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Set Fire to Flames
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DJ Spooky
Under The Influence
Six Degrees
Reviewed by: tobias van Veen

[This review is partially in response to the following thread:]

Man, words, music—on the edges of the Zone—an Afro-Futurist playing his own self-described game somewhere between academia and late-night loft parties...subverting the structure or living out the artist's bourgeoise hallucination? Intellectualizing as "poser" or as theory-jockey? Moving sounds to words, hip-hop rhyme to deconstruction, mixing semantics and samples...or just routing the critics through a shifted sound-scape of swirling signifiers?

On, Spooky is given solid stance in the debating game, the posing of problematics, and his thoughts on hip-hop are often taken as representative of a certain strata, as being a "crossover" between the theorists and the dirty world of hip-hop that most theorists can only abstract about, as they are not wrist-deep in the melting wax wars.

On the floor—the dancefloor—Spooky has lost his footing. Routinely clearing the floor with poorly beatmatched DJ sets and over use of effects, his jungle mixing often leaves much to be desired. (I'll get into this in a second).

On the podium, Spooky has been written off as an overtly exhausted pomo pomp. Flashing his logo at every photo opp, Spooky is a publicity manipulation machine. "Hey I was hanging out with my good friend Saul Williams..."

And then there's the GAP ads: yes, DJ Spooky 25 feet tall one summer in San Francisco circa 2000, advertising that YO I am cool enough to wear the GAP with my woolly, woolly Sherpa toque.

Now what the fuck is up with that?

Paul D. Miller is a generous man, in interviews, ready for on-the-spot interrogation on W.E.B. duBois, Kant, Adrianne Piper and his latest missive to CTheory or Nettime. Friendly, he'll pass you a CD of a project in the works—and this is how I got this copy of Under The Influence, when I was sitting on a panel with him, dealing the State of the Art of the Net, Surveillance and Technology at the 2002 New Forms Festival [ ] ]. (Yep, that's a name drop, innit?). For the record, Under The Influence is actually the name of a series of mix cds being put out by Six Degrees by different turntablists. This is the first release.

I'd met Spooky two previous times. Once, interviewing him circa 2000 for a feature in Discorder magazine. Before that, I had seen him numerous times in Vancouver and Seattle. And in 1998, I interviewed him at a lecture and DJ performance he gave at the SFU Harbour Centre in Vancouver.

The best DJ performance—the rest were truly awful, floor-clearing, boring jungle & hip-hop poorly mixed, and I say this as a DJ—was in 1998, not for a dancefloor at all, but a room of seated academics and onlookers. He lived up to his word. At this moment, he threw it down with more precision and passion than I knew could flow from his fingers (Flow My Blood, The DJ Said...). Throwing together doubles of jazz records, rock music (with a nod to Canadian band Rush), hip-hop, jungle, spoken word, classical—it was a true sampledelic journey, a deconstruction of styles and genres through the scratch, an aural Afro-Futurist manifesto worthy of praise from Kodwo Eshun, a spring flow of battled sounds in the name of the unrepresentable...

So why does he fail on the floor—every other time I've seen him? Is he out of touch? Too tired from an exhausting schedule? No longer interested in the dancefloor? The problem is that his dancefloor appearances play it safe. His selection in jungle is often standard. His DJ skills shine when he is faced with a daring and dazzling array of discs. And this is what he should bring to the floor: the hip-hop futurism of a-signifying styles that remix and recontextualize memory matter, a rewriting of sonic narratives. For some reason, it's like he freaks or overestimates his dancefloor skillz.

Under The Influence comes in somewhere in-between. It is somewhat devoid of the extremes of the genre-jumping experimentalism I heard in 1998. It is not, however, a thrown-together dancefloor set. It's somewhere in-between, flowing Future Sound of London with Kool Keith, Emergency Broadcast Network to Saul Williams, Sonic Youth to Mix Master Mike, Michael Franti and Spearhead, and a host of Spooky projects: collaborations with Carl Craig's Innerzone Orchestra, Sussan Deyhim, The Dub Pistols...cuts from The Hive, Paradox, Phoenix Orion, DJ Logic... it goes on, and it demonstrates a musical knowledge that encompasses Detroit to New York, techno to hip-hop, jungle from all corners of the planet, the experimental mode in sounds of difference... For the mix: scratching & backspins are all in here, transform cuts and a good, if not, at times, heavy mix that threatens to overwhelm the senses. But this is no live mix. This is computer-edited, despite what Six Degrees says about it representing a "live" set from Mr. Miller. Today, most DJ mixes are. But this raises questions as to the reality of Spooky's mixes in a live situation—can he carry this shit off, on tour, faced with a floor?

That's a judgment I cannot pronounce for you. This album, as you can hear and read here, is entangled in a sprawling contextualizational universe. The way this album is received, heard, and played is mediated at every moment. I have attempted here to lay out these mediations for you, dear reader, so you can see what one must hear before words can consume this album in their totalizing reductionism.

Before you would presume in a certain modality of presupposed superiority to pass judgment.

(& I can hear all the complaints now: why don't you just tell it like it is...)

But what is it? What's "IS" in the sonic? What IS IS? This is that which moves between the representational and the futuristic. This is Spooky's world, and his talent, and his power: the ability to transverse domains, moving through with a grace unknown. A traveler of the virtual, digital, musical, sonic-socio-spheres: and his mix is not a "reflection" of this but its embodiment. The sounds are as much Paul D. Miller as they are his spoken words—if we are to believe his own writing.

And what of "DJ Spooky"? What is the relation between "DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid" and "Paul D. Miller"?

"Hip-Hop don't exist where you stand... Hip-Hop exists where we stand..."

What are we to make of this? Where do I enter with the Big Critical Reviewer's Numerical Mark of Judgment? Where do I presuppose enough knowledge of hip-hop, a totalizing knowledge, an "insider's knowledge," and not only of the genres, of hip-hop's Bug In The Bassbin evolution to jungle, but of the work of Paul D. Miller, of DJ Spooky, of hip-hop mixing, of the musical narrative intraweaved hear, of the proper name of "Illbient"?

Bracket all that: sidestep and re-sleeve that record. What I can tell you: this mix is not a turntablist epic, although you get to hear Spooky laying down a mix that spans a musical taste that is eclectic, knowledgeable, and gives pause to think. Is this a new internationalism? Here's the tracklisting: ]

So where are we at? Is this mix able to answer the contextualities posed above? Can it respond to the representation of Spooky? For it sets that representation. It is a document of his unique DJing style. Despite that he has failed on many an occasion, this is proof that Spooky is a musical talent and a disc selector to be reckoned with. Perhaps a little too carried away with the postmodern generation of his own Hype—check his website,—he perhaps can get away with crossing fine borders through his own blatant playing of all sides of the fence: academic, DJ, writer, critic, teacher, artist, curator. The pomo renaissance man...

...but for that, he also must face the music: why The GAP, Mr. Miller? Why are do you often seem afraid to really lay it down when DJing? And why the non-stop Hype, the always-projected laptop logo? Why isn't there the pause to let the music do its thing, at points, without the Push?

I'll grant the music you've given me here, if you grant me the pause to let it resound.

And now onto the judgment—required by this site, and overemphasized and over-determined by fellow critics and readers for they really want everything to be decided, they want the overlords, they desire people in positions of authority to make all numerical, quantitative, for they wish to reduce sound to numbers, so at the end of every counted rotation of the Earth around the Sun we can rejoice in the grand numerical listing of all material objects containing the data of sound ... (Let Every Day Become Judgment Day).

Here's the grading schema in place for this review, and for all reviews from this pen:

90-100 A+
85-89 A
80-84 A-
75-79 B+
70-74 B
65-69 B-
00-64 F

So, I would never give a 5, because it simply fails; anything 64 and under is a failing mark. Most music I am interested in—given that I am already interested in it—is somewhere in the A range, just like most students in a university in upper-level courses or breaking their ass in graduate school score around 82% (a fairly normal class average).

Now this may seem strange for those outside of academia, or in high-school, or whatever. But the point here is to realize that rarely does human creative effort "fail"—especially given a floating set of coordinates, contexts without texts, and texts with polemics, the nexus of sound, and the—THANK GOD—lack of a transcendental being to judge everything by.

I see no reason to defer here to some other scale for rating music.

What would I give this mix CD? For its selection or its attached polemics? They are three grades, really.

Polemics: 72%
Selection: 85%
Sonic Experience: 78%

Let's take the average: 78%

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