a whole has become very multicultural. Puff Daddy is a perfect example of this evolution of different subcultures: His albums sell in the US as well as in Europe and Japan ... I intentionally use quotations for my samples, and I try to rearrange them and build something new. On the other hand I must say, that everybody can use my songs for his or her own samples - of course I won't sue anybody! Music is always metaphor, and I'm trying to recontextualize these metaphors. This is the science- fiction-aspect of my work.

A consistant narration no longer possible, there is but performance, the constant play of 'binary dissonance' between original and copy, between author/artist and audience. The artist hereby becomes a magician of sorts, who with magic tricks puts a spell on his audience. But this DJ also is a storyteller, like an african griot, who adresses his or her audience not by the master discourse but by traditional structures which nonetheless carry meanings of the present. DJSpooky works with soundpatterns as well as visual sampling (there is a movie screen), so during his performance the audience makes telekinetic contact with the recent media history, with the memory or the visual clichees and media stereotypes of the twentieth century. One World, Global Village, etc. - these concepts might dissappoint, while media evolution shows a definite drift towards the unification of lifestyles. "Sound" becomes a transcendental category, which defines our human existence not less than our commonly shared logical categories - without being noticed by the philosophers at large.

The idea of an underlying mathematical, or at least of returning structures in all music has been fascinating you for quite a while. Are you still searching for such a universal musical code?

Spooky: Yes, of course. Music itself is a universal cultural language, presenting great possibilities to the musicians. Music never stands alone. Every single song contains so many different influences, forming a collection of quotations. Nothing happens in a vacuum: This fact is expressed and externalized through DJing. Making music, you're never located in a vacuum, but you are part of an intertwinedness of influences.

You say that firstly, you are a writer and secondly a DJ. Where the differences lie between the two professions?

Spooky: Nowhere, there are none. DJing is writing, writing is DJing. The only difference may be found in the historical approach: Reading requires far more effort, you must be able to read, choose a book, think about it - actually it's the same, but the approach is different. We do have many cultural techniques coexisting, reading, music, television...you got to switch, instead of limiting yourself to one of them. That sounds quite idealistic. I deal with pop culture a lot, and I've found a phenomenon which I call "cultural inertion": People are caught in their usual media-habits, so that renewals take a long time to succeed. Concerning the philosophical or theoretical component in my music, I do know that the average kid from the street probably is not interested in Derrida's idea of deconstruction while he operates his turntables - but the approach is obviously there, using musical techniques.

What this DJ releases on audio CD sounds live and raw. Controversial. Ambient Sound conceives new levels of meaning, forming the acoustic sculpture of the century ending. The contradiction he no longer calls 'ambient' but 'illbient' - still calm, still considerate as in the prefix "am", and yet "madly cut up" - the "ill" tends to enhance the idea, not pervert it. Many followers adopted this style. When DJSpooky acts live, as he did in the Intertwinedness lecture/performance, then the groove rolls over the mood of the audience like a freight train, while the 'speech act' of the performative soundmix transforms the limits of an intellectual credibility he certainly claim for within his written texts. He calls it jazz, when reflecting social evolution, cultural recombinations and repetition by way of creative images (he calls them 'objectiles') and the texts of 'found sounds'. Jazz not being the musical form of an era, but an attitude towards cultural tradtion and access to it as well. Quoting Haydn, Schubert or Beethoven, Spooky thematizes cultural creativity at large, the collective out of which any music gets inspirations. He works with classical material as well as with Afro-American avantgarde. One get to listen to soundbites of Hitchcock, McLuhan, and samples of various media productions, which became a must in the DJ-culture within the last decade.

You're trying to combine different flavours and styles. Youth- or subculture has gone through some process of diversification in the last decades. Do you spot a creative and innovative potential in this variety?

Spooky: This is incredibly important, because it enables different "psychologies". If you stay at the same point of view all the time, in the same subculture, you will stick to the same state of mind all the time. I really think that a big part of music in the 20ies, 30ies was absolutely crazy, wild, chaotic and experimental. But if you take a person out of these decades to a club of the 90ies, he or she would probably not consider the sound he or she hears music, but total chaos - that's how music taste and listening habits change. The generation that has grown up with television, or nowadays internet, are in a better precondition than any other generation before, because they have a wider view. But on the other hand there is this thing called "company culture": Everywhere in the world kids who wear Nikes or Reeboks have more in common than those listening to the same kind of music - this is a totally crazy form of globalization. I have an idealistic viewpoint, so I would like kids to listen to different music and develop a common sense this way.

Your main interests are in philosophy and in music. How do you see these two related?

Spooky: Music is theory, theory is music. Being a good writer, you become musician. Writing is music, I cannot explain this any other way. Take Nietzsche, for instance: He was such a brilliant author that his texts have become music almost. You feel the music inside great poets' texts. Music is not a non-narrative technique, but it works totally different.

In your music you use lots of quotations. Is there a chance to understand your music without knowing all the reference albums?

Spooky: Saying that someone is literate means, that he or she has read a lot of books, is able to reference them, to put them in a conceptual framework. It means having an overview. You have a kind of "literacy" in the musical area, too: The more you have heard, the easier it is to find links and to recognize quotations. To specialize in either music or literature you need months, years of reading or listening to music. But the difference is, that people find a much more emotional approach towards music. If you don't like a book, you put it aside after the first few pages.

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