“Sampling and remixing is as universal as George Bush's State of the Union address,” says Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. “First, Bush tells us that we have to go to war with Iraq because they have weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein must be defeated. Then, after the invasion, they can't find any WMDs, and no mention is made of Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. They remixed the public perception of his original performance.”
Hussein has since been captured, but if that doesn't sound like the average musician twaddle, it's because DJ Spooky is not your average musician. As renowned for his wordy dissertations in the Village Voice and multifarious online mags as for his leftfield hip-hop mixes and vaporous sample collages, Spooky is one prolific musician. Projects roll out of his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment with the same fluency that fills his psychobabble-laden text pieces. (For examples, check out www.djspooky.com and http://21cmagazine.com.)
Spooky's latest project is Riddim Clash (Play, 2004), a collaboration with Dutch DJ Ryan Moore, aka Twilight Circus Dub Sound System. Prior to that, Spooky released Dubtometry (Thirsty Ear, 2003), a remix CD of pieces performed by artists as diverse as Karsh Kale, Negativland and Lee “Scratch” Perry; the raw tracks were taken from Spooky's most acclaimed album to date, Optometry (Thirsty Ear, 2002).
DJ Spooky's song titles, such as “Reactive Switching Strategies for the Control of Uninhabited Air” or “Variation Cybernetique: Rhythmic Pataphysic,” are cryptic and obscure. It would be easy to dismiss Spooky as a showy scribe dabbling with upright bass, kalimba and turntables if not for his groundbreaking, genre-splicing records. With the jazz-clash of Optometry, the dub warfare of Riddim Clash and the upcoming Thirsty Ear mix project Celestial Mechanix, Spooky revels where many sample jockeys fear to tread.
JAZZ FROM HELL
“My style of jazz and hip-hop is like you take the subway and get off in Calcutta and then get on an express jet to Greece, and then you're on a Metro transit liner to London and then arrive in Tokyo,” Spooky says. “But I really consider my style [to be] of New York.”
Riddim Clash is an epic dub rumble embellished with cryptic spoken-word samples and otherworldly treatments that occasionally recall Future Sound of London's menacing Dead Cities (Astralwerks, 1996). Beyond its collaborative nature, the album is a study in different styles and sonic approaches. Whereas Spooky is all about minimalism, both from a hardware and a software angle, Moore is a gleeful gear whore, his studio stuffed with vintage and contemporary hardware. Spooky prefers oddball software such as Cycling '74's Max/MSP; Moore loves analog tape. Spooky works with an Apple PowerBook; Moore finds ultimate satisfaction tinkering with a Trident Fleximix desk (with rare compressor modules).
A former member of the Legendary Pink Dots and the Tear Garden, Moore collaborated with Spooky through the Internet and Federal Express for Riddim Clash (with assistance from New York producer Flam and Portland engineer Josh Derry). The album begins with a crowd chant (“We are not afraid!”), then tumbles through Egyptian street markets, string-heavy electro funk, kalimba solos, dub impressions and chaotic urban-warfare scenes.
“Spooky and I exchanged beats, samples and loops in audio files on CD-Rs,” Moore explains. “I also uploaded a bunch of guitars, drums and percussion to his FTP server. Spooky sent completed tracks, to which I added overdubs and effects with tape echo, like a Hammond Spring Echo and the H&H tape echo, a British box from the '70s. I used the Kurzweil K2000 as a master controller, assigning his stand-up bass lines for one track, then added different effects to go for a Black Ark sound. There was not so much back-and-forth happening; the music was built up and overdubbed. Spooky added dub beats or incorporated bass lines and textures. In one track, I realized that a guitar I had sent him came back sounding like an R&B vocal. It is amazing how he fits everything together; it's a very advanced level of loop stretching and the like.
“I am an analog head, but for this project, I got an Apple Macintosh Pismo PowerBook G3 running Logic Audio, BIAS Peak and GRM Tools ST plug-ins for edits and mutating the sounds,” Moore continues. “With GRM Tools, you can put in a drum loop and have it come out sounding like a rainforest. Just move the sliders, and they have a virtual vector ball to change the sounds at random; crazy stuff happens. I also used Metric Halo ChannelStrip; it's a good EQ and compression software plug-in for converting analog to digital. What does it all sound like? It is kind of an outer space electronic Africa dub voyage.”
For Riddim Clash, Optometry and the upcoming Celestial Mechanix, Spooky used MIT-born shareware programs such as Granular Synthesis and Csound, but Max/MSP is his main tool. Its interface is an onscreen flowchart that comprises tiny squares loaded with samples and loops, which Spooky manipulates simply by moving his finger around on the G4 mousepad. After constructing beats in Propellerhead ReCycle, Spooky takes the files to Manhattan's Mindswerve or Sorcerer Sound studios and dumps everything into MOTU Digital Performer for final mixdown. Any way you slice it, Max/MSP works nothing like Digidesign Pro Tools.
“It's entirely different,” Spooky says. “You can immediately change sounds and use it live. If I change my mind in Pro Tools, I have to redo tempo maps and all kinds of patterns; this is quicker. And the layout is much easier — it's all about drawing connections between those squares in the flowchart. You can make stuff in a very improvisational way that would take hours in Pro Tools. But this isn't beat-oriented in the same way. I use Max to make my sounds; then, I make beats in ReCycle and bounce it all to Digital Performer for the layering and editing. I use Max/MSP for the basic beginning of a track, then edit the parts into small sound files that can be called up quickly, then sequenced on the screen. This software helps my tracks sound a lot different.”
Spooky opens a drop-down menu in the Max/MSP interface, revealing sample folders labeled Duchamp, Moby, Modern Mantra, NERD, Black Uhuru and Electrobeat. He taps a file titled Duke Ellington.
“So I open my Ellington sample,” he says. Blaring brass erupts from laptop speakers. Spooky moves his finger around on the mousepad to add a glissando, or sliding effect. “I can hold that sound in one place or move it around and bounce the effected sound over the track,” he says. He holds the sample as if looping it, which sounds like a hovering helicopter. He opens different folders and manipulates samples with the mousepad, dragging in reverb, delay, repeat and echo effects. “Hear those weird little sounds and the squiggly effects?” Spooky asks. “That is the Prism effect in MSP.” It makes a whirring sound. “Then, I will run it through a reverb, something to make it slightly more weird, maybe a delay,” he continues. “I use some of the Max effects that come with the software and customized software from sites like Snot Wong's Max/MSP page, effects like Beepingsweeper, Beatphucker, Clickphasers, Toilet and Gravity Balls.
“Max isn't as corporate as Cakewalk or Logic Audio,” he continues. “I like using more boutique-oriented stuff that lets me find a different way. There is an intense flat-lining of sound right now. So many people are using the same software and the same sound sources; you have to look for the strangeness out there. When The Neptunes first hit, you could hear a lot of the sounds Timbaland had been working with — Middle Eastern instruments, Indian stuff — that was cool, but after a couple years of that … you might as well just have a DJ jukebox or a robot instead of a live person.”
The preface to Riddim Clash is Optometry, a cleaner, clearer record that better exposes Spooky's solo working methods. There, Spooky uses material played by the musicians of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series imprint. Taking their cues from late-'60s John Coltrane extravaganzas such as Expression (Impulse, 1967) and Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1967), the musicians reimagine free jazz, to which Spooky adds his own twisted sampling fantasies. Working almost entirely in Max/MSP software on a PowerBook G4, Spooky samples, splices and restates the musicians' original performances. The opening bars of Optometry sound like an angry jazz drummer wailing and worried by a gutsy walking bass line — whether it's live, remixed or sampled is the question.
“Just as I wasn't in the studio with Ryan for Riddim Clash, I wasn't in-studio with the musicians for Optometry; it's all samples,” Spooky explains. “The session was with Matthew Shipp [piano], William Parker [bass], Joe McPhee [sax] and Guillermo Brown [drums]. I wanted to make it sound like a live record, using elements of their playing. They all played against different drum tracks. I then sampled, spliced, edited and cut that up to the point where it was a total remix of what they had turned in. I pursued this idea of sampling as a new kind of jazz to where it sounds live, but it's actually all these tiny slivers of edits.”
“Reactive Switching” opens with jazz drumming, acoustic bass, violin and clavinet. “The piece began with Guillermo Brown's drums, which I sampled and made really free,” Spooky recalls. “Then, there is a violin that I ran through Reason, which also gave me that clavinet sound, which a lot of people thought was a Herbie Hancock sample. I cut up Billy Martin's drumming [from Illy B Eats, Vol. 1 (Amulet, 2001)] midway through the piece by bouncing it into ReCycle, switching it around — but not so much as to lose the original flavor. It was more about using the textures and beats he gave me to switch in and out of a live thing.”
The track continues with violin and a coterie of whirring effects and bell tones. Again, Max/MSP does the duty. “Those were taken from a Max/MSP synth program [Snot Wong's Custom Wave Maker], but they sound really live. And there is another one where I sampled small fragments of these Tibetan bells from a bowl a friend gave me.”
The music almost ceases, replaced by a mass of swelling tones, sea sounds and bass riffs. It's like the world is ending midsong. “Those are all small snippets and sounds from the different sessions,” Spooky clarifies. “The bass riffs are reconstructed from four different bass lines layered against themselves. The swelling is like Jajouka musicians. Imagine instead of a horn starting on the one, you have one horn start on one, the next on two of the one; it becomes more and more layered. There are 14 layers to build that area, and every piece of sound is edited in Max/MSP. That song is all about clusters and disruption, how to balance jazz as symmetry and near chaos.”
Not to be confined to the audio world, DJ Spooky is currently writing three books: Sound Unbound, a collection of works by writers such as Simon Reynolds and Bruce Sterling; Flow My Blood the DJ Said; and Rhythm Science.
“Rhythm Science is based on this idea of patterns,” Spooky says. “I am fascinated by satellite frequencies, telephones, cell phones: Everything is held together with patterns. Patterns are nothing but information, and I consider DJing as searching for information.”
Upcoming Spooky projects include a dub-metal project with Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, a mix CD for Adbusters magazine and his own 21cmagazine.com. DJ Spooky's plate is overflowing, and he is ready to reap the rewards of his toil. Even as caught up in shareware and his densely written tomes as he is in end-of-the-world sites like Fuckitall.com, Spooky can still offer advice for musicians hopeful of a bright tomorrow.
“To find your own voice in this culture of information saturation, you need to think about how many people are using the same software and elements that you are using,” he says. “Then, move away from that and figure out ways to create a unique style and a sound that fits your own vibe rather than trying to sound like everybody else.
“It's finding equilibrium between internal and external,” Spooky concludes. “My problem with a lot of the scene is that too many people are on external, and they don't really have an internal voice. They listen to everything so much, they sound like all of the other zillion tracks out there. Look inside, and see what comes out. Make music that speaks to your situation.”
TWILIGHT CIRCUS GEAR
AD&R Panscan panner
Akai MPC60 MIDI Production Center
AKG C 451, D 12 mics
Alesis ADAT, Masterlink recorders
Altec 1591a compressor/limiter
API 550 EQ
Apple Mac PowerBook G3 Pismo computer
ARP 2600 synth
BIAS Peak software
Beyerdynamic M 160 mic
Calrec PQ 1347 preamp/EQ
Coles 4038 mic
Cranesong HEDD A/D/A converter
Electrospace Spanner autopanner
Emagic Logic 6 software
Emagic Unitor8 MIDI interface
EMT 240 plate reverb
Eventide H3500 Ultra-Harmonizer
Fairchild spring reverb
Frostwave Resonator Korg MS20 Filter Clone effects unit
GRM Tools plug-ins
H&H tape echo
Hammond L-100 organ
Hammond spring reverb
Joemeek SC2 compressor/limiter
Kurzweil K2000 synth
Lexicon Vortex multi-effects unit
MCI analog 8-track recorder
Metric Halo Mobile I/O 2882 FireWire audio interface
Metric Halo ChannelStrip software
Moog Music Moogerfooger effects pedal
Moog Music Parametric EQ
Moog Music Rogue synth
Mutronics Mutator rackmount stereo filter
Neumann CMV 563 mic
Neve Tele-Distort filter unit
Oberheim Echoplex digital delay
Panasonic SV-3800 DAT recorder
Roland RE-201 Space Echo effects pedal
Roland TR-808 drum machine
Studer A810 ¼-inch 2-track recorder
Telefunken U73b, U273b compressor/limiters
Telefunken V72, V77 tube mic preamps
Trident Fleximix console
UREI 565 filter set
UREI 1178 compressor/limiter
WEM Copy Cat Tape Echo effects pedal
Apple Mac PowerBook G4 computer
Cycling '74 Max/MSP software
MOTU Digital Performer software
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable
Optometry's “Reactive Switching Strategies for the Control of Uninhabited Air” juts and grinds like John Coltrane circa 1965, a spacious soul-seared track of McCoy Tyner — like piano chords, mangled drumming and tenor saxophone. On close inspection, you can detect numerous edits, sampler swells and rhythmic cross-hatching. Sometimes, the drums seem to overlap or collapse on themselves: A right-hand cymbal remains static while snare-drum accents repeat in oddly metered phrases.
“That is playing with quantizing loops and making them more asymmetric,” Spooky explains. “I broke up Guillermo [Brown's] drumbeats in ReCycle, then spliced them against themselves, taking the one and the two of a 4/4 beat and repeating the one or repeating a phrase of one-two, then taking the three and the four and layering it over the one-two. That made it sound more live. If I just looped it, it would be a regular pattern. When it sounds like the cymbal is static and the snare drum is looping, that was also done in ReCycle, adding randomness to give it that live feeling.
“ReCycle is great for creating drum patterns,” he continues. “You can assign all of these tempo maps, a bass drum, snare and hi-hat. You bounce it in, and it will analyze the waveform, break up the track according to tempo and bass pulls, and you hit Return, and it will split it into slivers. I import the stuff from ReCycle into Digital Performer as a finished file. But if the drummer is from many sources, you can make it as flexible and fluid as you want.”
SPOOKY SHAREWARE SITES
Real-Time Granular Synthesis
Snot Wong's Max/MSP Patches