DJing is like being a conductor, and a composer of collage—you get to “mess around with people’s memories of songs.”
Question: How is DJ'ing an art form?
DJ Spooky: Well let’s look like back at the history of the idea of the record. In my book "Sound Unbound" we traced the guy who actually came up with the main concept for the graphic design of the record cover sleeve. His name is Alex Steinweiss. And one of the things in my book that we really tried to figure out was the revolution in graphic design that occurred when people put images on album covers. Now if you think about the 20th century and the idea of visual vocabulary the album occupies a really important space in the cultural landscape and, above all... Try this experiment: one day go in a record store and just try and guess what the music sounds like by looking at the album cover. You’ll get this kind of psychological relationship to the imagery of the music, but that idea is translated to iPhone apps. It’s translated to the small, you know, kind of icons on your computer. You name it. The idea of a visual icon that gives you a sense of information very quickly and that you can easily just say "That's what the style is." That is something that I think record cover sleeves really led towards, but at the same time the album as we know it didn’t come into being until mainly after the Second World War because record labels realized they’d be able to make a lot more money putting all the singles of an artist onto one album and selling the whole album as a kind of a concept. So by the time the 60s rolled in that became a huge art form in its own right with bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Hendrix doing total concept albums, same thing with Pink Floyd. Now if you fast forward to the 70s and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz, all these guys that were essentially, like, the DNA of what we’re doing now. One of the main things that differentiates them from artists before is that they made albums based on the fact that they didn’t care about the band as a thing in its own right. They cared about manipulating the recording and that became the album. Usually bands would make a song to record for an album, but what happens with the deejays you say "Well the album is everything we need. Thanks band: you can go away now." You know you don’t really need the band or the singer/songwriter in the same way, so you look at everything as part of your palette. When you think about a composer you know like Wagner or Pier Boulez or something like that most of the issues a composer is working with are about discreet, notated music that someone else will play. But if I take that person and play them as a record I’m becoming not only a conductor and composer of collage, but at the same time I’m looking at a whole layer of what goes into copyright law, who owns those memories, who owns the way that that sound gets remixed and transformed and above all how much fun it is to actually just mess with other people’s stuff. So yeah, I like the idea of it as a trickster motif. You know like you’re kind of just messing around with people’s memories of songs.
Question: How does science fiction influence your work?
DJ Spooky: I’ve tended to find that myths of the near future give people the ability to really kind of explore the present, so say for example if look at William Gibson and his book Neuromancer or if you look at J.G. Ballard or Samuel Delaney those are probably three of my favorite writers in that genre. All of them project slightly to the near future as a way of talking about the current moment and I think science fiction and sound is a really interesting thing. You might as well think of it as sonic fiction. When you’re coming up with different ways of getting old memories to transform—you’re scratching, you’re doing all this kind of sampling—what ends up happening is that you’re becoming a kind of writer with sound. In fact, if you look at the root word of phonograph it just means phonetics of graphology, phono-graph, writing with sound, so graphology. You know graffiti, same root word. Phonetics, you know speech, all this kind of stuff, phonograph, simple, but when you unpack the meaning it actually kind of expands out and that is what I was going for in my book "Sound Unbound" was to try and get people to figure out how do we unpack some of the meanings that go into these kinds of sonically coded landscapes. So yeah, science fiction or sonic fiction. I kind of like punning on that.
Recorded on April 8, 2010