DJ Spooky DJ Spooky is an underground legend. Getting started in the mid to late 90’s known for his abstract musical style, Spooky definitely made a name for himself in hip-hop. In this interview, he talks about how he got into DJing, his new album, how dub music is the foundation of hip hop, and much more.
By William Hernandez
WHO?MAG: Talk to me about the new mix CD “Creation Rebel” you put out? DJ SPOOKY: Dub and Dancehall are basically the origins of a lot of hip hop. I’ve been collecting records since I was kid. Trojan gave me access to their whole archives and just flipped it with a whole lot of different beats and elements through the sessions. I just tried come up with new visions. Trojan is one of the best record labels going right now. They just have such a rich history. They have Bob Marley from when he was 19, Lee Scratch Perry and all kinds of stuff. I have one of my favorite turntablists, Rob Swift, do scratch routines with me on the beginning and it was dubbed by Mad Professor who is one of my favorite Dub cats. Everybody was cool with trying to see some new styles come out of it all.
WHO?MAG: Talk me about your history? DJ SPOOKY: I grew up in [Washington] DC. I’m what you call Go-Go style. My whole kick was that I was record collector searching for different styles. DC had a lot of record stores. There was a quick minute in the 80’s and 90’s when a lot of people felt vinyl was going to go out. I was just collecting records as a fun thing while some kids collected baseball cards and post cards. A lot of people though it wasn’t worth it and it kept the price of vinyl down. You could collect in peace. Now a days, records are $300 for a first edition and crazy stuff like that.
WHO?MAG: How did you get into DJing? DJ SPOOKY: Basically, I was hanging out on the scene. A friend of mine was throwing a wild party called ‘Retaliation’. He had to go away for a couple of weeks. He asked me to take over since I had a lot of records. I gave it a shot. When he came back, the club was insanely packed. 10 times more people came when they heard I was spinning. This was just word of mouth in downtown DC. That was my first real taste of DJing. I went back to college and I brought a bunch of my records with me. I went to school in Boston College in Maine. I have two degrees, one in philosophy and the other in French literature. I had a lot of free time on my hands because the nearest city was an hour away. I just practiced and figured out computer stuff, then just kept on.
WHO?MAG: Talk to me about your first album “Songs of a Dead Dreamer”? DJ SPOOKY: It was all about the strange paradox that was going on in NY in the 1990’s. The political landscape was tense. There were a lot of racial issues. Meanwhile, in the computer scene, a lot of people were coming up with software and music bits and pieces. It was totally different than previous eras. I was living downtown and a lot of my friends were involved with the dot com boom. I was throwing a lot of parties and writing for The Source, Village Voice, and a whole bunch of other music magazines. I was just throwing parties at the beginning to pay my rent.
WHO?MAG: How did you get your first record deal? DJ SPOOKY: My mixtapes started getting around and through the word of mouth. It was all independent and everything else just came into place.
WHO?MAG: Talk to me about ‘Under the Influence’ album? DJ SPOOKY: It was me going through my record collection and saying “look, hip hop is now global”. I had artists from all over the world. I DJ’d in Tokyo, Sao Paolo, and Seoul. The problem with a lot of Americans is that we don’t listen to other styles. People are just caught up with the basic 50 Cent pop type stuff. There’s some beautiful music outside of the States. My next album, I have stuff from the Middle East, Israel, Russia, and Africa.
WHO?MAG: The first time I heard of you was on the Slam soundtrack. How did you get on it? DJ SPOOKY: Saul Williams was an old friend of mine. I produced the soundtrack to ‘Slam’. He’s an amazing poet. The whole Mos Def/lyricist lounge era. I was DJing in a similar scene, just slightly at different peril because a lot of my music was instrumental. Next thing you know, Saul and I were like “why not have conceptual hip hop that doesn’t have to be all knucklehead type stuff?” There’s a lot of issues with hip hop. It’s a communication tool like anything else. It’s an operating system. You have Microsoft, Linux, Open Source, Corporate. I always side with the open system. Saul is a poet of that kind of mentality, somebody who realized that it’s not just about record labels and not just about people being trendy and hearing whatever they heard somebody else talk about. That’s what record collectors and DJ’s who really care about music are about.
WHO?MAG: How would you describe your DJing style? DJ SPOOKY: It’s somebody who really likes records and goes through a lot of styles to see what communicates with people. I can play anything from the theme of the Pink Panther to Pink Floyd to all in between. I’m not about boundaries, bpms, or playlists. I’m just about music that I think will communicate some new energy to people.
WHO?MAG: How is your production process? DJ SPOOKY: I’m all about dub as the basic foundation of hip hop because everybody was using effects, layers, and tape cut ups that Trojan record use, but a digital collage. Just how somebody who was brilliant producer like King Tubby in 1967 was doing some advanced stuff which could have easily been the Rolling Stones or [Jimi] Hendrix. What I wanted to do with the Trojan project was just lock people into perspective that Jamaica was an advanced music culture. People really need to respect and respond. Everybody thinks they’re some third world, first world all that stuff. Jamaica got way ahead of a lot of people.
WHO?MAG: What equipment do you use production-wise? DJ SPOOKY: I am a hardcore laptop oriented person. I got rid of a lot of my big studio equipment. I have a Mackie mixing board with digital input/output and Mac MPC for basic hard drive Powerbook. I have Hewlett Packard laptop. Software, I use Sonar for editing environment. For sequencing drums stuff like that, I use Recycle to make it match with drum machine sounds; matching wit the midi drum kits. Turntables, I use classic Technic 1200’s with Pioneer DVJ to let me play movies in format like a record. That’s about it all, software with a little bit of hardware.
WHO?MAG: Since you’re technology oriented person. What is your take on bootlegging and downloading? DJ SPOOKY: Everybody is a pirate now a days. The playlists are enormous. Everybody is DJ. It’s like the corner. That’s what Common would say. It’s where you share with people, where you kick you various elements and styles and see what people think. The corner is now a network digital file. I’m always trying to get people to realize open source does not mean you’re not making money. It just means you got to be a little more careful with how you think about record labels. Record labels aren’t the only way you get music out. Artists need to realize now in the 21st century, you’re going to have multiple platforms for everything. With my Trojan Record, I made styles that would appeal to a lot of people. The whole thing is how a DJ/producer would interpret a school dub technique. The record label is a platform, but I think artists need to make their own platforms.
WHO?MAG: How did you get the idea of redoing the movie “Birth of a Nation”? DJ SPOOKY: It’s a crazy racist film, straight up. The problem is that there were a lot of problems in America at the moment. It could have been Jena 6, the treatment of people with [Hurricane] Katrina, or for that matter, the occupation of Iraq. I’m really trying to get people to think maybe history is not so different and maybe it’s not so distant.