Search View Archive

The Rebirth of DJ Spooky

A still from DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation. Courtesy of the artist.
A still from DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation. Courtesy of the artist.

Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, presented "Rebirth of a Nation," an audiovisual remix of D. W. Griffith’s wildly racist 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival. Interjecting a DJ’s sampling techniques and repertoire of club-mix music styles into an assortment of interlaced graphic templates and collages, Miller offered a particularly open-brained look into the roots of his own collective unconscious, both as artistic expression and as a massive exorcism of ancestral memories. Miller has said he specifically chose Griffith’s film because he "felt America was not the greatest for African Americans—lynching, beatings. Instead of Grand Master KKK, I wanted Grand Master Flash. DJ culture disembodies fragments of the past and gives it themes that can remix." Because of the film’s overt racist message, that Subliminal Kid made sure to reassure the audience he was no fan of its overall content.

Birth of a Nation chronicles the drive to end slavery, which led to the Civil War, the assassination of President Lincoln, the legislative empowerment of the former slaves, the waning power of their owners, and the rise of the KKK to curb African Americans’ newly found freedom. The film’s subplot is a love story between an abolitionist leader’s daughter and her Southern beau. Reinterpreting oppressive nineteenth-century history through the lens of enlightened twenty-first-century technology, Miller focused on images that filtered semiotically loaded photos (like a slave master menacing a mulatto slave) through hip-hop and DJ sampling techniques, rendering the once-potent images harmless. He spontaneously mixed those elements in real time, using variables from each unique performance to change sound, montage, pace, and tempo. He cut the movie’s length in half and invented a sequence of "visual tempos" for each section. The visuals used three different screens that remixed images and overlaid them with mathematical and computer grids, creating theaters of theaters through interlaced sequencing. With SONAR software, he applied to film the basic modus operandi for constructing a remix of a record—grabbing the main thematic line, extracting and reconfiguring it, and never letting it come out the same twice. Passing through a variety of software "filters, patches, and sequences," each instance produced a different outcome, akin to a DJ sampling music tracks in a club. If Griffith hadn’t been long dead already, this would certainly have finished him off.

Sampling itself draws its roots from two distinct camps: the original musical cut-ups of the experimental writers William S. Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, and turntable culture from the 1960s Jamaican dub movement, in which DJs rapped over reggae albums with spontaneous lyrics. The word dub actually derives from the French adober, "to move or rearrange"; in the l970s some of the original dub DJs moved to the West Bronx, blending dubbing into New York’s distinctive rhythmic style of funk, which they mixed with spontaneous poetics to create rap. This mix enabled those with almost no resources to express themselves by manipulating turntables, scratching vinyl records, and changing the characteristics of sound through amplification, spacing of silence, and even the reordering of certain key musical phrases within a song. That technique, in turn, had its roots in "riffing" or "vamping," which musicians had already been practicing for decades.

The real question is, why did Miller feel confined by house and club DJ’ing alone? Why did he feel the need to take these sound techniques to the visual plane? Because, as he said in an interview with the manufacturers of SONAR, film is now our "global folk culture"; it’s "all linked...underneath the surface it’s all one rhythm." Underlying the technical wizardry is a need to break "all the annoying rules about ethnicity that hold American music back." Rebirth was especially effective when replaying and remixing the assassination of Lincoln, a moment that changed the entire course of American history.

Breaking those rules also became a stab at a magical exorcism of the bondage of slavery, and the profound psychic wounds it inflicted over generations. Because of the severity of "Rebirth of a Nation"’s content and the critical importance of a real narrative thread that wrapped around a plot (no pun intended), it was saved from being a simple, trite spectacle, and instead lived up to its promise of transformation and the "rebirth" and maturation of its creator, DJ Spooky.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

All Issues