Inspiring People

Writer, Artist and Musician, DJ Spooky - That Subliminal Kid

DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid

DJ SPOOKY is a composer, multimedia artist and writer. His written work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Source, Artforum and Rapgun amongst other publications. Miller's work as a media artist has appeared in a wide variety of contexts such as the Whitney Biennial; The Venice Biennial for Architecture (2000); the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany; Kunsthalle, Vienna; The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and many other museums and galleries. His work New York Is Now has been exhibited in the Africa Pavilion of the 52 Venice Biennial 2007, and the Miami/Art Basel fair of 2007. Miller's first collection of essays, entitled Rhythm Science came out on MIT Press 2004. His book Sound Unbound, an anthology of writings on electronic music and digital media was recently released by MIT Press. Miller's deep interest in reggae and dub has resulted in a series of compilations, remixes and collections of material from the vaults of the legendary Jamaican label, Trojan Records. Other releases include Optometry (2002), a jazz project featuring some of the best players in the downtown NYC jazz scene, and Dubtometry (2003) featuring Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Mad Professor. Miller's latest collaborative release, Drums of Death, features Dave Lombardo of Slayer and Chuck D of Public Enemy among others. He also produced material on Yoko Ono's new album Yes, I'm a Witch.

The more I try to come up with an answer to address how to define exactly what he does, the more questions that I have about who he is – exactly. One thing is for certain, DJ Spooky - That Subliminal Kid will challenge the way you’ve always thought about a thing or two, because he refuses the limitations of conventional thinking. He consistently asks new questions that invite fresh inquiry and introduce new possibilities, and he seems to be having a really good time!

DR: Tell me about your life and your work.

PM: It's 2008, almost 2009, here in the beginning of the 21st century...

As a writer and an artist and a musician, I am someone who is fascinated with transience. Things are not permanent. Life is always in flux. Music is one element that seems to be a liquid mirror and something that we can hold up to all of these kinds of moving and transforming qualities of life in the 21st century. I am obsessed and fascinated with that.

I have a new book out called Sound Unbound. It's about sound art and digital media looking at the creative act in the 21st century. It's thirty six essays by the way, and when I was getting it together, one of the questions that I asked myself is "How am I as an artist looking at all of these kinds of people", whether it be Moby or Chuck D or Saul Williams who is a really interesting poet. It was hard to get everybody to be simultaneous. We had to track people down for interviews with all of their difficult schedules. We had to clear rights for the tracks for the CD in the back of the book….

As an artist right now, I am fascinated with how we live in an era where the idea of law and the way the law is written and the way we live, is parting ways. Bootleg culture, remixes, sampling, all of that is about people being creative way past the norms of the law. I am just trying to put challenges to myself, like not looking at the obvious. Let's look at how artists, creatives and writers respond to a rapidly changing world. This is a very new time. You have a daughter and I am sure that she is growing up not thinking about record players and 8 track cassettes. She is thinking about her iPod playlist and her video games and her social networks - YouTube wasn't even around in 2004.

I am really interested in how art is responding to this rapidly changing hyper accelerated world.

DR: And so what conclusions have you drawn about how art is responding to such a rapidly changing and hyper accelerated world?

PM: Because I DJ all over the world I am always looking at different cultures. Tomorrow I am flying out to Zanzibar which is a small island off the Northeast coast of Africa near Somalia. As soon as I get off the plane I'll head into the main town and I am going to go into the markets to see what people are listening to and go into cafes and just hang out. I do that all of the time. Some of the best times that I have had in the last couple of years have been in some radically different places, like Antarctica for example. I went to Antarctica for four weeks and, earlier last year, I went to Angola for six weeks, a country that has just come out of a twenty five year civil war.

The way I see people responding to technology is very uneven. If you are a kid in Angola who has just seen a war zone come out of your country or Rwanda or the Congo or some of these other countries and you compare your experiences with someone in Singapore, which is a hyper-developed small island nation state or compare that to someone growing up in downtown Manhattan, you'll see that they are all going to have a healthy desire for new things but the problem is that we are seeing standardization on a lot of levels. The-Microsoft-Outlook-Express mentality mixed with Starbuck's mixed with Wal-Mart, and I am trying to figure out as an artist, why everyone listens to the same music or why, even though we have zillions of channels and zillions of different styles of music available and zillions of ways to receive culture and art and writing, why people are more conformist now than ever before.

One of my favorite science fiction writers is a guy named William Gibson. He has a great phrase:

The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.

I think that is a great way of characterizing the early 21st century. All of these different cultures are co-existing but in radically different concepts of relationship to time.

I am going to South Africa tomorrow before I go to Zanzibar and I am getting emails from all of my friends over their, even the ones in the most remote areas. That blows my mind. I have a concert and a book signing in Cape Town and they are all hearing about the concert because of Facebook. I didn't even send them an email about the concert. They saw the listing on Facebook.

If you look at Japan or Finland places that are really entrenched in the cell phone culture or even the outside of Toronto where the company that makes Blackberry is, these are cultures where people are social and the social process of how digital media, through their cell phone or through their web network, has changed the way they relate to people around them. I think that's healthy because it really breaks down boundaries.

The Obama presidency is going to be the most digital presidency. Obama's whole web campaign was brilliant. The places that he won were the most well educated places where people were already aware and open. The places where he lost are places that still embrace old media and Rush Limbaugh. America 1.0.

DR: It feels like we are in an era of breaking down boundaries and the way that I experience you is as someone who is boundary-less. I find that refreshing and frustrating at the same time. What exactly is your relationship to limits and convention and boundaries?

PM: I am an African-American from a family of academics. My mom is an historian by design. She has written a great book out called Threads of Time. My Dad was Dean of Howard University Law School in the late 60's and early seventies, so I always had a healthy respect for intellect and for reading.

It has always been important to me to think of the world as a text where you have different characters and different stories and everyone exists simultaneously. I think of boundaries as things that are meant to be by-passed. The idea of African American culture, even in the last ten years has radically shifted.

People self limit their own expectations about what they can do. I never felt like there were any limits, whether as an African American or just as an American period. That is because my Mom raised me to deal with people as people and not as their ethnicity or their class or their demarcation of culture.

I like to think of my work as kind of an open system that is very much about looking at music and art as elusive reflections of humanism. We are here and it is okay. As the 21st century progresses you will be seeing a lot more of this hybridity. The web is the most advanced part of that hybrid. You have Japanese kids working with people from Finland, people from Finland listening to stuff from Brazil, people from Brazil listening to what is going on in Korea. I think that is healthy and good and I think this is just the beginning.

It is a little too early to say how much the web has changed things but if you look at the advent of YouTube, in 2004, which wasn't there yet when Kerry was running for president so he didn't have the ability to fight back against all of the swift boat campaigns. But Obama? As soon as there were any weird rumors he used YouTube to fight back. Also, I liked the clever infomercial that he did right before the election. These are important ways to use the media as a way to say -

another world is possible.

The media is pretty accepting of status quo. The web isn't. It is a very transient medium. Everything is updated and changing constantly. That is the world I come out of and I don't think that old media can respond that way. The web asks questions and demands response. It says -


I like that.

When you talk about boundaries and racial politics and so on, the web generation is probably going to be asking "Why"? And, they'll be saying "I don't get it". My motto is:

"Just ask questions and always have a sense of the possibility that nothing is locked in place".

DJ Spooky presents China + NY: Contemporary Asian/American Music!

DJ Spooky presents a night of Asian/American contemporary music, fusing the traditional, classical, and modern to create a cross-cultural sonic dialogue between East and West. Please join us as we explore and celebrate interconnections and unity between our diverse and unique but intellectually, economically, politically, and socially connected societies through the global medium of music.

Works and performances by:
Min Xiao-Fen | Timi Modern Music Ensemble | Paul Miller | Benoit Granier | Rosey Chan | Jerry Chenoweth | Anthony De Ritis | Howie Kenty | Mari Kimura | Huang Ruo | Du Yun

Sunday, April 10 · 6:00pm - 9:00pm

Location (le) Poisson Rouge 158 Bleecker Street New York, NY

6 PM doors, 7 - 9 PM show
$18 advance, $22 at door

Tickets and info:
(212) 505-FISH (3474)

DR: I would imagine that you have to be a pretty curious person to begin with, to do the kinds of things that you do and to engage in the kind of inquiries that you engage in. How do you value curiosity?

PM: I think of curiosity as one of the most important qualities that a human being can have. Curiosity is about always trying to understand the world around you.

I have observed that a lot of America is very numb, at least in the last eight years. One of the best things that I have seen in my adult life is the celebration in the streets the night that Obama was elected President. The cheering and the crying and the outpouring of joy is not something that you ever see in New York.

DR: We were out there on the streets. Watching Gussie hugging complete strangers and cheering was pretty remarkable.

PM: It was amazing...

I feel like people have been shut down for the last eight years, speaking of curiosity, as a result of the Bush Administration.

As people can compare human experience and understand their fellow human being more, demonstrating the kind of curiosity that reaches across borders and cultural divisions, creates empathy.

Curiosity and empathy, to me, go hand in hand.

DR: I never really contemplated the relationship between curiosity and empathy but now that you mention it, I can see how curiosity opens up the possibility for empathy to exist.

PM: People who are curious and want to learn are inviting inquiry. To be ignorant in the 21st century is to be out of the zone. It is going to be hard not to know about anything but I am sure there will be pockets of Republicans who won't want to know things.


Curiosity is one of the most important qualities we can have, especially now.

DR: What is it that you want people to know about you?

PM: Paul is someone who is always trying to figure things out and someone who asks a lot of questions.

I hope that people see that my work is about asking questions and that they see that I am not trendy. In New York, walking down the streets, everybody has to have their style and their "thing". I like to think that information itself is my style.

I am a person that doesn't accept the way things are, as they are. I am someone who is always looking for different perceptions.

DR: Is there anything that you don't want people to know about you?

PM: I never finished the first novel I was planning on finishing. That is probably one of the biggest things for me...

DR: Yeah? Really? That's really what you don't want people to know?

I ask the question not as a trick question or as a way to elicit some "juicy" response. It's just that I have found that the biggest contributions to humanity emerge when people are generous about sharing the parts of themselves that they've been hiding.

PM: I am always centered because I am always traveling and dealing with people from different cultures. I am in a different city every couple of days. I don't feel like I am ever a different me. It's not about what I don't want people to know.

I have an intense fan base of research people like kids who are hardcore web heads, into Wiki-pedia. You would be stunned about what people can find out. I live transparently. Whatever people want to find out is all out in the open.

Emotionally speaking, though, what I wouldn't want people to know is always about the fact that there is no other me. I am just me, but people always think there is another me.

DR: Well probably because most of us reserve a piece of ourselves that no one gets to know about...

PM: I actually feel like every part of my life is out in the world.

DR: That's fitting I guess, considering the fact that as we move into the 21st century we will be enjoying less and less privacy…

PM: People can know your stuff...

DR: They really can, whether you want them to or not.

PM: So I'm like "Run with it". The funny thing is people will keep digging and keep getting the same thing.

I think artists and writers can help the planet dream different dreams. I know that sounds simplistic but the whole notion of globalization being new - it's not. Cultures have been in conversation with each other for hundreds of years. It was just more local.

We can not presume that human beings are changing. We are actually pretty stable in terms of evolution. It's just that our ways of dealing with each other are changing so quickly. I know people who have met their partner on Facebook or another social network so the whole idea of the self and the web or the self and contemporary social reality is changing. Living in a hyper information saturated city like New York or London or Tokyo or Berlin or Sao Palo - we are going to have a very extended childhood. Like thirty is the new twenty and forty is the new thirty because people are living in continuous play. A sense of playfulness about everything will help people.

There are these schools of laughter in India...

Mira Nair is one of my favorite directors and she did a documentary on these laughter schools. They literally have laughter lessons. They have a guru of laughter which I think is such a great idea. You meditate for several weeks on laughter and joy. I love that idea. If we did that in America they would diagnose you with ADHD and prescribe Ritalin.

I might sound starry eyed about the web, but little things like a laughing person or a person who can transmit a sense of joy to other people - you can't measure the impact of that. I really think that the impact of the last eight years of Bush can show you what a world without joy is like. It has been a very numb eight years and I am sure historians will look back at the first eight years of the 21st century and realize that the country went crazy for eight years.

DR: There is an abstract quality to your art and the way that you see things but you have a way of making your observations practical also. You bring it down to real politics, real human pursuit - real life. Is that something that you have a deliberate intention about?

PM: I was planning on being a diplomat when I was in college - State Department, IMF, or the United Nations and music took over.

I majored in music but I took courses in rhetoric and debate which taught me how to communicate in ways that people could understand. I just always feel like you can be abstract but you also have to allow people the opportunity to relate. Sometimes artists can be too abstract and I don't know if I have the time for that. I have to be pragmatic.

There is so much possibility right now. That's why I think the religious right is going crazy because people are reaching for understanding and they don't want to be locked down.

Being a DJ is amazing. There is so much amazing energy when people are dancing. It's not only a party, it's a process. Some of the best experiences I have had with humanity is in clubs, when people are being expressive…

DR: It's like they have permission to be free for a bit...

PM: Yeah.

The DJ culture is where people go to have a sense of release and the club is where a lot of people make connections and allow themselves to be open. The social boundaries are different.

DR: What do you value most about your life right now?

PM: My father passed away when I was two. As I have gotten older I have gotten to know my mother a lot better. I realize that she raised my sister and me as a single mother and she was able to write books and she was able to have a store because she was very strong and very organized. She really has a lot of energy and I have the highest regard for that. I don't know if I'd be able to raise a kid solo and run a business. She just retired recently. She closed her store and now she is working on her books more.

I have the highest respect for what my mother was able to do.

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

PM: I want to be remembered for my art and for saying that art is no longer about objects and paintings and sculptures but about ideas and using that as a platform for getting people to think about digital media and culture as a realm of "anything goes".

Somebody had to step forward and push the older ways back a little bit so that something new could breathe. Hopefully people in the future will realize that they are free because a lot of people pushed so that different cultures could exist in the world. A hundred years from now I'd love to be remembered for that.

Thanks DJ Spooky!

The Voice Project

The Voice Project collaborates with musicians and artists to bring awareness to the plight of child soldiers in Central Africa, and it uses song to create bridges of understanding between different artists, cultures, and compositional styles. I worked with the up and coming classical music star, Joshua Roman to do a commisioned cover of Radiohead's classic "Everything in its Right Place" - you can see the beautiful result here. The session was recorded at my home studio in Tribeca (sorry for the zillions of books and records, but hey...). Anna Gabriel (Peter Gabriel's wonderful daughter) recorded the session and is the force behind The Voice Project. She has done sessions like this with the likes of Billy Bragg, Angelique Kidjo, Emmanuel Jal, Bedouin Soundclash, and many others. Check out the video, and support their cause.
Atlanta 2/22/11 Paul D. Miller

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