NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- DJ Spooky is relaxing in his chair backstage at Pearl Street nightclub, minutes after an extremely eclectic, well-received performance to support his latest solo release, Riddim Warfare.
For a highly regarded experimental musician and artist who half-jokingly refers to himself as an "amorphous cloud of information," the 28-year-old composer, mixer and turntablist (born Paul Miller) is looking surprisingly normal in his hooded sweatshirt, a beer in hand. But that shouldn't fool you.
When he isn't using vinyl, turntables and digital technology as an extension of himself, DJ Spooky takes the role of the philosopher, the "organic intellectual" of the electronic-music revolution.
Therefore, it's not surprising that he has a handle on what his second solo album is all about.
"To me, everything I was doing on this album was like virtual theater," Spooky said. "I asked all the artists who performed on this album, 'What is it like to be floating on this late 20th-century cloud of information, whether it's electronic media, radio waves, television waves? What goes through your mind when you think of that stuff?' And everyone came back at me with the craziest stuff, lyrically."
Crazy is, maybe, putting it lightly.
On "Object Unknown" (RealAudio excerpt), guest-rappers the ever-avant-garde Kool Keith and Sir Menelik trade off rhymes about cloning, transvestites, flying saucers and little green men who are after Keith's brain. Their rhymes are laid on top of a chaotic, burbling rhythm-track layered with early 1980s video-game explosions and old-school drum-machine hand-claps.
"I can't tell you what the song is about, because it's all there, mapped out -- blueprinted," a cryptic Kool Keith said from his Los Angeles home. "If I said what it was, something might happen." Spooky said he choose Keith for the track for his surrealist approach to lyrics and his "weird multiple-personality disorder."
An equally abstract track on the album is "Degree Zero" (RealAudio excerpt), featuring a guest shot by rapper Killah Priest, a Wu-Tang Clan affiliate.
Spooky's love of sonic and cultural collage is evident on Riddim Warfare, but this love didn't come to him overnight.
When he was 3 years old, his father died, leaving him an extensive record-collection. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he explored these albums as a way of getting to know their owner, all the while listening to the two-tone ska of the Specials and the English Beat. He also absorbed the sounds of a local music-scene that included Trouble Funk and Junkyard Band, two major go-go bands, as well as the hardcore punk of Bad Brains and Minor Threat
"That DJ Spooky is one ill guy," Killah Priest said, speaking of the song that he worked on for the album. "The track he laid down sounded like it was flowing through a cloud of electricity. It was real dusted out, like the yin to the yang of what was going on around us."
Killah Priest most likely wasn't reflecting upon vague social abstractions but rather on the scene surrounding the recording complex where Spooky was holed up. But Priest wasn't the only artist who was struck by the atmosphere where the song was cut.
"When Killah Priest did the track, that was hilarious, almost surreal, because Luther Vandross was recording next door -- a real contrast," Spooky said, laughing.
"I wanted to get people more from the art side of hip-hop or conceptual and non-knucklehead bulls---," he added, referring to his choice of Killah Priest and Kool Keith as creative partners.
For Spooky, the art of making music has always been about experimenting and merging sounds.
As an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in
Maine from 1988-92, Spooky had a radio show called "Dr. Seuss' Eclectic Jungle." "I had two turntables, two cassette-decks and two CD-players, and I would just bug out," Spooky said. "And when I go back and listen to it, my show sounds like jungle sounds today."
It is this background that led him to serve up his first album, Song of a Dead Dreamer (1996).
It also gave him the material to create Riddim Warfare's dense and varied sonic collaborations, including the 2,000-year-old Buddhist chants provided by Japanese singer Moriko Mori (on "Twilight Fugue"), the avant-Brazilian guitar-stylings of downtown New York City experimental-music icon Arto Lindsay (on "Quilombo Ex Optico") and the dissonant guitar-pyrotechnics of art-rock band Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (on "Dialectical Transformation III").
"Thurston Moore gave me him playing guitar [on a] record, and I scratched him playing guitar," Spooky said, gleefully. "In other words, I played him playing guitar."
At the heart of Spooky's experimental nature is an enthusiasm about the possibilities of DJ culture. It shows in his music, his eyes and, perhaps most importantly, his world view.
"In the future," Spooky said confidently, "everyone will be a DJ, and everyone will be an artist."