Fans of electronic music, hip-hop, and beat culture already know that Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky (That Subliminal Kid) is the most academic of DJs. His early recordings, made when he has in his early twenties, were all adorned with wordy critical and philosophical concepts in their booklets; in interview, the man was an unstoppable flow of words. Ultimately, however, then as now, it all comes down to the music. Whether or not one could get with his records, (s)he always had to admit he was original to the core. The Secret Song is DJ Spooky's first new studio recording in a decade. Issued by Thirsty Ear, it contains a CD and a DVD. The latter hosts a project where Spooky musically and visually remixes a cinematic montage by no less that Dziga Vertov from his '20s films Kino Glaz and Kino Pravda. The hip thing is that these two films were already early montage exercises, so with Spooky's mix of ambient dub, classical, cinematic snippets and space, these gorgeous black-and-white images -- that already reflect a way of life all but unknown to most of today's Westerners -- recombine history as contrast in sound, vision, and the various terrains where they begin to bleed into one another.
The CD is a concept album, and it's a stone killer. Spooky has enlisted a slew of New Yorkers to help him with this set, including: Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and wordsmith Mike Ladd -- on the same cut -- DJ Rob Swift, the Coup, Zimbabwe Legit, Mike G of the Jungle Brothers, the unwitting George W. Bush, pianist Vijay Iyer, vocalist Sussan Deyhim the Post-Modern Jazz Quartet (Matthew Shipp, Khan Jamal, Michael Bisio, and Michael Thompson) and strings and winds group, the Golden Arm Trio arranged by Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds. The latter two groups appear on multiple selections. The set fixates itself on how the relationships of hip-hop and electronic musics find their places among philosophy, economics, and the sonic sciences in a world where the global financial meltdown has made music a kind of final territory of solace, a landscape of refuge for young people with less time and precious little money.
Music here, regardless of genre (and its artificial definitions) doesn't collide or meld together so much as cooperate and ask questions of itself and the other sounds arranged around it. Nothing feels left to chance; instead, Secret Song feels like the sound of digging further and further into the roots of an arbitrary economy, that could only be articulated in sound because everything else relates to commerce in one sense or another. Ideology isn't the heavy suit here; sound is, as it plays with and against the transaction of space, time, and commerce in the world of the individual and society in history. These 20 tracks range from just under a minute-and-a- half to a little over six. Singling them would be to play a game that Spooky's set himself against. His music is about examining ideas and creating new ones by placing these short sequences of sonic inquiry next to, on top of, and underneath one another. There are hidden sounds inside and -- literally -- outside (the clues the album refers to are everywhere). The listener needs not so much to work at them, but to take them in and respond. The Secret Song is the welcome return to recording by one of its most mercurially intelligent musicmakers. It may also be the only concept recording of the 21st century that can be considered crucial listening.