Music: Goodbye gangsta, bonjour Derrida

DJ Spooky knows his post-structuralists. As any hip-hop producer should.

Fiona Sturges
Thursday 01 April 1999 23:02

THE TERM "intelligent" drum'n'bass has always been a nebulous one. It was first dreamt up in order to separate the teeth-rattling chaos of early jungle from the more textured breakbeats of Goldie or LTJ Bukem. Ironically enough, it was this so-called "intelligent" mode that became ubiquitous in shampoo ads on television.

With Fatboy Slim's derivative beats becoming a universal sound-track for beery nights out, there is now a bid to intellectualise the remix, though this time round it is backed by a concept. The move is headed by Paul D Miller, better known as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid.

"Records are part of a new syntax and dialect," insists the New York- based DJ. "You can pick any style of music you want and sample it, put it in a blender and reconstruct it. There are no rules any more."

On his new album Riddim Warfare, Miller talks about the "elevation in the mind", while the sounds endeavour to follow what he calls "a hidden musical continuum" that exists in all music, from classical, funk and blues to hip-hop and jungle.

While the title may smack of posturing, Miller insists that the album has a theoretical as well as an experimental basis. It contains unusually enlightened lyrics that allude to Derrida and Barthes, as opposed to the gangsta-addled prose of his hip-hop contemporaries. Track titles such as "Post-Human Sophistry" and "Dialectical Transformation" self-consciously underline Miller's academic standpoint, but its musical styles reveal an almost fanatic eclecticism.

Though the diffuse nature of Riddim Warfare makes it ill-suited to the dance floor, it offers a stylish collision of old skool hip-hop, dub and drum'n'bass, complete with eerily distorted samples of anything from Dvorak's New World Symphony to the whine of a fax machine. Some of the more peculiar sounds on the album are a result of Miller acting like a human receiver with his portable mini-disc recorder.

The wide-ranging nature of Miller's influences is also reflected in the selection of contributors to Riddim Warfare. They include Sonic Youth's guitarist Thurston Moore, Wu Tang Clan's Killah Priest, the sonic scientist Arto Lindsay and video artist Moriko Mori.

Miller wants to bridge the gap between academia and pop culture by whatever means possible. He wrote the score for the hip-hop movie Slam, which won the Grand Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He is also a contributing editor to the monthly art magazine Artbyte and is a regular participant in exhibitions of electronic media.

The hotch-potch of media, styles and voices in Miller's work can also be traced to his background. Growing up in Washington DC, he was exposed to all sorts of different music: "I grew up watching Go-Go bands such as Junkyard Band and Trouble Funk, but there was also a big hardcore scene with Bad Brains and Minor Threat."

In the late Eighties he relocated to Maine to study for two degrees - one in French literature, the other in philosophy - and he became interested in the relationship between literature and music.

"It seemed that themes in textual deconstruction reflected what was happening in electronic music. I got into arguments with professors about urban narratives - why we got to pull apart the work of great literary figures, but when it was Chuck D, that was urban so we couldn't discuss it."

By 1988, Miller had launched his own radio programme at college, called Dr Seuss's Eclectic Jungle. "It was a mad collage of sounds. If Public Enemy sampled James Brown, I would find the original Brown record, mix it with the Public Enemy version and then set it against `The Three Little Pigs'." His eccentricity proved hugely popular and provided the blueprint for his latest mix'n'match recordings.

But despite the experimental nature of Miller's music, there is still a conspicuous absence of new sounds.

"It's difficult for me to imagine a sound I haven't heard. We have reached total saturation point," he explains. "But there are more interesting ways of putting together sounds."

He pauses, to listen to a hotel coffee machine. "But if you say you can't imagine a sound you haven't heard, then you are locked in that loop already. If I can record, sample and mix anything, I will."

`Riddim Warfare' is out on 12 April on Outpost Recordings

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