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Remixing War and Race

The thought of talking politics, tech and turntablism with DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul D Miller) and Rob Swift sounded like an innocent enough proposition in the formative stages. But as the date for the meeting of the minds crept closer, so did the anniversary of 9/11. Then Hurricane Katrina changed the game even further. Both artists' new works (Swift's War Games audio/DVD release and DJ Spooky's forthcoming Rebirth of a Nation, a sound/image remix of D.W. Griffith's 1915 canonical yet utterly racist film Birth of a Nation) provide vital street-level critiques of the US's social and political climate. XLR8R asked these two deck futurists to discuss their art and views.

XLR8R: Have 9/11 and the Katrina natural disaster influenced your recent work?

RS: 9/11 impacted me immensely, to the point that I fell into a deep depression and didn't feel like working on music or anything else. But in order to get out of it, I made War Games. I realized that I could speak just like a Chuck D or KRS-One with my turntable. And I think that's something that DJs haven't fully tapped into yet. Before 9/11, most of us were just showing off our skills. Very few of us have taken the time to express ourselves socially and politically.

PM: At this point, we have to get some different messages out. This is about information, and turntablism has become a kind of underground news system getting that information out to the people.

RS: War Games is looking to increase awareness about what's going on around us, but it is done through the eyes of a DJ, so those who are into Spooky, Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike and the rest will be able to appreciate it. And there's a DVD filled with images and speeches that inspired the music, so you're getting both the audio and visual components.

Which relates back to something that you wrote in Rhythm Science, Paul, about the DJ being a media entity unto himself or herself.

PM: Yeah, to me the DJ is the new media. And what we're seeing right now with people like Rob and myself making their own media is just the latest in a long line of artists doing the same. War Games is updating the way hip-hop tells stories, the same way I'm doing with my film Rebirth of a Nation. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was propaganda, but was also the first film played for the White House. It was also a work of propaganda used to recruit members for the KKK.

It revitalized the Klan, which at the time had been seriously on the wane.

PM: Exactly. It was played at Klan rallies to get them to believe in a false version of American history, much in the same way 9/11 footage is being used. Birth of a Nation was the first film on that level to play games with perception, even down to race: The major black characters were actually played by whites in blackface.

Have we reached a point where musicians aren't just releasing music, but instead an entire sensorium of content?

RS: Absolutely.

PM: I was thinking about this after listening to Rob's album. Rob, you should take your scratches and release them all on iTunes as acapellas, so that people could download and remix them. That'd be ill.

RS: Yeah man, it would. Spooky came up with the idea! (Laughs). I decided to take the images that inspired me to make War Games and build a DVD out of them. That's the beauty of technology: You don't have to have millions of dollars to make a short film like that.

PM: With Rebirth of a Nation, I'm remixing Griffith's film live every time off of Pioneer DVJs. So I'm making a remix by applying DJ technique to film. And when I release the DVD, I'm going to have remixable elements of it online that DJs can download. I can only imagine the copyright clearance issues.

RS: Fuck it!

PM: Birth of a Nation is now copyright-free, so what I'm trying to do by remixing it is think about how artists make a statement about open-sourcing everything from art to software. People come after you over the slightest thing nowadays. I've never been sued. Have you?

RS: Not yet. Which is another reason that I feel like War Games is important. I don't really think there are too many people that actively seek out and share information. It's important to expose yourself to it all.

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