Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

DJ Spooky and the Politics of Afro-Postmodernism

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

DJ Spooky and the Politics of Afro-Postmodernism

Article excerpt

In 2006, the Savoy record label opened its back catalogue of classic recordings from the bebop era to selected hip hop DJs, turntablists, producers, and remix artists. The result was Re-Bop: The Savoy Remixes, another addition to the growing body of jazz remix records that includes, among others, Bird Up, the Verve Remixed series, and Madlib's "invasion" of Blue Note records titled Shades of Blue. Among the thirteen tracks on Re-Bop are pieces by Duke Jordan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Red Norvo, reworked by the likes of DJ Jazzy Jeff, King Britt, and DJ Logic. Charlie Parker's "KoKo" is also included on the disc, remixed by Paul D. Miller, better known as DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid.

Recorded in November 1945, Parker's "KoKo" is based on the chord changes of "Cherokee," a jazz standard written by Ray Noble in 1938 and made famous by Charlie Barnet's 1939 hit recording of the tune. "KoKo" can be thought of as an abstracted version of "Cherokee" in which the sixty-four bar harmonic form of the original is transformed through chord augmentations and an intricate melody played by Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie at an extremely fast tempo. With "DJ Spooky's Ali Baba & 50 Thieves Mix" of "Koko," Miller continues the process of sonic abstraction, combining looped fragments of Parker's recording with hip hopinspired drum beats and sampled voiceovers from various sources.

It is significant that Miller chose to remix this particular recording. One of Parker's earliest recorded masterpieces, "Koko" is a landmark work in the history and development of Afro-modernism. The concept of Afro-modernism differentiates between Afrological modes of cultural production in the "modern world" and Eurocentric conceptions of modernism/ modernity that reinforce social and aesthetic binaries associated with "high" and "low" cultures. I use the term "Afrological" in the sense outlined by musician and theorist George Lewis, who compares "Afrological" models of musical improvisation with "Eurological" trends. "These terms," he writes, "refer metaphorically to musical belief systems and behavior which ... exemplify particular kinds of musical 'logic.' At the same time, these terms are intended to historicize the particularity of perspective characteristic of two systems that have evolved in such divergent cultural environments" (1996, 93). Like Lewis, I use the term "Afrological" to refer to "historically emergent rather than ethnically essential" systems of musical logic that have developed in African diasporic communities historically (93).

By extension, the concept of Afro-modernsim provides a theoretical framework for examining the complex relationships between Afrological modes of discourse and modernism/modernity. Guthrie Ramsey Jr. explains that for African Americans, Afro-modernism "consisted of the creation and, certainly, the reception (the political and pleasurable uses) of musical expressions that articulated attitudes about their place in the modern world. Thus, Afro-modernism asks: What was modernity to African Americans at the historical moment under consideration? How were their attitudes about it worked out artistically and critically?" (2003, 97). Ramsey discusses migration, integration, social and economic progress, and urbanization as processes of modernization that contributed to the emergence (or at least the coming to fruition) of the Afro-modernist impulse in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States. He also suggests that the "musical, socioeconomic, and political developments in midcentury African-American culture constituted an Afro-modernism that not only indexed the moment but extended into future decades" (xii). In the present context, I would like to examine some of the ways in which DJ Spooky's work across a variety of media bears the influence of Afro-modernism, articulating a form of Afro-postmodernism that is both poetic and political.

My use of the neologism "Afro-postmodernism" in this context warrants examination. …

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