DJ Spooky On The Birth of Hip Hop

Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, has been producing beat-heavy electronic music for more than a decade. From his early solo trip-hop efforts to his more recent collaborations with jazz giants, Spooky has always approached music from multiple angles at once. He has the chops of a musician, the genre-blending ear of a disc jockey and the conceptual vision of a performance artist.

It was therefore no surprise when Trojan Records, a reggae label entering its 40th year, asked DJ Spooky to put together a mix showcasing tracks from its massive archives. When assembling In Fine Style: DJ Spooky Presents 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records, one of several mixes commissioned to mark the Trojan birthday, Miller found countless parallels between the Jamaican reggae scene of the 1960s and ’70s and the digital mashup ecosystem of today. (See Upgrading Jamaica’s Cultural Shareware: Trojan Records at 40.)

In his liner notes, DJ Spooky writes, “you can think of the whole culture as a shareware update, a software source for the rest of the world to upload.”

I asked DJ Spooky to elaborate.

Jamaican culture as “shareware update”? Brilliant. Please tell us more.

DJ Spooky: The whole idea of people like King Tubby or Prince Jammy (reggae producers who pioneered the “dub” remix) was to use technology to show their community how to make music for the world. Jamaica is the loudest island in the world! Dub used tech of the day – analog tape loops, old-school mixing boards, you name it – to create a radical departure from music made in the main areas of 1960s pop music.

Forget Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Bandor Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland as studio masterpieces, I’m talking about rare dub tracks that cut across the whole idea of what a song was meant to be. It changed the way people listen to music and the way that music was produced. Trojan was at the heart of all these changes, and I wanted to go through their archive to show the hidden connections between dub, techno, hip-hop, drum and bass, dubstep and more. I guess you could say I wanted to show how to connect the dots.

Many of the songs on your reissue, and I imagine the others in the series, are covers of American standards (“Summertime”) or pop classics (“Come Together”). Was reggae way ahead of today’s culture mash?

DJ Spooky: Reggae is all about the mashup! The Caribbean is a place where so many cultures were in collision: Spanish, Portuguese, Indian, British, Chinese. People tend to forget that one of Bob Marley’s producers (Leslie Kong) was Chinese-Jamaican, or that Lee Gopthal who was one of the co-owners of Trojan Records was Indian. Even the term “Ganjah” is pronounced Hindi style; it’s the Ganges river! And don’t even get me started about dreadlocks. Any holy man on the Ganges could tell you that they’re Indian too. ?

Everyone borrows from everyone. That’s what digital culture is all about. Information, the cliché goes, wants to be free. I guess Jamaican culture got there a little before everyone else.

One of the funniest things I noticed when I was going through Trojan’s archives is how many cover versions of American pop culture were in play. Jamaica was tuned into all the pop music coming in over the coast from Florida, and the songs people heard really left an impression. I mean, c’mon, a whole box set of Jamaican covers of The Beatles? Every possible James Brown song you can imagine has a Jamaican cover version; ditto for Curtis Mayfield. Trojan put out a lot of that kind of thing, which is very, very cool.

How has the technology used by the music business changed since these songs were made?

DJ Spooky: When you think about it, so much music is mediated by software these days, and that’s a mixed bag, at best. One of the things that made early dub so unique is that even though everyone had access to the same rhythms, they really made different “versions” of the songs by using special effects as a new kind of instrument. .

The problem with today’s music is that so many people are using the same software. I can hear it when someone uses the ProTools edit, or when someone like Paris Hilton has so many pitch corrections on her last album, she might as well as have had the computer sing everything and just stand back, kind of like Warhol or something.

The U.S. government has the Library of Congress, Jamaica has dub. That’s one of the best things the 21st century can offer: Wikipedia, Youtube, MySpace, Facebook: All these say “Do it your own way, but there’s a formula.” King Tubby and Scientist, and all these producers, singers and MCs were saying the same thing.

It’s all about pattern recognition. Call it Wikinomics: Mass collaboration changes everything, and that’s a dub plate special y’all!

This article appeared Wired

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