DJ Spooky, 1996

WITH ELYSHA LENKIN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TRUDIE REISS


ELYSHA: Did you get started DJing by going out to the clubs?
DJ SPOOKY: I was looking for different ways of expressing myself. Writing just didn’t do it for me. The idea of a visual image detached from sound was totally obsolete too. In college I had a radio show called Dr. Seuss’s Eclectic Jungle – it was really extreme collage. I was really influenced by the Italian Futurists. I was trying to explore ways to fuse hip-hop, techno, and rock. To me there’s no barrier between different kinds of music, but our society tends to be mono-linguistic, and boundaries get created between all these things. So I started DJing as an intellectual pursuit. The DJ/club scene never really inspired me to do anything but go check out parties. Except the punk scene in DC. That was the most open and the most interesting. You’d go to a show and you’d just have some really radically different bills with like a dub reggae band playing and you’d have Gray Matter, a punk band, Bad Brains, it was just totally different than New York, where there’s musical segregation. It needs to be recognized that it’s all linked, all music.

ELYSHA: What kind of visuals do you have while you’re DJing?
DJ SPOOKY: Well, Mainly I think in terms of geometric patterns. One thing that goes through my head is the urban landscape. If you look at the city from above, the geometric regularity of city streets looks like a circuit tour pattern. The music that I’m doing really reflects the urban regularity of city blocks, just trying to deal with urban reality. But the images that come to my mind when I’m spinning are composites. You can never turn your brain off. It’s the same with records. Each song has moments that might evoke a certain memory, whether it be a conventional pop song, or a really underground song. You’re dealing with externalized memory, and sound is a way of manipulating memory. I try to use all of these things in terms of images. That’s why I always call DJing pre-linguistic. It’s before the impact of language, the primal thoughts that I can’t even really articulate. I hear such a deep sense of fragmentation. We know where all the drum breaks are, where the little riffs come in, or how long this track is, where the bass-line changes, or whether there’s a strange voice that comes in. You know a lot of these records sample voices that say nothing. It’s like a nuance. It’s that sigh.

ELYSHA: Used as an instrument?DJ SPOOKY: Yeah, and to me that sigh is disembodied sexuality. When I hear a voice coming in, or some sigh, I place that sense of sexuality in the mix. I play music that’s very after hours, it’s hip hop, it’s ambient, it’s jungle, its dub reggae. All of them have the common denominator of this weird sense of being immersed in a text that’s not about a specific narrative anymore, it’s about a flux of sensations. The DJ manipulates sonic space on the collective canvas of the people's mind. To me when you’re dancing you’re moving into this weird physical architecture of sound.

ELYSHA: Does the DJ belong in the art world?
ELYSHA: How would you describe this scene that you play your music in? DJ SPOOKY: Ill-bient, experimental, downtown, nebulous. It moves around by word of mouth. The best things going on right now are Sound Lab and Abstract Wave. Konkrete Jungle is the best thing in a club space.

ELYSHA: Where do you pull your sources from?
DJ SPOOKY: From about four major areas and then a lot of subgroups. The four major areas are definitely late 70’s-early 80’s disco, mid 70’s dub, early 90’s jungle underground, and late 80’s-early 90’s hip hop. Then there’s the subgroupings of that which would be 70’s experimental rock and instrumental stuff, late 70’s punk, really rugged blues. DC is a huge influence with go-go music, like Troublefunk and Chuck Brown Soul Searchers. I love that. So those are my favorites, and subgroupings of even that would be like Zen Koan, Tibet monks and Huri Pygmies. I’m also really into Japanese Kotu music and Japanese analog.

ELYSHA:Do you feel tied to the jazz movement through the improvisation of DJing?</b><br>
DJ SPOOKY: Oh definitely. If you think about it the word jazz comes from the French word jaser which means to have a dialogue, but it’s not used that much now. It also comes from this world “jiz” which is a slang term that means jism, to come, but it’s traced to the West African ritual where there’s dancing so intense that there’s sweating and it’s orgasmic and very powerful. So music and sexuality are very intertwined. The relationship between what I’m doing and jazz is extremely obvious once you have this idea of jazz as a dialogue. As a DJ I’m writing these different rhythms and creating text. The only difference is that I’m dealing with an extreme entity whereas the jazz musician would memorize various riffs and play certain motifs and those motifs would come in again and again over different songs, and it would slowly evolve. We have the same sense of motifs, but to me a whole record becomes my notes.

ELYSHA: Do you still play out regularly?
DJ SPOOKY: Yeah, but I’m trying to get out of it. It’s really draining. I’m trying to focus much more on my visual art right now. I’ll go out to hear a specific DJ. I constantly go to record stores. My system is tired of staying up late. I feel like a really rushed person. There’s just so much that I want to do. The stuff I’m working on now is getting into this environmental area. I want to make something that people can just chill out to at home, or drive to. I’m trying to bring it into the everyday instead of having it just be for the nightclub.
My new album is called Songs of a Dead Dreamer. It’s an album on a mixed tape where I have a lot of West African ambient stuff as well as dance music.

ELYSHA: What else are you working on?
DJ SPOOKY: Two books. My novel is called, And Now a Message from our Sponsors. It’s about this DJ who goes insane with this sense of ruptured time. Then there’s my theory book. It’s called Flow My Blood the DJ Said. It traces the history of intellectual property and copyright law – specifically West African forms of communal property and art in the everyday, and how the European Renaissance really divorced communal art of folk art from high art. It’s an historical sketch of how the immigration of the blacks from the south to the north evoked a change from blues to jazz. The jazz is more chaotic and schizophrenic and the blues is more calm and rural.

ELYSHA:What do you think of jungle music?
DJ SPOOKY: I love jungle. It’s a true recombinant art form. You have hyper-accelerated hip hop, slowed down bass-lines, weird techno riffs come in. It’s integrated. You get black Jamaican dub reggae, you have white techno stuff, weird urban hip hop. It’s my favorite music right now. I liked it before, but I didn’t spin it because there was so much hype around it.

ELYSHA: You’re trying to avoid hype?
DJ SPOOKY: No, but then again people would say I’m a creator of hype. When I was living in New England I came down to New York and made up these stickers saying Who is DJ Spooky?, and I put them all around. I have this whole thing about wanting to be a virus, a psychological virus.

ELYSHA: Are you trying to infect people?
DJ SPOOKY: Yep. But some viruses are benign. They actually cure other things. When you get inoculated you get a virus in a form that helps you become immune to it. When they inoculate you against the measles they give you the measles. I’m really into genetic experiments. Let’s call it the eugenics of sound.

ELYSHA: And what about The Subliminal Kid?
DJ SPOOKY: He’s in the background. He keeps Paul Miller and Spooky together. Then we have the Tactical Apparition, and the Alpha-numeric Bandit. Each scene has its own gravitational pull, and it pulls out different parts of people. The art world pulls out the Tactical Apparition. The dance world pulls out Spooky, and when I feel like dancing it’s the Alpha-numeric Bandit.

ELYSHA: Paul makes paintings and Spooky makes music?
DJ SPOOKY: Paul makes Spooky.

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All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller