MFD Interview with DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid


DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid is the "constructed persona" of Paul D. Miller, a visionary and prolific 21st Century musician, DJ, author and culture critic from New York City. His career has spanned setting turntables on fire to pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix and creating a subversive remix of D.W. Griffith's 1915 racist film epic Birth of a Nation; collaborations with an astonishing range of artists from Grandmaster Flash, to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, to Afrika Bambaataa, to Chuck D., to Yoko Ono, to Metallica, to Ryuichi Sakamoto, to tours with Stereolab, Kool Keith, and Meat Beat Manifesto, and an appearance at Bonnaroo; remixing the contents of the Trojan Records vaults of pioneering reggae and dub recordings; and lecturing at Yale, Columbia, Cooper Union, Mass MOCA, the Andy Warhol Museum, and the Kino Museum in Moscow. Miller's latest book, Sound Unbound, covers a vast range of fertile cultural territory including South Africa's "rhythms of resistance," interviews with Moby, Steve Reich and Pierre Boulez, essays by Brian Eno, Erik Davis, Jonathan Lethem and Bruce Sterling, and the role of copyright law in the age of sampling. Miller spoke with MFD while on tour in California. 

Steve Silberman:  When you were growing up in D.C. in the late '70s and early '80s, you would go to a reggae club called Kilimanjaro and hear songs like Bob Marley's "Simmer Down." You've talked about hearing in Marley's voice a transcendent sense of hope and an embrace of change. Many people are hearing these same qualities in the speeches of Barack Obama, many of which he writes himself. Are Marley and Obama an expression of a deeper lineage in black culture?

DJ Spooky: Throughout African-American culture for most of the 20th Century, on the one hand you had the "Back to Africa" movement -- people like Marcus Garvey -- and the W.E.B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington debate, which was about how African-American culture should function in the U.S. I'd say Barack Obama is a synthesis of all of those different traditions, without the anger and insistence on getting out of America. That's not the point anymore, because the whole planet is responding to the American Dream, at one level or another, in this age of globalization. So Obama is really a very intriguing synthesis of all these different movements.  In the last century, all these things happened -- the political upheaval after Martin Luther King's assassination and the Black Power movement, which produced people like [former D.C. mayor] Marion Barry, who was a very flawed figure -- and Obama dwarfs these people in terms of the quality of leadership, the sense that he's done his research, and his awareness of the ebb and flow of contemporary politics. So Obama is someone who has put a lot of thought, energy, and time into crafting his message, and you can see that it's really paid off.

Silberman: How is the Internet changing politics?

DJ Spooky: If there's one thing that this electoral cycle has shown it is that the politicians who don't know the Web or who hire people who don't know the Web are going to lose. It's shown how Democracy and the Web have seamlessly meshed, whether it's the fundraising prowess of the Obama campaign or the ability to summon up troops to go do grassroots-level work. Of all of the candidates, Obama is much more in tune with the wired generation, and that's a good thing. A lot of people who are involved with the Internet don't have the same right-wing agendas as people who aren't, and in fact, this cycle has made a lot of those right-wing concerns seem really parochial and out of tune.

Silberman: You talk in your new book, Sound Unbound, about how the culture of remixing -- which encompasses everything from Miles Davis' use of loops and samples on In a Silent Way, to the "cut-ups" of William Burroughs, to modern mashups -- is restructuring our notion of the individual. What are the resonances of that for individual involvement in politics?

DJ Spooky: I think the remix is about saying, "Look, this is just one way of seeing things, but let's check out a lot of others." It says that you can have an irreverence toward the idea of things being locked in place.  It points out the individual sense of agency in transforming art and culture and media. Some people use the phrase "participatory media"; I call it remix or mashup culture. That's something that's going to create a lot of overlap between film, and music, and what we think of as contemporary literature.

Silberman: In the last decade, the right wing has become very adept at creating what a friend of mine calls "weaponized memes." John Kerry was transformed from a decorated war hero to a "flip-flopper," Al Gore was misquoted and ridiculed as claiming to have invented the Internet. What are the most powerful tools available to progressives now to neutralize or fight back against those weaponized memes?

DJ Spooky: Yeah, the swiftboating of the Kerry campaign was amazing, because they still used a lot of old-media stuff to do it. And now you're seeing the same kind of thing out of the right-wing Israeli lobby, trying to demonize Obama. I think Obama has done a pretty good job of using the Web to counterpunch that kind of attack. Kerry was not as nimble, and those things settled in and defined his candidacy in a way that crippled it, whereas I don't think Obama has let that happen.

Silberman: A blogger named Jesse Taylor, describing the strategies that the GOP will employ to defeat Obama in the fall, wrote, "Obama is going to become Blackazoid, the Nubian Avenger, here to right all the perceived wrongs black people illegitimately feel were heaped on them since we solved racism in 1963.  Reparations?  He wants them.  Islam?  Prepare to pay a prayer mat fee for your kids' next school year… Michelle Obama’s engaging in an alleged rant against 'whitey' is just the tip of the iceberg -- learn now to fear your new Negro overlords." How should Obama deal with that kind of framing?

DJ Spooky: You have to remember that the most integrated institution in America -- regretfully -- is the military. The GOP is going to play off all kinds of suburban fears. One would hope that the voters aren't that stupid, but then again, look who's in office now. It's going to be an issue.  They're going to go for the really deep low-blow kind of stuff.  Everyone should be prepared for that. So far Obama's been trying to take the high road, but he should also be prepared to hit back, which is saying, "OK, what about McCain and his relationship to the lobbyists?" But I'm not sure that gets a lot of traction with lower-income, white voters. They don't know about a lot of that stuff. They want to sit down and have a beer with Bush or something. So the GOP is probably going to go for a lot of serious, lower-level stuff. In fact, Bush used the same kind of tactics against McCain in the 2000 primaries, and it lost McCain his candidacy. So they're going to go all out, and you have to be willing to get down in the trenches.

But I don't know if those kinds of down-and-dirty attacks are going to work anymore, because people resonate with Obama in a very different way. Remember when the right wing was saying that Obama wanted to "appease" terrorists by negotiating with them?  The funny thing about that is that it was Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, who wanted to appease Hitler.  It was hilarious when I saw Bush talking about appeasement -- doesn't anybody know about history? He was saying this in Israel, and his own grandfather invested in fucking Nazi Germany.  It's amazing that people don't call him on that stuff. They never call him on anything.  So you can assume that McCain is going to get a really easy ride, and that all the weird racial stuff is going to kick off against Obama just as you describe. But I think there will be a backlash, and hopefully it will rally people to say, "I don't want to tolerate this kind of racial shit in the public sphere anymore." You could see the Republicans totally overplay their hand completely and lose.

Silberman: When Hillary Clinton conceded to Obama, she quoted his campaign slogan, "Yes we can." Are you sensing any kind of positive shift in the zeitgeist right now, yielding more energy for creative work and constructive change?

DJ Spooky: Yeah, I think everybody feels like taking a deep breath right now and celebrating a little bit -- but not overcelebrating. It's good that the primary stuff is over and we can now start focusing on the issues. I've been getting a huge wave of very happy email from friends in Germany, Sweden, Japan, Canada, you name it. Internationally speaking, people think Obama represents the future of America.