It is unlikely that Paul D. Miller knew, when he started mixing James Brown and Public Enemy tracks at a New England college radio station, that he would be launching a music revolution. A decade and a half later, Miller, better known as DJ Spooky, is regarded by many as a founder of the "illbient" sound, as well as one of popular music's hardest-working mixologists.
Miller was born in 1970 to educated, politically active, well-traveled parents in Washington, D.C. His father, who died when he was three, was a dean at Howard University Law School and an advisor to members of the Black Panther Party. His mother owned an international fabric shop on D.C.'s Dupont Circle and often brought her young son with her on work-related expeditions around the globe. Miller inherited his father's extensive book and record collection, thus beginning a lifelong fascination with both music and the written word. Miller was also exposed to the hardcore punk, ska, and go-go sounds of D.C.'s thriving late-1980s music scene. "I grew up watching Go-Go bands such as Junkyard Band and Trouble Funk," he told the London Independent, "but there was also a big hard-core scene with Bad Brains and Minor Threat."
As a student of philosophy and French literature at Bowdoin College in Maine, Miller launched a radio show, "Dr. Seuss's Eclectic Jungle," on the college station, where he had his first chance to experiment with mixing disparate sounds. Miller briefly moved to Paris after college to pursue his interest in the intersection of popular culture and theory. He undertook science fiction and other writing projects that reflected his love of science fiction writers like Phillip K. Dick and Samuel Delaney. Upon relocating to New York City, he began writing advertising copy and contributing articles to such publications as Artforum, The Source, and the Village Voice. Plugged into a network of forward-thinking artists, writers, and musicians, and unimpressed with the city's club scene, Miller began organizing loft parties featuring fashion and conceptual art projects with soundscapes provided by himself and other DJs. "Most of my friends were other artists and writers," Miller told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "So our events became the place where you would go if you didn't want to go to a normal kind of club. It was very downtown specific, but it became big because a lot of people did not like normal clubs."
It was here that Miller began to fuse dub, hip-hop, jazz and drum 'n' bass in a sound that came to be known as "illbient." He took on the name DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, an addendum to the name borrowed from a character in a William S. Burroughs novel. In an interview with L.A. Weekly, Miller discussed his musical idols, lending some insight into his eclectic sound: "My heroes are folks like [minimalist composers] Steve Reich or John Cage mixed with Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker, while Afrika Bambaataa spins someplace in the back of my mind."
Miller released an album of remixes, Necropolis: The Dialogic Project, on New York's prominent avant-garde label Knitting Factory in 1996. That same year San Francisco's Asphodel released his first LP of original compositions, Songs of a Dead Drummer. Dubbing it "one of the definitive modern ambient albums," L.A. Weekly said of Songs of a Dead Drummer, "Both chaotic and restrained, it approached the theme of space in the same manner as pioneers like Iannis Xenakis and Brian Eno." The buzz surrounding Songs of a Dead Drummer and Miller's captivating live performances drew the attention of the Geffen label, which released 1998's Riddim Warfare on its Outpost imprint. The album showcased both Miller's varied interests and his broad appeal: guests included Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, rapper Kool Keith, and conceptual artist Mariko Mori. That same year he scored the film Slam.
Riddim Warfare marked Miller's closest brush with the mainstream to date. Following its release, he continued to write and edit and began to focus on his artwork as well, landing shows at the Whitney Museum and the Venice Biennial for Architecture and, at the turn of the century, launching C21, a web magazine focusing on critical theory and digital culture. He recorded and performed regularly as well, always following his own direction. "I'm not really dependent on normal music industry situations to make a living," he told LA Weekly. "That makes me independent of the entire situation, and frees my hand to be a lot more experimental. When I go to normal industry stuff and check out stuff like the Automator or DJ Shadow ... I feel like, oh, I don't know, a penguin in Jamaica or something." In 1999 he released File Under Futurism, a collaboration with the Freight Elevator Quartet on the Caipirinha label, followed by a mix CD, Under the Influence, on the Six Degrees label in 2001.
Miller's next full-length album of his own compositions, Modern Mantra, appeared in 2002 on the Shadow label. Miller also unveiled an early version of "Rebirth of a Nation" that year. The live project combined segments of D.W. Griffith's infamously racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation, with music mixed on-site by Miller. "I'm using Birth of a Nation as a kind of metaphor, a kind of jumping off point," Miller told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, upon his presentation of the project at that city's Spoleto Festival in the spring of 2004. "It kind of gets people to think about how the past conditions the present. We are a country of amnesia. A lot of kids barely even know about Vietnam or World War II." The project has been featured at various museums and festivals and a full live performance was commissioned by New York's Lincoln Center and presented in July of 2004.
In 2003 Miller collaborated with several notable jazz and experimental artists, including Matthew Shipp, Pauline Oliveros, and spoken word artist Carl Hancock Rux, who contributed sounds for him to sample on his Thirsty Ear release Optometry. The album's remix companion, Dubometry, was issued the next year. Two more remix albums, Rhythm Science, which mines material from the Sub Rosa label, and Celestial Mechanix, featuring sounds from Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, appeared in 2004, along with Riddim Play, a collaboration with the dub outfit Twilight Circus, released on Play. While moving his experiments into the twenty-first century, Miller says his challenge is creating something new in an over-stimulated society. "It's difficult for me to imagine a sound I haven't heard. We have reached a total saturation point," he told the London Independent. "But there are more interesting ways of putting together sounds."
For the Record …
Born Paul D. Miller in 1970 in Washington, D.C.. Education: Graduated from Bowdoin College, degrees in French literature and philosophy.
Began experimenting with mixing as a radio DJ at Bowdoin College in Maine; wrote for publications including Artforum and the Village Voice; organized loft parties in New York City that popularized the "illbient" sound; released debut album, Songs of a Dead Drummer, As phodel, 1996, followed by major label release for Geffen's Outpost imprint, 1998; also recorded for Caipirinha, Manifold, Six Degrees, Shadow, Thirsty Ear, Sub Rosa, and Play; instructor at European Graduate School in Switzerland.
Addresses: Website—DJ Spooky Official Website: http://www.djspooky.com.
Necropolis: The Dialogic Project, Knitting Factory, 1996.
Songs of a Dead Drummer, Asphodel, 1996.
Riddim Warfare, Outpost, 1998.
File Under Futurism, Caipirinha, 1999.
Kaotik Transgression, Manifold, 1999.
Under the Influence, Six Degrees, 2001.
Modern Mantra, Shadow, 2002.
Optometry, Thirsty Ear, 2002.
Dubometry, Thirsty Ear, 2003.
Celestial Mechanix: The Blue Series Mastermix, Thirsty Ear, 2004.
Rhythm Science, Sub Rosa, 2004.
Riddim Clash, Play, 2004.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 23, 2004.
Independent (London, England), April 2, 1999.
LA Weekly, July 18, 2002.
"DJ Spooky," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 28, 2004).
DJ Spooky Official Website, http://www.djspooky.com (August 28, 2004).
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