I never underestimated the power of the DJ. I knew the real deal, having grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, home of The Mad Daddy, the greatest of all radio DJs. Pete "Mad Daddy" Myers more or less invented the modern idea of the mix in the early days of "rock and roll," bringing what he called "the wavy gravy" and "mellow jello" to the Cleveland airwaves, playing Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Link Wray, the Champs, and Andre Williams, et al., in a thick, pulsating mix of mad echo and Twilight Zone sound effects, using eight turntables and any black box he could get his hands on. Arguably the first rapper, Mad Daddy vented sheer hipster poetry in the manner of Lord Buckley, improvising a new initiatory slanguage for those with ears to hear. When Mad Daddy was briefly banned from the airwaves, he donned a cape and took a famous skydive 2,200 feet into Lake Erie, just off where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits today, crying "Zorro!" as he jumped off the aircraft and improv-ing poetry on the way down. After he was pulled from the lake, he said, "I didn't want those cats to forget me." Now that's a real DJ, the kind this pre-recorded, mass-distributed culture needs.
Over the years there have always been great ones scattered out there on the radio, like Frankie Crocker, the World Famous Supreme Team, and DJ Red Alert. My man Ricky Powell had perhaps the greatest R&B show of the modern era on WKCR until he finally got kicked off the air for uncontrollable cursing. But I thought it was kind of funny when the celebrity DJ thing started to happen. I'm talking about club spinners. It seemed a bit like having celebrity wine stewards or something. I didn't quite get that these guys had followings like bands, and I figured it had something to do with the fact that nobody learned how to play an instrument anymore, so anybody that could play three good records in a row was now a genius. But then you get out there on the floor and you appreciate a spinner who is also an artist and an educator.
Of course hip hop changed everything, with the turntable becoming an instrument, and so did the influence of Jamaican music, where the toasting MC selecter took on a profane cultural role similar to that enjoyed by big-time preachers, taking recorded music live. We began to see the spinner as more than an archivist with feel. And when DJs began remixing records and getting brilliant results, it was a new age in music.
Then I met Paul Miller, who was entirely a horse of a different color. Paul, aka DJ Spooky, was a first: the DJ as intellectual. Now that sounds like kind of a bad idea, but the fact is that it works. DJ is not a job you can fake. When you've got a thousand people in front of you, they are either dancing or not dancing. When DJ Spooky is spinning they are dancing. And, in fact, they come to things because of his known ability to keep the floor occupado. But Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid—that's his full name—is also a theorist with a Marshall McLuhan-like book on MIT Press called Rhythm Science. Paul is a DJ who can rock the house and then explain in great detail how he did it. He is also an artist. Not long ago he did an installation of D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation accompanied by his own soundtrack called "Rebirth of a Nation"—what a remix. Anybody can be an intellectual, and lots of people can spin records, but Paul has the whole package. He can relate mixing to William Burroughs's cut-up method and schizophrenia. And it's legit and not just knee-deep.
Anyway, the occasion of this name-drop and shout-out is a new two-CD set, DJ Spooky Presents In Fine Style: 50,000 volts of Trojan Records. For the uninitiated and undubbed, Trojan Records is a venerable Jamaican label that grew out of a mobile-sound-system empire. Imagine DJs with powerful sound systems literally taking the new music to every part of the island country. Paul has an intimate knowledge of how the music developed—the covers, the dubs, the versions—and he lays it all down for you to hear, with 36 tracks of the world's greatest music for the mind and body by artists such as Desmond Dekker, Lee Perry, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby, U-Roy, Big Youth, The Upsetters, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Dennis Alcapone, Dillinger, and many more. It is most excellent and most enlightening and roots, natty roots.
Here is a picture of Paul in a Caribbean environment, in a rare moment of chilling. Next time I see him I'll probably say, "Hey Paul, what's new." He'll say, "Oh I just got back from Kyoto. Before that I was in Mexico City and Edinburgh and Phnom Penh," or something like that. Never ask Paul what he's been doing unless you've got a few minutes. Paul is like a one-man Trojan Records. He's a portable sound system and he's out there taking the music to the people all the time. Take it Paul...