Some of the most fascinating people in today’s culture are distinguished not just by their craft, but also by their passions. We call them the New Alphas.
Paul Miller, better known to the world as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, doesn't like to define himself by his many careers—musician, academic, author. Instead, he sees himself as coming from a long tradition of historic, idiom-shifting "tricksters."
“The trickster is a role you see in every major society,” says Miller, 44, on the phone while trudging through Tribeca on holiday errands. “That is the role I like: creating a big question mark over everything. The trickster is the one who offers an uncertain path. That’s the kind of stuff that inspires me and gives me a sense of hope.”
In truth, trickster is just another entry in Miller’s epic CV, one that includes designer of his own eponymous music app, executive editor of the arts and yoga magazine Origin, music professor at the experimental European Graduate School, and most recently, co-editor of the Imaginary App, his third book with MIT Press. As a multimedia artist, his work has exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, and at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; and in 2012 he began an artist-residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So what ties these disparate channels together? Explains Miller: “It is always about being inter-disciplinary, always about using multiple styles that are unexpected and irreverent, and it’s always a big ‘fuck you’ to the normal.”
Born and raised in Washington D.C., Miller’s father was Dean of Howard Law School and his mother studied ran the legendary Dupont Circle clothing boutique Toast and Strawberries. He grew up both a computer geek in the early days of video games and an avid record collector. He was also swept about in the music of D.C., a scene which gave rise to such acts as Fugazi and Thievery Corporation.
“There was a lyrical sense of beauty to that city back then,” says Miller, whose moody and always surprising music tends to be grouped with Brooklyn’s ‘illbient’ scene of the mid-90s. “There was a major African-American presence, it was quirky, it was bohemian. It was all of the things that it is not anymore. D.C. has become a hyper corporate and very boring. There was something about that collision of classes, races, and political hierarchy that made it a very interesting place to grow up.”
Growing up in D.C. gave Miller’s work a social consciousness. “I never felt that culture and the arts were separate from politics,” he says. Miller traces his irreverent and subversive streak to a psychedelic experience during the particularly sweltering summer of 1991. At the time he was studying international diplomacy at Johns Hopkins while still finishing his twin degrees in French literature and philosophy at Bowdoin College. His plan was to one day become a diplomat, but he was losing faith in the idea of international policy as a career path. “I had started to become disillusioned with the norms of how people put together social structures,” recalls Miller. “I was studying all of these international policy debates and reading all these position papers and most of it started to feel absurd at a certain point.”
During the height of his disenchantment, he visited his hometown where an old friend gave him some liquid acid. He stayed up all night, looking at the streets he had biked around as a kid with a whole new sensibility. “That experience—taking that hit of acid and walking around downtown D.C. and seeing all those people rushing around with very little to show for it—that changed everything,” he says. “Everything seemed absurd after that—literally absurd in the sense of Albert Camus and Kafka. Nations, politics, ethnicity, class, and social hierarchy all seemed like a fiction.”
He found in being a DJ during the nascent stages of the Internet the perfect platform for both his newly heightened sense of absurdity, and the ideas that had started to take shape when he began studying philosophy in college. “There is a philosophical bent to the enlightenment in the 18th and 19th century, and that’s what I focussed on: the rise of humanism,” says Miller. “It provided me with the sensibility that all is in transformation and everything can change. It was the perfect mindset for graduating in the early 1990s, when the Internet was brand new.”
For Miller, creating beats and producing music, working with technology and discussing philosophy, all comes from the same creative spark. He slides between them easily, as if riding the fader between his turntables. “The whole left-right brain thing is a fallacy,” says Miller, who has worked with musicians as varied as Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Dave Lombardo of Slayer. “If you look at the brain as a physical object, you see that it’s all connected. It’s all networks and pathways. It is not really about left or right, it’s connected or not connected. I don’t really think of anything as separate.” It’s the reason he can link music and technology so seamlessly. “I think of computers as a different kind of music,” he explains. “Code is a different kind of musical notation.”
Having so many creative and intellectual tracks going at once is less an act of ambition than the fact that the work of a trickster is never truly done. “I was never planning on being a musician. I need to keep returning to that refrain,” says Miller while braving the cold of a New York City December, a frigidness he admits to truly enjoying. “This is kind of an accidental career for me—which is why I approach it with irreverence and playfulness.”