The Sixth Annual Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon is going on all over the world, November 10-11, 2018.
In this weird Trump Dystopian Bizarre Feverish Lunatic Dream of White Supremacy that we’re kind of trying to deprogram out of, these kinds of films, and these kinds of gatherings, are where people from different perspectives, races, classes, come together and think: “How does cinema change our vision of things?”
Don’t forget, most people in the Trump administration were involved with film. Whether it be Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin or the Mootch guy (Anthony Scaramucci).
Steve Bannon was also a producer, and of course Trump comes out of reality TV. So, we can easily see how they try to apply cinematic narrative to this nightmarish shitstorm of an administration. And you can see we can use film to deprogram and decolonize people’s perspective.”
– DJ Spooky, during his introduction for “Body and Soul,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 12, 2018.
By Lisa Rein
I went to see Body and Soul at MOMA last July, as I was excited about DJ Spooky’s new score for this silent 1925 Paul Robeson movie directed by Oscar Micheaux. It is said to be Robeson’s first film.
Watching it was quite an experience. I have never had such a riveting time watching a silent film before. Not only was the acting was incredible, but DJ Spooky’s soundtrack was moving and suspenseful.
Even though “Body and Soul” was released in 1925, the subject matter is as timely as ever.
This film is just one of many on the The Pioneers of African-American Cinema DVD box set. These landmarks of early African-American film have been remastered in HD from archive elements and digitally restored, and are available as a box set or for streaming on Netflix.
DJ Spooky spoke to the audience a bit before the MOMA showing. Below is a complete transcription.
“Thanks to MOMA for putting together such a wonderful and hyper eclectic group of films.
It’s a roster that really goes all over the spectrum of African-American cinema, showing the last century as it sort of evolves into the 21st.
First, a little background. After reconstruction in the south, there was a tremendous amount of effort, systematically, to disenfranchise African-Americans. So, one of the more intriguing situations that ended up happening is that there was a huge migration. As a matter of fact, I’m working on another project, with Henry Louis Gates, of Harvard, based on this idea of the genetics of Reconstruction. I’m scoring that this summer, it’s called “Reconstruction.” It will be out soon. Read more “DJ Spooky Looks Deeper Into the Films of Cinema Pioneer Oscar Micheaux”
RU Sirius asked me to elaborate in detail about the history behind this year’s Aaron Swartz Day International Hackathon and Evening Event.
To do this, we’ll need to go back to the launch of Creative Commons, in December of 2002. This is where Aaron presented our metadata vision to the world, and DJ Spooky presented and showed a trailer for what would become his classic “Rebirth of a Nation” masterpiece.
DJ Spooky spoke and performed at the Creative Commons Launch in December of 2002.
Some of you might know me as “Paul Miller.” Some of you might know me as “DJ Spooky.”
The fun part about DJ Spooky is that it’s a fiction. It was meant to be a character in a novel I’m working on. It started as sort of an art project. I was living in a place called “The Gas Station” in New York. It was next to a junkyard on 2nd street. It’s been razed over and is now a condominium.
Being in New York at a certain point in the mid 90s. It ws right on the cusp of when Digital Culture was slowly migrating out of the academiess, and really began to spread throughout the entire culture as we know it.
So, for me, music was always a hobby. Most of my other work – and many of my peers and fellow DJs – were always kind of archivists. We’re collectors – I like to say “philanderers of the subconcious.” People who like to look for rare nuggets of sound. Rare records. Rare grooves. Rare beats. And make new mixes out of it.
When I was first starting out, I would always make these CDs and little mixes that would say “Who is DJ Spooky?” There was a sense of humor about sort of audio theater.
To make a long story short, when they asked me to do a piece for this, I was thinking about it. I am in the middle of about three different projects. One of them is “Birth of a Nation” I am remixing that. It’s an early D.W. Griffith film. And many copyrighted works that are pre-1920 are still accessible. The film makes kind of a statement about the ownership of culture, and of course, about ownership of memory. Collective memory.
So that’s the project that’s going to be associated with Creative Commons. What I’d like to do is show a snippet of it. I presented an early work in progress of it at the Castro Theater.
Essentially whenever you hear something and the idea is made, it’s always a sense of playing with memory. What I’m fascinated with in the Eldred case, is the idea of who controls memory. How can you recall an image or a sound that’s essentially part of a collective unconscious. How we think of things that just go through your mind every day and how you externalize that. That’s what DJing is about. It’s playfulness. It’s reverence for controlled memory. Reverence for the found object.
So essentially, that’s what DJing has become. It’s almost a basic fabric; part of the the fabric of contemporary culture. So, there’s that kind of thing, which to me it becomes kind of what I like to call 21st century – a new form of folk music or folk culture. Some of you guys might have heard of the Joe Wecker case? A guy who sang lyrics about how to decode DVDs. Anybody? It was a very funny case where a kid basically sang the lyrics of how to decode DeCSS DVD control systems, and then made an MP3 out of it, and had various people show up at his door. So, it was a little bit of a hectic scene.
Kids being who they are, they printed the lyrics to the song (on how to decode DVDs) on a T-shirt.
(Someone hollers “woo!” from the audience.)
And so, again these issues, always migrate. You control one thing, the net will thread its way around it. And so on and so on.
That sense of control, one of the terms Larry always uses a lot, in his great book “The Future of Ideas” – if you haven’t read it yet; you should – is the idea of “creative co-authorship.” Being able to actually reach into a text and reconfigure it. And if there’s something we’ve seen throughout the 21st century, whether you are looking at the outside of things, or the underground or overground, it’s that sense of; whether you are looking at William S. Burroughs or the Jack Kerouac and the beats in the 50s, or the Dada scene in the 20s, or the early cinema people working with that, is that America has always been the place of “the mix.” But somehow, I think in the 19th century we were a net importer of intellectual property, whereas after a certain point we became a net exporter, and that’s when all these kinds of control issues come up.
So, how many of you have heard of a magazine called Adbusters? (Audience cheers.) As a kind of a sense of humor about that, they made this new flag. (He holds it up.) As a way to think about copyright culture in our era.
There’s that famous scene in Bladerunner: The main character goes into a DNA lab, where “they” own your eyes. Or they own your DNA. So, if you’re Monsanto, or one of these other companies, you can reach out and copyright, an indian in Brazil’s DNA, for example. But if you’re a DJ, and you download an MP3, all of a sudden the FBI shows up at your door. So these kinds of imbalances are very intrinsic to how we think of them.
So, anyway, to make a long story short. What I’m going to be doing is presenting a short trailer, so to speak, of the remix of “Birth of a Nation.” In it, you’re going to hear a different soundtrack and different kind of clips of the film remixed against itself. The idea is “cinema as memory.”
See “Body and Soul” – the first masterpiece of the silent screen era written, directed, and produced by prolific director Oscar Micheaux.- Tonight at SF MOMA, with a special Introduction by DJ Spooky.
Besides telling you that Paul Robeson stars in it, I really don’t want to give anything away, but these African American-focused “race” films – made by Black filmmakers, featuring an all-Black cast, and intended for Black audiences – are few and far between. Micheaux was not only considered the first African American to produce a feature length film. He wrote, produced, and directed more than 40 films from 1919 to 1948.
Robeson himself is something of a legend; besides being an actor, he was an All American football player, a lawyer, a political activist and a powerful and inspirational singer.
“A true pioneer, Micheaux and his’s films answered the challenges of racial segregation and provided black moviegoers with an alternative to the mainstream films being produced by a segregated Hollywood.”
The movie is available at the Internet Archive, but this is your chance to see it with DJ Spooky’s new awesome soundtrack for it – and with an introduction, in person, by DJ Spooky too.
DJ Spooky’s new album “Phantom Dancehall” is a Jamaican Dancehall Mashup album available now on Jamaica’s VP Records. Greensleeves, their reggae sublabel, is the catalogue he explored and sampled on the album. The digital version of the album is available for purchase here, and you can here it on SoundCloud here. There is also a limited edition vinyl version that is currently available in record stores and online.
Phantom Dancehall debuted at #3 on Billboard Reggae and has settled in comfortably in the top five for the foreseeable future.
Phantom Dancehall combines sampled reggae tracks, woven in to a finely detailed tapestry of chill electronic beats and melodies. This sample track we are including below is a collaboration of DJ Spooky and Stephen Levitin a.k.a. Apple Juice Kid. Other tracks include the keyboard work of Alex Thompson aka Fourth Shift. Walshy Fire (Major Lazer) on vocals and dancehall new comer Sanjay added to vocal samples of Busy Signal, Lady Saw and Garnett Silk. Everything is blended to give the project an eclectic, modern dancehall flavor.
I caught up with DJ Spooky while he was in San Francisco, before he hopped back over to Brooklyn for Wednesday night’s record release party.
Lisa Rein: What’s going on at Wednesday night’s record release party?
DJ Spooky: It’s just a straight up party so people can hear these songs. Most of these were recorded in Jamaica at VP Records’ Fun Studio. VP records is legendary; They are the biggest record label in Jamaica. “VP” stands for “Vincent and Patricia Chin” – so “VP.” They are Chinese-Jamaican, which I have always loved. The fact that they are just quirky, kind of at the heart of Jamaican culture; Chinese and Indian. Jamaica is very multicultural. So the idea was to represent a little bit of an update on Dancehall with a downtown New York flavor. Ya know, there are so many classics you could look at that show how reggae influenced Rock n Roll, Jazz, Hip Hop; you name it.
You could say the beginning of Hip Hop was all about sound systems. When I say “sound systems,” I’m talking like ya know Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and so on…Those are legendary figures who began Hip Hop as we know it. So, it’s sort of looking at that synthesis between Hip Hop, Dancehall, and that sort of New York/Kingston connection.
LR: So you’ll be blending the new songs into the mix?
DJS: Right. Turntables, scratching. Ya know, doing crazy fun party stuff.
LR: Francois K. is opening, right?
DJS: Yes. It’s a famous party for New York for people who are really into dancing, and who just really want to hear good music that’s got a kind of a Dub & Jamaica connection. So people go there ready to dance. You can just hang out and get a good vibe and it’s fun. Simple stuff. Like the simple pleasure of dancing to good music. There’s no pretension. There’s no extra annoying stuff. You just go ready to party and have a good time. The music’s great and they’ve chosen a really good sound system, and it’s clear. It’s a good party with a clear vision of how electronic music and dance hall music connect.
LR: The other night, when we were walking in the Mission, you noticed that the clubs were playing Jamaican Dancehall. It was such a vibrant scene.
DJS: Yeah. Right in the middle of San Francisco. Every single bar we walked by.
LR: Right. Even the Indian restaurant we tried to go to (Bissap Baobab) was totally packed, with everyone dancing, and Jamaican Dancehall blaring out the windows. So, why do you think this is happening now? It seems like something’s happening, doesn’t it?
DJS: Yeah it’s a retro-future thing. Dancehall was at the beginning of a lot of electronic music, and I think that anybody that goes out to a party and hears it; It’s catchy. It’s immersive, and it pulls you in. That 80s and 90s catchiness, while a lot of the music now is very cold. I try as much as possible to build a bridge between the older styles and some of the contemporary styles.
LR: Yes it was interesting looking these people up, as there is a lot of history there. You went through VP Records’ back catalog, right? What was that process like?
DJS: The idea was to go through some of those memories that those songs triggered, and then update. So, some of it’s old school stuff, mashup-wise. I would go through Dancehall classics, basically.
LR: Is this vinyl that you are going through?
LR: So this is Jamaican Dancehall vinyl from the 80s and 90s?
DJS: And older, yes, from Greensleeves Records. I’ve done projects before with Greensleeves Records.
LR: Greensleeves is a sub-label of VP Records?
DJS: Yes. Exactly. They are both legendary for different reasons. Let’s put it this way. Dancehall is more of a digital approach, and Dub is more analog. What I wanted to do was build a bridge between those two, analog and digital. Some of the producers of VP records influenced my thinking. Digital B a.k.a. Digital Bobby, and there’s also another gentleman, Bobby Konders, who did a whole bunch of projects mixing Hip Hop, Dancehall, and House Music in the 90s. I’ve listened to their styles for a long time. I wanted to make a statement about it and keep it fun; a party vibe.
If you go through old records, you realize, you know, 40 years is a long time for music, but that stuff is still fresh. It’s incredible. The 80s was just incredible. That’s when I was a kid. Ya know Shabba Ranks and so many others.
LR: So we have a song included here in this article, “Buju Banton.” It’s a track you collaborated on with Stephen Levitin a.k.a. Apple Juice Kid. How’d you guys meet and start working together?
DJS: He’s a younger producer who’s getting on the scene, and he’s been working hard on a project with PBS where he goes to different countries and teaches younger kids how to work with beats. I really enjoyed the educational aspect of what he’s up to. So, we had a conversation, and, generally, I’m crazy busy, so I thought I’d give him a shot to help with the project, and it just went from there.
LR: So what’s your creative process like when you collaborate with someone on a track?
DJS: The idea is, you make beats, and then you tweak, edit, combine. I’ll come up with a first draft. He’ll come up with a different draft. And we send files back and forth until the track is done.
LR: You are the producer though, technically?
DJS: Yes. I suppose. But I don’t look at it like that. It’s a DJ Spooky “album project” where I have invited others to share in the conversation. I really think of it as an “album project.”
For this project, I was going through VP Records’ releases, and listening to all the Dancehall records, and then editing beats and samples I select from their material.
LR: So, how did you hook up with VP Records?
DJS: They had heard a project I did with Trojan Records a long time ago, and then asked me to do a mixtape. They had asked Diplo to do one. Then they asked me to do the second one. They are legendary. They put out Bob Marley and stuff from the sixties. They’re huge.
LR: You mentioned that you recorded this project at VP Records’ Fun Studio, had you ever been to Jamaica before this project?
DJS: Yes. I’ve been to Jamaica. My mom was an art critic for the Kingston Daily Gleaner in Jamaica. It’s like the New York Times in Jamaica. We knew people there and I would go there every summer.
LR: Ah. Ok. Tell me more about your mom.
DJS: My mom was a Historian of Design, and she wrote for the Kingston Daily Gleaner as an art critic covering Caribbean Art. And we would go every summer because we had “god cousins” there. (People that are like family at an abstract level.) My mother had been room mates with several Jamaicans in college. Everybody stayed in touch. For many years, we visited. And they visited us.
LR: You would go there every summer?
DJS: Oh yes. Constantly. And that’s what left that kind of vibe in my head space.
DJS: Yes. A Historian of Design. Her main book is called The Threads Of Time:The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present.
LR: So you totally grew up living in the art world, with yourart critic mom taking you to art openings? No wonder the two of you have a lot in common.
DJS: Yes, we do. And we really both have had a deep relationship with Jamaica. Because there is both a literary component and an art component there, there was always something that felt like a powerful connection for us.
LR: So this is going back to your roots a little bit. I didn’t realize you grew up there. Even though it was only in the summer; doing that every year can strong cultural influence.
DJS: Absolutely. It just was fun and really life affirming. Jamaica’s got this whole really vivid, flavorful kind of colorful sensibility.
LR: Well I wish I was closer to Brooklyn. It sounds like it’s going to be an incredible show.
If you are in New York, remember to go to the show Wednesday night at the Output. (Tickets)
Limited edition vinyl is available at your local record store & online. The digital version of the album is available for purchase here. You can hear it on SoundCloud here.