On the surface, DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid is in an enviable position. The New York City-based turntable artist -- whose name is derived in part from a character in William Burroughs' novel Nova Express and in part from a Count Chocula cereal commercial -- helped define an amorphous genre of electronic music, dubbed "illbient" by high-minded music critics in the mid-'90s.
Illbient was the next logical step for the iconoclastic wing of Manhattan's electronic-music cognoscenti. By 1995 ;illbient's adherents had combined ambient, drum & bass and dub-reggae elements with an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sampling philosophy to create conceptual-beat pastiches, and Spooky was the chief rhythmic physicist.
But in New York the DJ and journalist previously known as Paul Miller received surprising resistance from the upper echelons of the city's critical establishment. "Me and the critics here can't stand each other," says Miller, 27. "They know I know a lot more about music than them. And it really, really carves them up to see me become successful."
Miller's statement would be boastful if he wasn't selling so well among New York's younger consumers. His latest digital exhibition is "Riddim Warfare" -- its title in part Miller's reaction to the critical indifference of New York's music-critic literati. Miller is joined by like-minded hip-hop mavericks such as Kool Keith, Sir Menelik, Organized Konfusion and Wu-Tang Clan's Killah Priest as well as East Village scenesters Arto Lindsay and Thurston Moore. He also enlisted the aid of a Brazilian rhythm posse, Nacão Zumbi, on the martial sounding "Quilombo Ex Optico" and vocalist Mariko Mori for the Buddhist mantras on "Twilight Fugue."
The album is a sprawling work of reconstructionist turntable art, where obscure and original samples blend to create new dissonant forms. It moves beyond deconstructionist elements inherent to electronic-based music genres that are best manifested in remixing and sampling. Miller's samples rarely indicate their sources, and he has stretched beat science to its limits. At the same time he has made a recording more sonically palatable than his 1996 vertigo-inducing debut, "Songs From a Dead Dreamer," or this year's EP, "Synthetic Fury."
Miller developed his open-minded attitude toward music as a child living in Washington, D.C. His father taught law at Howard University but died when Miller was 3, leaving behind an enormous record collection. "Sampling" the music provided Miller a way to have a relationship with his father, and he spent countless hours playing records. Miller's mother owned a futuristic clothing store for which she made trips with her son to Africa in search of fabric. That opened young Miller's eyes to the world's cultural diversity.
He soaked up 2-Tone ska and D.C.-based hardcore bands Bad Brains and Minor Threat, developing an appreciation for musical integrity and disorienting shifts in tempo. By high school he owned a set of turntables and looked to Grandmaster Flash for inspiration. Miller went on to host a radio show in college, where he dissected samples from drum & bass and hip-hop records and revealed their sources to his audience.
He found his way to Manhattan's East Village, where a friend let him stay at his junkyard. Miller began making sculptures out of scavenged material and fell into a crowd that shared his growing dissatisfaction with the city's stale state of art and music. "I was really broke and I was just doing funky art stuff. But I was also throwing parties to help pay rent. And because I was into writing, I'd have people do readings."
The group of young artists, musicians and writers began to cohere into a loose collective. "We all didn't fit in, y'know? We all just said, ‘Fuck it,'" says Miller. "We were all from different backgrounds and were all sick of the established scenes. And the funny thing is the parties became popular because they were open to a lot of different energies."
Those parties evolved into their own full-blown scene, and soon Miller began experimenting in the studio. He's been doing battle with the critical establishment ever since. Miller pissed off older critics as a journalist for the Village Voice with his no-holding-back attitude. "They're like a lot of alternative rock critics that dropped on the electronic-music bandwagon back in '96-'97, and they would always dis electronic music before that, y'know?"
"It's some accumulated bullshit, and I happened to be a writer and I always wanted to write about electronic music and they were always shutting me down. ... It's a generation gap, but that's what happens with music when new flavor comes in."