Cyber Phantom

People who spin records for a living do it for one of two reasons. Most simply seek a vibrant, rhythmically energetic mix of dance music. A few do it to come up with something greater: a concept, a pattern -- even, they swear, the secrets of the universe. Author/art critic/teacher/publisher/ conceptual artist/DJ Paul Dennis Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) is most decidedly in the latter camp.

But before we get into all that, let's find out a little bit more about his weakness for P. Diddy.

P. Diddy?! "Well, one of my favorite tracks of his was '[It's All About] The Benjamins,' " Spooky proudly admits. "I think he's a funny guy. My style is in a different area. But, you know, he's an important figure -- him, Russell Simmons and Master P are definitely three heroes of mine, from different angles. But it's a little bit more of a commercial kind of thing."

You wouldn't expect a spinner who has been known to collaborate with the daringly eclectic likes of Iannis Xenakis, Kool Keith and Thurston Moore to have such an open admiration for Top 40 MCs like Diddy and Master P, two men who couldn't be more in it for the money if they rolled up to their concerts in hijacked Brinks trucks.

Then again, maybe we should expect Spooky to give props to those MCs -- it's just another example of his knack for staying off-kilter. Besides, the way he looks at it, any DJ who would do an Absolut ad campaign shouldn't pass judgment on the way other folks round up their Benjamins. "Who am I to say that it's not good or bad," he says. "Somebody's trying to build and do their thing, and if they do it commercially, that's fine."

Of course, he shouldn't expect these materialistic cats to call him up for a collabo anytime soon. As Spooky says, his music is in another realm. Call it "illbient," his patented fusion of hip-hop, ambient, drum-'n'-bass and jazz. The term has followed D.C.-born Spooky, 31, since he began releasing compilations like Necropolis and Songs of a Dead Dreamer in the mid-'90s.

It should be noted that, on occasion, DJ Spooky lives up to his name. His 1998 album, Riddim Warfare, includes tunes with heavy drum riffs and moody vibes that often sound like music for a Bataan death march. But DJ Spooky swears he wasn't trying to scare the bejesus out of his audience. Honest. "Basically, all I try and do is go for this idea of sound as a universal language," he says. "Because of that, because I travel a lot, a lot of what I do is about collecting records, fragments and sounds and just becoming a filter. A lot of the music speaks through me in my way, so sometimes I think that means I have more of a personal take on my style."

Because of his many outside activities and his belief that deejaying is just a "hobby," there are those who see Spooky as a dilettante, someone who can't decide whether he wants to be the next Arthur C. Clarke or the next DJ Krush. A 1998 article in The Village Voice (ironically, one of the many publications for which Spooky himself has written) pegged him as a fraudulent blowhard with weak turntable skills who leaves "a bread-crumbs trail of semiotic babble everywhere he goes."

A few years back, Spooky was (some would say still is) embroiled in a feud with trip-hop superstar Tricky. The origins of the war of words are unclear to Spooky. "He's a really bitter guy, I guess," he says. "I don't really know. He's just very angry at me. I don't really give a fuck either way." Today, he can't help but find the whole thing amusing, especially the idea of a Jay-Z versus Nas-style battle of wits. "I don't like him or his music," he says, barely holding back the laughter. "I think he's pretty wack."

Spooky allows that his music isn't for everyone, either. But he hopes that some listeners will be able to recognize the aural concepts he sets out to explore, one of which is music as a form of literature. This man owes at least as much of his music to the sci-fi head trips of Philip K. Dick and the beat madness of William S. Burroughs as he does to sonic outlaws such as Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman.

"I think everybody who uses records is an artist," he says. "They're just writing in a different way. Records are like quotes, you know. If you're playing a record, you're quoting it. It's like when I play or do a scratch routine or something, I'm not playing the full thing. I'm just taking a little snippet of it. It's just what I would do as a writer or an artist, announced through the medium of deejaying."

For his latest release, Modern Mantra, Spooky is quoting the underground, American hip-hop that was largely ignored during the '90s, when certain Brits were using every trick in the book to lap up all the glory. "Modern Mantra is a DJ mix of a lot of my favorite tracks on this independent record label, Shadow/Instinct Records," he says. "They were the first to really put out a lot of very important instrumental hip-hop, and also drum-'n'-bass and breakbeat stuff. America has always been doing some core electronic stuff, but we sometimes…It just gets caught up."

So it appears our little Spooky has a full plate in front of him, and he's pressing forward even while some critics try to hold him back. When you think about it, it isn't that difficult to understand why Spooky has nothing but love for P. Diddy. Just like the Puff Man, DJ Spooky has to deal with his own special set of haters.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey