Paul D. Miller known by his stage name DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid (born in 1970), is a Washington DC-born electronic and experimental hip hopmusician whose work is often called “illbient” or “trip hop”. He is a turntablist, a producer, an author and a postmodern intellectual. He borrowed his stage name from the character The Subliminal Kid in the novel Nova Express by William S. Burroughs. He is also a professor at the European Graduate School.
Miller grew up in Washington DC and attended Woodrow Wilson High School and Sidwell Friends High School. His father, Paul E. Miller, was Dean of Howard University Law School, and his mother, Rosemary E. Reed Miller, owned Toast and Strawberries, a legendary boutique in Washington DC. She is the author of Threads of Time, a history of African American women designers. Spooky became interested in punk and go-go music. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, earning degrees in French literature and philosophy.
Spooky began writing science fiction and formed a collective called Soundlab with several other artists.
In the mid-1990s, Spooky began recording a series of singles and EPs. His debut LP, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, is now widely regarded as a formative influence on illbient. Riddim Warfare (see 1998 in music) was an underground hit that include collaborations with Kool Keith and other cult figures in indie rock like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore who also appears on DJ Spooky’s 2009 album release “The Secret Song.”
He then worked with several other artists on various collaborations and mix CDs, returning in 2002 with Modern Mantra. That same year saw the release of Optometry, a widely acclaimed collaboration with avant-jazz players Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Guillermo E. Brown and Joe McPhee. (This album also features portions of a breaks record by Billy Martin of Medeski Martin & Wood.) In a classical vein, he has collaborated with the ST-X Ensemble in performances of the music of Iannis Xenakis. His film compositions have been performed by Kronos Quartet for the soundtrack to his remix of DW. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The film score was written by DJ Spooky. Kronos Quartet also performed DJ Spooky’s remix of Steve Reich’s composition “City Life.”
DJ Spooky has collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto on several projects including The Discord Symphony which toured Japan extensively in 1997. The concert and album were released as an enhanced CD containing both a full audio program and multimedia computer files. It features spoken-word performances by Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Patti Smith, David Sylvian, DJ Spooky, David Torn, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Miller also participated on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s anti war project “Chain-Music” along with Towa Tei (formerly of Dee-Lite), Christian Fennesz, Carsten Nicolai, Pansonic, and Cornelius, in 2007. It is a concept project based on collage that makes an anti-war statement through music exchange.
Avant-garde music has been an influence on Miller, including artists such as Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream, Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis, Terry Riley, Ornette Coleman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and the French composer Erik Satie for his piano works and his ideas for furniture music. He collaborated with Iannis Xenakis on the recording of Kraanerg, with the STX-Ensemble in 1997, and he has since worked with another major influence on his work – Steve Reich.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has also been an influence on Miller, and he cites Delia Derbyshire as a major hero for women and people of color in electronic music. He’s called Music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop released on Aphex Twin’s Rephlex Label, one of his favorite compilations.
2005 saw the release of “Drums of Death”, DJ Spooky’s CD based on sessions he recorded with Dave Lombardo of Slayer. Other guest artists include Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Vernon Reid of Living Colour. The record was co-produced by Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto.
In 2006, he produced two extensive compilations of classic Jamaican music from the archives of Trojan Records, the 40 year old Jamaican record label founded by Chris Blackwell and Lee Gopthal. The U.S. release, In Fine Style: DJ Spooky Presents 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records focused on “selections” from the archive, while the UK and worldwide release, Riddim Come Forward was a continuous mix. The compilation features a roster of Jamaica’s most renowned artists and producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, U-Roy, King Tubby and Prince Jammy.
In 2008 his work Being Black (featuring Ursula Rucker) was included on the compilation album Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records) produced by Mendi + Keith Obadike. He is just one of 9 artists who participated in thetruth.com’s Remix Project, where he remixed the Sunny Side song “Tough Love”.
DJ Spooky joined the 9th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians’ careers. He was also a judge for the 3rd Independent Music Awards.
DJ Spooky has said that much of his work “deals with the notion of the encoded gesture or the encrypted psychology of how music affects the whole framework of what the essence of ‘humaness’ [sic] is… To me at this point in the 21st century, the notion of the encoded sound is far more of a dynamic thing, especially when you have these kinds of infodispersion systems running, so I’m fascinated with the unconscious at this point.”
DJ Spooky’s CD The Secret Song is slated for release October 6, 2009 on Thirsty Ear Records. It has guest appearances by Thurston Moore, The Coup, Mike G. of the Jungle Brothers, Rob Swift of the X-Ecutioners, Mike Ladd, Vijay Iyer, and many others. String arrangements for the album were done by film soundtrack composers Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds with the Golden Hornet Project, and edited and sampled by DJ Spooky. The Secret Song is a manifesto about our overloaded digital culture.
DJ Spooky composed the score for the 1998 film Slam, featuring poet/actor Saul Williams in the lead role. The film went on to win both the Cannes Camera D’Or and the Sundance Festival Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. He also made an appearance in the 2008 feature documentary FLicKeR by Nik Sheehan about Brion Gysin and the Dreamachine.
His work as an artist has appeared in a wide variety of contexts such as the Whitney Biennial; The Venice Biennial; the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany; Kunsthalle, Vienna; The Andy Warhol Museum, Paula Cooper Gallery and many other museums and galleries. In 2007 his work appeared in the Africa Pavilion in the 52nd Venice Biennial. This remix of music from Africa was also distributed freely online, and promoted by the blog Boing Boing. “You give away a certain amount of your stuff, and then the cultural economy of cool kicks in,” DJ Spooky said.
In 2004 DJ Spooky released a book, Rhythm Science published by MIT Press. The same year saw the launch of his film/music/multimedia performance piece “DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation”. A live audio/video re-mix of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation which includes footage from choreographer Bill T. Jones and a score newly composed by DJ Spooky, “Rebirth of a Nation” was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival, The Festival d’Automne a Paris, The Spoleto Festival USA, and the Vienna Festival. DJ Spooky continues to tour the world performing this work. “Rebirth of a Nation” was released as a film in 2009.
Sound Unbound, a collection of writing about sound art, digital media, and contemporary composition, edited by DJ Spooky, with writings from Brian Eno, Jonathan Lethem, Chuck D, Steve Reich, Cory Doctorow, Saul Williams, Pierre Boulez, Mendi & Keith Obadike, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jaron Lanier, Moby, and many others, came out on MIT Press early 2008. Longtime collaborator Roy Christopher was Assistant Editor on the project.
DJ Spooky is also a professor of music mediated art at the European Graduate School where he co-teaches (with Michael Schmidt) Intensive Summer Seminars in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.
In August 2009, DJ Spooky visited the Republic of Nauru in the Micronesian South Pacific to do research and gather material for a project in development, with a working title of The Nauru Elegies: A Portrait in Sound and Hypsographic Architecture.
DJ Spooky’s multimedia performance piece Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica was commissioned by BAM for the 2009 Next Wave Festival; The Hopkins Center/Dartmouth College; UCSB Arts & Lectures; Melbourne International Arts Festival; and the Festival dei 2 Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. In the Australian summer of 2007-2008 DJ Spooky took a studio to several of the main ice fields of Antarctica to gather material for this, his first symphonic work. The project incorporates what Miller likes to call “acoustic portraits of ice” into its compositional structure, and it references the first symphony written about Antarctica in 1948, by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. With video projections and a score composed by DJ Spooky, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble in the United States, and Alter Ego Ensemble in Europe, Australia and beyond, “Terra Nova: Sinfornia Antarctica” is a portrait of a rapidly transforming continent.
DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation was commissioned in 2004 by the Lincoln Center Festival; Spoleto Festival USA; Wiener Festwochen; and the Festival d’Automne a Paris. It was the artist’s first large-scale multimedia performance piece, and has been performed in venues around the world, from the Sydney Festival to the Herod Atticus Amphitheater, more than fifty times. The DVD version of “Rebirth of a Nation” was released by Anchor Bay Films/Starz Media in late 2008.
In 2010 DJ Spooky became one of the first DJ’s to put together an iPhone app based on being able to use the iPhone as a mixing tool. The DJ Mixer app has been downloaded over 1 million times.